Jack English, the last of the mountain men, dies at 96

Sitting on the steps of his tool shed and work shop, Jack English, 94, tries to warm himself on a chilly morning in November 2013.

Sitting on the steps of his tool shed and work shop, Jack English, 94, tries to warm himself on a chilly morning in November 2013.

(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Jack English discovered Big Sur as a boy, hitchhiking south from his home near Santa Cruz with a backpack and .22 rifle. Eager to escape his parents and chores — this was during the Depression — he explored the broad succession of ridges and canyons lying between the coast and the Salinas Valley, the remote and pristine Ventana Wilderness.

Of all the creeks that he fished and the meadows where he gathered wildflowers, there was one destination he favored, Pine Valley, a five-mile trek from the nearest road.

Jack said that when he died, he wanted his ashes scattered there, and his son, Dennis, promised that one day he would. That day is now closer. English died March 3 at the age of 96.

The small cabin where English lived for years. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Happiness is making other people happy. It's a darn sight better than making them feel bad

— Jack English

Visitors to the valley called him the last of the mountain men, a local treasure. They admired his ability to live out his dream.

After years of camping beneath these lofty trees with Dennis and his wife Mary, he bid $11,000 for five acres here and won the deed. In the late 1970s, they proceeded to build a cabin that became a well-known waypoint for day-hikers and overnighters.

Eager to offer water from his tap or pancakes from his grill, Jack was quick to share his generosity, cheer and heartfelt aphorisms.

“Happiness,” he said, “is making other people happy. It’s a darn sight better than making them feel bad.”

Two years ago, Times photographer Barbara Davidson and I spent a weekend with Jack and Dennis in Pine Valley. The article was published in Dec. 2013.

Although hobbled by age and slowed by gout, Jack was eager to show off his homestead and, most important to him, share with readers his abiding love for Mary, his sweetheart from when they were teenagers, the prettiest girl he had ever seen.

Mary English (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Feeding his wood-burning stove or warming himself in the morning sunlight, he reminisced about their life together, seemingly unaware of the tears that filled his eyes.

Married in Reno, Jack and Mary made their life in the town of Soquel. Jack worked as a union carpenter and as a craftsman of violin bows, and they would spend their free time in Pine Valley. They built their cabin together. He hung his Charles Russell prints, and she started her garden. It was an idyllic life for them, and when she died in 2001, he was bereft.

After her funeral, he decided to live full-time in Pine Valley, and his family didn’t try to stop him. He had a tool shed there, where he could continue working, and Dennis would check in on him and bring him supplies.

After a heart attack, he began to limit his time at the cabin, and a friend, who was a helicopter pilot, would fly him in and out for long weekends. There was little that he enjoyed more than mixing up sourdough flapjacks for passers-by.

Nor was he unwilling to show visitors a little box that he kept on a shelf above his bunk. It contained Mary’s ashes, waiting for when Dennis would mix his with hers and scatter them in a meadow to the south.

 “What is life?” he once asked me and went on to answer his question.

“It's intangible,” he said. “You can have the organs — the hair, the eyesight, the hearing, the appetite — but without life, there is nothing. You tell me what it is.”

But I knew that Jack was being unnecessarily coy. His life was his love for Mary and for this valley in the wilderness that he called home.

Read more about Jack English's life and home >>  

Twitter: @tcurwen