Farewell to Jack English, A True Craftsman Who Built a Good Life in the Wilderness

‘Ventana Jack’ was a remarkable carpenter, father, husband, hunter, and fisherman who thrived in the backwoods of California. We honor his passing by publishing here this story from our book.

Located on a 5-acre plot of private land in the middle of a national forest, this cabin is only accessible by hiking a 6-mile footpath.

In September 1976, Jack and Mary English were hunting with their 14 year-old son Dennis in the woods behind Big Sur, California. A 260-square-mile section of national forest with rugged peaks, hidden valleys, and hot springs, the Ventana Wilderness is located in a region known for having California’s largest density of mountain lion, and abundant wild hogs, turkeys and deer. While Jack and Dennis were off tracking a deer, Mary encountered a small group of 20-something hikers who were holding a map and looking around curiously. They said they’d read a classified ad in the local newspaper: someone was auctioning off a 5-acre plot somewhere in the middle of this national forest in a place called Pine Valley. The hikers had found the right spot. Later, after they’d left and Jack and Dennis returned, Mary relayed the news. “Somebody is gonna get this land,” she said, “It’s gonna be us.”

Since 1930, when Jack was eleven, he had been frequenting Pine Valley to hike, camp, hunt and fish for rainbow trout. His family lived on a farm about 50 miles north, as the crow flies. Surrounded by a forest of ponderosa pine, Pine Valley is only accessible on foot or on horseback via a pair of dusty trails that descend and meander 6 miles through the rocky Santa Lucia Mountains. Around 1880, after the passage of the Homestead Act, settlers began staking claims on 160 acres in and around Pine Valley. Over the years, families continued trading back their undeveloped parcels to the Forest Service. Jack had come to know one 15-acre plot well. It was situated right along a stream, near a sunny pasture, below a massive sandstone formation that glows in the moonlight. There were dilapidated remains of an old cabin, but no one had lived there in years. So in 1936, when Jack was seventeen, he contacted the owner. She wouldn’t take less than $1,000 per acre (For all 15 acres, that translates to roughly $257,000 today). Oh, well, Jack figured.

Jack English began building his off-grid cabin in the Ventana Wilderness in 1976.

After serving in WWII, Jack returned home and found work as a carpenter. He met and married Mary, a feisty pig farmer’s daughter who was a descendent of Abraham Lincoln. “She was a cute one,” Jack recalls. “Five-foot two, 105 pounds, and never varied much.” He nicknamed her “Scrumptious.” Together, the couple traveled to the backwoods of Alaska and Canada on hunting trips. Jack built them a house in Soquel, a two-hour drive from Pine Valley. Jack and Mary made the trek frequently. When Dennis was 6 months old, they brought along their son. By the time he was a teenager, the family had spent countless days on the trails and nights camping. So in 1976, when the opportunity presented itself for Jack and Mary to claim a small piece of Pine Valley, they didn’t hesitate.

After dressing and packing up the deer Jack had shot, the family hiked 6 miles back to their 1966 forest-green Volkswagen Beatle and drove back into town. They picked up the local paper and found the ad. Sometime after 1936, when Jack had tried to buy that 15-acre plot, the land had been whittled down to 5 acres. The owner had recently died, and the family was liquidating assets. At the auction, there were four bidders. Jack and his brother, Phil, offered $11,000 — more than three times the next closest bid.

A month later, Jack set out to build his family a proper cabin on his new acreage. Phil couldn’t understand why his brother wouldn’t settle for a campsite with tents. The land was 6 miles from anywhere where you could park a truck. All the lumber would need to be gathered and milled on site, which meant hauling in all the tools, equipment and other materials by horseback and backpack. Jack picked out a site right below the sandstone formation. Phil warned him their cabin would eventually be pummeled with boulders. The brothers argued. Jack couldn’t be dissuaded. He sat down and drafted a standard house plan for a rustic colonial-style cabin with one big room and a tiny bathroom.

Lumber was cut and milled on site. All of the tools were packed in, hand carried, or carted by wheelbarrow.

