Why I Haven’t Been Blogging . . .
Hello, readers–it’s been a while!
Very long story short, I’m immersed in editing my new memoir, Learning to Triangulate: A Romance, an Adoption, and a Baby Barred Owl for Lyons Press, to be released in Fall 2014. It’s about how (and why) I learned to train owls at our local raptor rehabilitation center while waiting 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter.
I’ll continue to post recent articles I’ve published. Here’s one, below, about my recent trip to Sonoma and to Jack London State Historic Park. Enjoy!
The call of Sonoma
Author Jack London’s ranch a fascinating stop in wine country
By Melissa Hart
For The Register-Guard
Published: 12:00 a.m., Aug. 4
GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — I didn’t relish the idea of a 12-hour road trip to Sonoma for a family wedding — my husband and I drink little and the existence of our 6-year-old, Maia, prohibited us from attending most of the weekend’s festivities.
However, after we pulled off Interstate 5 at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, and a potty break turned into a two-mile hike and we discovered owl pellets and jackrabbits, a terrific little museum and a couple of 4-foot gopher snakes fornicating in a field, I allowed that perhaps our trip would be rewarding, after all.
Sonoma is known as wine country, of course; vineyards speckle its bucolic roads and hillsides. Elegant downtown shops offer even more opportunity for swirling and spitting. But tasting rooms held little interest for my husband’s parents as well, so while the rest of the guests embarked upon a bus tour of wineries, we searched for a daylong destination that would appeal to three generations.
We found it 20 minutes north in Jack London State Historic Park, part of the author’s beloved 1,400-acre Beauty Ranch that he lived on from 1905 until his death in 1916.
“Jack London, who wrote ‘The Call of the Wild’?” my husband asked.
A magnificent estate
“I’ve got the best job in the world,” said a beaming middle-aged park ranger, who greeted us from a kiosk surrounded by oaks and eucalyptus. “A corner office in the great outdoors.”
She handed us a map with a network of trails, including the new 10-mile, round-trip Sonoma Ridge Trail and an eight-miler leading to the park’s summit.
Not into hiking on this particular trip? We could also stroll around London’s old farm buildings, see the cottage he shared with his wife and tour the ruins of their stone mansion that burned in a bizarre fire just weeks before they were to move in.
“You can even hike up to his gravesite,” the ranger said, as she waved us toward a parking area near picnic tables under sprawling oaks. “Have a great day!”
My in-laws are in their 80s, but it had been a while since they’d read “The Call of the Wild,” a novel about Alaskan sled dogs inspired by the months London spent in the Yukon. “What can you tell us about him?” they asked me.
I hesitated, not sure where to begin. Ninety-seven years after his death, London has a complex reputation. He’s been called a womanizer, an alcoholic, a racist. Park signage downplays most of this, choosing to focus on his career as a writer (he wrote more than 50 fiction and nonfiction books) and his passion for sustainable farming that culminated in the purchase and cultivation of Beauty Ranch.
Dismayed by the depleted soil left behind by California’s pioneer families, London set about amending it with manure and cover crops, and worked the land using terracing and crop rotation.
“I am getting results,” he wrote, “which the Chinese have demonstrated for 40 centuries.”
It’s easy to see why he adored the landscape. A tranquil forest path lined with red-barked manzanita gives way to rolling golden hills. Multicolored stone barns stand near the distillery building, which still holds tools and horse-drawn farm equipment. Vultures swirl over vineyards beyond the picturesque ruins of a winery.
That morning, some of us strolled past the historic structures and read the didactic placards, while others of us — invigorated by the warm, eucalyptus-scented breeze and wide fields — did cartwheels on the way to Pig Palace.
London designed his impressive stone piggery, nicknamed the “Palace” by a journalist horrified by its hefty price tag, so that 17 pens surrounded a tall, round feed house for maximum efficiency and sanitation.
Initially, he purchased 1,000 acres as an experimental farm but soon felt a lust for more land. “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me,” he wrote. “I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
of good intentions
London and his wife, Charmian, shared a cottage — restored in 2006 — that visitors can walk through for a small fee.
