By Max Milano
The book was 'The Call of the Wild & White Fang'. It was purchased in a vintage bookstore in Harvard Square that features 1930's squeaking floorboards and cherry wood ladders on railings lining its book shelves. When the book was purchased, the other customers were mostly iPhone clutching teenage freshmen (and women) on late-night book runs that then hurried back into the frozen night before the forecasted snowstorm arrived (and while the Starbucks were still open).
The book then endured a two-hour tarmac-taxiing adventure at Logan airport in pure whiteout conditions, tucked away cozily inside a Victorinox laptop bag as heavy snowfall accumulated on the 777's wings.
The snow forced the pilot to return to the gate twice for de-icing. The green goop of the de-icing liquid competed fiercely against the snow and ice for dominance of the 777's wings. Boston Logan was declared to be under white squall conditions, but the pilot was determined to take off. And take off he did, with a mighty roar of the engines that delivered violent jolts inside the cabin, until the 777 (and the book within it) burst out of the stormy lower clouds and into the calm of a full moon and an ink black night sky at 35000 feet.
Once back in sunny California, the book sat on a coffee table for a week. It remained wrapped in its Harvard Books bag, while its owners toiled away in the salt mines of Silicon Valley, just to be able to live hand to mouth in the not-so-high-anymore plateau of two six-figures a year.
It wasn't until the weekend arrived, with its promise of Sonoma vineyards and spirited hikes in the rolling hills of the Valley of the Moon that the book beckoned. Didn't Jack London own a ranch up in Sonoma? Didn't the dream house he tried to build there, among a grove of Redwoods, burn to the ground only one month before he could move in with his wife? Didn't he die young, at 40, battling late stage alcoholism like (according to Hemingway) most good writers should? Write drunk, edit sober, Papa used to say.
Jack London never quite recovered from the terrible blow of losing his beloved Xanadu among the redwoods. He vowed to rebuild but his heart and his health we not in any shape to face such a daunting project. He died three years later, leaving behind a veritable castle-in-ruins among the Sonoma Redwoods, just steps from his grave.
The story had all the dramatic elements needed to provide a perfect day of history and nature. The book beckoned to be held, to be packed inside a hiking backpack, never mind the extra weight. It was time to drive up to Sonoma from Silicon Valley to pay our respects to one of the greatest American writers by reading 'Call of the Wild' at Jack London's Grave.
The top of the Golden Gate Bridge's towers scraped marine-layers of fog as we drove along highway 101 North, above the Golden Gate. We had the Pacific Ocean to the left, and the wide expanse of the San Francisco bay to our right. The bay was dotted with hundreds of sailboats that gave the day an air of hurried celebration. As if someone was trying to squeeze in all the blue skies they could before the heavy evening fog rolled in.
The rainbow arch of the Robin Williams bridge came next, followed by the hilly affluence of Marin County, with its million-dollar bay and bridge views and Ferrari dealerships. Then a Spanish revival mission style church hidden behind a grove of cypress trees and roaming cows. Soon after that, we find ourselves driving along rolling vineyards and faux Tuscan wineries, heading towards Sonoma Square and its whitewashed mission church and presidio (the northernmost in the state). There's a square across from the mission church with a 'Bear Republic' proclamation statue (memorializing California’s insurrection from Mexican rule in 1846).
Leaving Sonoma Square, we drive deeper into wine country, where forested hills open way to row upon row of vineyards and a little less obvious affluence. This signifies old money, non-flashy but quirky. The type that keeps a 1950's Morris Minor convertible in perfect shape in the garage just for weekend jaunts around the vineyards of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino County. Or perhaps they take the Morris Minor out for Hitchcockian drives along the Sonoma coast up to Bodega Bay to see the famous seagulls and to hear the sea lions bark beyond the rolling fog on black islands just beyond the bay.
