THE MAN AND THE LEGEND
By Ray Ford © 1984
In the evening, from the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, you can get a glimmer of what lies in the outback. With the midday harshness of the chaparral mountainsides softened by evening alpenglow, in the dusky light the land reaches out like a promise. Sitting astride a thin outcrop of sandstone I breathed quietly, absorbing the mood and the sounds—the delicately quiet interplay of breeze and birdsong, the rustling of oats, the screech of a red-tail hawk circling overhead.
The silence of the distant mountains—the San Rafael and the Sierra Madres—beckons me, as does the invisible image of the man who devoted his life to protecting them. He was born Richard J. Smith on August 29, 1920 in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The "J" stood for Jay, but everyone knew him as Dick. He died on the evening of February 2, 1977 of a heart attack while out in the corral feeding his horses. He was only 56.
This was Dick Smith's kind of country. To him it was not forbidding, but a world of unsullied grandeur, a land he thought of as "inner wilderness," where the beauty comes not so much from an appreciation of its surface features but something that developes from within, a heightening of one's own senses in the face of wilderness challenges.
Dick loved the chaparral countryside without reservation. Something in him urged a closer inspection, a desire to peek beneath the surface and immerse himself in its subtleties. Many people, like myself, learned to love this land first through his eyes.
"For us who remain behind it is hard," wrote author Bob Easton (co-author with Dick of California Condor: Vanishing American) after his death. "Who will fill the gap he leaves? Who will care as much? Who will be, as one friend accurately said, 'the conscience of our community?"'
Artist, photographer, Promotion Manager for the Santa Barbara News-Press, self-taught naturalist, ardent conservationist, Dick Smith devoted the last 20 years of his life getting to know Santa Barbara County better than anyone. Fittingly, in the mid-1980s a 74,000 acre chunk of the back country was designated the Dick Smith Wilderness by President Reagan.
THE TURNING POINT
Dick's first introduction to the backcountry came in the 1950s on a family picnic to Figueroa Mountain with close friend Noel Young, now owner of Capra Press. While the wives and kids scampered around the camp collecting pine cones for Christmas, Dick and Noel hiked up the fire road to a lookout at the top of the mountain.
There he met an old man who was at the station all by himself. A little bit lonesome for conversation, the old man began to talk about the country, telling Dick about the pioneer homesteaders, the Chumash who had once lived back here, and about the wildlife.
"Come on over here," the old timer invited. "Let me show you something special." The two of them walked over to the tip of the ridge where the sunset was just developing. "Jenny and Natt will be along soon," he added, "and I want you to meet them."
Dick didn't know it at the time, but Jenny and Natt were foxes which had become accustomed to the presence of the old man, and often wandered by the lookout at dusk. When Jenny and Natt showed up, almost as if right on schedule, Dick was deeply impressed.
This was the first Dick had ever heard of this country or its wildlife. The old man's stories, the lighting, and the appearance of the foxes lent a sense of mystery and enchantment to the moment.
"I've got to get down into that country," Dick breathed after a moment of staring out over the landscape, "I've got to see what's out there."
HIS FIRST TRIP
Dick was Promotion Manager for the Santa Barbara News-Press at the time, and soon thereafter he invited one of the staff writers, Barney Brantingham, to join him on a backpacking trip to the Sierra Madre Mountains.
"We ended up hiking half the night, off-trail, up some brush-choked, god-forbidding side canyon," Barney remembered. "Dick had no idea where we were, but he didn't let me know it. Instead, he'd just keep urging me on a little further, getting my imagination worked up about what might be around the next bend.
"Before we knew it we were not only hopelessly lost, but too far from anything we could call camp to bed down before dark, so we stopped right there, out in the middle of nowhere, which was exactly where Dick seemed to want to be anyway.
"Dick loved it. You could see it in his eyes and the things he said. You knew there wasn't anyplace he'd rather be right then, despite the aching muscles, the scratched arms and legs, and the intense thirst."
Predictably, few people went on a second trip with Dick. But as a result of his intensity, Dick got to know the back country in a depth that few before him ever had.
About this time Dick Smith's duties at the News-Press expanded. He became a staff artist and also was given the opportunity to write his first environmental articles for the paper. These duties made it possible for him to get out into the back country more and more.
It was a career, however, that was leading him further and further away from his childhood dreams. In the Depression years of the mid-1930s in rural North Dakota, while most tenenagers were engaged in practical pursuits, Dick was dreaming of goiung to art school. He loved sculpture.
