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A Montana Love Story

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Anita & John Speltz, married 53 years, who met at Glacier National Park in 1957. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

It was the longest train journey she had ever been on—36 hours from Minneapolis all the way to Montana. With a year of college under her belt, Minnesota gal Anita Mescher boarded The Great Northern Railroad in the morning and by lunch the next day, she had arrived in the high plains town of Browning.

It was the summer of 1957, and as she crossed the northern half of America, she met others like her—young men and women from Minnesota with summer contracts to work at St. Mary’s Lodge in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

Anita was a cabin girl, which meant that every morning, she had to clean cabins and turn rooms for the summer rush of visitors to the park. It was hard work with little pay—she earned about $200 a month—but she stuck it out, knowing that if she completed her contract, she would get paid a hefty bonus at the end of the summer.

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St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Room and board was provided free to all the employees, so if you didn’t waste money, you could save up enough to pay for a whole year of college. That was John’s plan—the Speltz brothers had come out to St. Mary with jobs at the garage across the street from the lodge. Their parents had honeymooned at Glacier National Park in the 1930’s and it was almost a family tradition to come and work at least one summer in St. Mary. His father was a mechanic and so John had grown up with an intimate knowledge of automobiles—at Glacier National Park, they earned good money fixing all the tourists’ broken-down cars—fixing flats, replacing spark plugs and dealing with condensers.

The two brothers liked their work—and they liked to joke around too. If a customer came to check on their car and found John’s brother tinkering under the hood, John would stroll in and say, “Hey Pete! What are you doing here? I thought you worked in the kitchen!”

“Ah, I’m just helping out today,” Pete would mumble, and then check for the tourists’ concerned stare.

They especially liked teasing tourists from the Midwest, giving them all their change in silver dollars. Once a man paid with a $20 bill and John gave him back ten silver dollars in change.

“Now what the hell am I supposed to do with ten silver dollars?” he asked, but John just smiled, “Don’t you know? This is Montana—we’re a silver dollar state!”

As June spun into July, Anita began coming to the garage for her candy bar fix—her favorite was Mounds (dark chocolate over almonds and coconut) and the high altitude made her snack craving worse.

This was in the afternoon, after the cabins had been turned, when the mist cleared from the massive shale mountains at the entrance to the park. She would linger a bit at the garage, enjoying her candy bar—and that’s when she met John.

“I was really only interested in that candy bar,” she recalls, but after a moment longer, it all comes back.

“Oh! I loved his hair—he had black curly hair!” she adds.

“And I thought she had a very nice popo,” replies John, laughing.

“I didn’t know you noticed that when I was buying a candy bar,” Anita giggles.

“Well, we waited until after you left before we discussed it,” says John, but then recovers himself, “You were a good hiker, too. I noticed that!”

Their first hike was to Piegan Pass—a group of young kids, heading up into the mountains on their day off. One girl lost her shoe and had to hike the entire way in stocking feet. The hikes continued through the summer—once a whole group of them left at ten o’clock at night (after the very last shift was over), and head into the park.

“We were carrying bacon and eggs with us because we wanted to cook breakfast on a campfire at dawn,” remembers John.

“Oh, our guardian angel was watching over us,” says Anita, pointing out that hiking in the night with a backpack of bacon in grizzly bear territory was not smart.

“And once he saved my life,” she recalls, remembering how she slid on a path and began to tumble down when John threw out his arms so that she could grab hold.

“You did—you saved my life,” Anita declares with utter seriousness.

John finally worked up the courage to ask her out on a date—to go and see a movie in Browning, some 20 miles away. They drove in his car, winding round and round the curvy road through the mountains. Anita sat in the cinema, her date on one side, and on the other, a Blackfeet Indian woman who nursed her baby for the extent of the movie.

On the way back to Glacier, the car’s headlights failed—a dangerous proposition on such a treacherous road. Luckily John had a flashlight, which he held out the window, pointed on the road in front of him.

“Well I was quite relieved because with his left hand on the flashlight and his right hand on the steering wheel, I knew he wasn’t going to try anything,” says Anita.

Anita and John were both very Catholic, as were so many of the Minnesotans working at Glacier that summer.

