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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Stuck on a Cliff

New York Herald Tribune, February 1, 1960

New York Herald Tribune, February 1, 1960

On the morning of January 30, 1960, Linus Pauling told his wife Ava Helen that he would be out checking the fence lines along the boundaries of their ranch near Big Sur, California. A little before 10:00AM, Ava Helen watched as Linus walked towards the coast south of their cabin but did not notice – as Pauling mistakenly believed she had – as he veered away from the fence line and toward Salmon Cone, a small mountain in the Santa Lucia chain near the Pauling home. Linus was dressed comfortably, wearing slacks, a light jacket, and his characteristic beret. He and Ava Helen had planned to meet for lunch and thought that a friend would perhaps stop by around noon, both expecting Pauling to be back by that time.

For several years Pauling had been interested in finding the mouth of nearby Salmon Creek. He got the idea that the mouth was around China Camp area instead of Salmon Cone, and climbed several ledges that allowed him to walk east to investigate his theory. After a time he found and followed a deer path up several hundred more feet. The deer trail came to an end, but Pauling thought that he saw a spot twenty or thirty feet above him where the path picked up again and began trying to make his way to it over loose rocks. Unable to move east as he had hoped, Pauling was unable to retrace his steps back down or go further up the slope safely. A sickening realization washed over him – he was stuck.

A map included with the Herald Tribune article.

A map included with the Herald Tribune article.

The ledge on which he was perched was about three feet by six feet. Loose rocks, leaves, and sticks covered the ledge; behind him was a sheer rock face. Pauling sat on the ledge for several hours thinking that Ava Helen would walk along the beach and see him stranded on the ledge but, as afternoon moved into evening, came to realize that he might have to stay the entire night perched on the little cliff. Having reached this conclusion, he began to dig a little hole with his walking stick in which he could sit. He dug until he had made the hole two feet by three feet and about a foot deep. He then used the extra dirt to create an eighteen-inch mound around the hole. His resting area completed, Pauling intently pondered a route off the ledge, only to become too frightened to continue on his own. Soon it was dark.

Pauling did not want to fall asleep during his long night on the cliff because, for one, he was afraid he would not hear the calls of searchers. More importantly, Pauling was very concerned that, in the midst of sleep, he might roll off of the precipice and into the crashing ocean below. In order to remain awake, Pauling engaged in a variety of mental tasks. For a while he lectured to the waves about the nature of the chemical bond. He also listed the various properties of the elements of the periodic table. As the night dragged on, Pauling counted as high as he was able in as many languages as he could – German, Italian, French and eventually English. He even used his walking stick to try to tell time based on the positions of the constellations. In an effort to stay warm as well as awake, Pauling tried to move one limb or another at all times.

Moving his arms and legs was only part of Pauling’s process of keeping warm on this January night. Earlier in the evening, having decided that it would be necessary and prudent to remain on the cliff in the small hole that he had dug, Pauling began pulling up some of the bushes that were located near his little ledge. He broke them up into smaller pieces and placed them on the damp bottom of the hole. He then laid some of the intact branches over himself. He was not happy with the results, however, as he had to constantly pull out small leaves and twigs from inside his clothes – eventually he just broke the bushes into twigs, which he used as both mattress and blanket. Still wishing to be a bit warmer, Pauling unfolded the map that he had brought with him and laid it over himself. He later told his family that the map helped immensely although, luckily, it was not as cold a night as could have been the case.

Notes by Ava Helen Pauling. January 30, 1960.

Notes by Ava Helen Pauling. January 30, 1960.

As Linus was settling in for the night, Ava Helen had sprung into action to find him. When he missed their lunch date, Ava Helen had assumed that he had simply lost track of time and did not worry too much. But when 4:15 PM rolled around and there was still no sign of her husband, she went to the nearby ranger station for help and to call her son-in-law Barclay Kamb. As it turned out, a ranger came close to Pauling’s ledge near Salmon Cone but Pauling was unable to attract his attention and the ranger moved on to search other areas. At 11:30PM, a deputy sheriff from Monterrey called off the search for the night. The weather conditions were not conducive to a search – intermittent clouds and fog enshrouded the area from early evening until well-after Pauling had been rescued.

Undeterred, Barclay Kamb reached the ranch around 2:30AM and began searching for an hour and a half in the direction that Ava Helen had last seen Pauling…the wrong direction. At 6:00AM, he began searching in the same area again. Just before 10:00AM, Pauling finally heard another one of the searchers – a man named Terry Currence who was walking along the beach below the ledge. Pauling called to him and Currence scrambled in Pauling’s direction. Terry then called to the deputy sheriff, who maneuvered to a spot a little ways above Pauling. Currence was sent by the deputy sheriff to tell Ava Helen that Pauling had been found alive and well, and to send some rope back. While waiting for the rope, Pauling and the sheriff made their way off of the cliff using one of the paths that Pauling had been afraid to follow unassisted.

New York Times, February 1, 1960.

New York Times, February 1, 1960.

Pauling was in good spirits as he was led back to his cabin, even joking with the rescue team. Upon returning home, Pauling had lunch and some coffee. Ava Helen shooed-away the reporters who had assembled and thanked everyone who had helped to find her husband. The two packed up their car and the following day drove back to Pasadena. On Tuesday, Pauling went to his Caltech laboratory to give a lecture. When he reached his office, he walked past the small party that his office had put together to welcome his return and went into his office without saying a word. He locked his office and shoved a note under the door requesting that his day be cleared. His staff was unsure of what to do so they called in Barclay Kamb. Barclay came to Pauling’s office and drove him home.

Once home, Ava Helen put him to bed and called the doctor. Pauling had gone into mild shock and was told to rest in bed for several days. He was likewise afflicted with a severe case of poison oak, an unfortunate side effect of his bedding on the ledge. Pauling remained in bed and barely spoke; he cried at the sight of his grandchildren when Linda brought them over for a visit. The emotional and physical exhaustion that he suffered from his night on the cliff forced Pauling to take a much-needed rest and to finally let out some of the emotions that he had been bottling up for so many years of relentless work as a scientist and activist. The trauma was relatively short-lived though, and two weeks later he was not only talking and responding to letters but also honoring speaking engagements again.

The media response to Pauling’s plight on the cliff was swift and rampant. By 9:30AM on Sunday, news of Pauling’s disappearance had spread across the radio, and a half hour later, at 10:00AM, an overzealous reporter told San Francisco Bay area residents that Linus Pauling was dead. Two of Linus’s children, Linda and Crellin, were informed of the radio broadcast and for an hour were unable to discern otherwise – they thought their father was dead. After Pauling was found, news reports of the past weekend’s events were spread around the world, from Oregon to Massachusetts, India to Australia. Over the coming month Pauling received well wishes from colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers who had heard of his ordeal. One such telegram read as follows:

Dear Dr. Pauling, Will you be so kind as to stay off precipitous cliffs until the question of disarmament and atomic testing is finished? A needy citizen. [Signed] Marlon Brando.

For more on the life and times of Dr. Pauling, see the Linus Pauling Online portal.