His father, however, had different ideas.
"His father was a lovely person, but rigid." Dick's widow, Olive, explained to me. "There was the wrong way and his way. Dick was very definitely like his father—not so authoritative, but very opinionated."
The father prevailed in the choice of schools and Dick enrolled at the State School of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota, taking courses in electrical engineering, but he succeeded only in flunking out. At this point Dick decided to go his own way, enrolling at the Minnesota School of Art. He met Olive there.
"Dick had the artist in him from the very start," Olive said. "He was long-haired far before it was fashionable, and I remember that he was always wearing a ratty old green corduroy coat that he thought fit the image.
"What impressed me even then was that Dick had made the jacket himself—no pattern—he just did it, saying 'Gee, I wonder if I can make that."'
This was to become a trademark of Dick's: "He wouldn't buy a damned thing unless he absolutely had to," added News-Press writer, Bob Sollen. "He'd go out and price whatever it was he needed, then say 'the hell with it' and make it himself."
Once, he even tried to make his own false teeth, actually purchasing all of the needed supplies, before common sense encouraged him to go to the family dentist.
World War II interrupted art school and he never went back after he returned from service. He never did obtain a college degree, and that often bothered him.
After he joined the Navy in 1943, Dick was stationed in San Francisco in 1943. He met Noel Young there, and it was their friendship which led him to Santa Barbara.
"I was in the Army and like all soldiers, when I was on leave, I headed for the City to get drunk," said Noel. We were both hitchhiking—Dick was on the way back to his apartment on Van Ness—and we quickly struck up a conversation. We both dreamed of being artists then—me being convinced I was going to be the next Dostoevsky—and on the spot Dick invited me over. Based on the conversation in the car, Dick gave me a key to his apartment and welcomed me anytime.
"When I opened the door I could see Dick's easel up in the middle of the room, which was full of the smell of linseed oil. I went out and bought salami and cheese and came back and relaxed and listened to Dick's records—Mendelsohn, Back and Bessie Smith—and that was the start of something special."
Eventually, after the end of the war, Noel and his wife settled in Santa Barbara, though not by plan. "Our car broke down here," Noel explained, "and we sort of settled in without ever planning to."
In 1948, Dick and Olive visited the Young family while on a vacation trip. At the time Dick was in the promotion department of a Minneapolis newspaper. Almost as an afterthought, Noel suggested that Dick interview for a job with the News-Press.
"I knew Charles Storke, so I arranged for a meeting between Dick and him. I mentioned to Mr. Storke that a Richard J. Smith might be stopping by, but when I saw the resume I noticed it said Dick Smith. I asked him about that. He told me he wasn't a Richard, just a Dick."
A month after the vacation, Storke sent Dick a letter offering him a job as Promotion Manager. It was quickly accepted. Immediately afterward, Dick called Noel and told him to buy him the best house he could find that was close to Noel. Several days after this, a cashier's check for $8,000 arrived in Noel's mailbox. Soon thereafter Dick showed up.
"He arrived in Santa Barbara by train and he had with him a trunkload of tools that must have weighed 500 pounds. We needed to rent a truck to haul them to the house I had found in Summerland. He went to work on it furiously, opening up walls, installing view windows and the like. A month later the house had been transformed.
"Even then Dick had a fierce determination—he'd work until he dropped, often later than 2 AM, and as soon as he woke in the morning he'd start again. He pushed himself so hard that he often hurt himself—he always seemed wounded—but no matter how much he hurt himself he wouldn't quit until he was finished.
"Dick's body was more than just a physical thing—it was a vehicle for his spirit—and it seemed like he lived more that 2-3 lifetimes in his 56 years."
A few years later the two families moved onto the same property, purchasing a lot together. It was nothing but bare ground with an old goat shed. "We evicted the goats and moved the families in," Noel laughed.
The shed was partitioned with an old blanket and in the midst of the winter rains both families moved in. The slabs were poured for both houses in January.
"Since there were no building codes at the time, we built them out of our weekly paychecks, doing what we could after we'd paid for food and whatever else we needed," Noel added.
The Smiths were in their house by Easter. There were no windows—just the framing and the roof—and a sea of mud—but they were in! Though neighbors complained of the late-night pounding and the sound of screaming skill saws, the family dream began to take shape. Unfortunately, not all was going so well at the News-Press.
"Dick worked for a terrible person—someone who treated him like dirt—and in those days he compromised himself every working day," Olive said.
