The road begins low, almost at sea...

Times Staff Writer

The road begins low, almost at sea level, then follows a sinewy line up a steep hillside until it nears the crest of the ridge, a wind-swept pivot point between inland arroyos and the wide-open Pacific off South Laguna.

It's an improbable place for a house, so of course someone has built one. Made mostly of concrete in a 1930s vision of modern, it features overlarge windows that give it the look of both bunker and terrarium. Over the years, the concrete steps have crumbled at the edges and nature has reclaimed the yard -- low cactus and stiffened chaparral dot the gravelly ground, and a steady breeze whispers through doe-colored grasses.

I'd never been here before, yet the visit evokes memories anyway, tracing the tenuous connection between youthful imagination and the yearning of age. A childhood hero built this house, the first atop this now-crowded hillside, and I'm here as an act of self-indulgence.

Three generations ago, during that fallow era between "the war to end all wars" and the war that proved the lie, adventurer Richard Halliburton forged a career by pursuing the romantic. He climbed the Matterhorn because he liked the look of it. He spent a night on Mt. Olympus because to do so was to challenge the gods. He slept in the Taj Mahal because it was forbidden, and he flew to Timbuktu because he liked the name. Then Halliburton wrote about it all in a series of best-selling travel and adventure books.

A Special Discovery

Those books made their way to a shelf in my grandmother's house, the wellspring of these memories, for I found the books there and in them discovered the world. The Sahara that Halliburton flew over. The Bosporus he swam. Malaysia and Afghanistan, Macchu Picchu and Devil's Island, all places Halliburton explored simply to have been there.

In retrospect, Halliburton -- scion of a well-to-do Tennessee family -- was a bit of a charlatan, a romantic vagabond who sold that image to pay for more trips. He was a relentless self-promoter, and his words reflected the dominant ethnic and class biases of the day. Book critics generally savaged him for cheap romanticism.

Yet to a young boy whiling away slow hours in rural Maine, the books teased with the idea of the unknown being knowable. Halliburton set a hook, and to this day nothing stirs the blood like the prospect of going somewhere new, of seeing a place for the first time. The Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The dusty heart of Mongolia. The jagged beauty of the Alps and the haunting nothingness of the Canadian Northwest.

And there are, to paraphrase one of Halliburton's titles, still new personal worlds to conquer. Such a deep-set hook does not fall out easily.

Halliburton was an extravagant personality. He rode the lecture circuit, gave interviews and rubbed elbows with the celebrities of the day, both Hollywood and literary (F. Scott Fitzgerald owned a personally inscribed copy of Halliburton's "The Glorious Adventure").

For many women, Halliburton was a matinee idol come to life. Few knew he was gay -- his lovers included Ramon Novarro, the original Ben-Hur in 1925 -- and most believed that his male traveling companions really were secretaries. After all, how could a vagabond be expected to settle down with a wife?

Out of the public view, Halliburton was struggling. It takes a lot of energy to sustain a life of constant travel and constant writing, and Halliburton, a regular visitor to Southern California, was running out of steam for both. During one horseback ride Halliburton was smitten by the rugged and then largely empty coast near Laguna Beach, and in the mid-'30s he bought a 600-foot-high ridge just south of where Aliso Creek enters the ocean. It was the perfect place to call home for a man growing increasingly world-weary.

"It is a sensational vista and stops people in their tracks when they stumble unexpectedly on it," Halliburton wrote to his parents in Tennessee. "I went back over and over just to look at the peaceful valley on one side and the full sweep of the ocean on the other.... The view enchanted me and every time I saw it I had a vision of a house on this spectacular ridge."

The house, completed in 1937 to critical raves, was designed by William Alexander early in a career that evolved into real estate development and made him a wealthy -- and generous -- benefactor of the arts in Los Angeles. Halliburton named it Hangover House, for the sense of suspension the building evoked. For him, living "so far away from man and so close to God" made him feel as though he "was floating in space."

Halliburton's life ended tragically two years later, at age 39, while he and a small crew sought to sail a Chinese junk named the Sea Dragon from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

Between Yokohama, Japan, and Midway Island, the small boat encountered 40-foot seas. The last radio message from the Sea Dragon's captain to an ocean liner dripped with Halliburton's trademark verve: "SOUTHERLY GALES RAIN SQUALLS LEE RAIL UNDER WATER WET BUNKS HARDTACK BULLY BEEF HAVING WONDERFUL TIME WISH YOU WERE HERE INSTEAD OF ME."

Authorities and the media initially were skeptical about Halliburton's disappearance, suspecting a stunt. Rumors swirled that he was living on an island with Amelia Earhart, the aviator and adventurer who had disappeared over the Pacific two years earlier. And for years afterward visitors to Hangover House occasionally claimed that his ghost haunted it.

By the time Halliburton was lost at sea, the world he so romantically celebrated was already disappearing. Mass media were making the exotic commonplace.

And war was again in the air. The German army was in Czechoslovakia, and Japanese troops had taken over large swaths of China. Before it was over, genocide in Europe and the dropping of atom bombs in Japan gave rise to a modern world that made Halliburton's exploits a quaint throwback.

By then, Hangover House had become a family home. Wallace and Zolite Scott bought it from Halliburton's estate, paying $7,500 as the only bidders at a 1941 auction. The couple raised their children and lived out their lives on the ridge, Wallace dying in August 1978 and Zolite in May 2001. The house is now owned by their daughter, also named Zolite, who lives elsewhere in Laguna Beach.

The End of the Road

So I am here, metaphorically coming to the mountain to see Halliburton's last home. The rutted dirt road doubles back to climb the ridge, widening near Hangover House's driveway, where I park to walk the rest of the way. Near the steps I look up to the inland view of a steep ravine and golf course, then hilltops stretching like steppingstones to the interior valley and the throne of the Santa Ana Mountains beyond.

The view is dizzying, the land falling away in a delicious sweep of space and ocean. It's a different look at a familiar coastline, and I drink it in, trying to pick out landmarks far below.

Waves crash soundlessly in the distance, then roll in white lines up the sand. To the north, bluffs shrug their way out of the ocean and fade into haze too strong for the winter sun. Closer in, the hillside that was barren when Halliburton climbed it on horseback is covered now with rooftops. Three homes have joined Hangover House on the ridge, further shrinking the space that Halliburton had so cherished.

No one lives here now, but I knock on the heavy metal door anyway, listening to the echo fade inside. I don't want to leave but have no reason to stay -- I have seen it, and that's why I came. I descend the steps and move toward the driveway, pausing for one last look at the view that Halliburton, for all he had seen of the world, most wanted to have as his own.

And once again, I think as I head back down the rutted road, a long-dead adventurer has spurred me to see something new, or at least see something familiar from a fresh perspective. Maybe, I think, the world Halliburton so gloriously roamed hasn't disappeared after all. Maybe, in this age of emptiness and cheap distractions, we've simply stopped trying to find it.

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Details of Halliburton's life can be found in "Richard Halliburton: His Story of His Life's Adventure as Told in Letters to His Mother and Father" (Garden City, 1942) and "Halliburton: The Magnificent Myth," by Jonathan Root (Coward-McAnn, 1965). The Laguna Beach branch of the Orange County Public Library also has a collection of Halliburton material.

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