Jack London’s Magic Trail

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June 1, 2010 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

The Baron and I saw The Last Station, a film with Helen Mirren acting as Tolstoy’s wife, the day before the Baron filed for divorce. At the end of the film, when actors playing ordinary people followed Tolstoy’s casket weeping, I cried with them. The Baron, who had been silent, and who had not wept, said that he hadn’t thought such a plain story could be so moving, but that I was exactly like Tolstoy’s wife.

A difference between us may be that I was not married to the best writer in the world, I said. The Countess had not only had thirteen children with her husband, she had also copied and re-copied and re-copied his manuscripts. She had added the dimension of another voice to his work, a woman’s voice, so that Tolstoy’s writing soared above anything he could have written without her.

At just about two years before the events played out in The Last Station, a woman with secretarial skills and who was able to type, living near Santa Rosa, California, also affected her husband’s writing by editing and typing it. If she affected the quality of his writing “he may have” it would have been to cheapen it. Charmian Kiteridge London was a sentimental, hypocritical writer and her voice in print was always false. Charmian helped create the myth of Jack London, but that myth sold books, and they always needed money.

Whatever influence she had, of course, changed Jack London’s writing. They shared a life for years. I thought about the journey Jack was supposed to write about, and which he did not write about. Over twenty years ago, I followed that trip and came to what should not have been a surprising conclusion: it was not Jack London’s magic trail. It was Charmian’s.

On a summer morning in 1989, I had been sharpening knife after knife on a whetstone, lining them side by side and stroking their edges with my thumb, measuring the knife-edges with my eye and then staring at the back of Marvelous Marv’s neck as he drank his coffee and read the San Francisco Chronicle.

Marvelous was then in his early sixties: a chain smoking barfly Beatnik who identified with Jack London and thought he looked like Jack London but he did not. He despised the Hippies who lived in the Yokayo Valley beneath his mountain because they smoked marijuana. He walked, both sober and not, with a rolling gait as if he were a sailor walking on solid ground after a long voyage on a sailing ship, and he walked with his knees turned a little outward and his hands flailed at the wrists to keep balance. He moved really fast this way.

Marvelous rapidly rolled and flailed out of my kitchen, then across the living room to the front door and out to the street and got in the Volvo, which he always called the Vulva without seeing anything odd about saying that because he spent his childhood in a German village in the middle of the country where no one had spoken English like a normal person. People from that village named Dick don’t even change their names.

From inside his car, he looked at me one last time. I stood at the window and grimaced maniacally and held one of the knives up for him to see.

I last saw Marvelous Marv in 1993.

He had rented a trailer on top of a mountain in Mendocino County and phoned me; this was before most people had cell phones and you had to find the person at home to talk with her — to ask me drive up to his mountain because he had an emergency.

I drove up a gravely road to the trailer. His aged Volvo was rusting in a weeds and rocks out at the edge of a steep precipice. I pulled in next to it.

It turned out he wanted me to explain why his hummingbird feeder did not attract hummingbirds. I explained the reason was that only raptors flew at that elevation. I left and never saw him again, but we had once shared Jack London’s Magic Trail, and I’ll never forget him.

Although Internet began with the introduction of personal computers in the 1970s, and people began to use it more commonly by 1988, neither Marvelous nor I knew about this. When I was a graduate student, I had used a computer terminal that was connected to a computer that occupied an entire room in UCLA’s Department of Engineering.

I used libraries, the photograph collection in the State’s Department of Parks and Recreation in Santa Rosa, the City of Santa Rosa’s map library, local museums, and Charmian London’s biography to document our route.

I typed up our notes on IBM Selectric.

Marvelous’ job was to have had the idea in the first place and tell me about it and then to sit with his skinny old butt placed on his well worn bar stool in The Ark, a restaurant that looked out at the bay that Jack London had sailed when he was a teenage oyster pirate. Marvelous told the other men that were hunkered over their whiskies about our travels, and on the other side of the Ark’s plate glass window the shallow turquoise Bay shone in faint sunlight that arrived through vaporous clouds.

The Londons started their trip at Wake Robin Lodge. The Lodge deserves some explanation because some London aficionados confuse it with the Kohler Frohling cottage, which is in Jack London State Park where Jack and Charmian lived from 1911 to 1915. Jack died in one of the two sun porches of the Kohler Frohling cottage. By then neither Jack nor Charmian spoke with Netta or her husbands, and she didn’t come to the memorial service, and

Charmian did not mention her existence in her hagiography of Jack London. My money has always been on Netta as the person who burned down Wolf House, poisoned his horses, and murdered him.

Charmian’s aunt Netta Eames and her two husbands – Roscoe Eames, a shorthand reporter who bankrupted the Overland Monthly as its accountant and the Reverend Edward Biron Payne, a defrocked Unitarian minister who also worked on the Overland Monthly – rented Wake Robin and ran a Chautauqua on the Wake Robin grounds, and this is where Charmian seduced Jack when he was married to his first wife Bessie, with the approval of Netta and the

husbands, because Jack was going to be their breadwinner, and that is how things turned out.

In The Book of Jack London, Charmian wrote about the place as “Here a congenial company of acquaintances met in the summers, making merry in the incomparable woods bordering Graham and Sonoma Creeks, swimming in the pools, tramping, boxing, fencing, kiting, and gathering about the campfire at dusk for discussion and reading.” Jack wrote Sea Wolf at a table outside of Wake Robin by Graham Creek. He called the Lodge “Trillium Convert” in

his Valley of the Moon. (Trillium and Wake Robin are different names for the same plant.)

After Jack’s death one of the husbands, the Rev. Payne, wrote The Soul of Jack London (1933), which contains messages a clairvoyant received from Jack London, e.g., Jack cries from the grave, “I am evil!” and in this book Payne claims to have been shocked by Jack and Charmian’s affair and writes that if he had known about it, he would have expressed his disapproval. Victorian morality claptrap didn’t apply to the Payne-Eames menagerie.

They did what they wanted, and what they wanted was to get their hands on Jack London’s income. (For a gentler take on Netta, read Clarice Stasz’s American Dreamers (1988).)

At the Santa Rosa office of the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, I saw a collection of photographs that included Jack and his friends, cross-dressed, on a boat in the Delta. Jack wrote he tried marijuana once and ended up behind a couch having paranoid delusions, but his description reveals that lots of people he knew were smoking dope as well as wearing women’s dresses in those years. For all of Charmian’s prissy

lady-writer disguises, and for all of Netta’s and the Reverend’s late in life moralizing, this crew was morally adventurous.

Jack married Charmian a day after divorcing Bessie, and they moved into Wake Robin with the Payne-Eames ménage-a-trois. Jack bought Wake Robin for Netta and several ranches for himself that he put together to create “Beauty Ranch,” (now Jack London State Park), through which runs Graham Creek, formerly called “Wildwater Creek.” Ranchers had overgrazed the land, and Jack wanted to return the property to ecological balance.

I catalog the plants and animals on Beauty Ranch to illuminate its grandeur: the California oak woodland, which has a canopy of coast live oak, Garry oak, Black oak, Pacific Madrone, Bigleaf maple and California laurel. In some of the steeper, cooler riparian zones are small groves of Sequoia sempervirens and under the trees grow blackberry, western poison-oak and in occasional drier patches some coyote brush. There are black-tailed deer, gray squirrel, raccoon, skunk and opossum, bobcat and mountain lion and scrub jay, Steller’s jay, Acorn woodpecker and junco.

The Magic Trail began in April 1906, when an earthquake shook Glen Ellen (The Book of Jack London, by Charmian London, 1922. Charmian London wrote:

“A few minutes before five, on the morning of the 18th, upstairs at Wake Robin, my eyes flew open inexplicably, and I wondered what had stirred me so early. I curled down for a morning nap, when suddenly the earth began to heave, with a sickening onrush of motion for an eternity of seconds. An abrupt pause, and then it seemed as if some great force laid hold of the globe and shook it like a Gargantuan rat. It was the longest half-minute I

ever lived throug; I lay quite still, watching the tree-tops thrash crazily, as if all the winds of all quarters were at loggerheads.”

Charmian and Jack got on their horses and rode up the side of Mount Sonoma and stopped to watch dust rising from the Napa State Hospital for the Infirm.

“Why, Mate Woman, ” Jack cried, his eyes big with surmise, “I shouldn’t wonder if San Francisco had sunk. That was some earthquake. We don’t know but the Atlantic may be washing up at the feet of the Rocky Mountains!” Charmian wrote.

