Richard Gibford makes every copy of his new book, Trail Dust, by hand at the cow camp where he lives alone in the Sierra Madre in the county’s northeast corner. Trail Dust is an account of Gibford’s 1972, five-week pack trip from nearby Cuyama to NineMile Camp on the Flying M Ranch near Yerington, Nevada.
It’s a compelling read, but the book’s highlights are five of Gibford’s own poems. He’s been a cowboy and ranch cook for almost 50 years, and while this life doesn’t pay well, it’s abundant in solitary meditation. Gibford writes about himself and his backcountry life in the third person:
He never had wealth,
But plenty of time to himself,
So he reckoned he was rich in a way.
Gibford composes his poems on the back of his horse, Buddy. He also sings along dangerous sections of the trail — he said it scares away the bears — as they ride the most remote cattle range in Santa Barbara County. Gibford and Buddy are the only residents in about one million acres of wilderness, where they tend cattle atop the Sierra Madre.
From the mountaintop, Gibford can see the rugged tributaries of the Sisquoc River to the south and the Sierra Nevada to the east. The cattle graze in the deep grasslands of the mountain potreros (pastures) that line up end-to-end along the spine of the Sierra Madre like steers in a loading chute. The potreros are sprinkled with coulter pines and white sandstone hoodoo rocks. Lions and bobcats hunt in the grass, as do hawks from above.
It’s real wilderness, and Gibford’s a real cowboy. He writes, “We still lash things together with baling wire and rawhide” at the cow camp, where in the evening, he braids leather and eats beans. Gibford lives in an old tin cabin; he has only mice for roommates. The metal was painted green once a long time ago. It keeps some of the wood stove’s heat in when the potreros are covered in snow — and most of the bears and snakes out.
Gibford feels at home cowboying in the Cuyama. It’s a world unrelated to the electric gates, paved driveways, and painted wooden fences of South County ranches, where pretension often eclipses authenticity. That trend hasn’t arrived in the Cuyama region, where fence patches are patched over again with old barbed wire and many posts are curvaceous juniper branches cut a century ago.
Gibford’s poems celebrate a ranch lifestyle rooted in nature, hard work, and rumination. In an effort to immortalize diminishing Western traditions, Gibford and other Western artists organized the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, in the early 1980s. He continues to be a celebrity there every winter.
Gibford has promised more of his poems in his next handmade book, More Trail Dust. In the meantime, he lives a life examined under the sun and stars:
He was an independent cuss,
And had caused some folks to fuss,
But he didn’t regret his life a single day.
Trail Dust celebrates a solitary life without regret. We are fortunate to have Gibford’s reflections as internal trail markers for our own lives.
Trail Dust by Richard Alan Gibford; foreward by Waddie Mitchell. Handmade with hand-sewn and labeled leather covers. Cow Camp Printing, 2013. Available from the author; call/text (805) 722-0425.