Fall arrived early in 2009 on the East Coast, bringing with it bright blue skies punctuated with soaring bleachwhite clouds. Each day dawned bright and clear, with cool dew kissing the leaf tips, gradually giving way to warm dry afternoons bathed in the squinty bright light of autumn that sharpened rock edges and deepened tree bark shadows. This seemed to be the most beautiful fall in my memory, a worthy canvas for the experience that was to shortly unfold upon it.
Weeks of planning and anticipation finally gave way to the day I was to depart for my trip across our country to visit the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara, California. A sardine-can flight complete with the proverbial crying baby and air-sick passenger did not deter my anticipation.
I had visited Santa Barbara in the 70s and wondered if it would be much changed many decades later. Back then, even after driving down the spectacular cliff-clinging Pacific coastal highway from San Francisco, visiting quaint Carmel, touring the spectacular Hearst Castle, and marveling at the huge wild surf of raw and rocky Big Sur dotted with sea lions and sea otters, nothing could have prepared me for the amazing sight of Santa Barbara. The one thought that punctuated my memory of a visit flooded with spectacular images those many decades ago was the incredulous thought, “People live here!”. Would I feel the same after this visit?
And now, as we checked into our hotel and took a walk to stretch our legs, I could readily see that time had not changed the very special beauty and unique charm of this California coastal town.
Nestled on a narrow strip of flat land between a wide white sand harbor beach surrounded by the sharply rising Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara’s ninety thousand residents enjoy a colorful lifestyle bathed in year-round clear, warm, sun-filled days with moderate temperatures. A bird’s eye view reveals a town where nearly every building, none more than 3 or 4 stories high, is faced with bright white stucco detailed with black wrought iron embellishments and customized architectural detailing, and topped with Spanish-style terra cotta roofs. Windows laden with flower-filled boxes sport colorful shutters, and doorways feature an array of unique door designs. Impeccably kept city parks and and shop-lined streets feature multi-colored tiled fountains, slender palm trees and flowering lantana, bird-of-paradise and bougainvillea. The wide harbor beach ringed with soaring palm trees and white sand shares a working wharf where you can watch fishermen return at the end of the day with pots and nets of abalone and sea urchins alongside five star pier restaurants in a marina filled with world-class yachts and sailing ships. In the evening, as the sun settles lazily behind the mountains at one end of the harbor while the moon rises from the opposing peaks at the other side of the harbor, seals find nightly refuge on bobbing harbor buoys, while cormorants and large pelicans rest in tight-knit groups on unmanned vessels moored at the piers. They do not call Santa Barbara the American Riviera for nothing.
The Reagan Ranch. Also known as the Western White House during President Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the ranch’s 688 rolling acres of rocky ridges, open meadows and tree filled vales spread across the high elevations of the Santa Ynez Range above Santa Barbara and proclaim breathtaking views of dusty brown mountains and the vast dark blue Pacific Ocean. This is Rancho del Cielo, ‘Ranch in the Sky’, where the President went with Nancy to ride his beloved 17.5 hand stallion, El Alamein, and, in his own words, ‘renew his spirit’.
For nearly twenty-five years the Reagans worked and rode in this rustic wilderness, and continued to visit the ranch as “the Western White House” during his two terms as president. Much of the ranch was accessible only by horseback, and seven miles of trails afforded the President and his wife many hours of varied rides. After he became president, numbered rocks (actually hollow cement ‘boulders’ that housed two-way electronic communications equipment) were placed along the trails so the secret service could keep tabs on “Rawhide”, the President’s code name. Except when the weather was very bad, and contrary to what her critics wrote about her, Nancy rode with Ron at the ranch.
Later, when he was President and it was necessary that his personal bodyguard ride next to him, Nancy continued to ride along behind them with the rest of the secret service detail. That is why you do not see her in ranch photographs taken of the President’s ranch rides during his Presidency. Of interesting note to fellow horsemen, and unlike what many would think, the President rode English saddle on his beloved feisty (others would call him ‘ornery’) Arabian stallion, El Alamein, while Nancy rode with Western tack on a more temperate quarter horse.
When they purchased the 688 acre ranch in 1974, one of the features of the property that appealed to the Reagans, who were becoming more famous as he climbed the political ladder, was it’s remoteness and difficult access. The drive up to the ranch features a seven mile long ascent, the last three harrowing miles’ narrow and sharp one-way switchbacks breaking onto breathtaking mountain vistas amid deeply scarred peaks and plunging valleys set against a backdrop of the endless Pacific ocean. Situated three thousand feet above the Santa Barbara coastline the ranch house is cradled on softly rolling pastureland surrounded by miles of forested rugged riding trails atop the Santa Ynez mountains.
Reagan did most of the planning and work on his ‘ranch in the sky’ with his own hands. He built and repaired fence lines, maintained riding trails, cut down trees and even laid the stone patio outside the front door. A visitor asked if his work bench area, which was really just a wall filled with wooden shelves that he had built himself along one wall of the simple garage, was truly as neat as when he lived there as it was now. We were informed that indeed it was, that Reagan was known for his neatness and sense of order. I could not help but notice myself that this apparently resourceful and thrifty President’s nails and screws were neatly lined up within glass jars that were unmistakeably identifiable as Skippy Peanut Butter jars. I had known already that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were the President’s favorite lunch (as well as ‘mac n’ cheese’ being his favorite dinner). It made perfect sense to me that this conservative President would find a way to ‘conserve’ and ‘recycle’ perfectly good, still useful peanut butter jars.
