Finding Jack London

By Rick & Chris Millikan

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On two recent trips to California, we became literary pilgrims tracing Jack Londons remarkable life of struggle and success around San Francisco Bay. Though born in San Francisco, only a plaque remains at the site of the first home of Americas greatest adventure writer. After crossing the bay, the Londons struggled with poverty. Ten-year-old Jack sold newspapers, supplementing his familys meagre income.

The citys prominent Jack London Square memorializes their most famous resident. Tracking brass paw-prints along an interpretive walking route, we read the colourful storyboards describing Oaklands early history. We can picture him escaping his daily turmoil, hiking up nearby Washington Street to what was Californias second earliest public library. Flaubert, Tolstoy and other prominent novelists first stirred Jacks imagination.

Along the waterfront, a life-sized bronze statue embodies Jack as a young man in a rumpled suit gazing pensively across the bay toward San Francisco and considering his next venture. Its rugged portrayal conveys Jack's constant striving. Even as a lad toiling long shifts in a local cannery, he dreamed of sailing into a better life.

In this turn-of-the-century society, his black foster-mother Virginia Prentiss loaned him money to buy his first sailboat, the Razzle-Dazzle. Using this, he pirated oysters. Later he went legit, joining the California Fish Patrol. At age 14, he signed onto a sloop bound for Japans coast to hunt seals. After returning to Oakland, he worked in a jute mill and power station then, at 15, travelled the rails east as a hobo.

Back in Oakland, Jack entered high school, hanging out at Heinolds First and Last Chance Saloon still standing on the edge of todays Jack London Square. Walking over to the saloon, the owner sees our interest and invites us inside. Since the 1906 earthquake tilted the buildings floor southward, we enter gingerly, sitting at one of its levelled tables, bolted onto the old oiled floorboards. Gas-lamps dimly light its interior; memorabilia covers walls and ceiling, photos and news items often depicting Jack London. Serving hooch on the docks since 1883, this timeworn saloon well reflects the times of its most famous customer. Jack referred to this saloon 17 times in his novel John Barleycorn.

Barkeep Carol Brookman tells us, I bought this saloon from the Heinolds in 1984, promising to keep it as original as possible. She points out Jacks favourite table continuing, Hed listen to early sailors spin their sea tales right there... and hed use their accounts in his writings. In fact, he modelled captain Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf after a notoriously cruel captain Alexander McLean, who commanded a vessel nicknamed The Hell Ship.

We also learn that in those early days, Johnny Heinold encouraged Jack to study inside the saloon, even supplying him with a dictionary. And Johnny loaned him the tuition to enter university at age 19. But after a year of study at Berkeley, London sailed off to Alaska to prospect for gold.

An adjacent small park replicates an acre of northern wilderness, where Jacks Klondike cabin was reassembled in 1970. During the 1887 gold rush, he endured a winter of scurvy in this tiny sod-roofed log cabin, filling his notebook with ideas. The parks bronze wolf reminds us of Call of the Wild and other northern thrillers based on his time there.

Returning from the Klondike at age 22, he and his mother moved into a Victorian house on Foothill Boulevard, just 3.4 miles [5.5 km] south of London Square. Among the 22 homes London occupied in Oakland, this one remains much the same as when he developed his tales at a small desk, writing six days a week, 1,000 words a day. A year later, his first magazine story appeared: "To the Man on the Trail," a Klondike adventure featuring the Malamute Kid. He received $5. After that, he landed a contract for his first book, Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories.

Travelling the world next as a correspondent, Jack kept coming back to Oakland, twice campaigning as a socialist for mayor. His career as a prolific writer skyrocketed his impressive income allowing him to buy Beauty Ranch, his dream estate lying 60 miles [97 km] north.

So, crossing San Pablo Bay, we roll through a pastoral countryside into old Sonoma, fascinated that in 1846 a handful of frontiersmen had proclaimed Californias independence in its large central plaza. On the northern edge of this sizeable green square, we enter Historic State Park, checking out the restored Toscano Hotel and Mexican barracks, now a museum commemorating California's 22-days as an independent nation.

Jack seldom referred to this very historic town; like most of his contemporaries, he was more interested in the future than the past and probably experienced Sonoma as an uninspiring, rundown community.

