Just 47 miles north of San Francisco, a country road winds through the small town of Glen Ellen, where a sign directs you to Jack London State Historic Park.
Bob Ruether is a docent at the park. He guides me along trails lined with ancient manzanita trees, where everything is still. It’s like walking through a painting. The air is damp from an early morning rain. Down a hill a group of teenage boys from a halfway house pull out sandwiches and sit at a bench with their teacher.
Reuther identifies plant life along the way. “Do you see this bush here?,” he asks. “Did you ever hear of bay leaf? That’s California Bay Laurel.”
A canopy of trees lead to a stone house where rattlesnakes sometimes lay on warm rocks. These snakes aren’t a big concern – there’s only been a couple of snake bites in the past 30 years. The bigger problem is how the park is going to maintain a 1,400-acre property in the midst of major budget cuts.
“That’s one of the things I can’t understand is why we are closing things that release peoples negativity,” says Reuther. “In this particular environment, this environment when people have a lot of economic problems… I mean you walk through a park and your problems go away.”
This place means a lot for Ruether, a retired public defense attorney who found himself with a crisis of purpose without full time work. “All of the sudden there is nothing to do. It’s a very good accelerant for depression. But coming and volunteering for instance at the state parks, really gives you an outlet to use your talents and you feel like you’re still contributing to society and you’re doing something,” he explains.
More than 200 other volunteers share his perspective, yet Jack London was one of 70 parks initially slated to close next week. It was spared because of a new law that allows qualified non-profits to operate parks for up to five years, or until the state’s finances improve. A non-profit organization called The Valley Of The Moon Natural History Association took over at Jack London, raising funds and overseeing the parks operations.
Today, volunteers patrol the grounds, and they will until the park can afford a full-time ranger, which will cost $45,000 per year.
Reuther shows me the house where Jack London lived. We’re coming up to the house complex where Jack lived and there are fig trees where jack planted. “You see that big tree in front of you?” he asks me. “It’s a live oak tree about 200 years old.”
We walk Inside the House of Happy Walls and look at an exhibit that tells the story of Jack London’s life. “As a child he was a hobo, traveled on the railroads, he was an able-bodied seamen, he was an oyster pirate,” Reuther explains. “I mean it goes on and on and on what he did.”
Mementos from London’s life are everywhere. “He had about 8,000 books,” Reuther says, and slept on the porch. “His wife had insomnia,” Reuther explains, “so he didn’t sleep with his wife.”
Upstairs in the house, a volunteer practices piano on a Steinway piano. Concerts in the hall are actually one of the ways the park is trying to raise revenue, along with increasing the entrance fee from $8 to $10, cutting back on operating hours, hosting weddings, and searching for more private funding.
“A lot of people can’t afford to employ a therapist, but they can spend a little money to get into a park,” says Reuther.
The concern is for how long. The Governor has proposed a budget of $110 million for state parks – $22 million less than last year’s budget. While some parks, like Jack London, will stay open because of funding from private organizations, it’s not a sustainable arrangement.