Montana, the last best place

In the summer of 2015, I made one of the best decisions of my life. I decided I would participate in a Work & Travel programme and work in the United States during the summer months. But I didn’t want to work and live in a big American city. I had already lived for several weeks in New York and Boston and, though I loved the experience, I wanted this time to be different. I wanted to get away from the fast-paced life I was living in Madrid and have an all-American experience, living a quiet life in the country. But before I tell you all about this experience, let me introduce you what the Work & Travel programmes are.

Work & Travel programmes are cultural exchange programmes for any person between the ages of 18 and 30 enrolled in university. They are usually offered by the governments of the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia, and the requirements are simple: to be in university, to be between 18 and 30 years old, to speak a basic level of English, and to be able to work for at least 2 and a half months – though most of the time you are required to be able to work for at least 3 months, depending on the country and the type of visa you are applying for. Work & Travel programmes are normally sponsored by intercultural exchange organisations of the country that offers the programme, but these agencies count on local partners from different countries to recruit international students who are willing to work in the summer months.

The programme I participated in – Work & Travel USA – was sponsored by CIEE, the US’ oldest and largest nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organisation, and Travelingua, its Spanish partner. I understand that the recruitment process may vary depending on the country you’re from, the country you’re applying to, the employer, and so on, but here’s my personal experience. First, I contacted Travelingua and showcased my interest in participating in their Work & Travel USA programme. They checked my eligibility (i.e., age, studies, English level, time availability) and gave me the green light to start the recruitment process. After paying an initial deposit, I had to choose my destination. With a Work & Travel programme you normally work in amusement or theme parks, hotels and motels, national parks, restaurants, retailers and ski resorts (in the winter season). Like I said before, I knew I didn’t want to work and live in a busy city, so I didn’t consider amusements, theme or water parks, nor restaurants in big cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco. Instead, I decided I wanted to have a different summer and opted for a national park. When I applied for the programme, they only had two national parks available, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. To be honest with you, my first choice was Yellowstone – basically, because it was they only one I had heard of. But a couple of days later they told me they required me to stay until mid-September and I had to be back at university by the beginning of the month. So Travelingua offered me Glacier National Park instead. I was a bit disappointed at first, but the moment I googled “Glacier National Park” all my troubles disappeared. I mean, look at this view!

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Obviously, I went through with the recruitment process and I was interviewed by a head of the People department at Glacier Park Inc., When you apply for a job through a Work & Travel programme, you don’t usually apply for a specific role but rather for the programme itself. Then, the employer offers you a job that he or she considers to match your skills and experience. However, employers are aware that they are hiring students, which means that in many cases, they don’t have any formal work experience. That was my case, but at the end of the interview I was offered the role of retail associate, which is exactly what I wanted. My goal for the summer was to improve as much as I could my English skills and I could only do that in a place with almost no Spanish people and in a job that would force me to interact with English-speakers continuously. With the job offer in hand, I applied for a J-1 Visa and, before I realised it, I was taking the longest trip of my life to travel from Madrid to East Glacier Park, Montana.

When I say “the longest trip of my life” I really mean it. I flew from Madrid to Paris, from Paris to Salt Lake City, and from Salt Lake City to Kalispell. I spent the night in Kalispell and the morning after a Glacier Park Inc. shuttle drove they new hires from Kalispell to East Glacier Park. As soon as I arrived to my workplace, Glacier Park Lodge, I was assigned a room; employees live in 5 cabins in the backyard in shared or individual rooms, and Glacier Park Inc. offers catered accommodation for a very reasonable price. This means that Glacier Park employees are a family: we do everything together, from eating and working to hiking and having fun together after working hours.

Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier Park
Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier Park, Montana

I remember the first thing I did when I settled in my room was try to find the WiFi signal. Ha. There is barely any phone signal, let alone WiFi. Well, there is at the lodge and in our rooms, but to be honest, it’s not very strong. But who wants or needs WiFi when you are surrounding by spell-binding beauty? The perk of having no signal or strong internet connection was that we were “forced” to hang out together after work and get involved in activities I had long forgotten, like playing bingo and board games,  or engaging in outdoor improvised sports. One of the things I learned from this experience was that the moment I disconnected from the internet I connected with other people like I had never done before. At the beginning, I really didn’t notice how that change of lifestyle was changing my mind, but by the end of the summer, I could not imagine myself going back to a world where relationships are shaped by technology.

Another perk of working in Glacier National Park are people you meet. I met people from all over America and from all over the world – I worked with them, hiked with them and talked to them. I asked them about their past, their present and their future. I was surprised to find that many people from different countries and backgrounds had similar plans for the future. I was also lucky enough to work and be close friends with both Christians and Muslims, and I can assure you night conversations about religion proved to be most interesting. Some of my Christian friends even invited me to Sunday service – something that, as an atheist, I had never been a part of -, and I loved being part of such experience. Their kindness and tolerance really made an impact on me, since unfortunately we are running short of those nowadays.

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Retail associates at Glacier Park Lodge. Summer of 2015.

A further perk of working in Glacier National Park are the customers. Yes, you won’t find many people working in retail saying that working with customers is great – hey, maybe I didn’t work long enough to change my mind -, but I truly enjoyed every encounter with a customer. Many customers tried to actively start a conversation with me, something I very much appreciated, considering that doing 8-hour shifts at a small gift shop can get boring sometimes. But what I genuinely liked was the interest and surprise they showed when they found out I was from Spain. “How did you end up here?!” was the most common reaction. Then I told them all about the Work & Travel USA programme and everything they asked about Spain. Many of them had even visited Spain before, and we were able to exchange views and opinions on my country. I even met a Spanish couple at the gift shop! They were so excited to meet a Spanish-speaking employee that they didn’t want to leave the shop.

But, in all honestly, the best part of working in Glacier National Park is not the employees or the workers, it’s the location. Montana is called the Big Sky Country, the Treasure State and the Last Best Place for a reason. And Glacier National Park, together with its sibling Waterton Lakes National Park, is considered to be a crown jewel. As an employee, you have two days off, normally in a row, which allows you to hike not just twice a week, but maybe even camp. How many employed people can say that? What I did while I was working there was talk to other employees who normally had the same days off as I did and we hiked together. Throughout the summer I was able to complete the main trails of the main park’s areas: Two Medicine, St. Mary, Many Glacier and Lake McDonald. Many guests ask you, as an employee, what is your favourite area or your favourite trails, to then act on your advice. If you are planning to visit Glacier National Park, you should know that every view in the park is mesmerising. Every trail leads you to gorgeous views. But if I had to choose one trail that, in my opinion, captures Glacier’s beauty, that would have to be Grinnell Glacier trail. The trail starts next to Many Glacier hotel and climbs up to Grinnell Glacier. Look at these views.

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Grinnell Glacier (top) – View of Grinnell Lake (bottom)

The only time I had ever hiked before was when I was a part of the Ruta Quetzal, and that was 5 years before I went to Glacier National Park. As you can imagine, some of the hikes in Glacier are challenging, but completing the Ruta Quetzal reassured me that I could complete any trail I started. So, with that mindset I hiked around 130 miles throughout the summer, which is not a lot but it’s not bad for an amateur hiker. I was even convinced to climb a mountain (???). They reassured me we wouldn’t need any special gear and that other unexperienced climbers had climbed it before. With that “if not now, when” mindset and 6 extremely supportive supportive coworkers, I managed to climb Dancing Lady mountain. I couldn’t walk for a week after that climb without my legs giving up, but every moment was worth it.

The summer of 2015 was the last summer that I was able to spend at my own pleasure. I knew that before I participated in the Work & Travel USA programme, and that is why I wanted it to be special. But little did I know how special it would be. Montana, Glacier National Park, and the people I met there, will be scored on my heart forever. They inspired me to love rocks, rivers, flowers, mountains, and wildlife. They inspired me to change and to inspire change in others. They inspired me to be a better person.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”

EDWARD ABBEY

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