Day 12. Sonoma Valley and Jack London

We woke this morning in Sonoma with a slight fog, but it’s really rather nice. The chef at Gaige House tells us that most mornings begin overcast but quickly clear, and that the locals find this refreshing.

We took a stroll down the main street of Glen Ellen to find this strange house with a lot of iron features, which is quite unusual. In fact as we stood taking pictures a local chap drove by and shouted out “how weird is that house, eh, I love it”, so it’s quite famous amongst the community it would seem.

iron house in Glen Ellen

Glen Ellen is a tiny hamlet, with a population of only about 750. But one former inhabitant is the celebrated novelist and explorer Jack London.

Jack London saloon in Glen Ellen

Jack London was born in 1876, and seems to have had a most amazing life – he was a gold prospector in Canada, an Oyster pirate in the pacific ocean, a rancher and pig farmer on his property in Glen Ellen, a journalist for the Hearst organisation, and, most famously, a novelist. After having 600 rejections from publishers, he finally managed to have some of his short story material published, and from about 1900 until his death in 1916 published over 50 novels. Amazingly, he combined this with a relentless round-the-world touring itinerary, building his own yacht (for $30,000) and setting off via Hawaii for the pacific islands. Lots of his stories chart these adventures. Not surprisingly, Jack London has become Glen Ellen’s claim to fame, and many of the buildings – like this saloon – trade on the back of his notoriety.

Jack London saloon Glen Ellen

We decided to spend some time hiking around his old farmstead, which has now become a state historic park. We hadn’t realised quite how controversial and interesting his life was until we visited the museum and grounds. It’s such good value: we paid $10 for entry which included our car and both of us (although you could have up to 9 passengers – so for big groups, it’s even better value). We thought the museum in the House of Happy Walls (a home dedicated to Jack and Charmian and left by Charmian to the California State National Parks) was full of interesting material about their lives and their travels. The walk around the grounds was quite haunting, and a bit daunting given the warning regarding rattlesnakes and mountain lions. But, never fear…Karen prepared herself with a dry brittle stick in our defence!

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Karen, armed in defence of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
Karen, armed in defence of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.

Unlike at Muir Woods where we were asked to be very quiet and respect the sounds of nature, on this hike we were asked to make lots of noise to scare off the predators….hmmm, so we got Dominic to sing some of his favourite show tunes – that would surely keep them at bay!

It was quite heartbreaking to see the graves of two youngsters whose family had settled on the land. Sadly, when things hadn’t worked out for the family the parents had to leave the little graves of their children behind. So, this is where Jack said he would also like to be buried, which he was when he died from kidney failure aged just 40.

Jack London's gravechildren's graves at JL

It’s a lovely spot, peaceful and quite enchanting with all the trees, and not far from his dream house – Wolf House. This is also a sad story, a house that was never lived in because it burned down a month before Jack and Charmian were to move in in 1913. There are various rumours about the fire including, from the locals, the suspicion that the fire was an insurance scam, intended to leave Charmian an inheritance when the ailing Jack died. Whatever the situation, it is still a tragic tale. This whole place, and Jack and Charmian’s journeys are about lives lived to the full, brightly, but not without their ups and downs. The stories can’t fail to touch everyone in some way.

Empty shell of the burned out Wolf House (Jack London's dream house).
Empty shell of the burned out Wolf House (Jack London’s dream house).

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Well, even though this is the heart of wine country it seemed more appropriate to finish today off with a pint in Jack London’s saloon. Karen got her chops round some saucy chicken wings, and all was well with the world…

Karen looking a bit crazy over these fiery wings!
Karen looking a bit crazy over these fiery wings!

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