Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Memoriam: Pida Pedotti

Pida and Helen Pedotti

I have spent my whole life with Pida Pedotti as my neighbor. We were not neighbors in the conventional sense. Here on Highway One, in the ranch country west of Gaviota, a neighbor can be anyone within perhaps a fifteen mile radius. In 1948, Pida and Helen Pedotti bought the Arbolado Ranch, a half mile or so from highway 101. Not having met my parents yet, Pida drove up to my father's ranch, 10 miles to the west, to ask to borrow some sort of farm implement, only to meet my frantic parents racing down the driveway to get to the Cottage Hospital where I was soon to be delivered. Pida always used to tell me that he had met me before I was born. I feel very fortunate to have had such a long standing and enjoyable friend and neighbor.

When Pida and Helen first moved here, Highway One was true cattle country on a large scale. There were only seven property owners on the highway between Gaviota and Lompoc.  The 32,000 acre Hollister Estate Company was run by Senator Jack Hollister. The Petan Company was over 6000 acres and on occasion used to have their cattle swum ashore at Gaviota Beach, delivered from Santa Rosa Island by the Vail's cattle ship, The Vaquero.  Fred H. Bixby had some 24,000 acres in the Jalama and Cojo areas, and the heirs of Thomas Dibblee, owners of Rancho San Julian,  commanded around 16,000 acres. 

There was still an old store and a bar adjacent to Gaviota Creek at Las Cruces.  I recall going into it once with my father. The bar had Visalia saddles as barstools. The numerous Hollister cowboys, active and retired, used to be its most frequent visitors. Many of the old-timers, like Vicente Ortega and Juan Guevarra, had Spanish blood in their veins, and some may have had some Chumash.

Pida told me he was in the bar once in the 1950's when a young University anthropologist wandered in scouting for local Native Americans to interview for his Ph.D.. research. He went up to one cowboy at the bar and said, "Your facial features indicate that you obviously have some Indian in you. May I interview you to learn something about your ancestry?" The old cowboy glared at the young scholar and shouted, I'm no God damn Indian! I was born right here in the U.S. of A! " Pida noted that the student's visit to the hamlet of Las Cruces was extremely brief.

When Pida and Helen bought their place, my parents had been living on Highway One for about ten years on a ranch bought from Bill Dibblee on the west end of San Julian. Pida's El Arbolado was one of the easternmost portions of the old Rancho . He used to joke that together we had the Dibblees surrounded  Somewhat later, the Pedottis bought another former part of the San Julian, called the Los Libros by Wilson Dibblee because, looking east to west,  the steep, spiny ridges of its parallel south draining canyons resembled books of various sizes lined up on a shelf. It was generally referred to as the "Santa Anita Slopes" by local cowboys. Pida always called this rough country just"The Slopes."  I suspect that he particularly enjoyed this part of his ranch.

Back then the Slopes were considered very remote. Much of it had good feed, but large areas consisted of steep canyon walls, rugged sandstone outcroppings, and dense stands of chaparral and sage. Will Rodgers, who had gathered cattle on the Slopes with the Dibblees in the 1930's, said that there were only two directions on that ranch: straight up and straight down. He was right: the headwaters of those canyons that run down to the Pacific through the Hollister's coastal Santa Anita Ranch were as rugged and mountainous a place as one could imagine in which to run cattle. Walt Mason, who once worked for Pida, told me it was the biggest little ranch he had ever ridden on.

I like to think that Pida enjoyed that precipitous country because, in its own way, it might have reminded him of his native Switzerland. Pida's family had a farm very high in the Swiss mountains. Eventually, he and his siblings inherited the large three-story farmhouse and each of them took over a floor for living quarters. Pida was eternally Swiss, and he and  Helen returned there regularly each summer. Pida was always proud of being, like all Swiss citizens, a lifetime member of the military, in Pida's case, the ski Corps. Pida and Helen met and fell in love immediately, I have been told, while passing each other in a busy, crowded Swiss train station. It is a romantic story, and a true one. After they were married, Pida came to America and went to Harvard Business School, before coming west and starting a lifetime career in the cattle business.

I never knew why he, as a young man, entered the cattle business. He had a terrific business sense: he could have easily been a highly successful stockbroker, a corporate lawyer, or an investment banker, hobnobbing around Santa Barbara or San Francisco, jetting off to New York. Instead, he spent much of his career in the Las Cruces basin wearing faded Levis, cowboy boots and hat, checking on his cattle horseback, developing erratic springs into water systems, figuring out the best way to gather a pasture, roping at his and his neighbors' spring brandings, and, always, figuring out the best possible way to manage a particular ranch.

Quite simply, Pida quickly became one of a small handful of men in this county who pretty much knew everything there was to know about the cattle business. Pida would have never admitted to being one of the most knowledgeable cowmen. He used to tell me, "Now take a rancher like Ed Vail out on Santa Rosa Island. Now, there's a cowman who's probably forgotten more than the rest of us will ever know !"

