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Western Travel | HER WORLD

Breaking away from the herd

Amid the vast -- some would say monotonous -- terrain of the I-5 drive, Harris Ranch is a choice respite.

October 08, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Coalinga, Calif. — SOME people hunt for out-of-state license plates, listen to a long piece of classical music or simply zone out while driving Interstate 5 through California's seemingly endless Central Valley, which is as flat and featureless as a tabletop. But those who have driven that stretch of highway more than a few times know that rest for the weary awaits at the Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant.

The venerable institution founded in the 1930s about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco has a filling station, a gift shop and a lushly landscaped, Spanish Colonial-style motel with an Olympic-size swimming pool that's as enticing as any in Las Vegas. Its restaurant complex is known for steak, serving only Harris Ranch Restaurant Reserve Beef from cattle raised at Harris Feeding Co., a few miles up the road.

I had gone by the place many times without stopping. But in August, I booked a room there for two nights for $125 a night.

You wouldn't necessarily call the Central Valley a tourist destination. But I'm an inveterate sightseer who could find something of interest in solitary confinement, so I planned to discover whether there was anything worth visiting around Harris Ranch.

John Harris owns the inn and restaurant as well as Harris Fresh, a 14,000-acre farm that specializes in, among other things, almonds; Harris Feeding Co.; Harris Ranch Beef Co.; and Harris Farms, which raises and trains thoroughbred horses. He told me later in a phone interview that he knows the area has little in the way of tourist attractions. "Some people check in for a night's getaway," he said. "But the ranch is more a waypoint, like an old trading post."

The valley may put some people to sleep, but I find it strangely scenic, especially as I approached it on I-5 near 4,183-foot Tejon Pass, about 50 miles north of L.A. I loved sailing down the mountains to the Grapevine, a perfect name for a highway interchange on the threshold of a region that fills American raisin boxes.

After that, I-5 becomes as straight as a tenpenny nail, and the valley appears, ocean-like in its expanse. Millions of years ago it was an ocean that eventually receded, leaving behind one of the great desert basins that lie between mountain ranges in the West -- in this case, the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada.

All that changed about 100 years ago when irrigation arrived, turning the valley into a vast garden, where a long, frost-free growing season allows 200 types of crops to thrive.

Eventually, I saw a sign advertising the benefits of irrigation that said, "Farm water feeds the nation," and a crazy quilt of fields, bounded by portable toilets for farmworkers. The road was splattered with tomatoes in some places, jettisoned from big, open trucks on their way to ketchup factories.

Inevitably, I thought of "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's novel about the Joads, a family from Oklahoma's Dust Bowl. When they cross Tehachapi Pass and catch sight of the valley, Pa says, "I never knowed there was anything like her."

About 100 miles north of the Grapevine, near the turnoff for Coalinga, straw-colored hills bubble up and Harris Ranch appears, an oasis at Exit 334, where the sprinklers always seem to be turned on, watering neatly trimmed lime trees and beds of flowers. Often, a man selling bonsai plants out of his truck is stationed across from the entrance.

Like most exits on I-5, 334 has a handful of the kind of chain restaurants and motels that always remind me of a road trip I once took with a friend. When we stopped at a Denny's, she called the restaurant the symbol of everything wrong with America. I like their tuna melts but must admit I know what she means, which is partly why I love the independently owned Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant. To me it's the symbol of what's right with America.

"The ranch isn't a cookie-cutter place," Harris said. "We pay attention to detail. We want people to feel it's a treat to come here."

The ranch welcomes an average of 1,500 guests a day. But only about 10% of them stay the night, which is a pity because few spots along I-5 are as thoughtfully equipped and well-run. You don't see overflowing trash cans, spots on the carpets or out-of-order signs on ice dispensers.

The immaculate pool is like a big, blue ice cube, especially irresistible to hot, tired kids cooped up in the back seat. Six wings of rooms surround it. The guest rooms are large by any standard, with sliding-glass doors that lead to balconies or patios. They have plenty of lamps, a coffeemaker, countrified spreads and curtains and, to put an all-American bow on the package, La-Z-Boy recliners.

After check-in, I went directly to the Steakhouse restaurant, next to the more casual Ranch Kitchen and Jockey Club bar. Beef shows up on every menu.

"There's nothing that unique about our beef," said Harris, the grandson of founder J.A. Harris, who arrived in California from Texas in 1916. "It's just genetics and the way they're fed."

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