In October 1976, Jack and Dennis began transporting supplies into Pine Valley. They set up a big, WWI-era canvas tent with sleeping bags and pads, and lanterns and flashlights, and not much else. The water source was a natural spring by a creek 300 yards away. Food was packed in and cooked by campfire. They’d catch fish and occasionally hunt deer.

On Fridays after work, Jack would load up his pickup and drive with Dennis to the nearest campground parking lot, arriving by 830 p.m. They would start hiking and would get to Pine Valley around 1030 p.m. Each trip was meticulously planned out so they could avoid hiking back and forth more than once. With a handmade sifter he’d fashioned out of a redwood frame and wire screen, Jack started creating two separate piles of gravel and sand by the creek. Gradually, they hand-carried the sand and gravel in five-gallon buckets back to their site.

Whenever Jack came across a larger stone he liked the look of, he’d grab it and put it on a pile by their tent. On the trail, if he spotted a handsome stone, he’d toss it into his pack and bring it to Pine Valley.

When he was a teenager, Dennis English helped his father build the small cabin on the valley floor below.

Each weekend, father and son packed in more tools and materials: Jack carried a 25-pound Alaskan chainsaw mill on his back, while Dennis carried the mill’s two 22-pound Husqvarna powerheads in one trip. When something was too big or cumbersome to carry or strap onto their backs, such as a gas-powered generator, they used a wheelbarrow or a makeshift cart. Over the course of many trips, Jack and Dennis hand-carried several hundred feet of 1/2-inch-thick rebar in bundles that weighed 80 pounds each. They’d wrap each end of a 12-foot-long bundle in foam, then each of them would shoulder an end and head out onto the trail. “It bounced and would beat you up,” recalls Dennis, who was a lanky teenager, “Your shoulder started aching pretty soon, and then you’d switch to the other shoulder and go back and forth.” At the site, as piles of rebar grew, so did bucketloads of sand and gravel. “I knew all the heavy work was making me stronger,” says Dennis.

In 1976, Jack and Dennis felled mature ponderosa pine trees that were newly dead or dying from infestations of pine beetle. The following spring, they milled the lumber. To dry the wood, they built racks using rebar, and piled up the boards with sticks in between each one to ensure air could pass between them. While they waited for the lumber to dry, they continued multitasking. Jack’s collection of eye-catching stones continued to grow.

Once they’d collected enough gravel and sand, Jack and Dennis began to haul in a substantial supply of Portland cement. One one occasion, they led a train of at least ten mules and horses, each carrying two bags of cement. Jack used the cement to hand-mix his own mortar. He cast the cabin’s foundation wall and footing for the fireplace in solid concrete and rebar. The foundation was finished in the spring of 1977. That summer, they finished the framing, outside sheeting and siding, and roofing.

The wisteria plant growing across the front porch was planted in the 1990s. The flowers bloomed for the first time in the spring of 2013.

For the next three years, the family spent most of their weekends in Pine Valley. Mary planted a garden with grapes, blackberries, raspberries, and various fruit trees. Jack labored on the cabin’s interior. Once, when he stumbled across a felled black oak tree a quarter mile away from the cabin, Jack convinced Phil to help him lug the mill over to the tree. Jack knew the wood would be both beautiful and durable, so he used it for the floorboards. One larger piece became the fireplace mantle. To do away with the chainsaw marks on the wood, Jack resurfaced the wood using a broadaxe and adze. The technique involves first striking the beam with the axe to create a series of parallel crosscuts on the surface. Next, the adze is used to smooth out those cuts. The mantle took Jack two or three hours to finish. He used that same technique on the ceiling beams, which took even longer.

After the four bunks were built and the kitchen was set up and the windows were in place, Jack began the stonework on the chimney, foundation, and fireplace. He would work a little bit at a time. By then he’d gathered stones from riverbeds and trails all over the valley.

The stonework was purely cosmetic. But it helped give the cabin a detailed level of craftsmanship deserving of the area’s natural beauty. Over the years, the five-acre plot had become Jack’s favorite spot in the entire valley. He placed the final stone in 1980.