The ranch’s original adobe two room house was built in 1872. When he took ownership Ronald Reagan immediately set to adding an ell-shaped addition in order to create a cozy living/dining area. The one-bedroom house, less than 1500 square feet and modestly decorated, is a testament to the Reagan’s simple values and lack of pretense.
Except for simple runners placed in a few strategic areas (and a few items like the ‘tax cut’ table where President Reagan signed the largest tax cut in American history that are now on view at the Reagan Ranch Center), the ranch house and it’s casual furnishings have been left exactly as the Reagan’s had them. There are no signs telling you not to touch. No one does. There are no roped off areas. No one strays. We were asked only to not take photographs of the inside of the house. No one did.
One feeling prevailed throughout our tour of this warm and simple home; as I passed from one room to the next I had the keen sensation that the Reagans were just out on an errand and would be returning shortly. It was strikingly apparent upon entering the house that Reagan was an avid reader. Serving as the room’s focal point across from the small fireplace, a floor to ceiling bookcase spans the long wall of the living room, filled with volumes of well-read non-fiction, biographies, American novels and world history. Looking around further, I noticed that most of the sparingly displayed decorative items on the shelves and side tables possessed little intrinsic value. They appeared to be typical department store mass-produced items, like the ones you would see in any middle class home that characterized post-war suburban sprawl.
Like all the rooms in the home, the bedroom is plainly furnished and just big enough to accommodate a double bed, a bedside table positioned sideways to avoid jutting into the doorway, a small bookcase, and a chest of drawers. There are two other doorways in the bedroom, one opening to a small shared clothes closet which doubled as the home’s ‘bomb shelter’, and the other to the home’s only bathroom, also with spartan amenities, including a cramped modular shower stall. Of singular interest is a functional Liberty Bell replica shower head the President humorously installed. The bed that the Reagan’s slept in is comprised of two inexpensive twin beds whose simple wrought iron head boards President Reagan decided to hold together with twisty-ties. The President had another simple solution for the shortcomings of the bed, whose standard length was unable to accommodate the full length of his 6’2″ frame: he simply pushed a stool up against the bottom of his side of the bed to rest his feet upon. Looking back for one last glance upon leaving the bedroom my eyes caught sight of a pair of boots standing unceremoniously, almost forlornly, against a wall beneath a window – they are the boots that symbolically faced backward on the riderless horse in the fallen leader’s funeral procession in 2004.
President Reagan’s secret service detail was discreetly housed in a non-descript government issue building located within a stand of trees on a bluff only a couple of hundred yards from the house. The building consists of several rooms that served as a housing and operations center that saw to it that the president was kept safe and informed twenty-four hours a day. Schedules, assorted maps and local naturalist information, like what to do in case of snakebite, still cover the walls across from a built-in desk top that spans the length of wall below a picture window that overlooks the ranch house. Sitting unobtrusively upon the desk top are several phones, one of them ‘the red phone’. It was a sobering moment to hold that very phone in my hand many years later.
It was here in this rustic mountaintop landscape, in this very humble home, that President Reagan welcomed world leaders like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. It was here in 1981, outside the front door upon the stone terrace that he had laid himself, that he signed the largest tax cut in American history. The table and chairs he sat at are among a few items that have since been relocated to the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara due to their historical value. In 1983, while at the ranch, President Reagan learned the tragic news that the Korean jetliner had been shot down by the Soviet Union, killing nearly 270 passengers, 61 of them Americans. And so it was that I stood in awe next to the simple chair in the simple room of the simple home where he telephoned each of the American victim’s families to express his heartfelt sympathy.
As time passed passed, and with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, it became apparent that it was no longer safe for President Reagan to ride the feisty El Alamein. Nancy was reluctant to approach him with the news, and so the task fell to a close friend who rode with him and who understandably experienced some measure of trepidation at the prospect of informing this great man who he felt such admiration and respect for that he no longer could do the one thing that brought him spiritual replenishment. Surprisingly, or as it turned out, true to his character, Reagan considered the news only briefly before he calmly agreed. In November of 1994 President Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Not long after, in 1995, he said goodbye to his beloved ranch for good. The Reagans retired to their home in Bel Air, where he died years later at the age of 87. Along with thousands of fellow Americans I had the distinct honor to pay my last respects to our nation’s greatest president as he lay in state in the Capitol rotunda on June 10, 2004.
In 1996 Rancho del Cielo was put up for sale. Years of confusion followed, including the failure of subsequent administrations to create a presidential memorial, and a rejected plan to convert the property into national park land. Suffice it to say that there was considerable dispute over whether taxpayer funds should be spent to preserve it.
Finally, the Young America’s Foundation, the organization of conservative youth that had held a special place in President Reagan’s heart, found a way to purchase the ranch in 1998. Ownership by the Young America’s Foundation ensured that the ranch would serve as a living monument to Ronald Reagan’s character and principles. Subsequently, the Young America’s Foundation established the Reagan Ranch Center in nearby Santa Barbara which to this day is dedicated to preserve and protect the ranch as well as utilizing it as a tool to promote President’ Regan’s ideas and principles to college youth throughout the country.