The Glen Ellen Women’s Club

Dear Sadie,

I’ve enclosed a picture of our Glen Ellen Women’s Improvement Association so you can put faces on some of the people I mention in my letters to you. You will recognize me second from right and standing, in that horrid herringbone dress with my hair (as usual) beginning to come undone. And, of course, holding the biggest piece of watermelon amongst the group. As dear Samuel’s father observed, I’ve always been a good feeder. Now that Samuel’s gone, I’m even more inclined to indulge and, as you know, I am passionate about my melon. It was all I could do to not challenge the others to a seed-spitting contest, or to wipe my chin with my herringbone sleeve.

Flora is the flirt standing next to me. Her hair looks blonde in the photograph, but it has strawberry highlights, which match the redheadedness of her nature. Look at that waistline! No hint of a babe, though hers is not yet a year old—I think she uses a winch to tighten her corset. And the tilt of her chin! I’ve told you about her divorce, which was the scandal of Glen Ellen last winter. Poor Flora still invites scandal because, despite her declarations that she is not interested in a suitor—and I believe her!—she cocks her head and smiles her smile and the eyes of men swim with desire. 

There’s also the sad fact that some of the ladies in town, those who don’t know Flora well, perpetuate that scandal. Look over her shoulder, and you see Mrs. Birchbinder. You can’t miss the pucker of her lips, which is not because her bowtie is too tight. She is the wife of poor brow-beaten Mr. Amos Birchbinder, who works in Santa Rosa as a bookkeeper. He probably can’t wait to hop onto the train each morning, simply to escape Mrs. Birchbinder’s perpetual, scowling disapproval. There’s not a proposal that comes before our improvement committee that she doesn’t dissect; I cannot imagine living in a house under that same dour scrutiny. Is that wicked of me?

Mrs. Birchbinder is also not terribly fond of Lola Walker, who is the Amazon standing behind me. Lola is my neighbor, and you’ll not believe this but . . . she’s a former performer in the circus! I kid you not! She is from the Ukraine, and her English is horrific, so I have been unable to learn much about her other than what her husband, Mr. Walker, has shared. This is what I know: Miss Lola used to ride horses under the Big Top back in her home country, and then in New York after emigrating. That’s where Mr. Walker met and married her. Mr. Walker, I might add, is quite the peacock when he is on Lola’s arm, despite being a full head shorter than she. I believe Lola is bored now, here in sleepy Glen Ellen, and has joined the women’s club to enliven days that must seem stultifying compared to circus life.

The lady to my right is Mrs. Paganini, whose husband owns and operates a vineyard just north of the Dunbar School, where I work. I also don’t know much about her—she, like Lola Walker, is an immigrant, and her English isn’t good. But she’s a prodigious breeder. There are twelve Paganini siblings, who range in age from five—little Maude, who is deaf—to Guiseppe, who is seventeen and hardly ever attends school. It’s no wonder the missus hasn’t had time to learn to speak her new home language. That she made this club meeting is something of a wonder. What’s not a wonder is that she can almost out-eat me when it comes to watermelon!

I’m going to skip now to the other side of the photo, where no doubt your eye has been drawn even as I’ve written about the others. Oh, the piercing eyes in that girlish face! And that excellent posture! Miss Ruby Stuart is the daughter of Glen Ellen’s founders, Charles and Ellen Stuart, who live in a stately home on Glen Oaks Ranch, at the foot of the forbidding Mayacamas Mountains. You can probably see from her look, Sophie, that Miss Ruby is a firebrand. She’s only able to speak truth, like it or not, and I adore her. She’s come up though the Dunbar School, and she was a voracious reader, even as she was a tomboy of the first degree. She can probably outride Mrs. Walker, and could probably outbreed Mrs. Paganini, though I suspect she’d put a stop to that before there were twelve offspring in her brood.

Now that I consider the photo, I find the other three seated in the front row quite the juxtaposition. Next to Miss Ruby sits Coraline Hill, who is the new wife of Senator William Hill, one of the wealthiest landowners here in our little town. Senator Hill’s first wife, Agnes, died in childbirth along with her babe not two years’ past, and the good senator was quick to engage Coraline. She’s a newcomer to the women’s club, and she’s a mystery to me. Look at how she sits, even as she sports the fanciest duds of us all—like a man. Now, that is truly wicked of me.