The exterior boards were never planed, so the patterned cuts from the chain saw blade are still visible.

That same year, Jack and Mary began extending their stays out at the cabin. Sometimes they’d hike in and spend up to a month at a time, just the two of them. Having retired, Jack had no obligation to be elsewhere. He took up crafting bows for violins, cellos, violas, and basses. Out in the woods, time seemed to stand still. Ever since the 1950s, Jack had grown increasingly disenchanted with modern society. With the rise of commercialism, people were turning away from farming and building and making things. He believed that products were getting cheaper in quality.

The wood-burning stove was helicoptered to the cabin for $250.

“I don’t care for progress. I’d rather go back. My wife was the same way,” Jack says, “When I lost her, it’s not been the same since.”

In 2001, Mary died at the age of seventy-eight. Soon after, Jack moved to the cabin and began to live there almost all the time. Their home in Soquel reminded him too much of Mary. He couldn’t stand to be anywhere outside Pine Valley. He’d hike in alone and stay for a month, then head back into town to gather supplies, pay his bills, and visit Dennis and the grandkids. Jack kept Mary’s ashes in a small cardboard box. He carried her with him. “He didn’t want an urn of any kind,” Dennis says , “Because it would just be too heavy to be packing everywhere.”

A portrait of Jack English’s wife Mary, who was nicknamed Scrumptious, sits on a mantel cut from black oak. The mantel’s hand-hewn finish was achieved by scoring the wood with a broadaxe, then smoothing those cuts with an adze.

Around this time, Jack became a local legend among hikers and backpackers. Although there are two fences near the property, Jack always left the gate open. He welcomed all visitors. On one Thanksgiving, a camper caught in a rainstorm took shelter with Jack in his cabin. Jack fed the man and kept him warm. For the next eight years, the man returned to Pine Valley every Thanksgiving to hand-deliver Jack’s dinner.

As the years passed, Jack remained physically strong, but he started to develop arrhythmia. So Dennis began accompanying his father whenever he’d hike in or out of Pine Valley. The last time Jack hiked the trail was in 2012, the days before his ninety-third birthday. He made the hike in three hours and fifteen minutes, which is still faster than most novice backpackers.

The trailhead to the cabin begins at the bottom of a meandering dirt road.
Jack English completed the five-hour hike the day before his ninety-third birthday.

Months later, Jack suffered a heart attack. Once he was released from the hospital, Dennis made the decision for Jack to move into his home in Soquel. But every month, Dennis makes arrangements for his father to visit the cabin in Pine Valley. A local helicopter pilot volunteers to fly Jack roughly 20 minutes from a nearby airport to his cabin so he can stay over for a couple nights. Dennis, now fifty-three, set up a makeshift heliport in a meadow less than 100 yards behind the cabin.

A local helicopter pilot volunteers to drop off Jack English near his cabin whenever he asks.

In May 2014, after his helicopter landed, Jack walked slowly toward the cabin he built four decades ago, on the land he first explored eight decades ago. He sat down behind the cabin, near the workshop where he had handcrafted dozens of violin bows. “It’s a good place to die,” ninety-four-year-old Jack said, exhaling, “I think my days are about done. But I’ve had a good life. I can’t complain.” He took a moment to look around the land, before heading inside. Around the cabin, not much has changed. In 2011, a few sandstone boulders had tumbled down a hillside a five-minute walk from the cabin. As of 2014, not one boulder had touched the cabin that Jack and Dennis built.

All photos by Noah Kalina.

From the book Cabin Porn.

Published in honor of Jack English (June 30,1919–March 3, 2016).

photo taken in September 2016 (via Crystal English)

UPDATE 9/29/2016: Each year, wildfires devastate California, threatening the lives and homes of thousands of people. For many years, firefighters have helped protect Jack English’s cabin. This year, the Soberanes Fire came dangerously close. Burning since July 22, the fire has consumed 120,000+ acres. As of this writing, it is still ravaging the woods near Big Sur. — SL