If you ever want to see the epitome of what we in the West call a "starter castle," I recommend you visit close to the real thing, the Hearst estate on the California coast. This once-upon-a-time bastion of privilege conquered by the California State Park system sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Close to a million people bought tour tickets last year, and I confess that I was one of them -- twice.
this same bluff where I stared down at the ocean this past summer,
the young William Randolph Hearst romanticized his childhood after
numerous camping trips with his family. Though Hearst lived a
majority of each year in New York City where he eventually directed
his huge newspaper empire, and though he traveled extensively
during his 88 years, Hearst remained devoted to his family bluff at
Like so many people with disposable incomes
inspired by some element of lofty elegance in the natural world, he
transformed a perfectly noble promontory into a flagship to his
ego. In other words, he reduced what he loved into one more mansion
with a good view.
I mention this not because I have any
vendetta against the Hearst family, but rather, because too often
when I glance up from the highway toward one of our local majestic
vistas, my view is truncated by a home perched on the skyline like
a pseudo-Hearst castle. Hearst has been dead for over half a
century, but his legacy of insecurity and conspicuous consumption
I would be less than honest if I didn't admit
that the allure of a prominent vista has plagued me since I was a
child, drawing me to the edges of high things where I could feel
the exhilaration of the earth rushing up to meet me while my mother
would clutch at her heart, praying I wouldn't -- with my rather
clumsy gait -- trip and rush down to meet the hard dirt. Maybe it's
the same instinct that accounts for a mountain goat staging its
life high in the Rockies, or those big birds that pirouette so
close to the sun on extended wings. I mean, I can sympathize with
the impulse to soar from any summit, to capture in your heart for a
few moments a breathtaking view. It's another thing entirely to
carve a half-mile driveway to that summit while dragging a
half-million dollars of construction expenses behind you.
On the walk-through of Hearst Castle we had the chance to ogle half
a dozen priceless tapestries, along with other booty purchased by
Hearst and shipped to America. At one point, a member of our tour
snapped a photo with his forbidden "flash" option turned on. The
guide curtly responded with a warning, and we moved along in
single-file, keeping our hands to ourselves while our eyes scurried
like mice across the floor and up the walls. At the end of our
guided maze we were loaded back into a cage with wheels, and we
descended to those heights more often reserved for mere mortals.
I started worrying after returning home from California,
because vistas are what the West is all about. If it weren't for
declared wilderness and acres of publicly owned land, the
mini-castle movement could potentially buy up every inspirational
panorama under the self-serving philosophy that if a mountain
exists and nobody has built a house near the top of it, then it's
impossible to hear anyone sigh.
I know at first that
sounds ridiculous, but California residents are already battling in
court to establish public-ocean access where private homeowners
have built a wall of mansions between the land and the beaches.
Let's not forget, though we think of our lives here in
the West as high and dry, that a tide of human flesh is forever
rising, lapping closer and closer at our foothills.
should warn all those people out there with their homes teetering
on the pinnacle of reason that one day as I'm driving along, I just
might be stopping. They needn't worry that I'll be admonishing
anyone for claiming the skyline as his or her own property, and I
won't be monkey- wrenching any delicate artery that keeps
electricity, water, telephone or Direct TV pulsing into their
No, the knock on the door will be a
timid one, coming from a man who just wants to look around, to take
the 50-cent tour, to see first-hand how close to the edge we need
to get to see the difference between awesome and awful.