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The cabins at St. Mary Lodge, Glacier National Park, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

“We had a priest who came and did mass in the Rec Hall—and he did confessions, too—in the bathroom!” Anita remembers the awkwardness of it.

“The priest would actually sit on the toilet with the door open and hear our confessions,” she says.

Back in Minnesota, John and Anita wrote letters back and forth.

“I sent one every day!” John says, but Anita corrects him “We wrote a lot.” And they visited one another as well. The following summer they were back in Glacier National Park, working hard and playing hard, too.

“We probably dated but not exclusively,” remembers Anita. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to see him again after he left for California.” She did visit him though, in the summer of ’59.

Back in Minnesota, John’s father had sold his garage and moved to California. He left John to close up the business, offering him any of the money he could chase down from outstanding bills and delinquent customers. One man in particular owed quite a bit of money.

“I pestered and harassed that guy constantly until he had to pay up!” smiles John. And with that money, he bought a ring.

John hitchhiked from St. Paul all the way to New Prague, Minnesota where Anita was now teaching Science and Home Economics. His intention was clear, and he even revealed his plans to his last lift to New Prague, “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

What he didn’t know is that Anita has just had three wisdom teeth removed. John still insisted on taking her out to dinner, so they went to the New Prague Hotel and she ordered soup.

After dinner, he proposed, and Anita mumbled an affirmative answer, through swollen teeth.

“You did enunciate ‘yes’,” says John.

The next Monday morning, one of her students cried out, “We know what you did this weekend, Miss Mescher!” One of the students was the daughter of the man who had given John a lift, so the news spread quickly.

Anita remembers getting a letter from her future mother-in-law, welcoming her to the Speltz family and recommending that they wait to get married until John was more established with a job.” And so they waited a year and were married on New Year’s Eve, 1960.

John’s uncle (a Catholic priest) performed the ceremony and after, they drove away in John’s ’51 Ford, for a honeymoon at the Wagon Wheel Lodge in Rockton, Illinois.

Still, it was Glacier National Park they loved best, and every chance they got to return, they did. John became an insurance salesman, and Anita went back to school and became an occupational therapist. They had four children, and then seven grandchildren, and through all of it, they kept returning to Montana.

“Our car only drives west—never east” John shakes his head. And drive they do, all the way from Minnesota to Montana, summer after summer, a nostalgic pilgrimage to the place they love best. Three years ago, they brought their entire family to St. Mary to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in the same lodge where they met. They wanted to share this place with their grandchildren.

“I love the chiseled mountains,” says Anita.

“And the clouds! The big sky—the bluest skies ever!” adds John.

“And I appreciate talking to all the tourists!”  beams Anita. “The people here are always so interesting.”

“But the air and the smell!” interrupts John, and they begin to discuss the lovely dry juniper air of the Montana mountains.

“Just seeing the mountains lifts my spirits,” Anita confesses, and John answers wistfully, “It’s so beautiful—and it’s so sad when it’s time to go back. You just wanna take it all with you.”

“We still have pictures of Montana in our bedroom back home,” Anita says. “We have this one of St Mary with the mountains in the background.” And that is how Anita and John how keep Montana with them, a thousand miles away.

But this summer they have returned, and like always, they feel that really, nothing has changed in this place. The only thing that’s changed is that they are older.

“We get envious of young people who can hike—they just have more energy to get out there,” says Anita, who loves to hike.

“Ah, but we still enjoy the wildflowers and the wildlife,” says John and for a minute, the two of them pause and reflect on all the hikes they have shared in life.

“You know, we kind of just clicked—we were going down the same path,” explains Anita.

Which is how, 56 years after they first met, John and Anita found themselves back in St. Mary, Montana, at the edge of Glacier National Park, a block away from where their lives had fused together so long ago. There were no free tables at the Park Café, so they took their seats at the bar and ordered some of the famous huckleberry pie.

A short while later, a stranger was seated next to them at the bar, and that person was me.

It was Anita who turned to me first and introduced herself, and then John who asked me point-blank, “You wanna know the secret to a long life?”

And before I could nod yes, he smiled and said, “Good genes and a good wife.”

And then they told me their story about falling in love in Montana, and I wrote it all down.

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The Park Cafe in St. Mary, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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