Reagan ranch life is subdued, modest by California scale

``. . . with the President,'' signed off a radio reporter this week, ``in Santa Barbara.'' In fact the hundred or so reporters traipsing along after the vacationing President seldom get within 30 miles of Mr. Reagan.

But then, neither does Mr. Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan. He was graced with a quick tour of the ranch on his first trip west with the President in February, but has not been up the mountain since.

Instead, sporting a healthy tan and an open collar, Mr. Regan has spent the past week working out of a bungalow at the expansive Biltmore Hotel here.

Robert McFarlane, national-security adviser, has discussed the coup in Sudan and the summit offer by Mikhail Gorbachev with the President. But the only actual visit he took to the Reagans' obscure mountain aerie was for Easter lunch with the first couple.

The press, meanwhile, has packed a conference room in a beachfront hotel here each morning for the past week to catch tidbits sent down from the mountaintop in a briefing by White House staff members.

There is not a pin-striped Washington uniform in sight.White House spokesman Larry Speakes presides in a striped polo shirt and designer jeans.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan are a world away, isolated and obscure, and for over a week now have made no brush with this madding crowd.

While the White House press adopts the tennis-and-golf motif here, the President manages to escape on his ranch to a life of rugged individualism after the 19th-century model.

The rumor in White House corridors, overheard by the Washington Post, is that Reagan may spend more time at the ranch he obviously adores during his second term. Larry Speakes denies this.

During his first four years in office, the President was on the ranch 166 days, according to the reigning authority on Rancho del Cielo, Santa Barbara News-Press reporter Jerry Rankin.

The President does real work here, by informed accounts. He does not chop wood. He cuts it with a chain saw, then splits it with an automatic log splitter Nancy gave him.

Now that his longtime foreman, Lee Clearwater, has passed on (in early March), he has two working companions, retired highway patrolman Barney Barnett and a former policeman now on the White House payroll, Dennis LeBlanc.

Woodcutting is part of a never-ending battle to keep the trails that crisscross the 688-acre ranch on the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains clear of fallen limbs. It also stokes the two fireplaces that provide the only heat in the two-bedroom house.

Few who have seen the Reagan house, their only private address, have been impressed with it. It is very comfortable and very small, Mr. Rankin says. There are rattan chairs with Indian-blanket covers, red-tile floors laid by the first couple themselves, and shelves of history and Western Americana books above the couch.

``All of their friends live better,'' Rankin says. ``There are a lot of ordinary people in Santa Barbara and Goleta who live a lot better than they do.''

Here is the picture Reagan aides give of the President's day at the ranch: Up about 8 a.m. for breakfast and paper work. A trail ride by horseback at 10. Lunch at noon, and some time between 1 to 5 in the afternoon working outside. On Monday, for example, Reagan and his two helpers trimmed willow limbs sagging into the pond by the house.

Guests of any kind are infrequent.

From Santa Barbara, a stylish, pleasantly out-of-the-way city with clear, sunny winters, the turnoff to Rancho del Cielo is 20 miles up the highway.

From the turnoff, Refugio Road cuts north -- straight inland -- through lemon and avocado groves in a small, sandy-soiled valley between hills green with grass and scrub.

The valley narrows into a rocky canyon dense with sprawling oaks and tall sycamores. The road also narrows into a lane that dips and curves wildly, cutting across a boulder-strewn stream several times. Most winters, the stream runs over the road in seven places.

Eventually, the road hits the mountainside and begins to climb. It's a crude, roughly patched road. The hair-raising, horn-honking, one-lane switchbacks offer sweeping vistas of the foothills below that taper off in ridges like the edges of roughly torn paper to the Pacific. It climbs some 2,250 feet through shoulder-high chaparral, scrub oak, and manzanita before it reaches the gate marked 3333 Refugio Road.

These days, there is a guardhouse next to the gate and a white all-terrain vehicle pulled partly across the entrance.

Whether the distant fog that rolled up the canyons from the ocean at twilight this week ever made it here to the summit is known only to a handful of people: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, some Secret Service agents, a military officer with the ``football'' -- codes for launching those military actions that only a President can take, a doctor, and the Reagans' housekeeper, Ann Allman.

The Reagans bought the Tip Top Ranch in 1974 for roughly $550,000, renaming it Rancho del Cielo. As late as 1980, the value of the property in tax records was $20,423. This tax break is due to the property's status as an agricultural preserve.

The small white house sits in the hollow of a meadow near a two-acre pond. It was built around 1890 by an Indian for a Mexican homesteader, Jos'e Jes'us Pico. Pico reportedly grew corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, strawberries, and peaches here without irrigation. The family also raised livestock, and the sons hunted wild pigs.

Reagan used to graze 22 head of cattle here in the summer, but no longer. He has a steer named Duke and several horses. Bobcats, deer, and foxes occasionally show up in the electronic sensing devices with which the Secret Service has ringed the ranch. Bears and mountain lions are not unheard of here, either.

Reagan and his foreman planted a lawn, put up fences made of old telephone poles, put a roof of artificial red tiles on the house, and expanded some rooms. But the place still totals only around 1,500 square feet, says Rankin.

Rankin, who recently interviewed Reagan on the subject, suspects that the President does not mull over affairs of state while sweating over ranch chores, but applies himself to the tasks at hand.

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