California Writers: Jack London and Glen Ellen

This is an excerpt from my recently-published memoir “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad”.

To reach our next destination we have to head north through the Bay Area and San Francisco itself, across the Golden Gate Bridge to the town of Glen Ellen.  This is the gateway to Jack London State Historic Park.

I have visited it twice, and both times it was in the nature of a pilgrimage.

The time I remember most vividly I approached it hitchhiking from the north in the early morning.  I came through a pass in the hills into a lush valley, and I wondered who lived in the meticulously-landscaped palatial mansions on the hillsides around me.  Somewhere along the way – possibly in Glen Ellen itself – I went into a grocery store and bought an apple, an orange, a pear, and a pint of milk.  The young attractive cashier remarked, “That’s a healthy breakfast,” and I smiled and agreed.  Under other circumstances I might have made small talk and met her later for some sex after she got off work; I indulged in such casual liaisons not infrequently in those days.  But I had my mind on visiting the State Park, and it was far more important to my journey as a writer than mere fleshly gratification.  I hiked up the road to the visitors center, my duffle bag slung over my shoulder.  I could walk all day like that, occasionally shifting the bag from one shoulder to the other.  The trick is not to overload it.  I had my sleeping bag, my shaving kit, my writing notebooks, possibly a change of shirt and a change of socks, no underwear, and one book only that I was reading at the time.  Sometimes, if it was warm enough, I stuffed my leather Navy flight jacket in too, but I might have been wearing it at this particular hour of the morning as it could have been still chilly.  I wandered through the museum at the House of Happy Walls, perusing the collection of first editions of Jack London’s work and the curios and souvenirs he and Charmian brought back from their world travels.  I might have checked out some of the other outbuildings and the grave site as well, but that was not what I was there for.  When I was ready I walked through the eucalyptus-smelling trees along the path that led to the ruins of Wolf House.  Both times I visited the State Park I spent hours at Wolf House.  I couldn’t pull myself away.  I would stare at the ruins and wonder what it might have looked like if it had been finished in all its glory.  I wondered what London must have felt to see his dream turn to flame and ashes so close to completion.  I wondered about my own life as a writer and what had caused me to leave everything from my old life and hit the road, why I couldn’t just fit in and conform and get a normal job and be like everyone else, why I had this inner compulsion that kept me going on an unknown path to an unknown destination, why it was far preferable to me to face loneliness and poverty and the dread of the open road than settle into a convenient rut, why I still had no answers and much of the time didn’t know what to do or where to go, why I couldn’t find anyone else who thought and felt as I did.  Yes, I did a lot of ruminating there at the stark gray stones of Wolf House, but I lingered because somehow there I felt a bit of peace.  It was like a moment out of time, a respite, a pause, a refreshment.  When I was finished, as darkness was falling and the park was closing and I made my way out, I felt stronger and better able to continue to I knew not where.

I hope I get a chance to go there again.  I love that place.

And Jack London himself?  He inspired me as few other writers ever have.  He taught me to hold to my calling and to fight for it.  He taught me to get out and live life so I’d have something to write about.  He taught me that sometimes you just have to do something about what you feel called to do and to hell with the consequences.

Despite the fact that his most famous stories are about the Klondike, sailing in the Pacific, and the South Sea Islands, he was a compleat Californian.  Born in San Francisco, he grew up in the Bay Area, and no matter where he forayed later he always returned.  Eventually he bought several local ranches and combined them into what he called the Beauty Ranch, studied ranching techniques, and attempted innovations that were ahead of their time but now are considered to have been sound ecologically.  Though one of the wealthiest writers in the world, he managed his money poorly and was always in debt.  His death came tragically early.

It is not my intention here to write a critique of Jack London’s literary output or of his life.  I have done that elsewhere.  What I want to do is impress upon you that despite his flaws he represents something that is best about America and the American dream:  the hope that despite humble origins you can rise to great heights, that if you have the grit and tenacity and courage to persevere success will follow, that if you step out and reach beyond what others expect of you and never give up you will win in the end.

Jack London taught me to keep fighting.  I still feel his influence because I have to keep fighting every day.  I am at this moment an unknown, a nobody, but I will never quit.  I will die trying to live my dream.

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