SOLVANG — Debbie Apodaca was putting up decorations in the dining room when she noticed out of the plate glass window that the Alisal Ranch's old oak was leaning.
As it quickly became apparent that the tree was toppling, she thought it eerie that there seemed to be absolute silence; it was almost as if she was watching a dramatic scene on TV in slow motion, with the volume turned off. Then the oak hit the ground with a crash so loud that she could imagine it reverberating to the farthest reaches of the 10,000-acre ranch.
"It was like the first seconds of an earthquake," recalled Apodaca, who has worked at the Alisal for five years. "You don't really know what happened. It takes a while for the meaning to sink in."
Thus did a historic California resort lose its landmark.
In the first hours after the tree dropped, however, there was little time to ponder the loss, to think of the towering oak as a monument to which settlers had hitched their horses from the time California became a state; or which, in more recent years, served as a huge umbrella sheltering guests as they began the walk to their cabins across the footbridge over the creek.
Smashed a Water Main
The oak came down just short of the bridge, the force sending one of the limbs four feet into the ground, where it smashed a water main.
When Apodaca and other staff members and guests rushed out to assess the damage, the immediate task was to make sure that no one had been caught underneath the branches. But they found there was one good consequence to the winter storm--after a couple of days of rain and strong winds, no one had been outside that afternoon; there were no casualties. Next to take care of was the water gushing from a broken main, which was creating a small lake on the lawn.
It was not until the following morning that the emotional fallout began to settle. Employees stood looking at the rubble, shaking their heads. Several women drove over from town and gathered keepsake branches and sobbed, "My daughter was married under there."
The backhoe operator, called in to help clear the mess, understood how they felt; he had been one of the last people for whom the tree served as a wedding chapel.
Needed Biggest Equipment
Even the crusty wranglers stopped by to pay their respects, in the process reviving the debate over whether Flying Ebony, the 1925 Kentucky Derby winner raised at the ranch, had been buried by the oak.
Then came the truck with Kirk Meloling, the woodsman who regularly provides the firewood that keeps smoke coming out of the chimneys of the Alisal's 66 suites all year.
"They had called me and said, 'The big one came down,' so I brought my biggest equipment. I knew it would be the biggest tree I'd ever worked with," Meloling said.
"But I saw these women crying and I decided there certainly had to be something better to do with it than use it as firewood. There had to be a way to commemorate its existence."
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The Alisal was part of an 1843 land grant issued to a son of Jose Raimundo Carrillo, who had assisted Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola in his 1769 march up the California coast. The rolling fields soon were used to raise cattle, an enterprise that has never ceased to provide much of the livelihood of the property.
When subsequent owners decided to open the ranch to a few dozen guests in 1946, the idea was that the same cowboys who tended the herds would guide the paying visitors in their spare time; the practice remains the same today, when there may be as many as 200 guests and 2,000 head of cattle.
Although just a couple of miles down the road from the more than a little bit touristy "Danish" town of Solvang, the Alisal seems a world away from that crowded cluster of pastry shops, antique stores and mainstream motels. There is no neon to block out the stars, nor TVs or phones in the rooms to disrupt the crackling of the fireplace.
Of course, with rates of $185 or $235 a night (two meals included, but riding, golf and tennis extra on weekends and in the summer), it's not exactly like "roughing it."
Each accommodation includes a bedroom, living room and two baths. Indeed, the guest list is likely to include a familiar face or two and a family that brings along the maid to look after the kids.
It is the beauty of the surroundings, however, that makes it understandable why so many People magazine-type personalities have plunked down millions for ranches around the Santa Ynez Valley, or why President Reagan returns so frequently to his retreat, often described as being in Santa Barbara, but which really adjoins the Alisal's southeast boundary.
Reagan's ranch sits 2,200 feet high atop the Santa Ynez Mountains, which separate the valley from the ocean. Cattle, horses and deer are the most visible wildlife--the deer wander down to feed on the golf course fairways in the late afternoon--but riders also may come across the tracks of bear and mountain lion on the hills.