Indiana Jones always finds what he's looking for in isolated, faraway places. The same could be said of Harrison Ford.
The leading man of "Star Wars," "The Fugitive," "Witness" and "Air Force One" -- and of course "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," coming May 22 -- is happiest in the private 800-acre woodlands around his Wyoming home or soaring over the American landscape in one of his many private aircraft.
But he also sees the pleasure in a simple California day hike. Today, he's tackling the trailways of Temescal Canyon, a public park tucked into the oceanside mountains of the Pacific Palisades just outside Santa Monica.
In a grassy area at the start of the trailhead, the 65-year-old actor hops down with ease after posing for photographs atop a massive tree trunk. He's eager to get into the steep hike, though he jokes: "There'd better be a bar and restaurant at the end."
No such luck. The trail is a loop that winds up into rolling mountains, lush at this time of year because of recent rains. Passing around a hairpin turn on the trail, Ford mentions he hasn't seen "Crystal Skull" in its finished form, just the dailies during shooting. But he's sure he'll see it before it premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18.
Many of the plotlines of "Crystal Skull" are still secret, but Ford says the movie will try to give new perspectives on his globe-trotting, fist-fighting archaeologist. Jones happens to be among Ford's favorite characters, and he has put his own curmudgeonly rogue qualities into him.
"He's a guy who is pretty clear from the beginning," Ford says. "He has not changed so much between films. But we've learned more about him, through various plot devices, such as the introduction of his father. And we'll learn something more about him in this film. I think it's required. If you're going to bring back a character, you'll have to supply the audience with something more and different.
"The adventure is very, very important. But it's interesting to discover a facet of the character that perhaps you hadn't explored before."
One of those things is age, which is apt, considering some wonder whether the actor is getting too up in years to play the action hero.
"I think it's an interesting element to take advantage of," Ford says. "Clearly, it's another challenge that he faces."
Ford's challenge of the moment is scaling a rocky slope beneath low branches. As he navigates the terrain, it's easy to imagine a bit of Indiana Jones swagger seeping into Ford's mild manner. But he says it doesn't work that way.
"My actual true life has dynamics to it that are as interesting to me as Indiana Jones' life," he says. "It's not so enmeshed in fantasy."
Keep acting, keep smiling
It has been almost 20 years since he last played Jones in 1989's "The Last Crusade" and nearly 27 years since he first played the character in 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But getting back was "really easy," he says. "It's as though you put on that hat, the leather jacket, the bag, the whip, the gun — or even the schoolteacher's suit — and it comes back to you."
As he ascends the hills, assorted day-hikers come stomping down from the trail ahead, crashing through the surrounding brush. Stunned smiles appear when they realize whom they've just come face to face with, and Ford grins and says hello to each one, breaking stride only to let them pass.
One man asks if he's having a good hike or a great hike.
"Great hike," Ford says, and the man hands him a card that reads: KEEP SMILING. Ford gives the stranger his signature cocked grin and pockets the card.
He regards being a screen icon with the matter-of-fact attitude of a blue-collar worker. "It's my job," he says. "I think it's the best job in the world. Where else can you go to play with such big toys?"
His own kids were never too dazzled that their old man got to, say, fly spaceships in "Star Wars" or explore a futuristic L.A. in "Blade Runner." "I think they grew up in the store, disabused of the potential for anything more than the understanding that it's the job I do."
His four children (from two marriages that ended in divorce) are grown now, and he has grandchildren, ages 14 and 7. "They know me as Grandpa first," he says. "They know the reality of the business I'm in." Even from a very young age, "they knew Chewbacca was a fiction."
Ford is back to being a dad to 7-year-old Liam, the son of his partner, Calista Flockhart. The Indiana Jones movies can be frightening for children ("Temple of Doom" helped initiate the PG-13 rating), and Ford says Liam hasn't seen them yet.
Ford is looking forward to that someday, though. "The pleasure of making something is always sharing it, especially with people who are close to you."
No fences for Ford
The path levels out along a bluff, a thin waterfall spills down its face. At the base, a small wooden bridge traverses a wide, rippling pool. Ford rests his elbows on the bridge railing and watches the waterfall in silence for a few moments. "There are tons of these," Ford says. "When you fly around here, you see so much more open land. There are waterfalls everywhere."
Piloting his own airplanes is a special passion for the star, and he maintains several aircraft at a hangar in Santa Monica. Flying smaller aircraft is something special. "A commercial airliner is so unlike flying. You're in a huge machine, insulated against the aerodynamic effects, and you're at 35,000 feet looking out. You don't have the same kind of emotional contact of what's happening around you."
