have to admit, I brainstormed half a dozen different ways to start this blog post, but there comes a point where you eventually just have to own it. In 2008 my dear friend Carla sent me a link to this YouTube clip with the message, “You could totally be in this movie!”
My response, “Are you kidding? I could have *WRITTEN* that movie!”
Now, in my defense I have never dressed up for a convention. I’ve never stalked a celebrity in their private lives for a signature, and I’ve never gone through anyone’s trash in the hopes of finding a DNA sample to clone the celebrity so I can have him/her for my very own. I’m a healthy dork, and that means knowing where the line is drawn. Being a “healthy” dork is all well and good, but that doesn’t mean I’m not very well educated in the dork-arts.
Anyone with any connection to the Star Wars legacy is aware that George Lucas owns a sprawling ranch just north of San Francisco. What exactly goes on there is less clear, but over the years the legend has grown to resemble Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory. A reclusive genius billionaire locked behind impenetrable gates in a compound where unimaginable mysterious secrets happen every day. Some time ago the magic that sprang from within changed the very industry, but today it sits quiet, dormant. Windows shuttered, lights out, the reclusive genius wounded by the world stays deep inside its walls, and no wonders have sprung from within for years.
But we Star Wars nerds remember.
…and every once in a while we walk up to the entrance, peer in through the gate, and just for a moment let our imaginations wander to what secrets and treasures lie inside.
This is the story of how I took my family to Skywalker Ranch.
My parents live 5 hours away (if traffic is friendly… it’s taken us as long as 9 hours to drive there). Making the drive with 3 kids in the car is harrowing, but we can’t expect the grandparents to drive down to visit us EVERY time. So 3 or 4 times a year we pack up the minivan and drive north through San Francisco and beyond to visit them.
There is nothing pleasant about driving north through the city of San Francisco. That city was not built for the 21st century. But if you manage to survive the unholy congestion of 19th avenue, and you get beyond Golden Gate Park, you are rewarded with the coastal beauty of The Presidio, an old military base right on the bay dotted with red tile-roofed, Spanish-style stucco buildings and hearty cypress trees. Just beyond that is the Golden Gate Bridge. On a clear day you can see the tops of both towers above, countless sailboats darting around on the bay below, and on the other side amber hills that gave California the name “The Golden State” lined with countless drab-colored oaks. It’s almost enough to make your forget the misery you went through to get there.
There’s a tunnel just north of the bridge, and on the other side are some very swank communities. Before the Golden Gate Bridge was built Tiburon and Richmond were places you used to “Summer” after a ferry ride across the bay, and a horse-drawn carriage from there. Now it’s some of the most expensive real-estate you’ll ever see. You drive for 15 minutes looking out the window at how the other half lives and then crest over a hill at San Pedro Rd in the city of San Rafael. From there (if you look past the sprawling auto dealerships at the foot of the hill) you take in the wide open spaces of Northern California. As you leave San Rafael and move into the long stretch (last chance for a potty-break, kids) you pass Frietas Parkway and Lucas Valley Road.
Most people drive by unaware, but Star Wars nerds… we know.
Legend has it that when “Empire Strikes Back” looked like it was going to be a hit, George Lucas went shopping for real-estate far away from the Fascist movie-making culture of Hollywood. There were two contenders, a parcel in Lucas Valley (named for a real-estate mogul at the turn of the century, not the film-making mogul) and one in nearby Smith Valley. A friend advised George at the time “Are you kidding? You have to take the one at Lucas Valley.” And so he did. We’ve driven past the Lucas Valley Rd. exit dozens of times over the past 10 years. Every time I look at the exit, like Charlie peeking through the gates of the chocolate factory, and think to myself “There it is.”
It’s funny how life works out though. A childhood friend of mine with just as much appreciation for all things Star Wars as I have, settled with his beautiful family in San Rafael. In fact, his exit off the freeway is Lucas Valley Road. He’s come down to my neighborhood once or twice, and our families have visited. Naturally it’s only polite to return the favor, especially when you’re already passing through town, right? “Oh yeah,” he says. “Skywalker ranch is just around the corner. We drive by it all the time. My wife grew up here. She’s been up and down Lucas Valley Road her whole life. I know right where the gates are. I can totally show them to you.”
