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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Harris Ranch on High

By Eric A. Carlson

"That I actually saw Bigfoot made them envious, I think."

--Losing Playmate contender on 'The Weakest Link'

RUNWAY 14/32 AT Harris Ranch Airport is only 30 feet wide, narrow even for a Cessna Cutlass to wiggle down onto, but Miles Bushnell is an accomplished pilot belonging to the prestigious West Valley Flying Club out of Palo Alto Airport, and aside from a little chop on the base and final leg, our landing was as smooth as a baby's bottom. Like a feather crashing down onto sawdust. As we taxied over to a parking spot, Miles murmured, "Well, once again we cheat death." Spoken like a wry Iowan, which is what Miles is. We disembarked and moseyed over to the Harris Ranch Restaurant for lunch--steak, of course, and plenty of it. Red bloody meat after cheating death.

Miles allowed that his father taught him much about flying, often coupled with humor. Like pretending to see turbulence up ahead and then applying the rudder pedals--sight unseen. I confess I was taken in by this one, and was properly amazed when the plane wiggled.

Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant--and as a byproduct Harris Ranch Airport--is a minor mecca in the Central Valley. There is no town in sight--or houses, or anything else except fields of cows and Highway 5 and a speck of an airport. But the restaurant is packed, and the Harris people are so proud of their beef that they have trademarked the very word "beefTM" on the menus and brochures. That's confidence. Some claim there is a town named Coalinga just over the horizon, but that remains a theory.

Dave Hickey--not the famous one--is a connoisseur of the Central Valley and was queried by my friend Mr. P about whether he preferred Harris Ranch to Bakersfield. Dave replied, "Harris Ranch does not top Bakersfield--it's just another diversion on the way down. What makes Harris Ranch unique is that it is a full-service luxury hotel nestled right in the deepest manure-suffused dirt of the agricenter. Thousands of cattle are mooing and defecating within just 100 feet or so." I can attest to the "odeur de cow," as it was registering at an altitude of 2,000 feet or so as Miles and I approached the airport. That is an authentic ambience. In fact, there is nothing more authentic and life-affirming than cow manure. Except perhaps for very old mulch.

The Harris Ranch Restaurant is generally regarded with awe when it comes to steak dinners, but the price is high. Mike Fletcher's succinct review is "The ultimate $100 hamburger." (Not that much unless you fly in.) And Robert M. Garry opined, "If you happen to no longer have your teeth, you shouldn't have any problems taking down their prime rib. It just melts in your mouth." My 10-ounce rib-eye (carved from a cow raised on custom-blended feed grains) was $22--before tax! A bit hard on the psyche for a "thrifty" fellow such as myself.

Along with the food, there is rustic ambience. Dave Hickey waxed, "Give me Harris Ranch over Cancun, Mauritius, Aruba or Bora Bora. I love it, though it is way too expensive, and the food is never as good as the promise hinted at by the beautiful grounds and buildings." He perorates, "As I stroll, I can enjoy the stink bugs clustering three deep on the outdoor pay phone, the ripping winds transporting the rumoring scent of manure to a very lingering aroma--and enjoy the play of lights on the sculpted dead mountains off to the west." No one perorates like Dave (not the famous one) Hickey.

The Harris Ranch Country Store is shockingly chichi and frilly. I was hoping for postcards of jackalopes and other such cheese. Instead I found expensive, generic objets d'crap that one could find in a hellhole such as Frisco or Los Gatos. Harris Ranch is clearly tuned in to fleecing strays wandering over from Highway 5, or gullible fly-ins and farmers. Doesn't matter really; bring a fat wallet and enjoy the slant of light.

Final Note: The photo is of a Sunnyvale blue and gold Macaw. Parrots aren't especially germane to this story, but I've been keen on using this picture for some time.

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From the May 2-8, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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