Next to Mrs. Hill sits Ellen Chauvet, wife of one of Glen Ellen’s founding fathers. I’m sure you’ve heard me speak of Joshua Chauvet, who built his fortune as a baker in the gold country, then brought his formidable skills and wealth West, here to Glen Ellen. She doesn’t often attend improvement club meetings, keeping mostly to her home, a fine Victorian across the street from her husband’s Chauvet winery. Rumor is that she tends to tipple, but I’ve not seen her in her cups myself. Does saying the thing, having not seen firsthand, make me more wicked?

The lady in the wonderful polka-dot skirt is one of my fellow school teachers, Miss Jane Parker, who teaches up at the Enterprise School. She and Maudie Guthrie of the Trinity School, wearing white and standing behind Mrs. Hill, adore coming down to attend our meetings, or church, or whatever other social event they can here in town, as their schoolhouses are tiny and secluded. Both have a tendency to talk nonstop when they come into town, even though they have nothing very interesting to say. I imagine that’s because schoolchildren in general don’t care to divulge much of interest to adults, and the Trinity and Enterprise grade schoolers, being reared in the hills, have even less to say than most.

I have circled round the photo back to Mrs. Birchbinder and Flora, or rather to the two ladies standing next to them. As you might have guessed by the similar black brimmed hat, the lady beside Mrs. Birchbinder is her sister, Evelyn Carriger. See the near smile on her face? Evelyn has an entirely different disposition, tending toward the quiet side but also toward a sly humor, often at her sister’s expense. She’s an infrequent participant in the women’s club, as she still lives down valley in her parents’ fine home on the sprawling Carriger Ranch. Her beau, however, is Baxter Serres, whose farm borders the home for the feeble-minded on the south side of town, so she comes up as often as permitted, and always under the watchful, scowling eye of her black crow chaperone.

Señora Carmelita Rodriguez takes center stage in the photograph, and rightly so. She runs what remains of the Los Guilicos ranch just north and west of town, and along with Mrs. Eliza Hood and Mrs. Ellen Stuart, has become a winemaker of some renown. The culture of winemakers, as you might imagine, is dominated by the male sex, and even moreso by the great vintners of France and Italy. But these fine ladies have won awards for both their white wines and reds, as well as their ports and brandies. Mrs. Hood and Mrs. Stuart haven’t made time to join our improvement association, but Señora Carmelita (much to Mrs. Birchbinder’s consternation) plays a leading role, and given her connections to Mexican families throughout the northern Sonoma Valley, is able to identify what we, as a social club, can provide to aid those who are have wants and needs. She is related by blood to the famous (or infamous) General Mariano Vallejo, who established the township of Sonoma down valley, but she herself is only half-Mexican, and like Mary-Ellen Pleasant before her, can pass as a white woman if she chooses. She possesses beauty and intelligence, and I admire her for the fact that she chooses to wear her Mexican heritage proudly, even as the ranchero culture has faded away.

My dearest Sadie, I hope you haven’t found my descriptions of my compatriots too catty, and also that you find it helpful to be able to put faces to the names when I mention them in letters going forward. Perhaps, one day, you’ll be able to make the trip up to Glen Ellen and meet some of these fine ladies in person! I can only hope!

Your loving sister,



A story of humility and a primer on what hikers should always carry in their packs

This was not my finest hour.

Last month, while hiking with my friend Nick, I slipped on a steep pitch of trail and folded my ankle over onto a rock. The impact fractured the base of my fibula, but I didn’t know that in the moment. All I knew was it hurt like hell and I needed to lie down.

Nick, following my lead, gave me space, then gave me a stick, then two sticks, then his arm. The thinking was if I could stand and hobble, maybe I could make it back to the trailhead without much fuss and the hike wouldn’t be a complete loss. We were five-and-a-half miles into what would have been a lovely seven-mile ramble through the backcountry of Jack London State Historic Park and the Sonoma Developmental Center, following trails we both know well. A snoop around Camp Via, a blossom hunt in the old orchard, a visit to the ancient redwood—the grandmother tree, too gnarly and difficult to be brought down, just like me.

Or not.

The fall happened on the downhill run, as we were approaching Fern Lake. All adventurers  know if something’s gonna go wrong, it goes wrong on the descent. Blink. Slip, twist, down. And down for the count.

