A River Rages Through It
The most famous of all Montana stories, A River Runs Through It, opens up with a beautiful passage about something that can be summed up as ‘the holiness of fly-fishing’. The scene is placid and pensive, as the narrator reminisces over sentimental memories of his childhood growing up with his brother, under his father’s tutelage. Then, out of nowhere, Drew Smith comes in with a whoop and a holler – clinging to the pointy tip of some Patagonian pinnacle; and his brother Garret zooms by on his BMX bike, heaping gratuitous servings of mud up onto this familiar old American tome. While it would be easy to draw the comparison between the Smith brothers, and Norman and Paul Maclean, it would be a mostly inaccurate one – one that I don’t think either pair of brothers would support. Still, my mind can’t help but go there.
Is it Drew’s boyish good looks – reminiscent of a young Brad Pitt? Is it Garret’s older brother wisdom and slightly (and I must emphasize, SLIGHTLY) more conventional lifestyle? Is it the backdrop of Montana skies and wilderness, a modest ranch house an hour away from the nearest town? Perhaps it is the dynamic interplay of boys growing up together as something closer than brothers… something somehow even more profoundly connected. As much as I promised myself I would not invoke “The River Runs Through It” metaphor – I find I cannot wholly stray from it. The story the Smith brothers have to tell is both the same story as Mr. Maclean’s, and one altogether different.
Garret and Drew grew up together on the Sieben Livestock Ranch in the Big Belt mountains of Montana (about 100 miles northwest of Bozeman) with their mother Debbie, father Phil, and oldest brother Mic. Today, Mic is 33, Garret is 31, and Drew is 29. All three brothers were (and still are) close – when I asked Garret and Drew about one another, they both told me stories about Mic, unprompted. Still, when you look at the roads the three brothers have taken in life, it becomes apparent that Garret and Drew are closer to one another at least in attitude, if not fraternity. “Mic,” Drew points out, “has been a big inspiration: getting married, buying a house, and starting his own business with his passion, carpentry.” Inspiration or not, both Drew and Garret have found themselves walking down a very different path – one that will be familiar to many reading this.
Their adolescent years were spent “dirty, generally bleeding from a recent wound or from a freshly picked scab,” as Garret recalls. Drew’s recollection has more to do with a cook-set and playing with dolls – but that phase passed quickly. It wasn’t long before the boys were getting into competitive BMX, pitching in on the ranch, riding and fixing snowmobiles. As the youngest of three boys, Drew was always playing catchup. I don’t think he got many gimmes, but to hear him speak of his brothers, I don’t think he got the short end of the stick either. His brothers treated him like an equal, and a friend – even when he probably should have been treated like a little pip-squeak.
And sometimes that got him into trouble. Like the time his mom had to drag his sorry little behind from a pond he decided to follow his brothers into before he knew how to swim. But the Smith family had some good standing rules for their rambunctious trio of boys. For example, Drew explains, “we had to wait 24 hours before going to the hospital because it was a 2 hour drive.” Of course, they went if it was something obvious – but they wouldn’t make a trip for something minor – like when Drew was learning how to ride his bike with no hands on the gravel road in front of their house and went over the handle bars face first. “I still have a scar on my chin,” Drew tells me, mulling it over, “probably should have gotten stitches?” . When I talk to Garret and Drew, I get two distinct impressions: one, they had to be careful; and two, they weren’t.
To complicate matters for the brothers, Mr. Smith wasn’t exactly a prim and proper minister preaching flyfishing and puritanism. The brothers recall their father as an instigator, and a source of mischief and adventure. “Garret and I both had sled dogs growing up” Drew begins, when I ask him about one of his boyhood memories. “I got mine, ‘Ace’, at the age of 9 and; Garret got his, ‘Duke’, shortly after. One winter,” and he assures me, his dad gave him this idea, “we decided to take the dogs on an adventure. We took off on a snow covered road from the ranch with the dogs pulling us on the homemade sled our dad crafted from old skis. I think we had the intention to circumnavigate a large portion of the ranch on back roads. Not too long into the adventure, it began to snow, and then blizzard.”
Let me break in here, real quick, just to paint the picture. This isn’t a couple kids caught in a flurry in the backyard. This is a couple of kids a long ways from home, on a huge tract of bona fide Montana wilderness, caught in a complete blizzard which shows no signs of abating. Even if they could have just turned around like most prepubescent children to head home for a cup of hot cocoa – they decided not to.
