There are a few California writers I especially wish I’d been able to meet. John Steinbeck probably tops my small list; one summer, when when we — my brother and I — drove back from a camping trip in the Yosemite back country, we passed through all the little small towns along that dusty road, limned by orchards and nut trees, and he felt very close. Corn sold six ears for a dollar. We rolled the windows down and smelled the dry earth and grass on the hot wind and I almost expected him to pull up at an intersection with his pipe clamped between his teeth. Steinbeck, as I’ve mentioned before, is California to me — especially the parts in its parched interior, and also along the cool ocean.
But then, too, there is Jack London, the author of Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf , among many others — he who exhorted
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
This local boy (he grew up in West Oakland before finding his way to the Sonoma Valley, near Glen Ellen) to me is as intrinsic to California as Steinbeck, albeit representative of a different landscape. London lived and loved the rolling hills and green vistas of Sonoma County much as I do; though I dearly love the sea, the valley also feels like home.
[Eucalyptus, Jack London State Park, May 2008 .]
This past weekend I went to London’s “Beauty Ranch,” now Jack London State Park, for a walk and a picnic to celebrate (and enjoy) a long weekend made longer still by the few vacation days I tacked on the end of it (a wise decision; I missed sleeping in.). We wandered all over the property and in and out of the pretty white-painted cottage London shared with his wife Charmian while they waited for the construction of a stone-and-wood ‘dream house’ a few miles away. The park ranger working the desk dropped juicy tidbits of gossip about the couple’s life together (“a real love story” “he may have had Lupus” “of course, he loved to drink”). Only 40 when he died of a kidney condition (and living the good life), London nevertheless managed to publish over 20 novels and nearly as many short story collections and traveled for 27 months to the South Pacific and Australia.
After rambling through the grounds and marveling over the sheer prolificacy of the man, we found a table and settled in for lunch. The sun swung in and out of the clouds and we ate: pasta salad with vegetables and red beans; good bread and three different kinds of cheese (havarti, brie, cheddar); tomatoes and basil; watermelon; biscotti and lemonade. The air was fresh and cool, and I think when London wrote I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams and mysteries. I am all sun and air and sparkle. I am vitalized, organic it must have been on a day like that.
[Wolf House ruins, Jack London State Park, May 2008.]
The park is accessed at the top of a nondescript road that wends its way past vineyards and houses tucked under sprawling oak trees. I love going there. If you walk up to the lake (a part of the river he had dammed for irrigation and swimming) it’s a short mile or so that climbs up through eucalyptus and redwood trees with all of their good smells. It is most often very quiet and even on a holiday weekend was not too crowded — and the wind rustles through the trees in a way that feels peaceful, rather than lonely. The ranch is where London spent the second half of his life; it was a place for his friends to gather to ride horses, swim, drink … It is a great tragedy to me that I wasn’t part of his inner circle! I exaggerate only a little bit; I think long weekends there would have been amazing. Such conversation! And the swimming hole!
[At the lake, Jack London State Park, May 2008.]
I think both London and Steinbeck were the kind of guys with whom you could sit long around the table chatting about books and gardening practices and trips to New York and how the tide pools up at Salt Point look in the spring. You’d either be drinking beer — or perhaps whiskey; actually yes: whiskey was probably the drink of choice, though JL did plant vineyards at the ranch — and maybe smoking cigars or hand-rolled cigarettes, dropping the ashes all over the porch (did I mention you’d be sitting on a wrap-around wooden porch off the front of the cottage? Well, yes.) the breeze would later blow away. You’d watch the fog roll in over the hills and finally meander inside for another drink; if it was hot you’d take a swim and a sunbathe on the warm rocks. You can see how I wish I’d been around then.
Since I wasn’t, however, I think it’s time to revisit Steinbeck’s ‘Letters’ and a London short story or two preferably from a hammock in the shade.
[Tuesday lunch, May 2008.]
The rest of my long weekend was spent sleeping prodigiously, drinking a lot of coffee (mostly un-iced, because it was a bit too cool, though I did have a very healthy iced americano directly after my run on Tuesday), catching up with an old friend, and eating a lot of good food. There was so much eating I can’t believe I even thought about lunch today, but of course I did (leftover pasta salad, and soup). Tuesday I think was my favorite day of all because we had a late lunch of Greek-inspired foods like dolmades, feta salad, spanakopita and, of course, a bottle of cold white wine. It may have been chilly outside, but inside I was dreaming of the islands.
June is nearly here and I’m ready. I’m ready for birthday dinner parties, visiting friends, planning summer vacations, camping trips along the coast, an abundance of new fruit at the farmers’ market, flowers coming into full bloom, and lots and lots of time to read in the sunshine (well, as much sunshine as we’re likely to get in these parts). If there are a few stretches of very hot days — and a few more long weekend on the horizon — I think feeling vitalized and organic won’t be difficult to accomplish.