Hikes and Happy Walls
Jack London, big cats and corrected records
“You picked a great day to visit,” a cheerful docent said to me as I gazed out a green landscape covered in yellow mustard and vineyards. After the weeks of rain, Sonoma County was shiny and bright. The sky was blue, the birds were singing and the trails were dry. Having been so hypervigilant about potential flooding at home during the first weeks of the month, I was especially enthusiastic about a new view.
In our household, birthdays are great excuses to celebrate with a getaway, so we did just that last week, heading north for a few days to fete Mr. Copeland. Both together and apart, we’ve done a fair amount of long road trips, often passing by amazing places that are relatively close to home on our way to somewhere else. Last year, we made a note to explore Jack London State Park when we had a chance, so after a couple days at Harbin Hot Springs we headed there midweek.
Jack London park’s historic Beauty Ranch site outside the town of Glen Ellen was just that, beautiful. We had come to the park primarily to hike, but were quickly engrossed by The House of Happy Walls Museum about the author’s adventurous life, his writings, ranch practices and he and his spirited widow Charmian’s overall commitment to living fully. While Jack London’s spirit permeates any Californian’s life — The Call of the Wild and White Fang were required reading for me in grade school and the Bay Area is full of landmarks in his name — I haven’t really focused much on his life story. And I knew next to nothing about his second wife, Charmian, who was a powerhouse in her own right.
London called his dedication to writing and innovating ‘dig,’ and many of the museum displays — about their attempts to sail around the world, his writing practices, and the couple being adventurers as well as creatives — resonated.
“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” — Jack London
London lived, wrote and played hard. Plagued by illness and alcoholism, he died at age 40. Although Charmian outlived him by nearly four decades, her story had all but entirely been untold until 2018, when the museum was remodeled. Fortunately, when it came time to revamp the exhibits, a park group spent time reimagining the museum so as to include her voice as much as his. Now the top half of the museum, Charmian’s former home, was given over to her life’s accomplishments. I was glad that I had waited until recently to visit the park (and happy to learn that others are also working to correct the record). A horsewoman, an editor, a sailor and a pianist, she also wrote several books of her own, and had helped not a small amount with London’s output. After Jack’s death, she built and lived in the The House of Happy Walls, continuing to live large while maintaining the ranch and generally ensuring Jack’s legacy.
Speaking of horsewomen, when we finally got back on the trail, we quickly encountered two women leading their steeds in the opposite direction.
“We’re walking our horses today,” one of the women said without explanation as we moved to the side to let them pass. One of the horses nudged Kwame slightly and we commented on how cool and amazing horses were as we continued down the path
Around the next bend we saw two more hikers coming our way.
“Did they tell you there’s a mountain lion near the pear orchard?” the man asked.
“No!” We said, our eyes bugging.
Evidently, the women had turned around when they spotted the lion, then noticed it was trailing them, spooking their horses. A ranger was supposedly on their way but there was as yet no sign of them.
A mountain biker rode up and the couple repeated the information to him. He shrugged. He said that he’d seen lions in the park in the past and hadn’t had a problem and decided to stay his course.
“If you hear a scream…" he laughed as he pedaled away
“It will catch him before us!” Kwame said and we, too, decide to keep going.
“You’re slower,” the man countered. We were all laughing, if nervously.
I had thought earlier, after seeing a sign about lions at the trailhead, that I hoped today was the day I would see a big cat, but now I wasn’t so sure! We were on a wooded trail with little visibility. I took out my water bottle and held it in my hand. I thought of the recommendations to “appear big, walk backward”and, if necessary, “fight back.” The more I thought about it, the more adrenaline started to move through my bloodstream. Everything suddenly looked like a great place for a mountain lion to spring from.
We decided to take a different route, talking loudly as we hiked. After crossing a small creek, we looked at the map again. While I thought we were walking away from where the lion was sighted, the trail we were on was heading toward the orchard from another angle!
We looked at each other. I was very happy the park had big cats,and suddenly very certain I didn’t want to see this particular one badly enough. While we didn’t hear any screams, we turned around!
The University of Oklahoma Press published Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer, by Iris Jamahl Dunkle in 2020.
Bay Area Puma Project Sightings Map The Bay Area Puma Project (BAPP) was started in 2007 by Felidae Conservation Fund in partnership with The University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) and The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)
That sounds like an awesome trip! Love that quote about seeking inspiration, and loved learning about Charmian!