Our area lacks writer's shrines. In Tacoma, there's a Murray Morgan Bridge, and in Seattle there's a short right of way named August Wilson Way — not a real street, but an honorary sign for the famous Seattle Center playwright. Poet Denise Levertov has a unique headstone up at Lake View Cemetery, but the real pilgrimage places are Bruce and Brandon Lee's graves and Kurt Cobain's Viretta Park bench.
There's Hugo House, but its brilliant namesake poet didn't live there. Where's the Theodore Roethke Historic Park? We readily name streets for sports figures (Edgar Martinez, Dave Niehaus, Royal Brougham), but Seattle is a far cry from San Francisco, where streets and alleys are named for the likes of Jack Kerouac and Dashiell Hammett. I'd love to see signs for streets and ways named for Emmett Watson, Octavia Butler, Mary McCarthy, Frank Herbert, Walt Crowley, Nard Jones, Betty MacDonald, Morgan, and Roethke.
On recent trips to California, I found myself in a pleasure garden of writer's shrines, and had not the time to visit them all. I had to pass on the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, and missed Robinson Jeffers' Tor House near Carmel, to name a couple. But I did get to wander the old farm landscape at Jack London's Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon. I saw John Steinbeck's famous camper lovingly cared for in a museum in Salinas. I toured the gloriously kitschy John Steinbeck Wax Museum in Monterey which, I have to say, was more entertaining than the real Steinbeck Museum. Where else would you meet face to face an audio animatronic Steinbeck, who was just a little more lively than Sylvester the Mummy?
Perhaps this is stretching it a bit, but one of the most amazing shrines to the written word is the Hearst Castle in San Simeon — the real-life Xanadu of Citizen Kane, known in real life as William Randolph Hearst. Granted, Hearst was a powerful, sometimes monstrous press baron, but it's hard not to be impressed by the megalomania that was fattened by the written word, and the empire those words built. His castle sits on a mountaintop facing the sea. The main house is a replica of a church surrounded by palm trees, pools, genuine Roman ruins and Egyptian artifacts, the sale of any of which could probably solve California's budget woes. Hearst was a millionaire hoarder who accumulated stuff with an auction catalog and a bottomless check book.
When one considers that Bill Gates could arguably be the closest Seattle has to a digital-age Hearst, it's hard not to compare the two moguls. Gates' new foundation headquarters are austere, compact, and serious; his home in Medina mostly hidden and underground. Hearst's fantasy, spread on the gorgeous California coast, is a power-mad paradise and a popular tourist destination and protects miles of precious coastline. The Mediterranean sensibility combined with Mad Ludwig syndrome gives more pleasure years hence than Gates' earnest Scandinavian-style sincerity. It also belongs to the public as a California State Park, to be preserved for evermore through the pocketbooks of tourists, many of whom come in hope of spotting the offspring of one of Hearst's wandering zebras.
Timothy Egan, an author, good friend, and a man who should one day get his own named boulevard in Seattle, wrote recently about the possible shuttering of the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen due to California budget cuts. That would be tragic, not only because it's an incredible place that illuminates London's career as no other, but it's also a magnificent piece of land.
London, who during his short, extraordinary life was incredibly prolific, tried to create the perfect farm. He employed sustainable techniques that are now in vogue, but in the early 20th century were almost unheard of. He terraced the hillsides, preserved land, adopted ancient and innovative agricultural methods. As you wander the trails of Beauty Ranch, you see vineyards, London's homes, various farm structures, and the tools London and his ranch hands used to bring the farm to life. In this era of eating local and caring for the land, it's revealed to have been amazingly ahead of its time. London might have written the Call of the Wild, but he could also easily have written Call of the Organic Gardener.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!