“Soon we couldn’t see the road – it was all drifted in and the dogs couldn’t pull the sled. We came prepared for an adventure, but even after giving the dogs fatty meat scraps, they didn’t want to continue on. We never talked about turning around, we just kept walking the dogs and pushing the sled through the deep snow which was getting deeper every minute. It’s funny we just continued on. I don’t remember ever being scared, I think because I knew my older brother Gar had it under control.”
Garret, meanwhile, remembers that at the young age of 9 years old, Drew was already “tough as shit”. It sounds like he did the responsible older brother thing of going through a mental checklist to make sure all their ducks were in a row. “The panic didn’t last long,” he tells me, “I remember thinking we had covered all the bases, and all I thought was that we would just keep moving, focusing on each step rather than stress about the unknown.” Something tells me ‘Dad’ was – if not stressed about the unknown – definitely cognizant of it. “Sure enough, eventually we heard a snowmobile off in the distance and up came Dad to save the day.”
This story says a lot about what it was like for Drew and Garret growing up. There was trust, faith, and support all around. Drew kept going because he knew his brother had everything under control. Garret kept going because Drew was nails for a little nine year old. Their father let them go in the first place because he trusted them to take care of each other and make good decisions. And the boys went for it in the first place because they trusted their father’s judgement. “This experience wasn’t too unique for us growing up.” Garret is quick to point out. “The ranch was so huge that it was hard to understand what private, state, or federal borders meant when we moved. We could set out in any direction, and we did. Even more so, our Dad worked every foot of the same country and had confidence in our abilities, and his knowledge of when it would be a good time to step in. This all helped shaped who we are today, allowing us to be comfortable in situations that other folks might feel a little more panic-stricken.”
Following high school, the boys started moving in different directions. Mic went to school in Powell, Wyoming, studying (pragmatically enough) Agricultural Business and Ranch Management. Garret, meanwhile, bounced around majors at University of Montana before finally settling on Photojournalism. Drew was still in high school when he went to visit Garret at school. At the time, Garret had begun to take an interesting in climbing – frequenting the indoor gym and bouldering and toproping. “Anything he did in college, it didn’t matter what it was, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” Drew remembers, of the trip. But while climbing with his bro was inspiring, college itself was not. Drew followed Garret’s footsteps to UM – but not for long. “I dropped out because the deadline for the refund was two weeks away, and I’d never been so unhappy in my entire life”. While Garret took a lot of interest early on in the technical finesse of writing and photography, Drew took more immediately to the raw experiences that Garret’s work chronicled, learning photography as it came to him, without more instruction than what his brother provided.
While Garret finished out his degree, Drew wandered from job to job, and place to place. In 2008, he made his way to the Tetons for a winter of ski-bumming. “I was planning on leaving after the winter but had a snowboarding accident, breaking my back for the second time,” Drew explains. “So I decided to stick around for the summer. I got a job at a gear shop and met some climbers who started taking me climbing, and the rest is history. I’ve been addicted ever since.” Right around the same time, Garret finished college, and began catching up on lost time and adventures. The night of graduation, he headed out to Northern California to fight fires. Within a month of being there, he soloed Mount Shasta. With his fire money, he bought a 1987 VW Vanagon, and roadtripped down to Baja solo. With Garret’s schooling finally out of the way, the brothers were reunited – and embarked on a trip to Southeast Asia. After two months, Garret returned home. But true to form, Drew’s wandering ways kept him there another 3 months.
Over the years to come, Drew and Garret’s lives harmonized like guitar strings. The diversity of jobs they’ve both held is so incredible, I’m just going to go ahead and list them. Drew: “Farm Hand, Wild Land Firefigher, Truck Driver, Remote Fish Hatchery Laborer, Commercial Fisherman for Halibut and Salmon, Construction, Building Ski Lifts, Snow Cat Operator, Retail, English teacher in Ecuador, Weed Sprayer, Wilderness Therapy, Park Ranger, Outdoor Education, Mountain Guide, Rope Access, Carpenter.” Garret: “Ski Lift Builder, Ranch Hand, Construction Worker, MTWRC Unit Vehicle Maintenance (and I have no idea what that is), Wildland Firefighter, Carpenter, Alaska Commercial Purse-seine Fisherman, Snow Groomer, Carpenter, USFS Hotshot, Sawyer, Boat Captain, Logger, Lift Mechanic, Photographer and PA, Crew Leader, Sewer”.
From time to time they found themselves together in the same place – and when that happened they were always on adventures. Whether commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska, motorcycling through Cambodia, or climbing and surfing in Ecuador – wherever they went, they tore it up. Together or apart, Drew and Garret always gleaned inspiration from the same source: the life of adventure, nomadism, and artistic expression.
