Seeking Love Amid Familiar Faces

By Beacon Staff

On a recent Friday evening at Red’s Wines & Blues in Kalispell, James Reeves looked around the bar in despair, and said he felt like he was at “a Doobie Brothers reunion concert.” It was 7:45 p.m., a time in Kalispell’s nightlife when the 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings have yet to yield the territory to the 20-somethings.

“Right now, I’m not the youngest person here; an hour ago, I was,” said 26-year-old Reeves. “Pretty soon, I’m going to be the oldest person here.”

When the lights dim in a few hours, the younger clientele would arrive in search of throbbing music, elaborately named drinks and – quite possibly – love. Of course, most won’t admit that. Singles may say they’re out to see friends or to dance. But Will, a 37-year-old attorney who didn’t want to give his last name, described his presence at Red’s simply: “The only reason I’m in this bar is because I’m single.”

Despite the denials of skeptics, a singles scene in the Flathead does exist. And statistically, the valley doesn’t look like such a terrible place to be eligible. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 100 single women for every 95 single men. But inevitably, those who participate in the singles scene complain about it.

While the pool of eligible singles in the valley may seem small, the weekend rituals of courting, romance and regret remain an integral part of life in the Flathead. And though people find love at church, softball games, fitness clubs and coffee shops – the bar scene continues to be the stronghold for singles. So with Valentine’s Day looming, the Beacon ventured out one night for an occasionally sloppy snapshot of the singles scene in the Flathead.

Angela Russell, left, and Becca Standley talk about dating and relationships in the Flathead Valley over pizza at Red’s Wines and Blues in Kalispell. Annie and Charlie James, right, have been married for 37 years and said they are childhood sweethearts.

Kalispell, 7:45 p.m.

At Red’s, Reeves wonders why alcohol needs to be a part of the social scene, while he sips a beer. He points out how impossible it is to meet someone in a bar, then mentions that he actually found his current girlfriend here. He criticizes the false fronts people employ to impress attractive strangers, then smiles and admits he did the same thing.

When Reeves first met his girlfriend, he pretended to be a bouncer and an arrogant financial bigwig. When she asked him what he did, Reeves, a manager at Spirit Skate Shop, sneered that he was a mortgage broker, adding, “What’s it to you?” They have been together more than a year, but Reeves admits he had to act like someone he isn’t just to meet a cute girl. “That’s why I get depressed because I feel that’s what works,” Reeves said. “I can’t be myself.”

A far better place to meet someone, he added, is the workplace. That’s where Becca Standley, 21, met her “off and on” boyfriend, while working together at MacKenzie River Pizza Company. Men in the Flathead are “not as aggressive” and “really timid,” Standley said, which is why many people date co-workers – but there is a downside to that arrangement: “It also is awkward when you break up and you work together.”

Standley’s friend, Angela Russell, 27, is a Kalispell native, single and back after a few years in Seattle. In such a small town, she said, the opportunities to meet a guy she doesn’t already know are few and far between. She’s been set up a few times, only to find the guy used to date one of her friends. “I know their history and they know my history before we’ve even talked,” she added. “It eliminates people right off the bat, just for that reason, and I’m sure men feel the same way.”

But Will the attorney, who is divorced, believes the small town forces breakups to be more amicable. “In a big town, you can get away from your ex; in this town? Good luck,” he said. “You can’t be such a jerk. It’s why smaller communities tend to help each other.” And he maintains, “There are still plenty of single people in this town.” His unexpected singles spot? Borders bookstore, he adds, is an ideal place to meet interesting adults trying to avoid the bars.

Columbia Falls, 10:30 p.m.

While the Blue Moon attracts a Country-Western crowd interested in dancing, around 10:30 p.m., Bandit Saloon begins drawing hard-drinking folks who want to rock. Behind the bar hangs a sign reading, “Our house wine is Jagermeister.” On this Friday night, the band “Twisted Logic” blasted covers ranging from Tom Petty to Alice in Chains, while the crowd filed in. A man with biceps like softballs tries to encourage people to arm-wrestle for 10 bucks.

Jessica Skare, 25, a bartender who sees a lot of relationships begin and end as she pours drinks night after night assesses the Bandit crowd this way: “Usually, it’s a sausage fest.” While she thinks it’s fairly easy to meet someone, whether the relationship will last is another matter.

Anthony Butterfield, center, lines up a pool shot at The Palace. Of the single’s scene in Whitefish, Butterfield said there are, “definitely more dudes than chicks here.”

“I think you could get a good couple months out of it,” Skare said, adding that most successful relationships she knows also began between people who work together, or met at a smaller party, where it’s easier to approach someone. “If you’re looking for a girl, going to the bar every night, that’s not going to happen.”

The band takes a break and a Buckcherry song starts playing. Another bartender, Krystle Richardson, climbs on the bar and begins dancing. Her boyfriend, Bert Oftedahl, 28, glances at her while he checks IDs at the door. Oftedahl hit it off with Richardson on a camping trip over the summer, and while his friends enjoy being single and spending their money on “toys,” like snowmobiles and trucks, he does not look back fondly on those days.

“It was hard when I was single,” he said. “It was like a nightmare trying to date.”

Whitefish, 12 a.m.

By midnight, few singles were interested in an activity as boring as talking to a reporter. The Great Northern Bar was packed and as humid as a sauna. Upon mentioning that she was single, a young woman was immediately approached by a leering older man with a large pinky ring, asking her if she wanted to accompany him somewhere quieter. When she declined, he gave her a gentle fist bump, and assured her that they could catch up later.

The dance floor was chaos, as drunken men stumbled into each other and a woman unsuccessfully tried to kick another woman, but her jeans were too tight to permit her to raise her leg very high.

At a table against the wall, two older, heavily made-up women who might be described as “cougars” craned their necks to hear a young man. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” one woman shouted at him. So the man motioned to his friend, and they sidled up on either side of the women to conduct a more intimate conversation.

Across the street, the Palace Bar was quieter, and provided a little more room to talk. Many here acknowledged that while men still seem to outnumber women in the bars, that ratio might be gradually improving, but still has a long way to go. Shooting pool at the back of the bar, Anthony Butterfield, 25, a self-described ski bum, affirmed that there are “definitely more dudes than chicks here.”

At a booth, a group of married women gratefully regarded the singles scene they no longer inhabit. Even here, Katie Reed expressed what so many other attached people had throughout the night: Although she did not think bars were good places to find relationship prospects, she met her husband at the Palace.

Anna Leferriere said unlike elsewhere in the valley where everyone often knows each other from growing up together, Whitefish attracts singles from elsewhere with similar interests. “This area draws a certain type of person,” Leferriere said. “We’re coming here because of recreation.”

As the lights came on and the bartenders shouted for last call, the revelers made their way out of the bar and onto Central Avenue. Girls in high heels slipped in the snow. Some couples locked arms and leaned into each other, making it impossible to tell whether they had been together for years or met that night. Some stumbled home. Others took their place at the end of a line stretching out into the street, part of a group ending their night by seeking consolation in a steaming container of Island Noodles.