We visited the Ranch during our three-week US roadtrip a few months ago, and I’ve been longing to go back ever since. Nestled in the hills a 40-minute drive north of San Francisco, hidden from view of the road and comprising all the land around it, as far as you can see, and about ten times more, Skywalker Ranch is without a doubt the geek haven.
You take a turn from the aptly named, but otherwise unrelated, Lucas Valley Road, pass through a security checkpoint—yes, the guards arm-patch has an X-Wing on it—where you’re given a small map of the area, and then a winding forest road, complete with 1920’s harvesters nostalgically littered by the roadside to give the impression of a long and all-american history (which never was), takes you around Lake Ewok and up to the main house.
It’s beautiful. Quiet. Standing there, you instantly ‘get’ why Lucas decided to skip LA and build the ranch for the money from Empire and Jedi; here you can think and talk and go about your business undisturbed by the stress and superficiality of Hollywood.
And it really is nestled in amongst the hills, the backs of which rise up all around, and on which the cattle—yes, it’s a fully working farm, complete with livestock and crops—roam free, content and ignorant of them getting to live in the geek-Xanadu of the planet.
A lot can be said, and lot has, about George Lucas, but despite the scope of this place and what it represents, if it is in any way ‘extravagant’, it would be in how it isn’t extravagant. Yes, it’s large and it has everything from an observatory to one of the most amazing and beautiful research libraries in the film industry and the best sound editing facilities, including what is perhaps one of the best theaters in the world, as well as an inn, a complete fitness center, a café and a restaurant and even a general store… Oh, and its own fire station. And a 200-lot underground parking garage.
But it’s exactly because it has all of this, yet flaunts none of it, that it is so impressive.
For instance, as we were leaving, we wanted to make one last stop at the store; you know, to score some loot (pens, t-shirts, chili sauce—the usual). But to get to it we had to park by the side of the road, and walk through a small stretch of forest, cross the bridge over a small stream and up a small path until suddenly we were mere meters from the building. There it was. And you couldn’t see it from looking at it, but it had a tennis court and swimming pool as well as a restaurant. Nestled; I’m telling you.
Incidentally, as we returned to the car, our arms filled with aforementioned loot; we saw a sight I wish to this day we had captured on video. It would have gone viral in ways I can only dream long wet dreams of.
You see, the Ranch is nothing if not cozy and homely. An old plow here, a gate covered in vines there. And by the side of the road next to our car there was an honor-system produce stand—the kind that would make Martha Stewart soft in her knees. Bell pebbers, lettuce, garlic and cucumbers as far as the eye could see. And tomatoes. And a deer. Eating the tomatoes. Not just eating though, but carefully, thoughtfully and with the greatest of non-chalance cherry-picking them one at a time. It sees us, and we see it. And it slowly lowers its head, the tongue comes out, feels its way around the tomatoes; ow-there’s a good one. Yoink. The nerve of this deer. It glances at us with a look that can only be described as the ‘what?’-look, and continues to chew the tomato leisurely and thoroughly, before its tongue goes to search for another. No, not that one… No… Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Our photo seance was soon interrupted by the groundsman, as he came waltzing over the road, and in the tone one would use with a disobedient, but utterly adorable child exclaimed: “Noooo, that’s not for you! Go on, get out of here.” After which the deer, slightly annoyed, but still sporting a healthy attitude, prances across the road and into the bushes.
He would be back, I could tell.
If I hadn’t already fallen in love with California and the ranch before, I did then and there.
And Rikke, she was well sold by the time we made it to the research library, which deserves an honorary mention all of its own.
You can enter it from the main house, the bottom floor of which consists of a café, a meeting room or two as well as the famous display case with the lightsabers, AT-AT’s and that damned crystal skull. But from the moment you step foot in it, contrary to the rest of what we saw of the main house, it feels ‘real’. Lived in. The rest is all very neat and tidy and almost too museum-like for it too feel homely; but the library is all its own. A stroll over to an entirely arbitrary shelf revealed a healthy tome on ‘Mythology’, ‘Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets’, ‘A History of Religious Ideas’ and the like. Another shelf held ‘Cults, Customs and Superstitions of India’, a well-worn gold embossed title worthy of Indy himself, as well as ‘The Coasts of India and ‘The Last Maharajas’.
You get the point. It was like stumbling into a live set, bathed in the light from the famous glass domed ceiling. Or infamous, if you count the fact that Marcia Lucas had an affair with the man who designed said dome, which subsequently led to their divorce; an annoying little nugget of history inexorably tied to the Ranch.
The library is, as mentioned an actual research library, and holds considerably more books than in the main house, most of which have come from old studio libraries—Paramount in the late 80’s and Universal in 2000—put up for sale and snatched up by Lucas. The stories I’ve heard told of the collection are considerable and impressive. Michael Rubin did much of his research for DroidMaker down there, and enthusiastically retells the story of how he was left alone with a stack of boxes while the staff were busy prepping for Episode III. The town was went to, and then some. Reportedly Lucas dragged all of his notes, files and folders in there and there they remain.
If ever there was a nexus for geekdom, it’s in that library.
But I digress.
Our time was short, and we too soon left the Ranch behind—as well as the visitors map, unfortunately, a prime souvenir if there ever was one—and started the winding trip back to San Francisco to drop off our gracious hosts Tara and Leslie at Lucas’s other campus in San Francisco
Thank you again guys, you rock!
Anyway, I was reminded by and decided to finally get around to doing this write-up because Philip Bloom, whose work I’ve envied for some time, recently visited Skywalker Ranch and shot this extraordinary mood-piece there, which stands in sharp contrast to how sweltering it was when we visited.
Next time I hope to stay at the inn and peruse the library for a few hours… One can dream.
Update, March 17th, 2010: A couple of years ago two guys from Io went to visit Skywalker Ranch as guests of Matthew Wood. I convinced them to let me post this video of theirs, from the visit:
Which of course goes hand in hand with our visit last year.
Update, March 18th, 2010: As fate would have it, Philip Bloom just posted a new video from the countryside around the ranch:
My Skywalker Ranch Flickr Set
Skywalker Sound has a great deal about the technical building
The Rather Slim Wikipedia Article
A great and lengthy LA Times article by Geoff Boucher no longer available at the latimes.com
A 1986 Visit
Dan Goldwassers Trip to The Ranch
Justin Derban visits the Ranch
AWN visits part one and part two
Steve Simon Visits