Frost glistens on the meadow grass. The sun has yet to crest Church Creek Divide, and on his last day in the cabin, Jack English isn’t about to break from routine. He swings his legs out of the bunk.
“Good morning,” he says quietly to Mary. Her ashes are in a small box on the narrow shelf at the head of the bed.
She’s been gone 12 years. He takes her wherever he goes, but in this far-away valley they shared and in this home they built, he feels closest to her.
He tries to pull on his boots. The swelling in his feet from the gout has gone down, but his fingers have a hard time keeping a grip. Old age-itis, he calls it, as if being 94 is a condition in and of itself.
“Dennis, I’m getting old,” he calls out to his son. “Can you help me?”
Jack knows he has a reputation. It’s nothing he ever sought. But not too many old men would choose to live in a cabin five miles from any road — and that, a winding mountain track far removed from the nearest city, Carmel.
Visitors have called him the last of the mountain men, a local treasure, a friendly beacon in the middle of the forest.
He lived here by himself for 10 years after Mary died. But since his heart attack last December, he’s not quite been the same, and whenever he talks about returning to the cabin to live, his family says no. It would be too dangerous: One fall and that could be it.
He tries to be content with day trips and this, his second long weekend of the year. He’s grateful to a friend who helicopters him in and to his son for making it possible. But it will never be the same.
Dennis climbs out of his sleeping bag and tugs on the boots. Jack stands, his droopy jeans cinched so tightly around his narrow waist that the belt seems to almost double on itself.
He’s a little wobbly, but then he gets his momentum, plying the wood stove with scraps of paper, pine cones and pieces of kindling that he split last year with a wedge and maul. He’ll need to cut more; the stack on the front porch is shrinking, but he wonders if he has the strength. He wonders when he’ll be back.
“My old brain isn’t coagulating as well as it used to,” he says.
Jack starts whipping up the sourdough pancake dough. He cracks two eggs in the iron skillet. They hiss and sputter in the oil. A pot of water is soon boiling on a Coleman burner.
“Well, you’ll have something real quick,” he says as he shuffles between the sink and the stove, attentive to the routine he’s followed for more than 30 years.
“You like progress,” he is fond of saying. “I like to go backward.”
Raising this cabin, they used what they could from the land: stones dug from the creek for the foundation and chimney, fire-scarred pine for the walls, oak for the floor, sycamore for the cabinets. This was back in the 1970s. It took them almost five years to finish it.
He and Mary came out here whenever they could. It was their fairy-tale life in this valley sheltered by a broad succession of ridges and canyons stretching between Big Sur to the west and the Salinas Valley to the east.
After she died, Jack’s family didn’t try to talk him out of living here alone. They knew he needed to heal his memories and try and put the doctors, the hospital, the rounds of chemotherapy behind him.
So he set up here for more than a decade. He would return to Soquel — the town near Santa Cruz where he grew up and where he and Mary said goodbye — only when he needed and then for only a few days.
“I think he likes to be out here so much because this is where Mary’s spirit would be,” says Jacob, Jack’s 11-year-old grandson, who’s come along this weekend, along with an old family friend, Karin Cumming.
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