The ego has landed on the California coast

  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.

From 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 San Simeon.

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 endures.

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.

I 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 mountain havens.

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.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and a teacher in Cortez, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL OFFICE MANAGER - BOOKKEEPER
    The Wyoming Outdoor Council is seeking an office manager-bookkeeper to join our team. The office manager-bookkeeper supports the program and administrative functions of the Wyoming...
  • HEALTHY RIVERS SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY
    WRA seeks a passionate attorney to join our Healthy Rivers team. The Senior Staff Attorney will research and advocate for wiser water management and updated...
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and will be accepted until: February 03, 2020. Overview Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) protects Idaho's environment...
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...