Noozhawk’s note: This is a condensed version of an article that I wrote for the November 1984 edition of the Condor Call, a monthly newspaper published by the Sierra Club’s Los Padres Chapter. I am reminded of Dick Smith on those many days when I’m out in the backcountry, especially those far back on the upper reaches of Indian or Mono Creeks, or savoring the hot springs at Agua Caliente. It has now been 40 years since Dick left us, and just a few less since the Sierra Club led the successful effort to have part of this land named after him, the Dick Smith Wilderness.
The Man and the Legend
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 bird song, the rustling of oats, the screech of a red-tailed 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 Aug. 29, 1920, in Detroit Lakes, Minn. The “J” stood for Jay, but everyone knew him as Dick.
He died on the evening of Feb. 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 develops 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 and 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 backcountry was designated the Dick Smith Wilderness by President Ronald 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 that 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.”
Dick’s 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 recalled. “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 backcountry in a depth that few before him ever had.
Relieving the Pressure
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 backcountry, the trip with Barney 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 backcountry. 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 longtime 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 backcountry.
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 backcountry. 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. Seeing how much the experience meant to her dad, she 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.
Attitude of Wonder
“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 OK. 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 baby! We just had a baby!’
“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 backcountry — 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’s Last Trek
Dick Smith died on Feb. 2, 1977. It was something he knew to be coming for quite awhile, but his love for the backcountry 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 point blank, ‘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 important, he was afraid the doctor would tell him he couldn’t go out in the backcountry 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 that 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 backcountry, 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.”
— Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.