Perhaps he was attracted to ranching because of its diverse and complex challenges: the unpredictable weather and market cycles, the need to get 200 cows to calve in a three month period, the medical skills necessary to stop late term abortions or a pinkeye epidemic, and, of course, the immediate need to get that god damn rope out from under your bucking horse's clamped down tail.  

Pida did not ranch on the seat of his pants in his pickup: he ranched horseback.  As a small kid, I remember wandering down the hill to our barnyard late in the afternoon, trying to walk off a huge Easter Sunday meal. I was surprised to meet Pida there, all alone,  loading his sweating horse into his trailer. He had spent the day riding his cattle on our ranch, which he was then leasing from my father. That's how he preferred to spend his time. It's simply what he loved to do.

Pida's cattle operations were not limited to those on his Gaviota ranch. His keen business sense and high energy caused him to explore numerous opportunities. At different times, he ran stock on ranches throughout the state in places like Moss Landing, north of Monterey; the Nacimiento region; and even the Stanford Campus, near its Linear Accelerator.  Once he even flew out to Santa Cruz Island with to consider leasing the 6,000 acre Guerini Ranch. Sometimes he had partners in these grazing operations, the best known of whom was Gregory Peck. One benefit of Pida's partnership with Gregory Peck was that many of the Pedottis' neighbors got tickets to the world premiere of Moby Dick at Santa Barbara's Arlington Theater.

Pida enjoyed people who were serious about the cattle business: fellow cattlemen, like Raymond and Glenn Cornelius, Joe and Louis Cagianut, Jack Hollister, Dibbs Poett and Mr. Russell, Bill Cooper, my own father, and others too numerous to mention. In those days ranches employed a good many cowboys, and these unique characters were always great friends with Pida. The cowbosses on nearby ranches always invited him when they were gathering and working cattle: Frank Pacheco of the Hollister Company; Joe Cabral; Tex Oliver and, later, Tom MacDonald of the San Julian; Dode Hex on the Llanitos, and Slim Shoptaw and Bill Dutra on the Alisal.

Pida could have written a book about these ranchers and cowboys, for they were all the real thing. He told me Senator Hollister would rope a calf with a seventy foot reata, and, instead of taking up his slack to maybe fifteen feet and leading the calf so another roper could follow it and heel it easily, he would clean out the middle of the corral with the calf running around in a huge circle with six or seven of his cowboys frantically trying to rope it. While waiting for the fog to lift, Tom MacDonald, from Silver City, New Mexico, would address his gathered riders on the San Julian with unexpectedly elegant diction, such as, "Let us now go and pursue those wily bovines from their native haunts." Dode Hex, a heavy and regular consumer of coffee, declined a cup of coffee for the first time in his life after desperately boiling some up using an old can of sheep dip found in the Amoles Valley. Once Slim Shoptaw 's colt bucked clear from the top of the East Canyon to the bottom. When Pida complemented Slim on his spectacular ride, Slim modestly said, "Well, it would have been a lot harder if my spur hadn't been stuck in my rear cinch buckle."  

Then there was the time Joe Cabral and Cy Mease were going to load some cows into Pida's stock truck at the Cielo corral. Pida had parked the truck at the chute and had it all set up to load. Joe and Cy started sending cows up the lane onto the truck. Then they sent more and more cows. After a while, they realized they had loaded more than twice as many cows as the truck could hold. Puzzled, they looked into the truck and discovered it to be empty. Pida had unloaded his horse earlier and left the truck's back gate open, allowing the cows to hightail it back to the brush in the Jaro Creek. All of Pida's anecdotes, that he so loved telling and retelling, if strung together, could recreate that now fading cattle culture.

While Pida was every inch a cattleman, a dyed in the wool rancher, he was by no means a stereotypical one. He was full of surprises. Once we were talking while riding out to gather cattle, and the conversation turned to politics and the antics of the U.S. Senate. Pida began quoting Cato, the crusty old Roman senator, at length to prove a point-- in Latin (one of the advantages of a European education, no doubt).  Often when I went by to visit him, he would be reading his favorite weekly magazine, The New Yorker. He particularly enjoyed the "experimental" short stories, as he called them, that he found in it.

At a time when most local ranchers were Barry Goldwater Republicans,  Helen Pedotti was deeply involved with the Democratic Party, at one time even becoming a delegate for Eugene McCarthy. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I asked my mother what the difference was between Democrats and Republicans. Being a good teacher, she responded quickly, using a terminology and context familiar to me, "Ranchers are Republicans and cowboys are Democrats." Back then, as I think about it, this was, in fact, quite true. Pida, of course, never relinquished the Swiss citizenship of which he was so proud, and he was able to look on the antics of American politics with a novel perspective.