I knew I’d probably broken something. There was a telltale crunching noise in the disasterous mix. But I’m prone to rolling my ankles, so as I lay in the dirt trying to settle my stomach, I held out hope that’s all it was—a bad roll. After a few long moments I stood up, hoping to carry on.

No go. Two sticks and Nick’s strong arm notwithstanding, when I put weight on my right foot, pain ricocheted around unhelpfully. I got clammy and queasy and had to lie down again, while Nick paced the fire road, a self-described “brilliant humorist at the height of his powers,” saying helpful, apparently hilarious things I can’t remember.

Eventually I sat back up and began rifling through my daypack for my first aid kit, looking for a painkiller. I am a hiking guidebook writer, after all. I carry all kinds of nerdy equipment no matter the length of a chosen ramble. Emergency blanket, check. Water purifying tablets, check. Buck knife, check. First aid kit … crapola.

I did have a small flask of whiskey, however—a throwback to my circumambulation on the Tahoe Rim, when we would end long days on the trail with a bone-warming tipple. If a cowboy could medicate with whiskey before the doc dug the bullet out, a shot oughta get a hiker with a bum ankle down a trail, right?

I took a swig. I stood. A blast of pain, and my stomach revolted. I threw it up.

My predicament wasn’t an emergency, I insisted to Nick, after he propped me up against a log. We’d been discussing ego earlier on the hike, and mine took firm control of the decision-making process. I am a hiking guidebook writer, after all. I’m all about self-sufficiency in the woods. We needed to figure out how to get off the mountain without summoning the National Guard — and it turned out the National Guard was a distinct possibility, since a passing mountain biker told us a unit was training on SDC that day, along with the sheriff and the fire department. A helicopter flew overhead. I sank deeper into the log.

Fortunately we were close to home, we had cell phone coverage, and together Nick and I sorted our options. Plan A involved calling the non-emergency lines at the Eldridge Fire Department and SDC police department to see if we could get someone to open a couple of gates; that way one of my sons could drive up and retrieve me. Plan B involved calling friends who own land bordering the SDC; Steve knows the web of trails better than anyone, and has a four-wheeler that could get me out easily. Plan C involved crawling and crying.

Plan A was a wash: My son ended up leaving messages that weren’t returned until several hours later, when I was being treated in the emergency room. Calling 911 would have gotten us a quicker response, but … well, hiking guidebook writer …

Fortunately, Plan B was a success. Several “where are you again?” calls were necessary, because SDC’s trails aren’t marked and must be described using language better suited to wayfinding in the nineteenth century. After clarifying our location with reference to creeks and dams, Steve and my son navigated to my rescue.

Time of fall to time of arrival back in civilization was, all in all, about two hours. We got a little cold while we waited, but both Nick and I had layers. If we’d had to wait longer, even overnight, we had food and emergency shelter and ways to purify the water Nick could have retrieved from the nearby creek. There would have been crying and crawling, but we were equipped for survival. Hiking guidebook writer, after all.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what happened on the mountain since the accident, if for no other reason than I can’t do much else. In researching Search and Rescue Alaska (where I wrote about survivors) and Death in Mount Rainier National Park (where everybody dies), a significant common denominator became crystal clear: The folks who survive bad breaks of all kinds in the wild are the ones who are prepared, and who follow bad luck with good choices. Nick and I didn’t compound a bad situation with bad decisions. We didn’t panic. We didn’t despair. We were prepared, mentally and physically, to cope. Our resilience was in the layers we carried ward off the cold, and in the good humor we shared as we waited.

I’m a solo hiker—I’ve walked most every trail in the guides I’ve written alone. I’ve had more than my fair share of uh-ohmoments; I’ve also had more than my fair share of good luck. In this instance, luck took the form of a clear-thinking companion. But I also carry luck with me, in my pack, on my back. Even without Nick, even without first aid kit, I would have been just fine.

What’s In My Pack


Hat and gloves

Lightweight jacket

Buck knife and pocketknife

Emergency blanket




Notebook and pen

Cell phone

Camera, tablet, GPS unit (if working on a guidebook)


First aid kit

Poop bags for the dog

Poop bag for myself (TP + ziplock bags to pack it out)

Water purification tablets + ultraviolet water-purification wand

Medicinal candy (Sour Patch Kids. Trust me.)

Electrolyte tablets


Flask of whiskey (optional)

Published May 1, 2021, in the Kenwood Press