It seemed like a good idea at the time, a Santa Barbara backcountry outing with Dick Smith.
What I thought Dick promised was a woodsy overnighter enjoying the Great Outdoors. What he delivered was a rugged lost weekend, two near-freezing nights in the mountains, struggling hand-over-hand off the trails to find a way out, and ending with me starving by moonlight, desperate for a sight of our car.
This was in the early 1960s, before Dick became famed as the author of books like Condor Journal, a naturalist and local expert on all that flew, crawled, ran, or burrowed in our backcountry. His day job was as staff artist and promotion manager at the Santa Barbara News-Press, working in a tiny second-floor office just off the newsroom, his pen flying, perhaps sketching a map of the latest wildfire raging in the mountains or a book cover, one ear to the phone hearing about that latest government assault on Los Padres National Forest or to local political gossip.
Dick, I was to learn, had a keen understanding of local politics, but left politics to our boss, owner/publisher T. M. Storke, who was in the process of winning a Pulitzer at about the same time. (I did some of the editing of Storke’s pieces.)
For all this and more, Dick was harassed by his immediate boss for not spending more time writing promotional ads, but he was highly admired in the community for his knowledge and watchdogging of the U.S. Forest Service. He came to be known as “the conscience of the county,” and the Dick Smith Wilderness was set aside by Congress in his honor.
But all this was yet to come the day he wandered over to my desk and invited me on a weekend campout. “Go down to the surplus store and buy a sleeping bag.”
I did. What I came out with was a paper-thin Marine bag that looked like it had come through every battle of World War II. What a mistake. I froze every night until Father Fatigue closed my eyes.
When Dick came to pick me up Friday afternoon, my then-wife Angela met him at the door and chewed him out royally for luring me away from home and leaving her to cope with our four small children.
I soon learned that hiking with Dick Smith was not for the posy-pickers or leisure-minded. Once in the Santa Ynez Mountains, we shouldered our packs and marched off, Dick pointing out every plant and bird. Soon we were off the trail and climbing. Dick was tall and rawboned. I was a desk-jockey, young and in fairly good shape but unused to endurance marathons.
When we mercifully stopped for lunch, Dick pulled out a package of hardtack and some cheese. “Don’t eat it all,” he warned. “Save some for dinner.” I had mistakenly counted on Dick for meals.
Dick made some cowboy coffee, grounds thrown into boiling water. Then we set off in the hot sun. The prize was the glorious Sisquoc River. Dick talked nonstop about nature around us. I learned.
The next morning, after more off-trail trekking and more hardtack, cheese, and coffee, and an even colder night in that thin sleeping bag, we set off homeward. But where was the trail?
It turned out that Dick didn’t like trails or beaten paths of any kind. He called Yosemite “a honky-tonk.”
So began a daylong trudge back to his parked car somewhere up ahead, as we broke trail. Darkness fell. I was freezing in a thin shirt as we struggled up a mountain, Dick refusing to admit that he was lost. The road to Santa Barbara was surely over the next ridge. It must have been close to midnight when we threw ourselves in his car and headed home.
That was my last overnighter with Dick, but I emerged with a deep hankering for the open spaces that led to many family trips to Yosemite, where the kids and I even climbed Half Dome.
Dick, wherever you are, maybe perched on a mountaintop in Heaven scanning for condors, thanks. And on behalf of Angela, who happily went on to cook many a meal on rusty campground stoves, thanks again.