We head up the road this week to revisit the life, times, and beloved Beauty Ranch of famed California writer Jack London—a fine Sonoma Valley outing.
Not so long ago London’s most popular adventure books, The Call of the Wild and White Fang—both set during the Yukon Gold Rush—were required reading for California schoolchildren. On many lists they’ve since been demoted to “suggested.” (Of course. How relevant is the great outdoors anymore?) So grab the kids, grandkids, or great-grands for a visit to 1400-acre Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, on the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain. There are more than 20 miles of trails—no dogs, even if leashed, allowed on backcountry trails—guided tours, including horseback rides, weather permitting, and fabulous Craftsman-era buildings to explore.
London was a phenomenally successful writer by the usual American measure. He was the first to earn a million dollars with his pen. Making money was London’s intention, given his struggle to make a living otherwise. (He left school and started working in an Oakland cannery at age 14.) London was an outspoken socialist, political activist, and advocate for unions and the rights of workers. That essential contradiction enhanced his public appeal—the rugged, self-educated individualist fighting for universal justice. But according to historian Kevin Starr, by 1911 “London was more bored by the class struggle than he cared to admit.”
When the wealthy Jack London first saw the soft primeval forests of Sonoma Mountain in 1905, he was home. The canyons and grassy hills, streams and natural springs, the mixture of redwoods, firs, live oaks, and madrones all spoke to him. This was his escape from city life, which he called “the man-trap.” Jack London lived with his second wife Charmian at his beloved Beauty Ranch for 11 years, “anchoring good and solid, and anchoring for keeps,” except for a two-year sail through the South Seas.
Once settled, the writer became a farmer—a forward-looking farmer. He raised horses, cattle, and pigs, used sustainable farming practices, and grew unusual crops, a passion shared with his nearby friend, horticulturist Luther Burbank. London also wrote here—and needed to, to keep the farm afloat. He sometimes scrawled away for 19 hours straight.
Take your time at Beauty Ranch—also known as the Ranch of Good Intentions—to feel the Londons’ life here. And you can feel it. The Cottage was both home and Jack London’s office. The two-story stone House of Happy Walls, which Charmian built later, is the park’s museum. Appreciate the custom-built furniture, intended for their spectacular 15,000-square foot mansion, Wolf House, crafted by stonemasons of maroon lava and unpeeled redwood logs, with double-thick walls for fireproofing. But Wolf House burned to the ground, in 1913. These lonely ruins, somehow the most evocative home of all. Jack London planned to rebuild but died before he could begin, of uremia related to his alcoholism (kidney failure) and an accidental morphine overdose. A wealth of good intentions.