Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, overlooking one of the most magnificent stretches of coastline in the world, the twin towers of San Simeon are silhouetted against the sky, suggesting a castle of some childhood fantasy. A five-mile drive leads from the sea to the top of Enchanted Hill, winding among fields of wild flowers, disappearing into a cloud, emerging again to thread its way among lofty colonnades of palm trees. Along it every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving a procession of yellow buses carries more than 1,000 visitors—five times that number in summer—to Hearst Castle, the most extraordinary private dwelling ever built on this continent.
More than eight million visitors have traveled the twisting road to the top of the hill since the State of California, which now owns the castle and 124 acres immediately surrounding it, opened San Simeon to the public in 1958. They come from every state in the U.S. and every corner of the world to marvel at the splendor and to speculate about the man who conceived it. So compelling is the interest in San Simeon that tours are sold out days in advance—weeks in summer—and revenues from admissions more than cover the $2 million annual operating costs. Hearst Castle is, in fact, the only California State Monument that not only pays for itself but also makes a profit.
This would no doubt amuse the late William Randolph Hearst, because few men in this or any age spent money with such total abandon. When he lived there, San Simeon cost $6,000 a day to run, and nobody paid admission. In its glory days during the 1920s and '30s, Hearst Castle was the gathering place of the superstars of business, politics and the arts. No invitation was more sought-after or more prized than one to visit San Simeon.
Today there is another invitation to San Simeon that is equally coveted—one to hunt in the hills and cliffs beyond the castle. Here in the rocky crags and canyons of the 77,000 acres still owned by the Hearst family can be found two of the world's fine big-game species: the Barbary sheep, known also as the aoudad, and the Himalayan tahr, a wild mountain goat.
December 13, 1976
Transplanted to the ranch more than half a century ago, these natives of North Africa and Nepal respectively have adapted remarkably, and have become almost as much a part of San Simeon as the man who put them there. Over the years fewer than 100 sportsmen have had the privilege of hunting on the ranch. Some have come from as far away as Iran and India. One man, upon being invited, took a plane that same day from Hawaii. Another canceled a trip to Europe.
The man who issues the invitations and wields such Hearstian power is not a Hearst but a local sportsman and farmer named Jack Greer, who for the past 12 years has had sole responsibility for managing the game at San Simeon. Besides Barbaries and tahr, the ranch also has thriving populations of sambar and fallow deer, elk and zebras.
Today such exotic animals have become almost commonplace on ranches in Texas and New Mexico, but in the 1920s Hearst's private wildlife collection was unique. Virtually every animal that could be found in the great zoos of the world was represented. Haifa century before the concept of drive-through wild animal parks became a fad, Hearst had created one on his property.
After his death in 1951 all the caged animals and many of those that were fenced were distributed to zoos up and down the West Coast. The Barbary sheep, tahr, sambar and fallow deer, elk and zebras stayed behind. They were confined to their old enclosures until a winter storm knocked down much of the fencing and the animals escaped. Once out they chose to go nowhere. As the years passed, the fences deteriorated completely but the animals remained in their familiar habitat and multiplied.
Greer's association with the ranch and its game dates back to his boyhood when he would spend his out-of-school hours exploring the hills and ravines and trapping raccoons along the beach. He grew up just over the mountain from San Simeon on a farm which he now owns. "In two weeks each year," he says, "I can farm enough to pay the taxes, keep the place looking good, and still have enough money left over to hunt whenever and wherever I want."
In years past there has been enough left over to enable Greer, a widower, to go on safaris to Africa, India, Iran, Mongolia, Europe, Canada and Mexico. The trophy room in his house is filled with mementos of these hunts. At 66, Jack Melvin Greer is lean and sinewy, carrying 160 pounds on his six-foot frame, which gives him the appearance of being much taller. His expertise as a hunter, particularly of wild sheep, has brought him in contact with most of the top big-game hunters of the postwar era. One of them, the late Julio Estrada of Cuernavaca, Mexico, was indirectly responsible for launching Greer's present hunting operation at the Hearst Ranch.
On a trip to Mexico in 1961, Greer was surprised to find among Estrada's many outstanding trophies collected on several continents a small and not impressive Barbary sheep. He had seen any number of considerably better heads on the Hearst Ranch. When he returned to California he asked the superintendent of San Simeon for permission to guide Estrada on a sheep and tahr hunt on the ranch.
"Who would want to shoot one of those?" the man asked.
"By then I had hunted a lot," Greer says. "I knew how difficult and expensive it was to go after either animal in its native habitat. After the hunt with Julio I was convinced of the ranch's potential. Its game was running wild. I found record-book heads rotting in canyons all over the place—wasted. It was a damn shame some of those animals were not being harvested. I told the superintendent that I would like to have the shooting concession on the ranch. I knew I could make it profitable for the Hearsts."
Not long after, Greer met with William Randolph Hearst Jr. and his brother George. When he told them he thought $200 a fair price to charge for a Barbary sheep, they were skeptical that anyone would pay that much to shoot a sheep. But not for long.
"When word got out," Greer says, "the mail wouldn't fit in my mailbox. Everyone wanted to hunt on the Hearst Ranch. I had to write and say the season was temporarily closed. Then I raised the price to $500, and the requests still kept coming in."
