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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

Comments

  1. Monica Gott
    Missouri
    August 2, 2013, 3:32 pm

    What a sweet story. I love the photos. One question, did you have the huckleberry pie? :)
    Traveling mercies to you Andrew. As always, thanks for the journey.

    Monica

  2. Ashley
    Pismo beach ca
    August 3, 2013, 1:01 am

    Absolutely wonderful! (SO Well written!)

  3. Arthur Valentine
    Normal, IL
    August 3, 2013, 3:09 pm

    I am so absolutely blessed to call these two love birds my Grandparents. Being a newly wedded man myself, hearing their story brings tears to my eyes and brings joy to my heart. I love you both so incredibly much!

    • Andrew Evans
      August 8, 2013, 4:42 am

      Thanks so much Arthur, you are lucky to have such lovely grandparents. Congratulations and best of luck to you-AE

  4. Marlys Thorsgaard
    Bloomington, Mn
    August 4, 2013, 9:39 am

    Hi Anita and John.
    We really enjoyed reading your story today and have thought about you in Glacier Park. It is one of my favorite places as I worked there one Summer during my college years, too. It is a most beautiful place and holds many special memories. We have made three trips to Glacier and each one was great. In 1976, we were there camping with our three young sons.
    Take some good pix and we look forward to seeing you when you return to Mn. Marlys T.

    • Andrew Evans
      August 8, 2013, 4:41 am

      Thanks Marlys–amazing to see how many people have been influenced by Anita and John’s story- Best, AE

  5. Carolyn and Don Miller
    Lakeville, MN
    August 4, 2013, 6:25 pm

    Johnnie is my cousin and I want you to know that Andrew did a little embellishing here. John is not as sweet as he sounds, he can often be an ornery old cuss. I bet he started this conversation with the stranger just so he could get his mug on the internet…he IS that kind of guy. Anita, on the other hand, is an angel and has to work mighty hard to keep John in line. The other thing I kinda wonder is if John got a kick-back from St. Mary…I have to admit though these two make quite a story! Nice pic too! Don just read this and concurs.

    • Andrew Evans
      August 8, 2013, 4:40 am

      Is that so? Well, I found John to be nothing less than a gentleman and a great storyteller, so count yourself lucky to be related! Thanks so much for reading! AE

  6. Collette (Speltz) Szitta
    Prescott, WI
    August 5, 2013, 7:58 pm

    Dear Mom and Dad: This is a wonderfully touching story about your love… for each other and for one of God’s most amazing natural beauties and my favorite of all the national parks I’ve visited, Glacier National Park – Montana. After reading this, I know where I have gotten my romantic qualities. I have also inherited your love of chocolate candy bars, mom, and my passion for nature photography, dad! Our family traveled to Glacier to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and my husband, on his first visit, fell in love with God’s country immediately. The silver dollar story has been told dozens of times, but is funny every time. It makes me miss my uncle Pete who I unfortunately never got to know since he passed away much too young when I was just a small child. He must have been a really bright star, both intelligent and humorous, in the lives of those he touched and I think my dad sees him in a way in the stars of the big skies of Montana when he travels back to where he loved spending time with him.

    • Andrew Evans
      August 8, 2013, 4:39 am

      Dear Collette, thanks so much for your comment. I was very lucky to be able to meet your mother and father and to hear about their very rich and wonderful lives. Wishing you all the best, AE

  7. Meg Kelley
    Denali National Park
    August 5, 2013, 8:41 pm

    Nice job writing a lovely story, Andrew. I’m not one bit surprised that my very social parents met you. I have been thinking about my mom and dad’s love of the mountains while visiting Alaska this week. While growing up , our family was blessed to have experienced many trips to Glacier National Park. I would say that they were always filled with adventure. As a teenager, I got a bit annoyed with eating lunch in people’s yards, no electricity for my curling iron and leaving my friends. However, I credit my parents for instilling the spark that continues to draw me to the mountains for vacation. Praying
    that people will continue to support efforts to maintain park lands for future generations. Love you, mom and dad!

    • Andrew Evans
      August 8, 2013, 4:38 am

      Thank you so much Meg. I really enjoyed your parents’ company and their kindness. You are lucky to have them! Best wishes, AE

  8. Donald O. Cook
    Republic, Missouri
    August 8, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Great story! I would like to meet John & Anita. My wife, Dottie, and I love the mountains but Montana is one of the four states we have not visited. Maybe this summer. We have been to many countries and all continents except South America but beautiful USA still remains my favorite.

  9. Maxine Enfield
    Stillwater MN
    August 11, 2013, 12:35 pm

    To my very dear friends, John and Anita, what a lovely story and I know it is true. Keep on celebrating.

  10. Nyawira
    Kenya
    August 13, 2013, 7:34 am

    A beautiful real romantic story.

  11. Mary and Tom Kirstein
    Anaheim, Ca.
    August 13, 2013, 6:03 pm

    Such a beautiful story about our good friends John and Anita. Two very special people. We met John and Anita 27 years ago in Europe and have kept in touch all these years. Many more trips in Glacier for you two.

  12. Mike Walsh
    Chaska, MN
    August 15, 2013, 7:12 pm

    John: I hope you and Anita have many more trips west.

  13. Dorothy Ruppert
    United States
    August 18, 2013, 3:35 pm

    What a wonderful love story of two of my favorite people. I never knew why John and Anita liked going back to Montana every summer, but now I have the whole story. Andrew, you did a splendid job with this story. Write on!
    Dorothy Ruppert
    Author of God Placed Her in My Path
    and
    Sixty Days of Grace

  14. Carol Reed
    Near the North entrance to Yellowstone Park, wouth of Emigrant, MT next to the Yellowstone River
    August 19, 2013, 6:58 pm

    The flavor of Romance and the West is certainly a drawing card for this sweet couple to return to Montana each year. It is not different today. After 20 plus years having the privelege to serve guests at our Paradise Gateway B&B and Vacation Homes we see the fullfilment of satisfaction in our tourists who explore Montana and all of its hidden treasures. The simple pleasures are the fresh air, mountain peaks, clean water, and azure blue skies during the day and bright stars at night. We are grateful to see guests return for years and seeing their dreams come true all in the simplicity of unspoiled Nature. Stewardship is our responsiility! Well written story. Thank you.

  15. Barbara
    Long Island, NY
    August 22, 2013, 6:51 am

    My husband and I were married in Whitefish MT in 2002; my son and now my grandson live in the shadow of Glacier National Park, so we return frequently, and in fact, were probably in the vicinity of St. Mary’s when you wrote this wonderful story. Both of my grown children settled in the west (my daughter in the Teton Valley), and while I often bemoan the distance, I am grateful they introduced me to the wonders of their new homes, and have their own western love stories as well. Thank you for writing a wonderful story, and thanks to John and Anita for sharing it, too.

  16. [...] “Yes” I replied, “Like hailstorms, or true love.” [...]