Jack London and Me

words + photos by Linda Ballou

 

As I trotted behind my guide along the trails that Jack London once rode, I imagined myself as one of the many friends he led on horseback rides through his 1,400-acre Beauty Ranch in the early 1900s. We galloped through stands of eucalyptus, madrona, and towering redwood trees that shaded fern-filled glens just as Jack described them in his novel The Valley of the Moon.

Delighted with each new vista I, too, felt “vitalized, organic” as I overlooked vineyards in their tidy rows stretching to the foot of the purple Sonoma Mountains. We cantered over a rise to see the lake that Jack and Charmian, his wife of eleven years, swam in on sunny afternoons. I saw myself gliding with them through the clear water then drying on a hot rock in the sun, cooled by the wisp of a breeze.

Like young Jack London, I went from California to the Northwest while in my teens. Unlike Jack, it was not my idea of a great adventure. My parents, determined to homestead in Haines, Alaska, rudely uprooted me and took me to a world populated by loggers, fishermen, and Tlingit Indians. At thirteen, I hadn’t read Jack’s White Fang or The Call of the Wild. I didn’t know I was walking in the famous author’s footsteps when I took the narrow gauge train that snakes up the Whitehorse pass into the Yukon. I had no idea it was the alternate route for the Chilkoot Trail Jack climbed carrying 150-pound pack during the Gold Rush of the 1890s.

A decade after my family’s shift to the North, Hollywood chose to use the more accessible Dalton Trail from Haines to the Klondike to re-enact the fabled climb of the stampeders up the ice steps of the Chilkoot Trail in the movie White Fang. Every able-bodied person in my hometown was hired to re-create the famous scene Jack described. Even then, while everyone in town swaggered about bragging about his or her role in the film, I still had no personal awareness of Jack London. He was simply an adventurer who captured the grit of the Northwest in children’s books.

It was not until my own personal call to adventure took me to Hawaii that I tasted the vitality of Jack’s writing. I found solace in the gentle beauty of the Islands and envied the athletic bodies of the Hawaiians and their connection with the sea and nature. While living on Kauai, I came to respect and admire their culture and began to delve into the history of old Hawai'i. It was here that the seed for my historical novel, Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawai'i, took root. In my research, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jack London’s Hawaiian stories.

Jack London made the “blue-water crossing” to the Territory of Hawaii in 1907 from San Francisco on the barely sea-worthy Snark. “The sailor on horseback” sailed for two years throughout the South Seas collecting adventures for his stories. Over a period of thirteen years he returned many times to Hawai'i, his favorite resting spot. He showed great aloha (love) for the Islands and delved deeply into the stories of the Kanaka and the myths of old Hawai'i handed down in the chants of elders. While writing my fictionalized account of the life of Ka'ahumanu, the favorite wife of Kamehameha the Great, who rose to be the most powerful woman in old Hawai'i, I read Jack’s Hawai'i stories for inspiration and insight into the minds of the ancients. I studied the techniques used by the master of engaging writing and prayed that what I absorbed would filter through my own writing. 

After roaming the globe Jack came home to his Beauty Ranch where he died at forty from uremic poisoning. After my ride, I sought out his simple gravesite surrounded by a weathered wooden fence. By this time I had read all of Jack’s major works and a couple of books written about him. I felt a spiritual connection with a man who died a century ago. It seemed he had been with me all my life, forging ahead of me, sharing his insights, giving me guidance from the grave. For me there was no time between us. The man who religiously wrote a thousand words a day had departed in silence. No one spoke at his service, as though there were no more words left to say.

Years after my visit to Beauty Ranch, I found the memory of Jack London again at the Huntington Hartford Museum in Pasadena. I was drawn to a collection of letters written in his hand. “Writing is about action, struggle, conflict and resolution,” he said. Jack spent many hours reading the work of novices, editing their pieces and giving words of encouragement. Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face as turbulent emotions rose from deep inside. Writing, often a thankless, unnoticed endeavor, had great urgency for me once more. I wanted to thank Jack London for his kindness and generosity of spirit. Though I don’t possess the fire to blast through life like a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, as Jack London did, I do strive to write consistently. I try not to be afraid to write about what is important to me and to be honest with my readers. I look to him for strength on those days when my soul cries, tired.

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Author's Note: My mission is to experience as many beautiful places on our planet as I can, before they are no more. Travel tales relating my experiences while kayaking, horseback riding, sailing, birding and hiking about the globe have appeared in numerous national magazines. I had a great deal of fun collecting travel stories, and profiles of people I have met in “naturally high places” for my newest book, Lost Angel Walkabout-One Traveler’s Tales.  For a complete bio as well as published on-line clips with photos go to my website www.LindaBallouAuthor.com.  Your reward, aside from learning about me and my work, will be to discover the secret to youth!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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