When they reached the top of the mountain, they saw smoke rising from both San Francisco and from Santa Rosa. Most of the buildings in San Francisco did not collapse in the earthquake: they burned when gas lines burst. Santa Rosa’s buildings collapsed, and the city burned.

Marvelous and I walked up Mount Sonoma and we saw San Francisco in the distance. Its buildings looked white in the sunlight. As we descended through the oak trees, I talked about the water lawsuit Netta filed against Jack and Charmian in 1915 as revenge for Jack’s having replaced her with his sister as his manager.

I had gone to the Sonoma County courthouse and checked out the file on this case, but someone had removed all of the interior documents. Irving Stone wrote about the lawsuit in his extraordinarily defective Sailor on Horseback (1938). I was saying that my money was on Irving Stone as the purloiner of government documents because Charmian burned many of Jack’s papers before Stone could get his hands on them, and I was looking at my feet

and did not see what was ahead of me: a black behemoth weighing about 500 pounds. The monster bull saw me and blinked as if not believing his good fortune and then he struck the ground with his right front hoof and bellowed, yes.

I backed away and turned to run like hell down the mountain and saw that Marvelous was already a miniature figure at the base of the mountain, hands flailing, bandy-legged and rolling in the direction of the parking lot.

We stopped after that at Russ and Winnie Kingman’s bookstore in Glen Ellen. Russ had been responsible for moving the cabin Jack London lived in when he lived in the Yukon down to Jack London Square. Russ’s office in Glen Ellen was a Jack London museum. He had drawers full of index cards on which he had typed references to moments in the Londons’ lives, but he did not have anything on the Magic Trail.

The Londons had commissioned a ship to be built at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. On that ship, the “Snark,” they would one day sail the South Seas. (See, American Dreamers by Clarice Stasz, 1988) They wanted to follow the route taken by another famous couple, Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Osborne on their voyage to the South Seas twenty years earlier. Because of the earthquake, the Snark’s keel was to remain unfinished for a long time, so they saddled their houses and rode instead into northern California.

Hatless, with toilet accessories and reading matter stowed in saddle-bags hehind our Australian saddles, we set out northerly to see what the quake had wreaked upon rural California. At this and that resort, we would feel one or another of the many lighter tremblers that followed the big shake, marking the subsidence of the “Fault” that is supposed to enter from the sea-bed at Fort Bragg, and zigzag southeasterly across the state.

“From Glen Ellen, to Rincon Valley road, through Petrified Forest to Calistoga to Napa Valley. Calistoga to The Geysers. Thence to Lakeport, on Clear Lake, a by way of Highland Springs. We sailed on Clear Lake.

“Lakeport to Ukiah, via Laurel Dell, Blue Lakes. Ukiah to Willits. Through grandeurs of mountains and redwood forest to logging camp, `Alpine.’ Thence to Fort Bragg, on the coast.

“From Fort Bragg, down the coast, sleeping at lumber villages. Navarro, Albion, Greenwood. Thence to Booneville with luncheon at Philo. Philo to Cloverdale, thence to Brooke Sanitorium. Thence to Santa Rosa, and on down to Glen Ellen.

There was, in 1987, a Rincon Valley Road, and no such road shows on the old maps kept in the Santa Rosa library collection. There is an area called Rincon Valley, and there was once a Rincon Valley school.

Charmian’s diary for those days kept in the Jack London collection in The Huntington Library only reports that, on May 3, 1906, they rode 30 miles to

Calistoga. I figured the Londons rode over what is now called Calistoga Road into Calistoga, and then to Healdsburg. The Calistoga Road begins on Highway 12, and it passes the Petrified Forest, which Robert Louis Stevenson had also visited when he and Fanny honeymooned in an old miner’s lodge in 1880. The lodge is now part of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park on Saint Helena Highway.

On May 4, 1906, Jack and Charmian rode up from Healdsburg to The Geysers at the top of the Mayacamas range, where they experienced an aftershock.

In the nineteenth century, stagecoach drivers drove tourists up the precipitous road to a hotel at the top. The hotel and resort are gone, and the geysers are now part of a PG&E plant.

According to a travel article in the August 31, 1869 Boston Journal, the trip was “perilous” and the driver “General Foss” took the road descending from the summit with break neck speed. In 1987, PG&E trucks pulled into side routes to rest their brakes.