Old money might also keep a red tartan wool blanket in the back seat of said 1950’s convertible Morris Minor, along with a bottle of Macallan's to be shared by a bonfire as waves crash over black rocks and the harbor seals breathe heavily in the fog beyond the break. Or maybe it’s you that's breathing heavily, because you’re drunk and in love and you get to sleep on a black beach with a bonfire, as the fog rolls in at dusk. Because you haven’t lived unless you wake up with your loved one, shivering and wrapped up in wool blankets and covered in black sand next to a smoldering driftwood fire as the sun rises over the hills behind the beach and the gray whales start spouting and breaching just beyond the break. You’re hungover and feel like death warmed over, but you’re as happy as you've ever been because you’re in love. But you’re not old money, not even close, but you're still quirky, or so she tells you before she kisses you good morning out there on the black beach on the Sonoma Coast.
All this I write in a frenzy after gulping a shot of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon (write drunk, edit sober, right?) at the Jack London Saloon at the foot of the hill that will take us into the gates of Jack’s former ranch and now a State Park. Perhaps I drink because I’m intimidated at Jack’s prolific writing habit of putting down 1000 words per day, no matter the conditions. Whether he was in the middle of the frozen Yukon, or in the steamiest tropical South Pacific island, he always made time to put down 1000 words per day in longhand.
Besides, I feel that he’s watching. Portraits of Jack loom all over the Jack London Saloon. Mostly black and white photos of his globe-trotting exploits, plus vintage Hollywood movie posters of his most classic adaptations: "Conflict", with John Wayne (1936), "The Call of the Wild", with Clark Gable (1935), "The Sea Wolf", with Edward G. Robinson (1941).
My courage hence built up, we hike up to the big house that Jack’s wife built after his death and that now is a museum dedicated to his life and times. There we admire the vintage curios: Carved Polynesian idols, vintage revolvers, a black and white picture of Jack without a shirt and his arms crossed behind his head that's more 1990’s Herb Ritts Vanity Fair cover than 1920’s Kodak Brownie.
On the second floor an old lady with white hair plays the piano, a vintage piece of music from Jack’s lifetime. I can see the trail that leads to Jack’s grave from the second-floor window and feel that it's time. The book beckons, it even has a vintage dust cover, perhaps it may even be a first edition.
After a short hike among eucalyptus trees we see a hillock looming above us. The hillock is crowned by a knotted tree guarding a tiny picket-fenced cemetery. As we approach the tree, we note the thick green moss on the picket fence and on two small wooden grave markings. I've never seen wooden grave markers before. The graves belong to two Scottish pioneer children that died on the property in the 1870’s. A lot of children died young in the 1870’s and Jack had felt a curious sense of peace up on that knoll. The wood from the grave markers is bright green and heavy with moss, but their inscriptions are still legible after 140 years: “Little Lillie, died Aug 1877. Little David, died Nov 1876”.
Jack wanted to be buried up there with these two pioneer children, perhaps he felt that their presence on the knoll somehow permeated the spiritual vibrations of the land around it. A kind of still-life, haunting, yet still beautiful, that perhaps served Jack as the memento-mori that fueled Jack's carpe diem lifestyle.
Just steps from the two Scottish children’s graves is another small picket-fenced yard. Theres a rough half-buried boulder at its center with no engravings whatsoever. This was the spot Jack chose for his ashes to be buried and so they were, shortly after his death in 1916. His wife’s ashes joined his in the 1950’s. Without the picket fence, this would just be another rough boulder up on the knoll. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Back to nature, back to the wild that created all of this.
I stand in front of the half-buried boulder, pull out the book from my backpack and start to read:
INTO THE PRIMITIVE
Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom's chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain.
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.”
“California, always a boomtown” I ad-lib. Once it was the gold rush, but aren’t we just the next wave in this chain? Aren't we just the present-day gold rush pixel pushers? The digital versions of a ‘strong of muscle’ dog, built to be used hard, but never loved. Fed but not cared for beyond the minimum requirement to do the job, or until you either freeze to death or collapse from exhaustion on the side of the trail, or until you see the light and burst the chains to heed the 'Call of the Wild'. And heed the call we should, just like Jack did. I think that was his message.
All words & images by Max Milano.
Travel Tips (Experience it Yourself)
Opening Hours: Open daily. 9.30 am to 5 pm.
Parking: $10 per car.
Getting There: Take 101 North from San Francisco and follow signs to Sonoma Square. Use GPS or Google Maps on your smartphone to get to the park from Sonoma Square.
Opening Hours: Open daily. Noon to 2 am.