Deer Flat Ranch

Outside the old cabin at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962.  Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

Outside the old cabin at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962. Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

[An excerpt from Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, by Dr. Mina Carson - now available from the Oregon State University Press.]

After Linus won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954, the Paulings could afford to realize a dream. They staked out a place along the rugged central California coast where they could get away from the constant demands of colleagues, children, and friends. In the 1950s Big Sur was a wild, grassy, weather-beaten area of ranches, ranger stations, and primitive living conditions, not unlike the coast of Scotland in some patches. Artists and writers had been drawn to its isolated beauty for decades. The Paulings seem to have chosen the site for its remoteness and natural beauty. Linus recalled that by 1950 they had been thinking about “a place in the country” where they could escape the clamor of their everyday lives. Five years later, on a trip up the northern California coast, they decided on a whim to drop over to Route 1, a narrow, winding coastal road of breathtaking landscapes. Linus’s attention wandered to a piece of land —”a point of land projecting into the ocean, with a cabin and barn, and with cows grazing on the grass there.” In hindsight, it was one of the magical affirmations of their good fortune as a couple. “I said to your mother ‘There’s the sort of place that we ought to have,’ and she replied ‘Yes, and there is a sign saying that it is for sale.'”

Some days later, having tracked down the owner’s whereabouts and gotten a key to the gate, the Paulings wandered the property. They took a sleeping bag and made camp on one of the cliffs. The 160-acre property was called Salmon Creek, after the adjoining creek and national forest area; the Paulings renamed it Deer Flat Ranch. The next year they bought another five-acre parcel at Piedros Blancos, complete with a Chevron station and store, which they rented out for some years, fixing the monthly rent at the amount of gas sold at the station times 2 cents per gallon. Their property was scattered over a long stretch of Highway 1, with the station twelve miles north of the ranch. The gate to the ranch, which they kept locked when they weren’t there, was about a quarter mile from the Salmon Creek ranger station.

The Paulings started visiting and developing the ranch right away, though Big Sur was a three-hundred-mile drive from Pasadena. Ava Helen loved gardening and always maintained a flower and vegetable garden at home, but a ranch was a new enterprise for the couple. They dove into the project. By January 1957 they had arranged to graze cattle on the land and had begun the licensing procedures for that enterprise. The numbers were small: in 1960 Linus wrote to Peter that they now had thirteen head on the land. The windy oceanside perspective offered a chance to hike and observe wildlife. In 1958 Linus wrote to a biologist about the sea otters he and Ava Helen had spotted along the Big Sur coast.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Karl Kenyon, May 19, 1958.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Karl Kenyon, May 19, 1958.

When the Paulings weren’t there, the ranch and cattle were overseen by a series of caretakers and caretaking arrangements, with varying satisfaction on both sides. The first was their Pasadena handyman, who mysteriously disappeared back east to his home state of Tennessee within a few months. Caretaking the caretakers generally fell to Ava Helen, who managed the long-distance relations with a combination of intimacy and matter-of-fact command that sometimes ruffled the employees’ feathers. Writing a check to the Paulings for the monthly phone bill, probably for the cabin, to settle up accounts, caretaker Michael Hall commented, “I think your charge of $4.00 for cleaning the cattle truck bed is one of your lower grade things I’ve seen you do.” In the mid-1960s the Paulings had a caretaker with a drinking problem whose friends regularly plied him with liquor and pilfered his money on payday. “Things were getting so bad that we had told him we would absolutely not allow him to stay on the property if he continued to have these people come. He says that he does not even know their names, but we are not quite sure about this.” Wishing to protect her employee, she nonetheless lost patience with his willingness to put up with his “low life,” “derelict” acquaintances.

The Paulings initially used the original cabin on the property; it was simple, with a large central room and a rear bedroom, as well as an indoor bathroom. There was running water to the main room and the bathroom, and a refrigerator. There were two single beds in the big room, and a collapsible double bed that could be maneuvered into the small rear bedroom. Larger groups could pitch tents outside the house. By the late 1950s, spending a few days each month at Deer Flat Ranch, they already viewed the ranch as a healing escape, a breathing space from their increasingly busy lives. Linus remembered his wife saying, “Do you know, we have been here for one week, you and I, without seeing a single other person. This is the first time in our 40-odd years of marriage that this has happened.” Ava Helen wrote to an associate in 1960, relative to the breathless pace of their lives in peace work, “We get a great deal of pleasure from our ranch and have now stocked it with wonderful animals so that we feel not only a very close connection with the world and its people, but with the earth itself. This is a good feeling and does a great deal to restore us both spiritually and physically.” Continuing a wistful theme of those busy years, she wrote: “We hope that we shall be able soon to spend much more of our time there.”