The money’s well worth it; upon our entrance into the Londons’ living room, a gramophone launched into an Italian bella canzone and we found ourselves transported, thanks to period furniture and clothing, art and books, into the Roaring ’20s as inhabited by a glamorous couple of international explorers who referred to each other as “Mate Man” and “Mate Woman.”
My husband trailed Maia on a whirlwind tour of the cottage before stopping at a koi pond outside. I lingered to look at a makeshift clock in London’s bedroom that indicated — to my personal chagrin — his habit of waking up at dawn to write.
I found my in-laws in a big kitchen off the main house, talking with a volunteer who began visiting the park decades before with her young daughter; she decided to help out as an interpreter after the state cut funding in April. She’s one of a cadre of volunteers devoted to keeping the park viable. “London called this the ranch of good intentions,” she told us. “That just gives me goose bumps.”
Several public events entice people to the region now, including outdoor concerts, movie nights, moonlight tours of Wolf House and Plowing Play Day during which families can watch plowing demonstrations and take horse-drawn wagon rides.
Visitors can take a guided tour on foot, on horseback or by golf cart. There’s even a 5K run and walk called “Jack’s Chocolate Run” in September, featuring a fondue station for all participants.
The volunteer directed us to the House of Happy Walls Museum, built after London’s death by Charmian and his stepsister. Some of us spent a good half-hour downstairs looking at artifacts and old newspaper clippings documenting the Londons’ adventures. Some of us perused the small bookstore stocked with his novels and nonfiction works.
Maia, intrigued by piano music, rocketed upstairs to where Cynthia Heinrichs, clad in a pink baseball cap, sat playing a classical piece on Charmian London’s 1901 Steinway, separated by a railing from onlookers.
Mesmerized, my child walked up and stared. At a pause in the music, she raised her hand.
“Excuse me,” she said to Heinrichs. “Are you real?”
People around us chuckled knowingly. It’s easy to drift into an otherworldly sensibility at Beauty Ranch. The elegant blend of period pieces, video clips, restored buildings and fascinating signage provides a vivid sense of the era in which Beauty Ranch and the Londons thrived before disaster struck.
Outside the House of Happy Walls, we paused to talk with two men at the water fountain who made us promise to hike a short trail to the Wolf House. “It’s spectacular,” they told us. “You aren’t going to believe it.”
It’s a heart-breaking story, if also a tale of privilege and wealth. In 1911, London began work on his dream house — a vast structure surrounded by hills and trees. “All I wanted,” he wrote, “was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it.”
But two weeks before the Londons were to move into Wolf House, oil-soaked rags spontaneously combusted, and the mansion burned down.
Stories and pictures of the place didn’t prepare us for the actual grandeur of the stone foundation rising into the redwoods. We climbed flights of steps to gaze down at what would have been the Londons’ pool, their library, numerous rooms and balconies and fireplaces. A volunteer stood near the structure with photos and sketches of what the house would have looked like.
In one black-and-white photo, London sits on the railing of his new magnificent front porch in a broad-brimmed hat, architectural plans spread out on his lap. He, like the mansion, appears indestructible.
We looked at all the photos and walked around and around, the adults intrigued by the architecture, and the child fascinated by the castle-like appearance of the ruins.
Finally, we gathered under an oak to regroup and agreed to hike further on to see London’s gravesite.
The great writer’s death remains fraught with controversy and rumor; some say he expired from uremic poisoning, while others speculate that he intentionally overdosed on morphine. Regardless, he made a specific request that Charmian bury his ashes on a knoll near the graves of two pioneer children who’d died long before he purchased the property.
Maia, never squeamish, examined two tiny wooden grave markers thoroughly, then took her grandfather’s hand and headed back down the trail for one last look at Pig Palace. My husband and I followed at a distance, thrilled to have discovered a rewarding multigenerational adventure with something for all of us in the middle of wine country.
Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood.” She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.
IF YOU GO
Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, Calif.; 707-938-5216; jacklondonpark.com