The Honorable Old West Lives On
I came to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1966, at 13 years of age. I saw storybook villages and majestic ranches, all ringed by mountains, like a cowboy's Shangri-La.
Nostalgic desperados held quick draw contests at high noon on Saturdays, at the swap meet down by the Maverick Saloon. The Valley was like the West of legend, with Danish pastry.
I was delighted to be here from the first minute, even if some of my eighth grade classmates did seem destined for federal prisons.
It was, and still is, a small town with a sense of community. It's a place where your voice can be heard, with safe streets, good schools, clean air. Four decades later, my most telling observation is this: Most of the people here have enough money, moxie and imagination to live anywhere in the world, and they have chosen this place to spend their lives.
For example: Viola Tuckerman Schley Hansen, who was awarded the title of "Honorary Vaquera" by the SYV Historical Society. Only the second woman to ever earn the title, pioneer cattlewoman Vi Hansen had ranched in Happy Canyon since 1939.
She was a local legend for her selfless generosity, keen intelligence, her love for the equestrian community, her 20 years with Meals on Wheels, her fine family, and so much more. Vi was a founding member of the original Equestrian Association in the 1940s.
Like her late husband Sigvard Allerslev Hansen, Vi exemplified the kind of West where you make a deal with a handshake, help those in need, and live each day with honor and integrity and a strong sense of adventure.
Sig Hansen was the Valley personified, a blend of Denmark and the old West. He left his home on the west coast of Denmark in 1929 at sixteen, driven by his Jack London-inspired dreams of the Wild West.
He jumped ship in Galveston, Texas, and made his way to Montana.
The only English he knew was, "Do you have a job for me?"
He found work as a cook's helper on the chuck wagon on the Chappell Brothers CBC Ranch, a mammoth spread providing horses by the thousands for the U.S. Army.
The foreman, it turned out, was Danish, and had jumped ship himself in New York, years before.
"Get him a horse and a bedroll," he declared.
"And from that moment on," Sig told me, "I was a cowboy."
And cowboy he did, all over the West, up to Alaska and down to Hollywood, where he rode as a stunt man in films. I hauled hay in the summertime with Sig Jr., and we frequently ate lunch at their ranch house, played poker with Sig Sr., swam, and soaked up some stories.
One day, as he beat my four aces with a royal flush, on the TV, Indians were madly chasing a stagecoach.
"Watch this Indian," Sig Sr. said, pointing to a wild, pony-tailed savage. "He'll lose his hair."
Sure enough, the rider hit the dirt on the edge of the screen. As he tumbled, his ponytails flopped off.
"That was me," Sig grinned.
His adventures led him to Costa Rica. At one time he had exclusive tuna fishing rights there.
"Starkist keeps calling," he explained, hanging up the phone at the ranch. He had invested in a timber operation in Costa Rica, too.
"A word of advice about logging," he confided. "Don't."
l He was never afraid to speak out. Once, in a cantina far back in the Nicaraguan jungle, he overheard some guerillas boasting of an attack on unarmed villagers. To his companions' dismay, he made a point of telling the bad guys they were cowards.
"Cobardes!" he spat.
"My friends got me out of there," he nodded soberly.
Sig mentioned a night on a small boat with notoriously unstable dictator Anastasio Somoza.
"I woke up in the middle of the night, and we were speeding full tilt in the moonlight through the reefs offshore. He was wearing a pair of pistols. Every so often he would go to the bow, and fire off the fifty caliber machine gun. If we had hit some coral, that would have been it."
"Nothing I could do about it. I went back to sleep."
He met a kid on the streets of Costa Rica, Enrique van Browne, who impressed him so much that Sig paid his way through school. The young man served in Vietnam, and became a prominent attorney, influential in affairs of state.
Sig Jr. and I ran into Enrique when we were hauling hay on the ranch one day. The up-from-nothing Costa Rican looked us over, sweat soaked and dirty, covered with bits of straw.
"That's hard work," Enrique acknowledged, adding with a twinkle in his eye and a strategic pause, "for lights."
Sig wanted to help everyone; he had boundless optimism and energy. When I started my real estate business, he encouraged me and offered his assistance.
He was a superb rancher. Even quintessential Valley cowboy Jake Copass paid homage to Sig, writing a poem about him titled "Danish Cowboy."
And he had perspective.
"Twenty years?" he said to me, sitting on a stool at Arne's Solvang Restaurant. "It's the blink of an eye."
Sig once mentioned a Viking custom, when those legendary sailors were ready to leave this world for the next, of sailing past the horizon and burning their ship. That was what he wanted, he said. My father-in-law, who had a 32' Grand Banks cabin cruiser, said "Remind me not to take Sig out in the boat."
We had lunch at Panino's in Los Olivos one sunny day in 1999, and Sig told me the story of how he came to America. A few days later, he was gone.
I was charmed by Sig's warm, outgoing personality. I was impressed by his adventures. I was flattered by the way he treated me like family, and I loved his lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps life story. But what I most admired about him, and what I most cherish in Valley people, is the kindness, good-heartedness, and concern for others he exemplified.
In his 1935 poem The Years, Maynard Dixon wrote, "Ever more do I know that to win some happiness here, I must hold myself up, above petty disputes and distinctions, keeping some largeness of heart alike for those who trust me and those who distrust me."
"Largeness of heart" is what makes the Valley special. It is a spirit to cherish. Vi Hansen had it; Sig had it. All the great ones do. In this is our hope for the future. In this fragile, evanescent soap bubble of a concept, reliant totally on good-will, rests our dreams.