Saturday, January 01, 2011

Jack London's Ranch & Post Costa

In which we ramble through California history
The House that Jack Built

The author, activist, socialist and Bohemian Club honorary member, Jack London (1876-1916) has held a fascination for me ever since I read Call of the Wild when I was a kid. So Monday last, we motored up to Glen Ellen and Jack London State Historic Park, which stands on London’s experimental farm, the Beauty Ranch, in Sonoma County.

London was, to put it mildly, a barrel of contradictions. He came up from nothing – San Francisco Bay oyster pirate, Cannery Row worker, Pacific seal-hunter, Yukon gold seeker, etc. – to become one of the most famed novelists and essayists of his day. An avowed socialist, he became a rich man, albeit one who always struggled with money. A champion of the poor, he could be what we would now call racist and subscribed to bizarre beliefs in the primacy of the Anglo-Saxon “race” and social Darwinism, though he was nevertheless beloved of the Hawaiian royal family and often wrote kindly of the native peoples he encountered in his Pacific and Asian travels. He was a bohemian who became a haute bohemian, and the San Francisco journalistic and artistic club to which he was made an honorary member, the Bohemian Club, today boasts nearly every power-broker and “weaving spider” in the United States among its membership. A champion of temperance, even prohibition, he was an alcoholic who often started off his day with more than a wee dram. He lived a life of high adventure, yet suffered greatly from depression and anxiety. An evangelist of truth, he was not above telling a whopper when it suited his narrative. (For example, in John Barleycorn, he tells of falling off his boat, drunk, in San Francisco Bay in the middle of the night and being content to float along with the tide for hours. But, as any Coastie will tell you, the Bay averages about 53 degrees F year round. He would have succumbed to hypothermia and drowned within an hour had this actually happened.) He loved the strenuous life, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, yet died at the age of 40.

Window at the Jack London Lodge Saloon in Glenn Ellen

Well, never mind. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson said. And London has left us not only with a redoubtable literary legacy but, in Jack London State Historic Park, a physical one as well.

Approach to the house that Jack built. Sadly, it was closed that day, so we ventured along the park's trails.

Here you can visit the cottage where he wrote his 1,000 words per day, planned out his experimental farming operation with no less an expert than Luther Burbank, lived and loved with his devoted wife, Charmian, and established his reputation for future generations.

You can bend a knee at Jack and Charmian’s graves, and visit the remains of the stone manse they were building and which burned down before it was complete. You can roam the house that Charmian built after Jack’s death, the House of the Happy Walls, dedicated to his memory. (It is now a museum chock full of memorabilia from the Londons’ travels aboard Jack's yacht, the Snark, in the South Pacific.)

And you can roam around the trails of the property, up to the little lake that Jack built, which is what we did. Here are a few snaps.

One of Jack's barns

View across a vineyard to Jack's silos
View from the hill behind Jack's house

Biggest damn mushroom I ever saw

More fungi

Thick moss -- it grows on trees you know

A white heron and a green one share a puddle in a meadow near Glen Ellen

Port Costa

Port Costa is a tiny hamlet on the shore of the Carquinez Strait buried at the end of a deep canyon not far from Crockett. In the late 1800’s it was a bustling place, a way station for goods and people traveling down the delta from Sacramento to San Francisco. Oscar Wilde even stopped there on his journey to “the occidental uttermost of American civilization.”

Today Port Costa is one of the last truly bohemian enclaves the in the San Francisco Bay Area, the haunt of recluses, artists, eccentrics, ne’er-do-wells and bikers. Its main attraction is the Warehouse Café and Bar, made out of an actual warehouse built in 1880 -- the first “fireproof structure in Northern California” and home to a breathtakingly large stuffed polar bear and lots of other bric-a-brac. On the weekends for the price of a drink you can enjoy complimentary soup or chili.

Not cutesy – no antique stores, jewelry shops or gift boutiques – but worth a visit to the truly curious road-tripper.

Part of the main drag -- the only drag -- in Port Costa

The Warehouse Café and Bar cat looks down on everyone from the oval window on the top floor


In which we go hippy (and a little dippy)

In addition to motoring trough Fort Ross, Thanksgiving weekend we stayed in the old coastal town of Mendocino. Situated on a rugged, windblown bluff above the Pacific just North of Big River, Mendocino was established as a logging and fishing community in the 1850s. Many New England loggers and Portuguese fishermen settled there. Today it is a vibrant artist colony where local artists and craftspeople ply their wares to the weekend tourists who pass through and stay there on their getaways from the City.

Rainbow view from the deck of the Navarro Winery on Highway 129, not far inland from Mendocino

Mendocino is also famed for its many water towers. Though only three of these are still active, dozens have been converted into housing and B&B lodgings. In the 1970s and ’80s, rapacious developers had planned major hotels and other infill within the town’s borders, but this was thankfully blocked by the local citizenry. At just five blocks wide and 10 blocks long, Mendocino today is one of the most picturesque villages on the California coast.

View from our room at the Stanford Inn by the Sea

One of the Stanford Inn's two pet llamas

The old farmhouse on the grounds of the Stanford Inn

One of Mendocino's famed water towers, or "pump houses," converted into housing
A naked yet picturesque water tower

The interior of Crown Hall, where Mendocino's Portuguese community used to gather (and sometimes still do), often used for a craft fair on the weekends

A view of Main Street from the cliffs

Amy getting wind-blown just before we got soaked in a downpour

Amy explores an alley in Mendocino decorated in driftwood

Christmas angels (and a seagull) adorn the steeple on an old church, now, I believe, a bank

Lovely old red house with a Gothic window

Another charming house in the village

A couple whimsical weather vanes

Outrigger canoeing on the Big River

We made a little pal at the Stanford Inn