Noel Young hoped Dick's dissatisfaction with the News-Press job would rekindle his artistic talents. If Noel had his way they would have gone into business on their own. "I got Dick odd jobs in the evening doing layouts and art work, and once I even said pointblank, 'Dick, why don't we go into the publishing business together?' But he said, 'I don't want to have to think about money.' That was why he liked working for a large corporation—it was secure."
Somewhere in these years Dick turned away from gallery art. The next Picasso was destined to become something else. With his camera and writer's notebook, he began to sketch out an image of the back country that has since become a legacy to all of us.
In the early house-building years, painting was still important to Dick. His canvasses were scattered throughout the house, even propped atop the baby's high chair. By the 1960s, however, the palette had been replaced by a camera.
Going up into the mountains seemed to counteract the pressure of working at the News-Press and it seemed to inflame his imagination. While the trip to Figueroa Mountain had served to initiate Dick's curiosity about the back country, the trip with Barney Brantingham was his first direct contact with the land. Shortly thereafter, a conversation with Campbell Grant (author of Rock Paintings of the Chumash) gave a distinct purpose to his travels.
Campbell told Dick about a very special Chumash rock art site known as Pool Rock. Only he didn't tell Dick where it was.
For more than a year, whenever he could, Dick traveled into the Hurricane Deck country (in the heart of what is now the San Rafael Wilderness), exploring the land he had first seen from atop Figueroa Mountain. He searched diligently for the sacred spot, exploring each of the side canyons, in the process learning more and more about the back country. By the time he had found it he knew he had found his life's purpose.
Early in 1963, he shared Pool Rock with another long time Santa Barbara resident, Bob Easton. Bob's father had been manager of Rancho Sisquoc in the early 1900s and Bob had grown up as a child exploring the back country.
Together they explored the nearby canyons, eventually finding Condor Cave, which the two of them surmised might have once been a sacred site used by Chumash shamans to conduct solstice ceremonies. Bob suggested a summer trip to explore other parts of the back country. The trip took them across the high country, through Mission Pine Basin and down Fall Canyon to the Sisquoc River.
This was to be Dick's first big exposure to the Sisquoc. Coming right on top of the trip to Pool Rock, he was overwhelmed—especially since they were traveling by horseback. Bob remembered the trip quite well, laughing, "I don't think Dick had ever been on a horse before in his life. He held the reins too tight, and he was really stiff, like a dude, but he had a great time, and from that time on he loved traveling by horseback."
Soon after he got back from the trip, Dick bought his daughter Judy, who had been along with Bob and him, her own horse. She, seeing how much the experience meant to her dad, returned the favor by buying him his own. He named the horse Josephine and quickly began to outfit it.
Saddle bags were made out of old jeans with the bottoms of the legs sewn shut. Grain went in the pant legs, while above, in the crotch, went the pots and pans and assorted gear. Typically, Dick refused to buy a trailer, instead teaching Josephine to jump up into the back of his battered old pick-up truck, which he had outfitted with board sides and top and compartments to store gear.
About this time the pressures at the News-Press eased as Dick was able to expand his duties to include artwork and occasional writing and photographic assignments.
"No one else could have gotten away with the things Dick did—but everything he did always seemed to end up helping the News-Press—so he got away with it," Bob Sollen explained. Eventually Dick worked out the ideal job there. His title was Promotion Manager, but that only took about 25 percent of his time—the rest of the time Dick did what he wanted to do.
"He'd work Mondays and Tuesdays—maybe Wednesdays—then he'd take off for the back country to follow up on a story—and often no one knew where he was," Bob continued. "I'm not even sure Olive knew; he was just off exploring some new part of the county.
"But by doing it that way, by taking the time and by getting off the beaten path, Dick got the great pictures—the baby owl in the tree, the misty clouds with the sunset light filtering through, the condor soaring in flight.
"Dick really wasn't a good reporter. He didn't have a good newspaper style, and he was usually too involved in his stories to remain objective, but he had good ideas, and he knew everything that was going on in the county, especially with the Forest Service, where he had plenty of friends.
"When Dick would hear about something going on, he would disappear for a few days and when he would get back he'd drag me out of the office for a 45 minute coffee break—whether I could afford the time or not. He'd tell me all these stories—about some road being pushed into the back country, or some camp being ruined—then he'd be off to drum up support for his position among one of the environmental groups in town, or to the Forest Service to see what he could do. Not everyone always appreciated his meddling."