Nowadays, Drew and Garret try their best to walk a fine line that, as a freelancer and climber, I can certainly relate to. Drew is a “thousandaire”, while Garret has debt. Of course, Garret’s degree and persistent hard work has landed him publications in a wide range of media outlets, including newspapers, PR agencies, major outdoors companies, magazines, online, and books; while Drew’s work has never been published. Drew is less tied down, but Garret has more prospects for future work – at least in the field they both actively pursue: photojournalism. To me they represent two sides of the same coin, which I – and many of my friends – find myself flipping on an almost daily basis. Whether the coin lands on the work side, or the play side, the other side is never far out of mind.
I have a feeling that when the coin stops flipping for Drew and Garret it’ll be standing on end, in perfect balance. Both Drew and Garret run successful blogs, which they regularly seed with (honestly) some of the best content I’ve ever seen in the blogosphere. Their aesthetic bent belies their fraternity. Each has a unique voice and stylistic leaning, but I have definitely from time to time mistaken one brother for the other. Some of the best work they do is the work they do together. There is a quality to their imagery that can only be gleaned through a truly spectacular life. These are not run of the mill hipsters putting on plaid shirts and chopping a couple pieces of wood. These are men with callused hands exposing the blue collar beauty of mountains and the people who love them one incredible shot at a time. ‘Raw’ is the word that comes to mind – but at the same time, the work is refined and subtle. Like Norman Maclean himself – these Montana boys grant us an accurate and earnest glimpse into a rugged life that few of us get to experience, much less live.
While Drew and Garret have begun to hit their artistic and creative stride – the “career” question remains unanswered. When I queried them on “dream jobs”, they both proved to be after one of the most elusive, and competitive, of jobs: Fulltime Adventure Photojournalist. In other words, they want to do what just about every starry-eyed climber, skiier, mountainbiker, kayaker, etc, wants to do. The competition is incredibly stiff; and in this content-flooded industry, skill and talent often mean a good deal less than shmoozing and self promotion. For a couple of humble Montana boys who prefer not to talk themselves up, or drop names – these facts can be hard to swallow.
Still, I’m confident Drew and Garret will find their way into people’s hearts and homes. Truly quality craft always seems to shine through – the cream always settles on top. So long as the Smith brothers stay true to their dreams, excellent photography and writing is sure to follow. The industry bigwigs will catch on sooner or later – and whoever catches it sooner will be glad they did. When I suggest to them the possibility of collaborating, I’m happy to hear it is not a new idea. “We always talk about working together.” Garret tells me. “In a way we have been working together since we traded a climbing rope for a DSLR in 2010. Since that trade, we have always worked to open one another’s potential.”
In the end, though, the Smith brothers’ lives probably won’t be defined by the “dream job”, or “career-path” that each eschewed so long ago – but by the relationships that make them who they are. “I would just like to be content,” Drew tells me. “My parents amaze me with how happy they are and the way they live, I strive to be like them.” Likewise, Garret explains: “both my brothers have been the foundation that I draw from to give me strength in times of hardship and weakness, and both brothers are the main source of my external joy and encouragement.”
For myself, I hope the most significant difference between the stories of the Smith and the Maclean brothers will be in how the story ends. With both Drew and Garret getting after it in high-risk sports, it’s hard not to fear the unthinkable. Yet the Smith boys assure me that they do worry about one another. At the same time, though, they support one another’s decisions. True to form, their words echo each other once again, as our interview comes to a close. “The happiest I see Garret is when he is going Full Throttle,” Drew assures me, invoking a nickname Garret earned as a kid. “It would sadden me to see him put-put around.” Or, as Garret puts it, “I know he could get hurt or die but the real risk is not living the life he wants to. I’d worry about him more if he was living a life that didn’t satisfy him.” I take solace in their words, knowing how true they are; and I come away from my time spent with the Smith brothers inspired to continue along my own unlikely journey. But I’m not a bit surprised; for Drew and Garret, inspiration is just another day at the office.
It was an honor and a privilege to work with Drew and Garret on this piece. They generously offered their time, and their photography, free of charge – all in the name of providing YOU, the viewer, with world-class media. As always, thank you for reading. Please continue to follow Fringe’s Folly, share with your friends, contribute if you have stories – help keep this project alive however you can! And please keep up to date with Drew and Garret’s excellent work. You can follow Drew at http://drewsplan.blogspot.com/, and Garret at http://dirtmyth.blogspot.com/.