When a writer named Bruce Jay Friedman turned his thoughts to Clint Eastwood several years back, he ruminated not only about the actor but also about Eastwood the property holder, the movie star who chose to live not in L.A. but "out there where he's got all those acres."
And with regard to those acres, Friedman speculated, Eastwood "didn't just pick them up in that Ronald Reagan free-enterprise frontier spirit either. I don't even think ecology is at the top of his list of concerns. He just wanted a little room. And if someone trespassed on his property, he wouldn't just blow the guy's head off. Maybe he's got a gun or two, but he doesn't have a collection. He'd invite the trespasser in, offer him a bite to eat. It wouldn't necessarily be a simple sandwich either. . . . He'd serve him a salad. Why? Because he has enough confidence to feed the fellow some artichoke hearts and not see it as some kind of threat to his masculinity."
Though Friedman doesn't mention it, Carmel is where Eastwood has his acres and a whole lot more. He served a term as the town's mayor, named his production company Malpaso after a local canyon, used the area as the setting for the first movie he directed and owns both a commercial building and a bar-restaurant called the Hog's Breath in the center of town.
And, to top it all off, a cover story in Architectural Digest recently celebrated the opening of Eastwood's latest Carmel venture, Mission Ranch, an expensive redo of a venerable local property that now offered "thirty-one luxurious guest rooms, a renovated restaurant and bar and what are still the best views in California."
As a die-hard (so to speak) Eastwood fan, I've always been curious about "out there where he's got those acres," and the opening of the new spread seemed an ideal time to visit. I could spend a weekend searching for Clint Eastwood without the risk of having my head blown off, and maybe even get some artichoke hearts thrown into the bargain.
According to both Architectural Digest and a friend who's lived in Carmel for years, Eastwood's rescue of the ranch qualified as a genuine good deed. One of the last of a dying breed of oceanside California roadhouses, it was on the verge of being torn down for yet another irksome condominium development when the actor stepped in. He negotiated with 17 owners, forked over $5 million and spent a lot more upgrading the place, which had become, it was dryly noted, "a seedy refuge for traveling salesmen and illicit couples."
Though not as involved with Eastwood as I am, my wife graciously thought the trip sounded like fun and we set off on the 300-plus-mile drive on a Friday morning. After winding up the Coast Highway and picking up U.S. 101, we impulsively stopped for lunch just south of San Luis Obispo at a town called Los Alamos because a faded roadside sign promised an authentic Western experience.
Charming and dusty, Los Alamos turned out to be as advertised. We ate at the Bell Street Cafe in the center of town, where the walls were decorated with antique wagon wheel wrenches (I asked) and a sign by the cash register invited you to vote in the annual Old Codger and Bespectacled Matron contests.
Mission Ranch itself is on the southern end of Carmel, hard by the venerable mission where Padre Junipero Serra lies buried. The entrance is next to an aging sign reading "Food-Bar, Cottage Motel" that may not date from the hotel's beginnings in the 1930s but certainly looks it.
The property was originally a dairy farm, and the drive in takes you past some of the old buildings, now spiffily redone as hotel structures. The whole place, in fact, with its dozen or so buildings grouped loosely around a central space, reminds you of nothing so much as a small Western town. Enormous and ancient trees, eucalyptus and cypress, shade the area, and beautifully tended flowers give off a heady scent. You half expect to round a corner and see ladies off to a church social, or even Eastwood himself, wearing a marshal's star and nodding to the good folks as he warily patrols the area.
Because our trip had been so spur of the moment (and because of the crush the Architectural Digest article had caused), we had to take different rooms for Friday and Saturday, and the last ones available for each night at that, though this hardly proved to be a disadvantage.
The first night was spent in the Hay Loft, a (yes) former hayloft located up a flight of stairs above what was once a stable but now functions as a laundry area. One of the few rooms in its own building, the Loft's rural motif was echoed by large barn-like doors to the bathroom, painted wooden walls and a steeply pitched ceiling with just the kind of exposed beams, my wife pointed out, she wants us to have at home. Thanks, Clint.
Though some of the touches were excessive--I could have done without the heart-shaped pink wicker wastebasket and 11 (I counted) calico pillows on the bed--the carved wooden bed itself and the room's large sofa were handsome and comfortable.
For dinner, we decided to stroll over to the Restaurant at Mission Ranch, the very place, legend has it, where Eastwood first experienced the ranch as a soldier at Monterey's Fort Ord. A large bustling place with an active bar (the noise of which carries farther than one would like on otherwise quiet nights), the restaurant is heavy on no-nonsense food like roast prime rib served in healthy portions. If artichokes were available on this menu, they were well-hidden.
Things looked better the next morning, when the restaurant served a complimentary breakfast of crunchy granola and a nice array of fresh fruit. And daylight revealed a justly celebrated view, across an open meadow where sheep placidly grazed to a marshy wetlands, the Carmel River and a sandy beach.
I had planned to spend the morning touring Carmel's scenic Seventeen Mile Drive, legendary in my family because my mother once spent the entire 17 miles refusing to look out the window because she thought the admission fee excessive. But my wife sensibly pointed out that we had spent enough time in the car already, so we wandered around the tranquil Carmel River Beach and took in the same views of rocky Point Lobos that supposedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write "Treasure Island."
In the town of Carmel, we walked to the Eastwood Building near the center of town, a commercial structure that had so much trouble getting town approval that it caused Clint to run for mayor in the first place.
My resident friend said that, though Eastwood used to drop by occasionally, he was rarely seen in the Hog's Breath anymore. And the town's newspaper, the Carmel Pine Cone, ominously reported that his latest daughter had just been born in Redding, "the Northern California town where Eastwood owns a ranch."
Having a drink in the tourist-driven Hog's Breath, I began to feel like Clint must have, eager for a little elbow room, and for a glimpse of the scenery that had drawn him to the area in the first place. So my wife and I drove 40 minutes down Highway 1, surely as beautiful a stretch of road as exists anywhere, and had an exceptional lunch high above the ocean at the glass and steel restaurant attached to the recently opened Post Ranch Inn.
Idly chewing on some greens, I remembered the new room we had been given for that Saturday night at Mission Ranch. It was located in one of four recently built units designed to give maximum views of the meadow, the marsh, the river, the beach and the ocean. What was I doing driving around looking for the essence of Eastwood when I could have it by simply hanging out on my own front porch and eyeing all those acres? My wife and I vowed to spend the rest of our time in Carmel sitting there and enjoying the scenery. Which is precisely what we did.
Mission Ranch, 26270 Dolores St., Carmel, Calif. 93923; telephone (800) 538-8221 or (408) 624-6436, fax (408) 626-4163.
Budget for Two
Gas to and from Carmel: $47.15
Two nights, Mission Ranch: 441.18
Lunch, Bell Street Cafe, Los Alamos: 14.75
Dinner, Restaurant at Mission Ranch: 67.99
Drinks, Hog's Breath Inn: 5.00
Lunch, Post Ranch Inn: 60.48
FINAL TAB: $636.55