Heritage in Montana

Heritage in Montana


Words and photography by Isaac Johnston

Last night during dinner at my parents’ house, my mom pulled out a ream of papers. On them was written the history of her family and, specifically, my great-grandfather’s journey from Ontario, Canada, to Montana, where I live.

What caught my ear amid all the fascinating details of buffalo roundups, grizzly encounters, bootlegging, jail time, and even a few years spent building a smelter in Cuba for the Rockfellers, was a passing line that in 1894, he had helped his uncle build a saloon and hotel in Columbia Falls, Montana. 

As my dad read this detail, I stopped him immediately. The family history I had been told was that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had moved to the Mission Valley of Montana in 1910 to homestead. While that was true, I had never thought to ask if they had ever come before then.

Great-Grandpa was here 16 years earlier, and in the same spirit of purpose I found myself 129 years later. He worked in hospitality, creating a space for folks to come experience Montana. And that just happens to be my favorite thing to do.

My own journey as a fourth-generation Montanan has been full of adventures and leading others to them. I started working for an outfitter at age ten and drove stock trucks loaded with pack horses deep into the wilderness at 13. I struggled with a career early on, finally landing on running a vacation rental management company. It was the closest I could get to helping folks have adventures while not living out of a bus like a raft guide.

Now, as a photographer, I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride. I follow my curiosity to explore and then share it with anyone who is interested. The best part is that I create adventures and bring my friends and folks I just met on them. My favorite adventures are right here in Montana and riding vintage motos.

Cue a call from Ben Giese, editor at VAHNA, who said, “I’m coming through Montana in a few weeks and would love to ride with you. Any ideas?”

I knew instantly where I wanted to take him: out to the family land, past the big bend in the river where Great-Grandpa rounded up the buffalo to be sent north to rebuild decimated herds, over ridges with views of a valley where my great-uncle built a dude ranch to take visitors on horseback to see alpine lakes and go elk hunting. 

We rode through badlands, occasionally falling down to the laughter of the group. Still smiling, we dusted each other off and peer-pressured each other to give that line another go.

After 40 miles of riding to a ramshackle hot spring that turned out to be closed, we just rode 8 miles to another. We rinsed the dust off, heeded the warning of a local lady that we’d get banned for life if we drank our beers in the pool, and found an empty country diner to fill our stomachs. 

Despite this being land I’ve known, ridden and have so much heritage in, there are still trails I had not seen. I told the guys we could roll the dice and point our bikes up a drainage I’d never been through. After all, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if I was guiding these guys with 100 percent certainty, would it? 

After some missed turns and some rain cold enough for us to take shelter under trees, we followed a cow trail to a half-mile-long hill climb that had everyone making multiple attempts. We shed layers, kick-started bikes too many times, and cursed our way up the mountain. This particular hill wasn’t approved by the vintage bikes. 

But we couldn’t go back. Just over the top of this peak was the trail we’d ridden in on. My headlight wasn’t working, and it was nearly dark. It was every man for himself, and I was the last one to make it to the top. As we looked over the crest into the valley we had come from, I thanked everyone for coming on this ride with me and letting me show them this special corner of Montana. 

The heritage I have here in Montana doesn’t mean much if I don’t share it. And through sharing this place that means so much to me, I have found priceless companionship with these like-minded people. There’s a real joy in watching my friends experience excitement in discovering this land that means the world to me. 

I wonder if Great-Grandpa felt the same way about sharing this place 129 years ago. I like to think he did.

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