In the adjacent block, San Francisco Solanos whitewashed adobe walls sparkle in the sun. Jack may have seen this most northern Franciscan mission, Californias last of 21, when it served as a brothel and its chapel functioned as a liquor outlet, or perhaps later when its buildings were used as a barn, blacksmith shop and winery. As a critically minded atheist, Jack may have considered this missions disuse, abuse and resurrection as human evolution.

Continuing our journey, we parallel a former rail line into Glen Ellen. Jack discovered his own Eden near this little whistle stop, like the main characters of Valley of the Moon, halfway up the narrow Sonoma Valley. Turning off the highway, we ascend the dry hills into Jack London State Historic Park. Here Charmian, his second wife and soulmate, bequeathed their 1,400 sprawling acres to California for perpetuation of her famed husbands memory.

From the parking lot, we amble up a shaded forest trail to first visit House of Happy Walls. After Jacks death, Charmian built this two-story stone house filling it with artifacts from their global travels. From south sea adventures, wooden tikis guard the premises; tapa weavings, clubs and spears cover the walls; wooden bowls serve as light shades. Glass cases display their sailboat Snarks navigational equipment, wooden sandals, miniature totem poles and other mementoes.

In another display case, Jacks first rejection letter encourages him to write cheerier prose; news clips announce later successes. His 50 world-famous books appear in numerous translations, including Call of the Wild in both Hebrew and Bengali, White Fang in Afrikaans, The Sea-Wolf in Norwegian and The Cruise of the Snark in Swedish. Compelling videos and photos reveal this turn-of-the-century writers enthusiastic interest in modern agriculture.

Another trail in the woods leads us away from the House of Happy Walls and toward the Londons simple gravesites. After paying our respects, we proceed upward into a grove of giant redwoods and see the burned-out ruins of Wolf House, the couples dream home. Never attempting to reconstruct this magnificent log and rock mansion, they continued their lives in the original ranch house from 1905 to 1916.

The heart of Beauty Ranch requires a drive to another parking lot and climb over a parched grassy knoll. Two old stone buildings lie below. Originally a winery, Jack converted them as shelters for his stallions and for storage. Beauty Ranch Cottage perches on another hill. When Wolf House perished, the Londons enclosed front verandas, creating Charmians sunroom and Jacks study, where he wrote over 1,000 words nightly. Arising late each morning, hed frequently lunch with celebrity guests, filling afternoons with horseback rides and other vigorous activities. The dam built to conserve water created a pleasant lake for swims.

Jack Londons prose often imitated his life. In Valley of the Moon, he portrays a struggling couple moving to this same idyllic valley, adapting new farm methods and prospering. Tending a variety of grains, vegetables and fruits himself, Jack succeeded in a similar fashion. Vineyards now flourish on terraces made to prevent hillside erosion; he raised fine horses, cattle and pigs as breeding stock. Atop another hill, stands the highly reported concrete pig palace designed to raise healthier pigs at a time when many died of cholera.

Learning his extraordinary friend had resided nearby, we head up the valley and wind through bustling Santa Rosa to visit Luther Burbanks Home and Gardens. After admiring many of Burbanks plant creations, we enter the greenhouse museum noting his tools and reading items highlighting his amazing horticultural work. A 1920s Santa Rosa brochure describes this plant wizard as Californias Best Citizen. A news clipping outlines Burbanks stature in early science circles, equaling Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

We can imagine Jack and Luther Burbank discussing a visionary agriculture, upholding Jacks belief that "natural resources, managed with intelligence and loving care, might sustain countless future generations." In these gardens and in nearby Sebastopol, Jack may have witnessed some of Burbanks crossbreeding experiments. During this friends 50-year career, this botanical wizard introduced more than 800 new plant varieties, including over 200 types of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains, plus hundreds of flowers, including the beautiful white Shasta daisy. He also created the blight-resistant Burbank potato and the plum cot, crossing an apricot and a plum. Unsurprisingly, in Valley of the Moon, London refers to Burbank and two of his hybrids: logan and mammoth berries.

Shortly before his death at 40, Jack extolled, I go into farming because my philosophy and research taught me to recognize the fact that a return to the soil is the basis of economics... I devote two hours a day to writing... and 10 to farming. My work on this land and my message to America go hand in hand.

During our journey, wed followed Jacks footsteps through a life of local struggle, into far-flung adventures, writing acclaim, idealistic endeavours and prosperity. As Jack London said, The proper function of man is to live... and did so passionately producing popular books that continue to encourage us all to explore lifes possibilities.



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