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 ( 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].

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