In the 12 years since then Greer has taken out 93 hunters, and the 130-odd trophies they have taken have some impressive measurements. Only seven other Barbary sheep in the world rank ahead of the biggest taken at the ranch—a 32½-inch head—and of these one was a pickup in Africa's Ennedi plateau and another died of old age in a Pennsylvania zoo. Of the 20 U.S. Barbary sheep records listed in the 14th edition of Rowland Ward's Records of Big Game, eight are from the Hearst Ranch. Ted Maino of San Luis Obispo took a tahr there in 1969 with horns that measure 16 inches. Two of Greer's Chicago clients have heads on their walls just one-eighth inch shorter. All three exceed the largest head taken in decades in the tahr's native habitat.
Greer is understandably proud of the reputation he and the ranch's hunting have earned. "I've never had a hunter leave this ranch with a trophy he wasn't happy with," he says. "It's been nothing but harmony with the hunters and with the Hearsts. I furnish my knowledge and the clients; the Hearsts furnish the land and the game. They leave responsibility for setting fees and deciding how many heads should be harvested entirely to me. After 12 years of controlled hunting and 12 years of fighting off the coyotes, I have more game here than when I started, and it's all a lot healthier."
Greer now charges $600 to shoot a Barbary sheep, $750 to shoot a tahr. But a sportsman needs more than folding money to make such a hunt. His credentials in the field are as important as the money in his bank account. The list of people who would like to hunt on the Hearst Ranch would fill a medium-sized telephone book, but Greer has no interest in guiding anyone he does not know, or know a great deal about. In spite of the fee, his is not a commercial hunt in the usual sense. Nor is it a hunt to every sportsman's taste.
"You'd better be able to walk and you'd better be able to climb," Greer warns prospective clients. He does both with the stamina and agility of a mountain goat, often leaving hunters half his age gasping for breath in their efforts to keep up with him. Stalking a terrain where for more than 50 years the sheep and tahr have found sanctuary even from the mountain lions is rugged sport.
Viewed from the foot of Enchanted Hill, the country surrounding the castle looks lush and inviting. The hills appear gentle and rolling. There is no hint of the great brush-choked draws, steep canyons, precipitous drops and sheer cliffs that blend deceptively into the landscape. In the distance they are softened by the sunlight and muted by the fog that rolls in from the ocean most afternoons. But up in the mountains there is nothing gentle about the rocks and ravines into which the Barbaries and tahr merge and disappear.
It is this remarkable ability of both species to dissolve into the landscape, even into places where seemingly there is no cover at all, that makes hunting them so challenging. Good binoculars and infinite patience are mandatory, but even so equipped it is not uncommon for a newcomer to the ranch to glass over countless animals without seeing them. The terrain itself aids the game in this deception, distorting distances and perspective. The hills appear closer than they actually are, the canyons narrower, the ravines less steep. And the animals themselves, as I learned on a hunt there last fall, are never quite as large or as near as one thinks.
"See that rock straight ahead," Greer said, pointing to an outcropping in the distance. "That's called Sheep Rock because the ewes like to gather there when they have young. There are always a few rams around, too. See how many you can find."
At first there were none to be seen. The rock with its turrets and spires and reddish ledges appeared empty of all life. Several birds flirted momentarily with one of its peaks, then flew on. I worked over the outcropping section by section with glasses but all I could see was rock. Greer laughed.
"I make out 17 on my first count," he said, "but I probably missed a few."
Bracing my elbows on my knees, I steadied the glasses and concentrated. The rock was as empty as before. Then my eye caught movement. It was no more than a flash, the flick of a tail, but suddenly everything was in proper perspective. There were sheep, just as Greer had said, all over the rock but they were mere specks compared to what I had been looking for or expecting to see. I realized that the rock had to be at least 10 times the size I originally thought it to be, and that it was considerably farther away than it seemed.
Through our glasses, three rams trotted onto the horizon in single file, the long hairs of their beards and chaps clearly visible. They paused for a moment and looked in our direction, unconcerned, then continued down the rock face, paying little heed to the ewes and lambs that watched them.
"Young bucks," Greer said. "They know they are safe around all those ewes. Just showing off for the ladies."
The old fellows, the trophies that make hunting the Hearst Ranch so suspenseful, are rarely so foolhardy. They stay away from the crowds, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of one or two other old males, and they seldom silhouette themselves on horizons. Record heads are found on animals that are not only old but smart.
But even the smartest is occasionally outwitted by the formidable combination of Greer's skill and experience coupled with a modicum of luck. Cresting a hill north of the castle late one afternoon we came upon an old cattle track. Greer's attention was caught by a barely discernible depression in the sand. He squatted and moved the palm of his hand circularly over it.
"I can still feel the body heat," he whispered. "There was a sheep dusting here only seconds ago. They like to find a sandy place like this and roll in it to get the insects out of their chaps and manes."
Greer looked about, studying the nearby terrain. About 300 yards away the gnarled trunk of a madrona tree projected from a clump of brush. It was the only cover on the hillside. Greer motioned with his head in the direction of the brush and started moving toward it. We stepped on tiptoe, pausing every few feet to look and listen. The only sound was my breathing.
Then, a few yards from the dark wall of thicket, Greer touched my arm and signaled me to go ahead of him and to the left of the brush. His mouth formed the word "move." I took several long strides, almost running, and skirted the edge of the thicket. An old ram rose clumsily to its feet, clearly startled. For an instant it looked at me with oval yellow eyes, as if not believing its sanctuary had been violated. Then it spun around, too late. The hunt was over.
Greer came up behind me, a broad grin on his face. "One thing about hunting these sheep," he said, "is that no matter how long you go after them, and no matter how well you think you know them, there is always one that will surprise you. That's what makes hunting here so interesting."