Riding the Storm with Queen Elizabeth, Santa Barbara–Style

A Little-Known Tale of the Queen’s Historic Visit to the Western White House in 1983

President Reagan riding horses with Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to Windsor Castle in 1982. | Credit: Courtesy White House

When Queen Elizabeth II invited President Ronald Reagan to go horseback riding during his trip to Britain, he suggested they go riding in Santa Barbara so he could show her his ranch horses. The Queen and Prince Philip were scheduled to visit Reagan’s ranch on March 1, 1983. 

It was only because of the Western White House that she was coming to Santa Barbara, but the city really wanted to make the most of the opportunity. We hadn’t had royalty since Queen Elisabeth of Belgium visited in 1919. My son Robert was excited that the Mission Choir was scheduled to sing for the queen. It was directed by Phyllis Zimmerman, who also ran Santa Barbara High School’s Madrigals, and students sang in both choirs. 

I was managing Tierra del Refugio, a small ranch once part of the historic Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio, the only Spanish land-grant ranch in Santa Barbara County. It was owned by Neila Danelius and her two sons, Lincoln and Charley Hollister. The ranch house was tucked into the mountaintop partially hidden by red-barked madrones and oaks. It was beautiful but remote. The entrance at the top of Refugio Road was a steep, narrow track suffering unending blind curves and crisscrossing Refugio Creek. It was also next door to Rancho del Cielo, better known as the Western White House. The Secret Service guarded our shared entrance.

On the 17th of February, the royal couple embarked on an eight-day visit to Mexico on board their royal yacht Britannia, the world’s largest at the time. Sixty thousand Mexicans welcomed Queen Elizabeth in La Paz, Baja California. When the royal party came to Los Angeles, First Lady Nancy Reagan arranged the festivities. Frank Sinatra was in charge of entertainment, which also included George Burns, Perry Como, Dionne Warwick, and Les Brown and His Band of Renown. 

Clearly, Santa Barbara needed to prepare something memorable. The plan was for the queen to cruise to Santa Barbara, where President and Mrs. Reagan would meet her. She would attend ceremonies at the courthouse, have lunch and a horseback ride at the ranch, then visit the Santa Barbara Mission and have dinner aboard her yacht before sailing for San Francisco. But El Niño storms closed the harbor.

Friday afternoon, five days before the queen’s arrival, Robert drove up the mountain after school to the ranch in a rainstorm. It continued to rain all weekend, marooning Robert. I couldn’t get up. He couldn’t come down. He was okay with food, but I could hear how disappointed he was that he would miss his once-in-a-lifetime chance to sing for the queen.

Credit: Mark de Jong / Unsplash

It poured more than four inches on Sunday. The Secret Service confirmed the creek was too high and the crossings too dangerous. On Monday, February 28, it rained another two inches. 

With the rain continuing unabated, it didn’t seem as if I could get back to the ranch, when suddenly there was a break in the storm. I jumped in my car, a heavy old Volvo, but at the first crossing, the water was higher than I’d ever seen it, a rushing black torrent.

Your first inclination would be to get up speed and blast through. Instead, I slowly inched my way through so I wouldn’t send a wave engulfing the engine and flooding it. It was nerve-wracking. At the final crossing, my luck ran out. I stalled in the middle of the creek. The rushing water nearly reached my window. I felt my car shudder as the creek tried pushing me downstream. I’d gone swimming at the university pool in the afternoon and luckily still had my Speedo in the car. I changed into it, crawled out the window, and swam in the dark to the bank. It was nearly midnight.

 I got to a nearby neighbor’s house, and once he got over his surprise at seeing me standing dripping wet and nearly naked on his doorstop, he immediately came out to help. With his truck, a rope I tied underwater to the car, and me finally behind the wheel, we got the car out.  It was just in time, as the rain was now really pounding. 

I didn’t bother changing into my clothes. I turned my car heater on full blast and headed up the mountain, dodging landslides and boulders in the roadway.

Luckily, the Secret Service agent at the gate recognized me so I didn’t have to get out of my car barefoot and in a Speedo. Robert was relieved to see me. We often had serious weather at the ranch, but this night was on another scale. 

The rain was now hitting the house horizontally, shaking the sliding glass doors in the kitchen and making them bow inward so much I was afraid they would explode. At one point, the Secret Service called to ask how we were doing and to let us know they were clocking the winds at the heliport at more than 100 miles per hour.

The next morning, on the first of March, it was wild and windy all over California. A tornado had ripped off a third of the Los Angeles Convention Center’s roof. Then an earthquake rattled Los Angeles. Earthquakes, hurricane winds, rain, hail, lightning, and thunderstorms all within 24 hours? It was a wonder we didn’t fall down on our knees and start praying for the rapture. The day was that crazy.

Credit: Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence

Robert and I checked that our horses were fine. Even though there was plenty of feed from the rains, we grained them and threw them each a flake of hay, something special to celebrate making it safely through the night.

The heavy winds and waves prevented Queen Elizabeth II from sailing her yacht to Santa Barbara, and the freeways were flooded. When the police suggested she cancel her trip, she commandeered a Navy bus. She was magnificent. Sitting next to the driver, she navigated the flooded freeways, commanding her driver, as only a queen can, to plow forward, in order to reach the Long Beach airport in time to catch a flight to Santa Barbara. 

By the time we were heading down the mountain in the ranch’s Jeep Wrangler, the queen was coming up. Robert and I were both wearing full-length yellow riding slickers. I had on my cowboy hat. We saluted the Secret Service at the main gate and headed down Refugio Road. Coming off the steepest part of the mountain, we ran into traffic, so I maneuvered to the left. The parade of black Suburbans carrying Secret Service and British agents crawled passed us, our rear-view mirrors just whispering distance apart. 

Then we saw Queen Elizabeth II. Robert waved. She barely looked at us even though we were sitting only a couple of feet from her. More Suburbans full of agents followed her up. At the next switchback, the queen passed us again. Again, she didn’t acknowledge our waving. More Suburbans. Then we saw another woman in the queen’s car lean forward and point right at us. We could clearly read her lips as she told the queen, “There’s a cowboy!”

Robert waved, and this time, Queen Elizabeth II waved back, smiling at us, a spontaneous, real smile. She was as excited to see us as we her. 

The queen loved the wild weather. She was served a Mexican-styled lunch featuring tacos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, rice, refried beans, guacamole, and fresh fruits. And Robert was able to join the Mission Choir and sing one song for the queen.

The rain continued for another couple of days. When I next saw Lee Clearwater, Reagan’s ranch manager, I asked him how the lunch went. Lee said the queen was very nice and complimentary about the Mexican food. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “She told me she particularly liked the reused beans.” 


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