Reporting from Ventura, Riverside, and San Diego Counties -- Why, you may ask, are we rushing north on Interstate 5 and veering east on California 126 into the Santa Clara Valley? Why are we pulling off the road by a fruit stand and slipping into the backyard? Are we going to tip a cow? Steal oranges?

We are not. We are here for a date with a black-haired, blue-eyed beauty named Ramona.

She is, by at least one historian's reckoning, "the most important woman in the history of Southern California."

She boosted D.W. Griffith's film career, offered gainful employment to Loretta Young and Dolores del Rio, gave Raquel Welch a big break, inspired countless architects and helped write the map for this region's tourism industry.

Apart from the three historic houses and one hillside on today's itinerary, her name endures on shops, streets, fruit labels, an expressway, an Indian reservation, a city in San Diego County, a shelf full of silly and scholarly books and enough vintage postcards to give your mail carrier angina.

And she won all this attention without ever drawing a breath.

The woman in question, as many a grandmother could tell you, is California's first leading lady, the beautiful, embattled heroine of "Ramona," a bestselling and myth-making novel by Helen Hunt Jackson published in 1884.

If you want a glimpse of how "reality" programming worked around here before there was television or you want to know why your dentist's office looks like Father Junípero Serra's headquarters or you just want to peek at the strange and shallow roots of tourist culture in Southern California, then come with me on a tour of Ramonaland.

It's an easy road trip, with stops in Ventura, Riverside and San Diego counties. But we need to hurry, while the name still opens doors.

Rancho Camulos, Ventura County

One hundred and fifty years ago, this was just about the busiest place you could find between the San Fernando and Ventura missions.

In those days, Antonio del Valle and his family were in the early stages of settling the thousands of acres granted him in 1839.

By 1853, they had built a ranch house with 2-foot-thick adobe walls. By 1882, there was a winery, a chapel, a grapevine arbor, a calm courtyard and an inviting veranda on the southern side of the house. The Del Valles' fields were thick with oranges, almonds, walnuts, apricots, wheat, corn, barley and grapes.

And the house hummed with visitors, including, on Jan. 23, 1882, a middle-aged writer named Helen Hunt Jackson.

As it happened, the lady of the house wasn't home when Jackson arrived, but she stayed for about two hours anyway.

Even today, it's easy to see why: Besides the courtyard, veranda and chapel, all of which remain, you get a broad view of the cradling hills, and if you can find your way to the enormous California black walnut tree that was planted in 1870 or so, you can marvel at the gnarled branches reaching skyward like tentacles from the Earth.

Travel writers love that stuff. And Jackson, a Massachusetts native who later moved to Colorado, had spent most of her life as a travel writer and poet.

But she had a second agenda as well. In the late 1870s -- when many Americans were still mourning Custer -- Jackson had embraced the cause of the Native Americans whose homelands were fast being grabbed. She wrote an exposé, "A Century of Dishonor," and wanted to do more.

So, as she raced around Southern California in horse-drawn carriages for several months in 1882 and 1883, she was working two angles -- as a magazine rhapsodist thirsty for evocative scenery and as a crusader gathering evidence. After she'd returned to the East Coast, Jackson decided on a new strategy for her Indian-rights campaign: She would take a page from the book of New England friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."