I heard there was good hiking in the hills above the Sonoma wineries, so I went to a place called Jack London State Historic Park. Now it’s a tangle of footpaths and bike trails rising through dusty oaks and redwood groves, with a cluster of burned-out buildings near the entrance, all managed by the state of California. But a hundred years ago it was the private property of Jack London.
Already rich from the publication of The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf, London bought an abandoned farm near the town of Glen Ellen when he was 29. He said he wanted a quiet place to focus on writing and reconnect with nature, Oakland having grown too noisy for his taste. But almost immediately he was building a barn, raising livestock, planting crops, slaughtering pigs, pressing wine, and experimenting with farming techniques. The jewel of this Xanadu was supposed to be Wolf House, a mansion in the forest that London designed with a famous San Francisco architect. Right before London was supposed to move in, Wolf House burned to the ground.
The hiking is good. A vineyard covers the lower slope of Sonoma Mountain, water pours down in countless streams, and in winter the meadows are bright green.
I had almost forgotten how much I used to love The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and especially “To Build a Fire.” I was about seven when I read the Great Illustrated Classics editions, and I quickly tried to grow up enough to understand the adult versions. Jack London gave me an intense boyhood fascination with wolves. Long after the age when I should have stopped playing with stuffed animals, I proudly carried around a plush wolf toy. It matched my wolf t-shirt and the wolf poster on my bedroom wall. As a Cub Scout I was more than a little troubled to learn that the rank of Bear was higher than the rank of Wolf, despite the wolf’s obvious superiority.
While I was dreaming of sled dog races in the frozen north, the author of my dreams was resting in the ground only an hour’s drive from my bedroom. London’s grave is surrounded by evidence of his failure to build the Xanadu he dreamed of. The eucalyptus that he planted for lumber were only useful as firewood. The spineless cacti that he grew to feed his livestock were inedible. The ingenius “pig palace” where he planned to raise fatter, happier pigs is now a pile of rocks and moss.
But London’s farm shows that he lived according to same principles that he wrote about. His writing is a direct link from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ernest Hemingway, and his land bears the scars of his adventurous life. Walking it, I felt overwhelmed by things I remember and things I have read, by the remoteness of history and the nearness of geography, by the many subtle ways that literature affects our lives.
And the lives of others. While I was mooning over imaginary wolves, my little sister must have been paying close attention, because twenty years later she had her heart set on adopting two Siberian huskies. Sierra and Kodiak are now the strongest and fuzziest members of our family. They have no idea that their inclusion in our pack owes something to the work of Jack London. But they howl, they mush, they dive in the snow.
- Brian Hurley