Unearthing Alexa Wood

Out of the smoke and fire comes a butterfly.

Photos Steven Krause

Alexa Wood is not your average innkeeper, if that term even applies to the current matriarch of the historic and widely loved property known as Beltane Ranch.

Even the word “matriarch” might make her wince, but that’s kind of how the cards fell after her legendary mother, Rosemary, passed away last year at the age of 93.

And Beltane, which Alexa runs with her adult children Lauren and Alex, doesn’t fit neatly into the conventional understanding of “Bed & Breakfast.”

The ranch is a sweeping sprawl of fields and vineyards, olive groves, fruit orchards, Valley oaks, madrone and manzanita set at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains on Highway 12 just outside Glen Ellen. The historic farmhouse inn is reputed to have been a brothel—as the layout of the second-story rooms suggest—built and owned by Mary Ellen Pleasant, a 19th-century African-American abolitionist who made millions of dollars through shrewd investments in San Francisco and supported the underground railway. Her activism ended legal discrimination on San Francisco streetcars, and some historians describe her as an early version of Rosa Parks.

All that history almost disappeared in a storm of wind and flame the night of October 9 when the Nuns Fire roared into the ranch. This is how Alexa describes that night:

I guess it was around 10 in the evening, I was asleep and then I heard Lauren screaming and crashing through the front door…By the time I got outside, I could see the glow and the flames. The wind was screaming…Lauren had already called 911. Kenwood and Glen Ellen fire departments were here in an instant, as was Alex, who was in Glen Ellen, as were a couple of neighbors.

The next few minutes, Lauren’s boys were in her car, and I stuffed somebody’s cat and my old dog in there and we got the other two dogs in my car, put my car in the middle of that relatively bare field out there, because I figured they were safe. Then Ariana, who works here and is just one of those people you trust with anything, she pulled in right as the fire was taking off and said, “What can I do?” I just said, “Here.” I gave her the car with the boys and the cat and the dogs, and I didn’t see them again (that night). I just knew I’d done the right thing.

The fire was just raging. The equipment in the sheds and containers and things back there were catching. There were constant explosions—there are propane tanks all around us, also tires, fuel tanks. I don’t even know what they all were, but it was unbelievable.

I remember looking down the hill at one point, and the garden shed studio, a big chicken house right below my house, was fully involved in flames, and I thought it was my house. I remember just saying, “Well, there goes my house. What are you going to do?”

In the end, it wasn’t her house, and all the major buildings were saved through the heroic efforts of everyone involved.

There were two weeks when sometimes I couldn’t tell day from day. You’re up half the night, because you’re worried about hot spots, or something really is burning. You try and nap during the day, and you don’t know day from night. You’re sleeping in your clothes. The fire departments and our friends and neighbors get so much credit. We wouldn’t be here without them.

So given what she had just been through, and how grubby and unglamorous it is to fight fires, to fight for the life of a historic icon, we thought it would be appropriate and fun to run Alexa Wood through the Valley of the Moon magazine makeover machine.

Kindness constrains us from showing Alexa at her smoke-and-charcoal-smudged worst, but you get a rough idea from the before picture taken among the ruins left by the fire.

So we cracked the chrysalis and Alexa, it turns out, cleans up right nice. Underneath all the smoke, and grime and sleepless nights is a being of great beauty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *