There was the fire, snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame.
— To Build a Fire
How many years ago did I read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire?” The decades don’t matter; what matters is that the story stayed with me long after others faded away.
The scene of that man and his wolf-dog crossing the frozen expanse of wilderness still makes me shiver. I remember especially the dog who couldn’t understand why the man would leave a warm fire.
When I visited Jack London Park in Sonoma County in the fall, I couldn’t keep that story out of my mind. Fire. The topic of that story. The reason Jack London wanted to get away from San Francisco. The destroyer that took away the family home days before they moved in to it.
Jack London had witnessed the earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco in 1906. He wanted a house far from the devastation and found a piece of wooded, hilly land in Sonoma County. It was wilderness then, not a stretch of vineyards and wineries as we see today. The dream house he built for himself and his wife Charmian was begun in 1911 but on a summer night in 1913 it caught fire and burned.
When you go to Jack London Park, you see the land where Jack and his wife lived. The giant trees, the sun dappled hills, and the great hulking remains of their house, the 14,000-square-foot Wolf House. Jack London’s hero in “To Build a Fire” died because he couldn’t build a fire. Jack’s stone house burned down because a fire mysteriously ignited and burned away every scrap of wood in the place. He had never even had a chance to live there.
While the ruined house is a sad memory, Jack London’s wife Charmian created an astounding tribute to her husband after his death. She built The House of Happy Walls for herself on the same property — far from the ruined house. Inside are mementoes of the life they shared. It was a life of adventure. It was a life of letters.
There are copies of London’s books in a variety
of language from German to Thai. Illustrated timelines relate some of the adventures the couple embarked on. There are all kinds of mementoes from their visits around the world, London’s work as a journalist and war correspondent.
I was dismayed when I walked around the ruins of Wolf House. What’s left is an immense pile of rock, a skeleton that has chimneys and fireplaces, walls with window holes that would have framed the gorgeous valley just outside the door.
But I found Charmian’s House of Happy Walls aptly named. The rooms are sun-filled and comfortable, a place you want to come home to. Their decoration reveals a spouse who reveled in the life she had shared with her husband. I didn’t even know her name before visiting the house. There I discovered a woman who lived fearlessly and with a zest for whatever came next.
And, most of all, I was grateful for her generosity in sharing her mementoes of a life adventurously lived.
Ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman