Preserving the West in a Modern World


By Mayzie Purviance

The Green River Drift located in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley is a historic cattle drive which is still relevant today.  The Sommers family, along with a handful of other families, has not only driven their cattle to and from the high country of the Drift, but been a part of a historic and revolutionary PBS documentary, “The Drift: An American Cattle Drive.”

“I’m the son of an old man who was the son of an old man,” Albert Sommers, rancher, character in The Drift and current State Legislator for Sublette County, said with a laugh.

Sommers along with his sister Jonita grew up on Sommers Ranch and both highly value the land they live on, so much so that Jonita thought the Green River Drift deserved historic recognition.  So, she applied for it to receive historical status upon the request of an archeologist.

Between the Equalizer Winter in 1889, the significance of the Upper Green River Cattle Association and the continuous and current cattle drives conducted on the Green River Drift, obtaining a spot on the national historic registry was a no brainer.  The Green River Drift is currently registered as the only Euro-American Historic Cultural Property in the U.S. due to its rich cattle drive history.

“Really that movement of cattle; that migration of cattle; that trailing of cattle from the low country to the high country and back again is what was called ‘The Drift,’” Albert said.

From Sommers Ranch, the entirety of the Drift is roughly 70 miles.  Albert said it takes about two weeks to complete the drive up and about three weeks to return home.

Geoff O’Gara, film maker of The Drift, met the Sommers family some years ago while he was filming a documentary on wildlife migration for PBS Wyoming and took notice to the interesting story of The Drift and the people of the Upper Green River Valley.  O’Gara said upon learning the story of The Drift, he thought, “here’s another migration pattern.”

After visiting the Sommers Ranch without his camera numerous times in an attempt to get to know the family and others in the area, O’Gara began filming the independent documentary.

“This was a different kind of production,” O’Gara said.  “This is a cattle drive that goes nearly up to the continental divide.  There are no roads up there except maybe some you could take a four-wheeler on.  And so, what do you do with a big heavy camera?”

This project took over five years because the film crew kept realizing that this was a bigger story than anticipated.  Luckily, during this time period, drone technology came into play and O’Gara and his film crew was able to obtain shots they otherwise wouldn’t have, even on foot or horseback.

“We closely followed four different families in The Drift, all of them had a different story,” O’Gara said.  “We had to make all of their stories fit together.  We had stories of the environmentalists who were opposed to some of the rancher’s activities… we just had a lot of different stories to tell.

“You always have a one-page concept of a version of a story you think you’re going to tell, if you’re looking for funding, that’s what you do,” O’Gara said.  “You say, ‘I’m going to tell the story of one of the last and the longest cattle drives still being done on horseback, because everybody all over the world wants to know, what’s the cowboy life today?’  And I thought that’s what the documentary was going to be, pretty simple.  But once I got to know the families and the things that kept them awake at night, I realized that it was really a story about the future of the cowboy and the American West.  It became a story of determining if this way of life can survive.”

Can this way of life survive?  As shown in The Drift, it can, but not without its trials and tribulations.

“The movie is a history of The Drift and talks the challenges we have today, with everything from ranch succession, to grizzly bears, to environmental groups — it kind of runs the gamut, and that’s the biggest piece of [the documentary],” Albert said.

Although agriculturists face obstacles, every now and then something will come along to shed light on rural lifestyle, which is exactly what The Drift accomplished.

Albert said he felt it was an honor to be a part of the filming of The Drift — it was an honor that someone “really cared.”

“It’s good that the history is recorded and filmed, that doesn’t often happen with agricultural history,” Albert said.  “I think The Drift highlights to the nation the fragility of their food source.  It’s not always a given that you can go to a store or farmer’s market and go pick up a piece of meat or vegetable.  Agriculture is a tough way of life.”

Albert, Jonita and other rural Americans understand the difficulties of feeding the nation, however, not everyone does.

“On the simplest level, [The Drift] gave members of that community the chance to show friends, enemies and the world what that life is like.  And honestly, people around the world don’t know what that life is like anymore,” O’Gara said.

Albert said he feels that any time we can humanize agriculture, it greatly helps the industry.

“Any time that you can highlight what we do on the ground, the challenges we have, the level of detail we go into to preserve these landscapes and preserve our way of life, I think it helps the general population better understand agriculture.  Fewer and fewer people have any connection with agriculture anymore,” Albert said.

Jonita agreed with her brother and noted that the film was true to its story, yet effective for the agricultural understanding of the viewer.

“What we do, how we do it and why we’re still here was portrayed very well,” Jonita said.  “My dad always said, ‘if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.’  Throughout this, O’Gara shows how we did that, he preserved the history of The Drift.”

The Drift was awarded best documentary at The 2019 Wild Bunch Film Festival as well as the Spur Award Winner for the Western Writers of America.  For more information on The Drift: An American Cattle Drive and viewing options, visit www.thedriftdocumentary.com.

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