In 1998, with the help of Nancy Reagan and through the contributions of generous supporters, Rancho del Cielo (“Ranch in the Sky”) was purchased by the Young America’s Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization dedicated to promoting the conservative movement to young people — ideals embodied by the life of former President Ronald Reagan.
Located on one of Santa Barbara’s busiest streets at 217 State St., the Young America’s Foundation — a “schoolhouse for Reaganism” — is a short walk from the beach, steps away from the train station and a quick turn off a ramp from Highway 101 — ideally accessible to the young and young at heart who wish to learn about conservative ideas.
Open to the public, you may browse through four floors of classrooms, seminar facilities and fascinating exhibits, especially those highlighting the tenor of his ranch. All who enter will leave knowing Reagan: his storied life, his governorship and presidency, his movie career, his conservative beliefs and, most of all, his passion for the time he was able to spend at his beloved Rancho del Cielo, situated at an elevation of about 2,300 feet on 688 acres of remote backcountry at the top of Refugio Canyon west of Santa Barbara.
The harrowing, often fog-shrouded, seven-mile drive is laced with hairpin turns, boulders and breathtaking views of the Santa Ynez Valley and Pacific Ocean. A mile up, it’s obvious why this magical retreat is not open to the public. It would be several hours later before I’d fully realize how fortunate I was as a writer to be able to experience it. I had traveled there in search of a place and discovered, instead, the soul of a man — a man who, along the way, happened to become president of the United States.
On first glimpse, the house appears shockingly small, and at a mere 1,500 square feet, touchingly intimate. An L-shaped porch fronts the 1970s Western entry, warm and inviting in “Nancy red” décor, the only room where guests were entertained. The living room was their inner sanctum, containing paintings of Western landscapes, a gun cabinet and the famous jellybean jar within arm’s reach of the couch. Only a select few were allowed in here.
Evidence of the character of this man is everywhere. In the master bedroom, a king-size bed is comprised of two twins joined. No need to buy another bed when they already had two. Mattress too short? A bench at the foot of the bed could handle the long presidential legs.
Standing in the two-person kitchen, you’re surrounded by 1970s harvest gold appliances, reminders of his days with General Electric. Perfect for whipping up a favorite macaroni and cheese. His gentle sense of humor made me smile at every turn — at the front door plaque (“On this site in 1897 nothing happened”), on the riding lawnmower bearing the presidential seal and on a hilarious poster, a spoof of Gone With the Wind showing him rescuing a fainting Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of England.
A round leather table on the front porch is where the largest tax cut in U.S. history — the 1980s Economic Recovery Tax Act — was signed. When asked at the ranch of his proudest accomplishment in life, he would look around the ranch, viewing the countless improvements he had made himself, and answer: building the dock and surrounding fences out of telephone poles on the original property.
An oft-told story involves a heart-shaped stone at the base of a sycamore tree planted to commemorate the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary. His gift to Nancy, a canoe dubbed the Tru Luv, was put to use that evening when he rowed her out on Lucky Lake to propose once again. She had always wanted to be proposed to on a lake, and he was every inch a romantic.
Early in the mornings, after presidential homework was completed, he would climb the hill to the stables, prepare his Arabian, El Alamein, a gift from the president of Mexico, for a ride and ring the antique train bell belonging originally to Nancy’s father, for her to join him on the trail. Following their ride, Nancy would head back to the house to fix breakfast, while the president looked after the horses.
Stories of him assisting Secret Service agents who would fall off their horses while on duty are endless. Once he called a new agent, wanting to personally welcome him. The agent was so thrilled to be meeting “Rawhide,” the president’s code name, that he came barreling down the hill, standing up on the stirrups — both no-nos. The horse tripped in a ditch at the bottom of the hill, throwing the agent over the horse’s head and landing him upright on his feet, still holding the reins. Reagan, impressed, turned to his agent and friend, John Barletta, and said, “Say, John, does he always dismount that way?”
It was Barletta’s sad duty, when Nancy couldn’t bring herself to do it and Alzheimer’s disease was taking is toll, to tell the president that he could no longer ride horseback safely. Displaying his lifelong empathy for others, Reagan turned to his agent, who was visibly distraught, put his hands on his shoulders and said, “It’s OK, John. I know.”
It struck me that the ranch and the man were one. Both simple, pure and good, with no room for pretense. No room for guile. No room for ego.
Reagan was the same person whether with Mikhail Gorbachev, Queen Elizabeth II or a stable groom. More than any president in recent memory, I believe that his public and private personas were the same. To some with a more intellectual bent, that may have been a problem. To the many, it was his strength and the source of him becoming known as the Great Communicator.
How privileged I was to walk in his footsteps.