After a while, he pushes off the railing and looks up the steeply ascending path. "Carry on?" he asks.
His fondness for wilderness came at an early age. A Boy Scout growing up in and around Chicago, he was often sent for week-long visits to farms and campsites.
He lives mainly in Los Angeles these days, to be close to his family. But it's clear he has a deep affection for his woodland home in Jackson, Wyo.
"It was at one time a working cattle ranch, but when I bought it 20-some-odd years ago, the first thing I did was sling the cattle off it and let it go back to the natural environment. It took three or four years for the grasslands to come back and the streams to clear up. Now the cattle have been replaced largely by elk, who use the same food source — grass. And they're much easier on the environment."
"Critters and birds" abound
As for the 800 acres that surround the home: "It's mostly cottonwood trees and river bottom, so it's laced with spring creeks, coyotes and foxes and deer, all kinds of small critters and birds."
After reaching a crest where the full slopes of the canyon come into view, Ford starts back down the mountainside, passing a woman on a narrow section. He says a polite "Hello" and then grumbles, "Nice talking to ya" when she speed-walks by, oblivious.
At this point in his career and with $3.1 billion in box-office revenue, the actor doesn't need to prove anything anymore. But he also hasn't been very prolific lately. He has made only two movies in six years: the crime comedy "Hollywood Homicide" and the techno-thriller "Firewall."
Neither was well-regarded. "But they were adventures," Ford says, referring to the process rather than the story lines. "Once in a while, you take shots on things, and it doesn't work out. I don't think either of them … well, you might well accuse "Hollywood Homicide" of a certain lack of ambition. But I don't think "Firewall" suffers from a lack of ambition. It just suffers from failure to get itself together and be as interesting as it might have been."
After the new Indiana Jones movie, he has a role in the ensemble film "Crossing Over" (opening Aug. 22) as an immigration agent who tries to help a woman who has crossed the border illegally be reunited with her child.
It's an experiment for Ford, dabbling in lower-budget, art-house fare. "I wanted to do a film where I didn't take responsibility for the screenplay, where I didn't take responsibility for the film, and just played a role in an ensemble."
He's not a movie buff, and his tastes have trended toward pop culture and mass entertainment. "What if we made art and nobody came? That'd be the (pits)," he says with a laugh. "Art can be very self-satisfying, very indulgent."
Some actors of his stature simply decide not to do it anymore. Sean Connery, 77, who played Jones' father in "The Last Crusade," said he wouldn't return for Indy IV because he had given up acting.
Does Ford ever think of retiring? "Kick back and work for Scotland's freedom?" Ford jokes, referring to Connery's pet cause of his homeland breaking from the United Kingdom to be an independent nation. "I don't think I'll make that same choice. But sure. I think I might decide to do other things, but I think it's a ways down the line.
"I'm still having as much fun and taking as much pleasure, and I'm as intellectually stimulated by the process, as I ever was."
The actor doesn't rule out working on a film with Flockhart, either, though he doesn't seem eager to mix business with his personal life. "We might do that, but it's not something we're actively seeking."
He also might consider a fifth installment of Indiana Jones, though he hopes it wouldn't take 20 years to pull together.
On the way back down the trail, Ford seems to soften his stance about the differences between his own personality and that of his most famous character: "I think I'm as curious as he is, but much less an academic. I'm less likely to get myself into dramatic situations."
No fistfights with Nazis, then? "No, I stay away from fistfights," he says, laughing. "Anytime I've been in one, I've broken a bone in my hand or finger."
Fans love actors because they project on them their admiration for the on-screen fantasy. Ford says it's just a reach, a hope that there is some measure of reality to the fiction they see at the theater.
In summer 2001, a Boy Scout vanished overnight in Yellowstone National Park. Ford, like many local pilots, volunteered his services. He happened to find the boy while patrolling the Wyoming wilderness in his helicopter, and the incident made headlines — not because it was especially dramatic, but because Ford was the rescuer.
As the Temescal Canyon path winds down to flat land under the cool cover of towering trees, the actor grimaces at the memory. He says it was just a good deed and hardly matinee-style theatrics. "What annoyed me about it all was that I'd pick somebody up off the mountain one day, and two days later they'd be on 'Good Morning America,'" Ford says. "I thought, 'It doesn't give credit to all the other people involved.' "
He shakes his head: "Suddenly, I'm swanning around as some kind of (expletive) hero."