With a clear view of the starry sky every night, the kind of silence that brings on a healthy dose of contemplation and neighbors that include bobcats, quail and deer, it's hard to believe that Smith, his wife, Nong, and their dog, Cody, call Los Angeles home. But they've traded the traffic and busy city life for a different view and perspective.
Since March, they've been living in their RV at Deukmejian Wilderness Park as hosts of the 709-acre area nestled above La Crescenta. Though Glendale's other parks have caretakers, they're city employees who live in one park in exchange for work they do at others. The unique, wilder nature of Deukmejian prompted the city to develop the volunteer pilot program, with the Smiths as the first participants. In exchange for full RV hookups, their 30-hour work week includes overseeing event reservations, opening and closing the park, and keeping it safe and clean.
So far, the park and their hosts have been a great fit for each other.
"When we first moved in, people were very interested to know what we were doing here because they had never seen anybody here before," said Smith. "Once they found out we were the park hosts, most of them were absolutely thrilled to have someone here."
It's a nomadic lifestyle, but Smith has waited a long time to be a part of it. The decades-long journey, from a fruitful career in the motion picture and film industry to living in an RV with the wilderness as his backyard, has been worth it, he tells me on a recent morning. As we talk, a hummingbird hovers near a feeder hanging from the RV. It's so close, I can pick out the details in its face and wings. It's enough to make you feel envious of the Smith's interesting, unusual arrangement.
Originally from Rochester, New York, Smith worked for Eastman Kodak, the image and photography equipment company, as well as Technicolor, mostly as a technical director, for almost 50 years. In 2004, he was recruited by UCLA and built a film preservation and restoration lab for the university to support its film and television archive, the second largest in the country.
When he finally retired in 2009, he changed his direction and instead focused the lens on his own life, spending a year getting his motor coach ready to accomplish a teenage dream that had been left lingering due to other life commitments. The Smiths signed up to "Workamp," where RV owners do paid or volunteer work in exchange for a free campsite and utilities. Their first epic drive took them from Los Angeles to Alaska, where both his sons live.
They then headed east, covering thousands of miles to Florida before spending a summer at the Adirondacks in upstate New York, the site of the largest park and state-level protected area in the U.S. Zig-zagging across the continent has afforded them the opportunity to see the Yukon, Colorado Springs, Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, as well as the Banff and Jasper national parks in Canada.
"I developed this desire to RV back when I was probably a teenager," he said. "I've flown coast-to-coast hundreds of times in my jobs and I got to see the country from the air and I saw all this land I wanted to explore from the ground. Now I have the ability to do that and work at these very unusual jobs along the way."
When he found the job listing for Deukmejian, Smith knew it would be the perfect place to plant his feet, and wheels, for a while. The city's feelings were mutual.
"We've been fortunate that Richard and his wife are very great people," said Marc Stirdivant, a senior administrative analyst at Glendale Community Services and Parks who Smith first contacted for the position. "They've very hard workers, they love the park and care about the park, and we're just delighted to have them here."
Its diverse wildlife, breathtaking views and friendliness of the people who use the space have Smith rating it among his top experiences since he has been on the road, one that he hopes to continue at least until 2015. Since their arrival, they've overseen Easter sunrise services, Boy Scout troops, a class reunion and wedding photography sessions.
Recently, Smith had to take his RV in for repairs; it stayed in a shop overnight. He checked into a hotel and quickly found himself missing both his motor coach and Deukmejian.
"I couldn't stand it," he said. "I'd rather be in my home."
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at email@example.com.