Friday, May 14, 1999
The dog woke me at 6 AM. She wasn’t doing anything, just standing with her nose facing the door. Probably universal mutt sign for “Out! Now!”
I wasn’t about to walk her. And she couldn’t walk herself, something she was used to doing in Tom’s fenced-in backyard. And I wouldn’t wake Tom.
I went back to sleep.
Maybe an hour later, I kinda knew Tom and the dog were going out. And some time after that I knew they’d returned. And maybe Tom can walk a dog, then slip right back to sleep. But I can’t. I finally pulled out of bed around nine, after first flipping through fifty channels to make sure nothing awful had happened in the world.
Nothing had. Nothing awful had even happened on the motel room floor. I was clean.
By ten, we were back inMargie’s Restaurant, the repetitive, if sound, choice of our morning motel woman. Again, we got huge amounts of food for our four-and-a-half bucks: Mounds of shiny scrambled eggs. Heaps of home fried potatoes. Slabs of fresh rye toast, with both butter and jelly. Even a slice of watermelon. And tankards of fresh-squeezed orange juice were only two bucks more.
An hour later we’d just headed north, when I remembered I’d wanted to see Morro Bay. We’d skipped it the last night to be sure of our reservations. Backtracking slightly, we found the town mainly good for its rock: Huge rock. Morro Rock. Just squatting out there in the bay. Some wise guy special effects idea of a giant souvenir asteroid.
After taking pictures—ya just gotta—we homed on Hearst Castle. Its official designation is William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon National Park though the man himself simply called it The Ranch. And maybe when you own more than Texas, something piddling as a chunk of the West coast seems mundane. But it ain’t.
There was no crowd when we reached CasaWillie, though the next tour was still two hours off. Lousy planning? Tiny staff? Since we were due in Salinas for supper, and since you can’t drive Big Sur any more self-destructively than thirty miles an hour, it seemed we’d have to skip the tour.
“There’s an IMAX movie,” Tom pointed out. He’s good at finding these things. It featured a five-story, young Billy, learning Secrets Of Great Art on a Grand Tour of Europe. That was in 1873, and he went with his Mom.
We saw the movie, which was no Citizen Kane. Though like lots of things bad for you, it just made us want more. Only now, the next tour was three hours away—and Sold Out. Still, as we started to leave—Tom wondering why I hadn’t made reservations (Hey, it was off-season)—something mumbled from above.
I went to ask, while Tom checked on the dog, we hoped safely chained to a sheltering pine. It turned out there were no tickets—sort of. All the scheduled tours were sold out. But even as this was sworn to by the counter help, the ceiling speaker whispered Cancellations.
“What gives?” I asked.
A loophole, which the ticket sellers seemed loathe to admit. It only happened on r-e-a-l slow days, they insisted, in months starting with Q. It seems you had to buy tickets for a specific tour, but if an earlier tour had vacant seats, you could slip ahead. That mushroomed all day, till the last bus might be empty, but in the computer still Sold Out.
There was another catch: you had to have tickets to use cancellations. Or you had to be accidentally standing by the Closedwindow when the Attendant With The Mean Face grumbled, “Damn! No-shows again!” Then, if you forked over your fourteen bucks fast enough, you were in.
Waiting for Tom, I missed two more opportunities, and the Mean Faced Woman leered at me like I was planning to rob her drawer. Finally, smiling Tom returned, opportunity re-reared, and almost instantly we were On The Bus.
“Why didn’t they tell us this before?” Tom asked, as we were waiting for our guide.
I shrugged. “Government.”
Still, the house was even better than I remembered—I’d seen it before, with family. And maybe watching the IMAX film helped. Because when you only know Randolph Hearst as The Evil Yellow Journalist, the castle seems just what young Orson Welles made fun of. But when you realize aging William, sketching with mad architect Julia Grant, was still very much that ten-year-old touring Europe, you kinda share his monster Erector Set.
Though I wouldn’t wanna sleep there. It’s no longer a left-wing target—in the late ’60’s a homemade bomb took out a guest cottage wall. But the whole place is like lead. Even the gift shop pictures make it seem warmer. Partly, that’s slick magazine styling, all hothouse flowers and New Jerusalem light. But when you’re actually in the castle, you quickly understand why Hearst constantly invited boxcars of Hollywood stars. Without them, he was living in a train station.
Yet I’d go back. There are something like five different tours, and I want the torchlit one, at midnight, with would-be actors standing in for suave Cary Grant and sultry Hedy Lamarr. Stephen King meets Evelyn Waugh? The Shining, Revisited? I hope.
Though Big Sur quickly blew away the ranch. I’d seen that before, too, but never enough. You’re at the edge of the world: Ocean. Clouds. Sky. And way below, the sound of distant seals. With a road so deadly even the dog couldn’t sleep.
I could. I was completely relaxed. Tom drove.