The Paulings at their ranch, 1964.  Photo by Arthur Herzog.

The Paulings at their ranch, 1964. Photo by Arthur Herzog.

The ranch proved an anchor in their lives together, but they did not use it solely as a retreat. Over the years friends and family visited, and from early on, trusted friends were invited to borrow the ranch when the Paulings weren’t in residence. During the summer of 1957, when Ava Helen and Linus were traveling in Europe, they loaned the house to several of Linus’s colleagues. The service station manager — Luther Williams, initially— agreed to hold the keys to the ranch house and tool shed for visitors.

When they could stay for longer periods, they made improvements on the original cabin. In 1960 Linus became engrossed with building bookshelves from birch boards and brass rods in both the bedroom and the main room. He stocked them with that intellectuals’ favorite, the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, though the scientist in him was understandably bothered by the archaic factoids (Los Angeles with a population of six thousand, for example).

But a few years later the Paulings had outgrown the old cabin and had enough money to dream larger. In 1965 they built a new house at Deer Flat Ranch and gave the cabin over to the caretaker. In 1970 part of the ranch burned in a grass fire that swept through Salmon Creek. Undiscouraged, but feeling besieged by family, the Paulings decided to build a bunkhouse on their property, “so children and grandchildren can come there without interfering too much with us,” Ava Helen wrote frankly to a friend in New York. The bunkhouse also made it possible for the Paulings to host even more friends.


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At the end of January 1960, Ava Helen experienced one of the most frightening episodes of her life. She and Linus drove up toward Big Sur on Wednesday, January 27, via Asilomar, where Linus attended a spectroscopy conference. They arrived at the ranch on Friday, probably anticipating much-needed rest from their world tour that fall. On Saturday morning, Linus left on a walk, telling Ava Helen that he would be checking the fence lines, possibly to prepare for an exploratory discussion about exchanging some of their land for land in Los Padres National Forest. When he wasn’t back by noon she began to worry; by early evening she was frightened. She left him a note saying that she didn’t know where he was and had gone to the ranger’s station for help. The ranger quickly organized a search, but halted it at 11:30 p.m. and then sent out a much larger crew in the morning. Ava Helen’s diary entry for Saturday, January 30, read tersely: “Paddy lost.”

Ava Helen's note to her husband, January 30, 1960.

Ava Helen’s note to her husband, January 30, 1960.

Linus had gotten stuck on a cliff during his walk the previous day. Rightly alarmed when he realized he could move neither forward nor back without risking a rock slide that would propel him far down onto the rocks by the sea, he sat down, sat still, and thought —about Ava Helen, about chemical bonds, about the periodic table — about anything that might keep him awake through the long night. Though his actions to stay safe were quite rational — digging a depression to stay immobilized on the ledge, moving his arms and legs, staying awake, and keeping warm — his retrospective account suggests that he was paralyzed by fear. “It seems to have been beyond my decision; I had got frightened enough so that I was unable to leave the ledge.” In the morning a crowd of searchers, and a crowd of reporters, gathered at Big Sur to continue the search. A reporter precipitously called in a story that Pauling was dead. That was the news Linda and Crellin heard.

Just before 10 a.m. Pauling spotted a lone searcher on the beach, and called out to him. The searcher in turn summoned the deputy sheriff, making his way along the cliff above the ledge. The sheriff actually joined Pauling on the ledge; one could get down to it or up to it, but not, Pauling had believed, down from it. While the searcher ran to tell Ava Helen that Linus was all right, the sheriff eased them both down from the treacherous ledge.

After Linus was found and shepherded back to the cabin on Sunday morning, Ava Helen dispatched telegrams to family to let them know that he had been saved. Then they stayed at the cabin to try to recover from the ordeal. “I found that Mama was very much upset by her long wait,” Linus later wrote to the children, “and the uncertainty as to what had happened to me.” That was putting it mildly. But Linus had little reserve to offer Ava Helen; he himself, without yet knowing it, was in shock. Ultimately he would have to retreat from his university appointments the next week and take to his bed. News of the crisis had gone out over the wires and appeared in newspapers around the world. Perhaps for his children, perhaps for his parents, perhaps to allay his own shock, Crellin had already written a detailed account of his own perspective on his father’s accident, including having been told that Linus was dead. Pauling made amends as best he could to his wife and his family. “I am very sorry that I caused you and Mama so much anguish and concern,” he closed his long account to his children of the horrific night at Big Sur.

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Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.

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