East of the Geyser Peak range is a canyon more than a thousand feet deep. A sharp transverse ridge, just wide enough on its narrow crest to afford a carriage road, bridged the chasm. The Boston Journal writer observed:

“Trees fly past like the wind; bushes dash angrily against the wheels; the passengers hold on as if for dear life; the ladies shut their eyes and grasp the arm of some male passenger; and speed down the declivity with lightning rapidity, the horses on a life jump, and General Foss, whip in hand, cracking it about their heads to urge them on. At every lurch of the coach one feels an instinctive dread of being tossed high in air and landed far below in a gorge, or, perchance, spitted upon the top of a sharp pine.”

In Silverado Squatters, (1888) Stevenson wrote:

“Along the unfenced abominable mountain roads, he (Foss) launches his team with small regard for human life or the doctrine of probabilities. Flinching travelers, who behold themselves coasting eternity at every corner, look with natural admiration at the driver’s huge, impassive, fleshy countenance.”

In Valley of the Moon (1913), Jack London fictionalized their journey in an episode in which Billy and Saxon — modeled physically on Jack and Charmian — tramp around northern California. In Healdsburg, Billy hires on as a coach driver.

“Each day the train disgorged passengers for the geysers, and Billy, as if accustomed to it all his life, took the reins of six horses and drove a full load over the mountains in stage time. The second trip he had Saxon beside him on the high box-seat.”

When Marvelous drove the Vulva down that road, the brakes overheated. I jumped out and Marvelous sailed further downhill calling to me, “Help. Help.” I didn’t know what I thought I could do — lasso him? The car went up a little hill and slowed, coming to rest an inch away from a domestic gas tank.

For the next leg of the journey, we camped in the state park at Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park, which Robert Louis Stevenson described as follows:

“A rough smack of resin was in the air, and a crystal mountain purity. It came pouring over these green slopes by the oceanful. The woods sang aloud, and gave largely of their healthful breath. Gladness seemed to inhabit these upper zones, and we had left indifference behind us in the valley … There are days in a life when thus to climb out of the lowlands seems like scaling heaven.” (Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1901)

Neither Marvelous nor I were nature people. We had rented camping equipment from Sears but Marvelous thought it a waste of time to unfold the tent so we drove around with it tied to the Vulva’s roof, where it, collapsed, so we slept in the car. After the experience of sleeping on the backseat with my head wedged under the door handle, I decided I would prefer not to be buried when I die but instead to be cremated. A large family of skunks entered our campsite. I spent long minutes standing on the car hood until they decided to leave.

In Calistoga, we visited the Petrified Forest, a place Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about in The Silverado Squatters. Three million years ago, glassy lava flowed over redwood trees and buried them. In time silica carried by ash filled every particle of the trees. They are now stones.

According to Charmian’s journal, they crossed on horseback over the mountain into fields of wild flowers, and there was snow on the mountains opposite. On the other side of those mountains lies California’s Central Valley.

Marvelous and I stayed at the State Park at its edge of Clearlake and we walked along the Pomo trail.

In 1850, California entered the Union as a Free State, a state without slavery, but the State legislature enacted laws legalizing Indian slavery. Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone enslaved 50 members of the Hoolanapoo clan and made them mine for gold without food rations. Two survived. Stone and Kelsey raped the Hoolanapoo women and killed anyone who asked for food. After they raped the wife of Chief Augustine, members of this clan rebelled and killed both Stone and Kelsey and brought food back to their starving people.

The First Dragoons Regiment of the United States Cavalry rode north to seek revenge for Stone and Kelsey. They could not find Chief Augustine nor his people, so they murdered about 100 men, women and children who lived on an island in Clearlake.

One six-year old girl, Ni’ka, or Lucy Moore survived by hiding underwater and breathing through a tule reed. Her descendants formed the Lucy Moore Foundation to work for better relations between the Pomo and residents of California. The State of California honored Andrew Kelsey by naming Kelseyville after him. Key, Karen. Bloody Island (Bo-no-po-ti). The Historical Marker Database. 18 June 2007 (retrieved 27 Feb 2009)

I went to the Historic Courthouse Museum in Lakeport while Marvelous looked for a bar where he could sit and look at whiskey bottles stacked against a mirror like a parakeet in a cage with a mirror for entertainment. I found a letter from an old woman who had been a child in May 1906. She wrote that she saw Jack and Charmian come into town on their horses, and said that they did not wear hats and that Charmian had long red hair.