While most Goldwater ranchers were complaining about the poor masses being doled out food stamps by the government, Pida could see the issue of welfare in another way: " Don't these ranchers know that's how many people can afford to buy the beef we produce? Why food stamps are the best kind of market support we could ask for!"  Many years ago, he described himself to me as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, a dynamic which is beginning to sound more and more contemporary in 1996.  Pida by no means idealized the politics of his homeland, telling me once, " Well, Swiss politics are really very simple: all the Protestants vote one way and the Catholics vote the other." Philosophically,  Pida offered a lively and refreshing Voltairean skepticism, a healthy skepticism, and one that was always underpinned with humor.

Twenty some years ago Pida and my wife and I bought some cattle and started a breeding herd. Our partnership agreement was pretty simple. He only had two conditions: we would never buy any bulls with Charolais or Simmental bloodlines, and never, under any circumstances, would we ever buy any Brahma bulls. Pida did not think highly of the continental breeds because, as he said, "When one of those cows calves in Switzerland, the whole village has to come and help pull out the damn calf." As for Brahma cattle, well, he just preferred not to think of them at all.  When Pida first started in the business, the Hereford cow was king. All his neighbors, the Hollisters, the Suddens, the Bixbys, and the Dibblees, ran big herds of straight Hereford cattle, and Pida's observations led him to the belief that was the best possible cow for these particular range conditions. On his own ranch, Pida developed probably the best herd of commercial Hereford cows one could find anywhere.  God forbid that some neighbor's Brahma bull jump the fence where Pida ran his Herefords!

When I was seventeen or eighteen, the San Julian Ranch decided to quit the cattle business and lease out its pastures to other ranchers, so the all the D-Cross cows were to be gathered up and sold.  One day Dibbs Poett, Pida, and I were on a remote part of the ranch chasing one of several very wild cows that refused to be corralled. Back then, I thought I was "Muy Vaquero", so I carried seventy feet of grass rope on my saddle, and when one of those snakey Hereford cows ran off the trail and headed down into the Amoles Creek, I charged after it and roped it just as it plunged off the river bluff into a ten foot high poison oak and hemlock thicket along the creek. It was the best catch off my life, and I waited there proudly on my horse holding my dallies and the last three or four feet of rope in my hands.  Pida rode up next to me, observed the situation, and said, "Well, what the hell are you going to do now?" Suddenly I was crushed, but he was right. There I was with sixty five feet of rope attached to the neck of a furious twelve hundred pound cow with the demeanor of a rattlesnake holed up in a poison oak patch the size of a miniature golf course in the middle of nowhere. What the hell was I going to do?  Dibbs rode up next, calmly got off his horse, took out his pocket knife, and bravely disappeared into the dark tunnel made by the cow into the thicket, following the long rope like Jason's golden thread, doing the only thing possible at that point. Pida and I could hear the big cow breathing heavy like a rhino, shaking its head,  blowing snot in anger. When Dibbs returned back to safety at last, my rope had been pruned down to a more appropriate thirty five of forty feet and the cow probably lived to a ripe old age somewhere on Rancho San Julian. This incident, of course, became firmly lodged in Pida's mind, to be added to the tales of the tribe and retold around distant campfires.  I can hear Pida chuckling now.

"Well, what the hell are you going to do now?"  Now that Pida is gone, and his ashes are to be scattered back in Switzerland, I keep hearing these words echoing in my mindb but with a new meaning. He was a true friend and mentor to those of us who live or ranch in the country west of Gaviota. We would go to him constantly for advice. He was a friend to call and ask when it was going to rain or how ask much rain he had gotten after a storm. He was a friend with whom to share the old stories , or  just to visit and have a good laugh and feel better.

Pida once told my wife that ranchers who sell out to developers and move to town just don't know what it is that they have. He knew that land was a real estate investment, one that was appreciating locally far beyond its value as grazing land, but he also knew that the land also offered something else, something not easily defined, but something so palpable that those who know it could cut it with a knife. What could come with the land was a way of life; a constellation of valuable shared experiences; a coherent system of values; in short, an entire, self-contained culture. Pida appreciated this ethos and lived it fully. Maybe not having been born into it, maybe having come into it as an outsider gave him the unique angle of vision to see what it was that he really had.

Not long ago one of Pida's grandchildren was out checking the cattle on the Santa Anita Slopes (Pida's two sons now run the ranch). He told me that it's just not the same out there anymore. Now there are brand new houses on nearby ridges as more and more of the Hollister Ranch parcels get developed. Shinny rooftops crown the big grassy hills along the coast and gleam in the sharp sunlight.  Now on the Slopes you can hear people talking, stereos blaring, and Volvos and Mercedes purring up the paved roads in the huge vista to the south. For Pida, his Slopes were a special place, a place where he could be alone with only the land, the sea, the channel islands and the sky, a place where his cattle grazed, a place where things were good, a place where he knew what he had.