Done and done.
Arrangements were made through a flurry of texts. Permission was obtained from the wives. Google maps were consulted. We launched to head home from my parents place and about 2.5 hours later, just when we all needed a pit-stop, we just happen to find ourselves in San Rafael right at Lucas Valley Road. We pulled off and drove up to my friend’s house for hugs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potty breaks, and photo-ops with the new babies (we both have one). Certainly the visit was the chief priority, but there was no forgetting the other major item on the pit-stop agenda.
We shoehorned the family back into the minivan, this time with my buddy in Chewbacca’s… er, um, I mean the passenger’s seat to operate as chief navigator. Two blocks later we turned left onto Lucas Valley Road and we were on our way. “See the top of that hill there?” he asked, pointing off to a peak a few miles away. “That’s where we’re going”.
We set off down the road (past the Juvenile hall) dodging high-end road bicycles every 30 seconds or so. You move on past the gated communities, then past the million dollar homes and eventually into a gorgeous open space preserve called “Big Rock” (there’s a big rock at the trailhead of some amazing hiking and mountain biking trails). The fence on the side of the road changes character as the land changes from county to private. “See that gate there?” my friend asks and points to a well-landscaped, obviously high-end but still under-stated entrance. “That’s his too.” Apparently Lucas owns a number of parcels in the area. Skywalker ranch is a little further down the road. We dipped into a little forested area, the road wove in and out of some lovely redwoods – UnDorkMommy, who was sitting in the very back with the baby for the last 3 hours fighting off being car-sick was not amused.
A quiet little turn-out marked by the address we were looking for told us we were there. There were no stormtroopers flanking the road – not a sign of R2-D2 and C3PO to be found anywhere. It was just a clean, understated wooden gate with a stone façade that you might expect to see at a state park. The only indication of what laid beyond was a security kiosk where guests call in to have security open the gate. We pulled over and turned off the car. “All right, kids. This is it!”
In all seriousness, when I hatched this plan my big fear was that the man, George Lucas himself was going to drive up and see an obnoxious family taking a photo outside the gate to his private residence. In doing my research I was happy (and surprised) to learn that Lucas himself does not live at Skywalker Ranch. Good. I imagine it’s pretty hard for a guy like him to go out in public. I can appreciate that and I certainly don’t want to make his life more difficult in that regard. It would certainly bother me if throngs of fanatical fanboys trekked to take photos in front of my house. I also didn’t want to be a nuisance to the community either, although I imagine people like me at that address are not an unfamiliar sight. The best strategy – get in and out like SEAL Team 6.
I hustled my family out of the minivan and threw the camera into my buddy’s hand. I popped the hatch to the car, pulled out some toy lightsabers (gee… How did those get in there? What an incredible coincidence) and we all did our best Jedi Knight poses in front of the gate for a picture. Thankfully nobody needed to get in or out of the gate when we were there, but a couple folks drove by on the road and waved to us. They obviously knew exactly what we were doing and had seen it before. Picture taken, we quick piled back into the minivan and headed back the way we came down Lucas Valley Road. Mission accomplished.
As a friend said to me last night, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” So here it is, the photo we took… after a little touch-up I did once we finally got the kids to sleep last night.
I owe a *HUGE* thanks to UnDorkMommy. She rode in the back of that minivan down a windy for a 45 minute sidetrack, smack in the middle of a 6 hour drive after spending the entire weekend with her in-laws – and she did it all without rolling her eyes even once.
Also, special thanks goes out to my buddy who took us there and snapped the picture. As I said, he’s as big a Star Wars geek as I am. He’s also a successful Workman’s Comp. attorney in the area. He tells me he’s just waiting for the day that he gets a client from Skywalker Ranch so that he has to have full-access to the facility for discovery. When that day comes I may just have to clear my schedule and go to work for him to help with his documentation.
Call it “Fanboys – Episode 2”.