Olive put it more succinctly. "There were a number of people who couldn't stomach Dick," she said.
"He didn't hesitate to use people if it helped support something he believed in," Joy Parkinson, then President of the local chapter of the Audubon Society, told me.
"Often Dick would come to the wrong conclusions and then stubbornly stick to them," Bob Easton acknowleged. "His knowledge was intuitive and experiential—rather than intellectual, and sometimes he would fall into the error of the person who was a little bit educated and would therefore think he knew a lot. And if pushed, he could really make an ass of himself.
But if there was a measure of his life, it was in his fierce determination, the stubbornness, his desire to protect this piece of wilderness, the very things that sometimes led him to make an ass of himself.
"His whole attitude was one of such wonder, and he taught you to love things and experience things you never could have on your own," explained Jan Hamber, his research companion in his last years of work on the California Condor.
"He'd never stop and take my hand to help me across a precarious crossing. He'd just drop down some steep slope, cross the little creek with a hop and keep right on
going. If I yelled for help he'd point out the way and hold for a second to make sure I was okay. Once he could see I'd be able to make it, he was right on going again."
That was the way Dick Smith lived his life.
It was the condor to which Dick devoted the last part of his life.
"There are moments when one is larger than life," Bob Easton reminded me, "and it is important that we judge one by those moments." For Dick, many of these moments involved the condor.
"One day I saw Dick on the other side of the street," Noel Young said, "and when he saw me he started jumping up and down, gesturing animatedly with his arms, 'We just had a babyl We just had a babyl' I could hear him shouting. I couldn't figure out what he was talking about because all I could think of was Olive and she wasn't exactly child-bearing age. But when he got across the street I found out that he was talking about a baby condor, the first recording of one being born in Santa Barbara County since the early 1900s.
"Here he was 55 years old and I thought, 'What are you so excited about?' He was just crazy—jumping up and down and carrying on—but that was Dick—his personality was everything."
If there was a flaw, it was in his intensity. If there was something that separated him from others, it was in his undiminished devotion to and care for the back country—he was a friend of the wildlife first, and only second to those who wanted to use the land. If there was a mistake, it was that he was intolerant of those who thought otherwise.
Dick Smith died on February 2, 1977. It was something he knew to be coming for quite awhile, but his love for the back country wouldn't allow him to slow down.
There was the high blood pressure that had been with him all his life. Even as early as 1964 there were signs of physical problems. He passed out once while helping a friend protect his house during the Coyote Fire in 1964. The chest pains were there for at least a year before he died.
"He had the pain for quite a while," Jan Hamber added. "He'd say his strap wasn't adjusted right or that there was something wrong with his pack. He was always adjusting the straps and using this as an excuse for the pains radiating across his chest.
"Finally I asked Dick pointblank, 'What do I do if you drop dead while we are out here in the middle of nowhere?'
“‘Just leave me,' he replied.
"'That's just fine if I know where we are,' I answered."
On several occasions friends urged Dick to see a doctor about the pain, but in a rare moment of gruffness, he replied, "I don't want to. I don't take stock in doctors." Perhaps more importantly, he was afraid the doctor would tell him he couldn't go out in the back country anymore. This was something he wouldn't have allowed anyone to say to him.
Instead of easing up, he pushed on, continuing the condor studies and leading several expeditions into the San Rafael Mountains. On one trip, a mule tumbled down a steep cliff, forcing Dick to make a strenuous recovery, perhaps causing that final, ultimate weakening of the heart muscle which cost him his life.
A few days after his death members of the family threaded their way up a narrow dirt road, the same followed by Dick and Barney Brantingham on their first trip into the high country.
They wandered across the potreros, which were filled with sandstone outcroppings that looked like dolphins frolicking in a sea of wildflower covered grass. At one point the car stopped. The gathered few stepped over to one particular rock, and after a few moments of silence, scattered Dick's ashes.
"When everyone else was saying how they missed Dick so much after he died I never felt that," Bob Sollen admitted. "I always felt he was still here. When I did a story, he was always over my shoulder saying, 'No, that's not quite right,' or 'Why don't you try it this way?"'
If you are in the back country, hiking the high country potreros, why not try looking under your feet. For as Bob Easton said so eloquently, "He will be right there under your feet."
Note: This article first appeared in the November, 1984 edition of the Condor Call, a monthly newspaper published by the Los Padres Chaper of the Sierra Club.