The Highland Springs Resort, where Jack and Charmian stayed, burned down many years ago. People once took the stage up from San Francisco, wearing heavy woolen clothing, most of it black, and drank from the 23 springs. It was a Frisbee golf course when we found it.

We passed a portion of the Old State Road just after we left the Blue Lakes Lodge. It went under low hanging boughs, and I could just about imagine Charmian’s delighted laughter coming from that bit of road as Jack pulled her down from her horse so that they could find a place to make love.

This wasn’t really Jack London’s Magic Trail; it was Charmian’s. The route they took was one of the routes she had taken with her aunt Netta when Netta made a niggardly income as a travel writer.

In the 1960s, Ukiah photographer Robert Lee restored A.O. Carpenter’s copperplate photographs that had been found in the damp basement of the Sunhouse, which is now part of the Grace Hudson museum. The photographs include some of Charmian Kitteridge when she was a very young woman, and the good friend of Grace Carpenter, — later Grace Hudson — “The Artist Lady,” who painted portraits of Pomo Indians. See, Aurelius O. Carpenter: Photographer of the Mendocino Frontier.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Netta Kitteridge-Eames-Payne wrote travel stories for San Francisco readers in early travel magazines. The name of the photographer for those stories was A. O. Carpenter.

Grace and Charmian remained good friends all of their lives. When Dr. John Hudson died, Charmian wrote a sympathy letter to Grace, which I saw once on a mantel in the Sunhouse. They were then both widows. The Hudsons are buried in a madrone grove in the cemetery at the north end of Ukiah, and I went there and saw that Indian school children had painted pictures of rainbows and flowers and had placed them under the large rocks marking the Hudsons’ graves.

Marvelous decided we were next going to take the old Alpine Road from Willits to Fort Bragg. We stopped at the Willits police department and perhaps should have taken a measure of caution when the officer of the day laughed out loud when we asked if the road was passable.

It was a horrible trip. It was so horrible. Marvelous insisted on driving right through a muddy slough, and the Vulva sank it. We had to swim out the windows through mud and we stood there, looking around for water because we hadn’t taken any with us (There wasn’t any in the middle of the forest.), as the mud dried on our hair and clothing. Our eyes stared from mud masks.

In time, a couple named Jack and Jill came up the hill from Willits, and they stopped and introduced themselves, and I asked if they were really named Jack and Jill and if they had really come up the hill, and they said it was all true.

They had a thing called a winch on the back bumper of their truck, and they pulled the Vulva out of the muck and dragged it all the way through other sloughs in the forest until we reached Ft. Bragg, where we went to a car wash and checked into a hotel and took showers and rented washing machines. The Vulva’s underside was never the same. It remained mud encrusted until the day one of the trucks that people used to drive mounted on enormous tires with rifle racks in the back and I Love My Bible decaled to the bumper rammed it, ending its life.

We rode along the coast and then went through a back route into the Anderson Valley, where people once spoke a made up language called Boontling, and then down to Altruria a little north of Santa Rosa.

Edward Biron Payne and thirty of his followers founded Altruria in 1894. It only lasted a few months. The Altrurians were Christian Socialist utopians who kept orchards and gardens and sold their produce in a shop in San Francisco, whose manager was a young lawyer, Job Harriman.

Job Harriman later ran on the socialist ticket for mayor of Los Angeles and lost the election after the McNamara brothers pleaded guilty to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building. The McNamaras had been union organizers, and Job Harriman had been one of their attorneys. Cary McWilliams, in Southern California: An Island on the Land, wrote that the Times bombing was a mortal blow to the labor movement in Los Angeles.

Job and his followers moved then to the Antelope Valley, where they founded Llano del Rio, a utopian community that lasted until an earthquake changed the course of the river they depended on for irrigation. The book to read about Job Harriman, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times, and Llano del Rio is, of course, Lionel Rolfe’s (with Nigey Lennon and Paul Greenstein) Bread & Hyacinths (1992)

Some of the old Altruria structures remained when Marvelous and I visited there. Burke’s Sanitarium, which Charmian wrote about in her description of Jack London’s Magic Trail, was on the same parcel of land. I suppose it’s all gone now.



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