• 10/21/21
  • WORDS BY Matt McDonald & Drew Smith
  • PHOTOS BY Jeff Johnson and Dylan Gordon

Ranch Roots

Drew Smith is no newcomer to wide open, big sky country. Born a resident of Montana, a place his heart will always reside, he’s made roaming the West his passion and his occupation – living out of his van and sharing powerful photographs and stories along the way. The mental freedom to do things his own way goes way back to when he was a boy. So when he heard the Revivalists were headed out to the Continental Divide, he knew he had to show his compadres the ranch that cast his character.

What’s so special about the ranch that you grew up on?

When I tell people I grew up on a ranch in Montana, they start forming this picture in their mind. A lot of ranches nowadays are just small, hobby ranches. But this is a 5th-generation working ranch, 64,000 acres, it’s vast and rugged… 30 miles to the closest town by a gravel road. In California you’d be passing a bunch of houses and stuff, but this is out there, desolate. Most of it still doesn’t have cell service. Once we arrived, I could tell by looking at the guys this was different from any ranch they’d ever been to.

What kind of life was it like as kids, for you and your two brothers? We were the last stop on the bus ride. We’d get dropped off at this shed where my dad worked, and we’d go hang out with him until he got off. My dad was always working, that was just life on the ranch, but since we were able to be with him we got a lot of quality time. I got to see that hard work wasn’t a bad thing, it was just part of living. It was really cool to grow up and see my dad getting joy out of his work, and I think me and my brothers all got a lot out of that. We’re all living out our dreams – my one brother is a filmmaker and my other brother is a contractor.

So do you think you got infused with an independence, that the rules in life were up to you? Thinking back on the vastness and the openness out there, it really translated into my life now. Growing up, we didn’t know there was such thing as private property or places you couldn’t go. You’d see a mountain in the distance and you’d just hike up there. You wouldn’t have to get ahold of someone for permission. Being back there made me realize why I love life on the road and my vagabond, transient existence. I’m holding onto that same childhood freedom. No boundaries.

When you were 11, you had to move away to a different ranch. What was that like? I remember when we moved, it sucked. My parents told us, “You have to ask to go over there, you can’t go over there”, and it was so confusing. It took away that vast feeling of curiosity, of looking out and having no obstructions, no walls, no property boundaries. Things that are getting harder and harder to find these days.

Have you been looking? I definitely want a place where I can find that same peace I had growing up. I just haven’t found it yet. I go back to Salt Lake City, my home base, and I can feel the energy of all the people. In any city there’s always movement and stuff going on… when I’m there I can’t decompress or relax. I feel way better if I’m in some area out in the middle of nowhere, some obscure mountain or rock climbing area. I’d like to find that balance of being close enough to a city where I can still do my work, but also far enough away where I can find that peace and that silence.

How did you end up getting to call this place home?

My dad grew up in California and moved to Montana when he was 18. He wanted to be a cowboy his whole life, and he made it happen. That led him here.

"One of the upsides of being restricted to domestic travel was getting to really dig into the places where we all came from, instead of searching too far and wide. It feels good, kind of like going backwards. Back to the roots."