Masters of Dig: A tour of authorial abodes

Visiting the homes of my favorite writers

  • Jack London’s home in Sonoma County, California.

    Peter Menzel
  • A trail on Mount Wanda, near John Muir’s home in Martinez.

    Dave Baselt
  • Robinson Jeffers’ cottage in Carmel.

    Art Durkee
  • Jack London’s study in his House of Happy Walls, located at what is now Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California.

    © Thomas Hallstein / Outsight
 

Why visit an author’s house? What can you hope to gain by retracing a famous writer’s footsteps, or plopping yourself down in a chair that held some bony backside a century ago? Is it a form of time travel? Can we get a deeper understanding of the books we love?

Not that these lofty questions troubled me during my recent Nor-Cal Nature-Lit Home-Place Super-Tour (henceforth NCNLHPST or Nickelhipst); sometimes I just have to get the heck out of screen-dazed San Francisco, where I currently reside. And recently, I discovered that some of the earthiest writers of the American West lived within a two-hour drive of the city, and that the grounds that grounded them, so to speak, are open to the public. John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, Jack London — I grew up with these guys. They’re like family — the wacky uncles who took me on adventures when I was a kid.

Why visit a beloved author’s house? Why not?

           

My first stop was the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, 30 miles east of the city. For the last 24 years of his life, from 1890 to 1914, Muir lived with his wife and two daughters on a 2,600-acre fruit ranch. We like to picture him climbing Doug-firs in windstorms and riding avalanches to valley bottoms, surviving for weeks on end in the High Sierra on bread and tea. But John of the Mountains — founder of the Sierra Club, early advocate of wilderness preservation — was also John of the Plum, “Papa” to his girls. When he wasn’t out rambling or tending the orchards, those long legs of his were likely folded under a desk in his upstairs study, the “scribble den.” 

The home, a 14-room Victorian mansion with burgundy trim and gray clapboards, sits on a grassy knoll catty-corner to a Valero gas station. Ah, so this is where he bought his Powerball tickets and Doritos. The visitor center was locked when I arrived, as was the gate to the house. Well, Muir wouldn’t have checked the website for visiting hours either.    

Good Nickelhispter that I am, I had a backup plan. Despite authoring 300 articles and 12 books, Muir disliked writing, comparing the labor of composition to glaciers: “one painful grind.” Many afternoons he escaped by sauntering up Mount Wanda, a 660-foot hill at the rear of the property.

So I backtracked past the Valero, underneath the moaning John Muir Parkway, to a trailhead that doubles as a park-and-ride. “Pretend that you can’t see or hear any sign of man’s traffic or development from here,” a National Park Service bulletin board encouraged. “That’s the environment Muir would have known at the turn of the century.” Trying to imagine Papa at my side, I hiked a cracked brown fireroad, oaks of four species casting blotchy shadows, insects buzzing loud. “Took a fine fragrant walk up the west hills with Wanda and Helen, who I am glad to see love walking, flowers, trees and every bird and beast and creeping thing,” he wrote in his journal 119 years ago, almost to the day.

Sitting at the summit in a meadow of tall grass, watching turkey vultures wheel against the blue sky, I recalled that Muir’s wife, Louie, often sent her husband back to his beloved “Range of Light” when domestic life got on his nerves. As Old Papa Graybeard got older and grayer, though, excursions to the alpine zone must have decreased. His most famous books bear expansive titles –– My First Summer in the High Sierra, The Mountains of California and The Yosemite –– but it was this soft, rounded mini-mountain, named for his oldest daughter, that sustained him through years of word-grinding. (That, and nights spent beneath the stars on the mansion’s balcony.)

It’s a nice image — a man living in two worlds at once, the memory-world of craggy peaks and thousand-mile walks, and the everyday-world of fruit-growing, manuscript pages, and little girls tugging at his pant legs, pointing to flowers he’d overlooked.

           

Five days later I was driving around Carmel, utterly lost. C’mon, it’s a friggin’ castle, how hard can it be to find? Perched on the Pacific Coast between Monterey and Big Sur, Carmel is a ritzy maze of densely packed luxury homes, each with — as Robert Hass’ essay, “The Fury of Robinson Jeffers,” puts it — “large bay windows gawking toward the sea like the open mouths of baby birds.” I’d called ahead to reserve a spot on the morning tour of Jeffers’ Tor House and was running late. Damn baby birds had gotten me confused.

When the poet and his wife, Una, first visited Carmel Bay in the spring of 1914 the region was barren, foggy and mostly uninhabited — in a word, perfect. He bought 36 plots on a bluff above the shore (hence the name “Tor,” from a Celtic word for “rock outcrop”), planted 2,000 eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, and apprenticed himself to a mason. Over many years he built a cottage, a four-story tower and a perimeter wall, using huge boulders hauled from the beach. Mornings were for writing, afternoons for “the art of making stone love stone.”

Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, vice president of Tor House Foundation, was waiting for me in the courtyard when I arrived. He had a pointy white beard, a long black ponytail, and a sore throat that roller-coastered his voice from high and squeaky to low and hoarse whenever he recited a poem from memory (which was often).

He began with a lecture on Jeffers’ significance. He’s fallen out of favor with the Academy now, but back in 1932 his portrait was on the cover of Time magazine. His influence on the environmental movement was both profound and personal: David Brower’s Sierra Club publication Not Man Apart took its title from an RJ poem; Ansel Adams used to swing by Tor House to play piano. “Jeffers looked at life, quite meticulously, quite honestly, from a geologic perspective,” Ruchowitz-Roberts said, reaching out to touch a wall. “This red splotchy stone is 2 billion years old. Knowing that, how do you live a meaningful life? That’s the question he tasked himself with answering.”

In the courtyard, our guide pointed out a ceramic fragment from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, pebbles from the alleged castle of King Arthur in Cornwall, and an Indian millstone found on site. Collected by Jeffers and his wife during their travels, or given to them by friends, each was a reminder of the present moment’s smallness in the grand sweep of history — again, The Big RJ Theme.

The inside of the cottage was snug, dim, cozy and slightly creepy. A human skull in a cabinet. Lots of unicorn art (Una was a mystic, the unicorn her totem). Jeffers’ writing desk was in a loft, facing inland; his deathbed was downstairs, overlooking a cove where cormorants stood on whitewashed rocks, drying their wings in the sun. “The day he passed, Jan. 20, 1962, it snowed in Monterey,” the guide said. “Which never happens.”

After Jeffers’ death, his family, unable to pay the property taxes, sold off the surrounding lots. (The sight of development near Tor House pained them so much that they temporarily moved to England.) At the end of the tour, standing in the turret of the tower, I blocked the neighboring baby-bird mansions from my view and stared down into curling green waves, the rush and rake of surf filling my ears. I felt for a moment what this place had once been like, what it still was like beneath the gloss of civilization. Before turning in each night, RJ would step outside to look at the constellations, smell the salt, and generally wash himself in the elements. The “wild God of the world” — that was his name for the ageless powers surging all around.

A wave rose and a seal’s dark shape cut across its face. I descended the tower’s spiral staircase to find our tour guide waiting in the garden, another poem on the tip of his tongue.

 

Jack London State Historic Park sits high in a forested valley in idyllic, wine-drenched Sonoma County, an hour north of San Francisco. I visited a week later, a perfect afternoon for wrapping up my Nickelhipst — cool wind, warm sun, Anna’s hummingbirds flashing violet-pink iridescence.

A map at the entry kiosk highlighted structures: House of Happy Walls Museum, Pig Palace, Wolf House, Sherry Barn, Bat Box, Winery Ruins. London was freakishly energetic, writing 1,000 words before lunch every day, then tending to construction projects and agricultural experiments. By the age of 40, he’d published some 40 books and traveled the world — Japan, Europe, Polynesia, the Bering Sea.

Most folks associate London with White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and struggling numb-handed to start a fire in the snow. (You know how that one ends.) But he was actually less a Yukon adventurer than a California farmer, an obsessive pioneer of what we today call sustainable agriculture. Born in Oakland and raised on and off various farms, he bought his first parcel here in 1905. By the time he died 11 years later, in 1916, he’d expanded Beauty Ranch to more than 1,400 acres. His wife, Charmian, said: “He was really far more interested in introducing better farming into Sonoma County and the country at large than he was in leaving behind masterpieces of literature.”

Wandering the property, I eventually found my way to London Cottage, a modest residence with tight hallways and paintings of sled dogs on the walls. And desks, too — 10 of them, stacked with books, a herd of glossy brown hardwood slabs standing around like sleepy cows. An abundance of writing surfaces: Was this the key to his productivity? Charmian, an editor, typed up Jack’s handwritten pages (and improved his prose), so she had two or three of her own. Really, though, how many desks could they have actually used?

I myself would have settled for just one, the one in my favorite room, a glassed-in sun porch on the cottage’s south side. A bed, a chair, a miniature table. A pack of Lucky Strikes leaned against an ashtray. A flask. A clothesline pinned with notes and outlines and drafts. This was the place. I imagined The Wolf, as they called him, writing and smoking and going to bed late and waking early and writing and smoking and writing some more. I imagined him watching the hummingbirds zip back and forth beyond the windowpanes, then crushing out his cigarette butt and chasing the glinting, manic birds into the fields.

As the park prepared to close, I followed a trail to a high spot near a grove of redwoods. Beauty Ranch, aptly named, was laid out before me. It reminded me of Muir’s and Jeffers’ spreads: Here was a home where a writer lived not just on the land but with it, a home in the deep sense of the word. I felt inspired — to read, to write, to get the heck out of the city once and for all. The Wolf called it “dig,” the drive that gets things done, that keeps things moving, puts ink on the page and dreams into action on the ground.

Dig. Yes. I thought of a shovel, a tool to keep sharp, like a pencil, maybe better.

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