Farewell to Jack English, Who Built a Life in an American Wilderness (Story and 2 videos)

Categories: Life Stories

‘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 the book:  Cabin Porn

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,

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