Longtime Red River residents John and Judy Miller died Thanksgiving week, but not before leaving an indelible mark on their community — and on the sport of skiing in New Mexico.
Married 65 years, the couple died only four days apart. John, 88, died Sunday, Nov. 20, at Holy Cross Hospital in Taos. Judy, 86, died Thursday, Nov. 24, at the family home; it was Thanksgiving Day. They both struggled with illness for some time — John with heart disease and dementia, Judy with heart failure — but both lived full and happy lives.
John Harris Miller was born Aug. 5, 1934 in Lubbock, Texas, to Francis and Edith Miller. Billie Helen “Judy” Dorrance was born May 4, 1936 in Oak Park, Illinois to William and Florence Dorrance. She was born with a half-dollar sized hole in her heart, which — had her mother known — would have meant living a life as an invalid. No one knew and Judy went on to live a rich, full life of adventure.
When Judy was around four years old, she decided to name herself “Judy” after Judy Garland, whom she had seen in The Wizard of Oz. It is, perhaps, a testament to her strength of will that she refused to answer to anything by “Judy” until the family gave up and she was Judy forever after.
Judy said she did not remember, but her mother Florence once looked across their large yard and saw a “golden glow” around Judy who was, at that time, no more than 3-years-old. Florence got closer and realized her daughter was, in fact, surrounded by a swarm of bees. “I was holding out my little hand so they could crawl on it and just loving it,” Judy said. Similarly, she recalled, “I loved playing with garter snakes. My neighbor was just horrified. She screamed!”
In June 1935, when John Harris Miller, less than a year old, his father, Francis Miller and uncles Carl Miller and Paul Armstrong bought a 128.42-acre homestead ranch and started the first subdivision in the Upper Red River Valley. For John, this was the beginning of a life-long love of Red River. John was raised in Sudan, Texas, but — with his three siblings — spent every summer of his youth in Red River. He fished, rode horses, and hiked all over the Enchanted Circle and even went to Blue Lake many times before former President Richard M. Nixon returned that sacred lake to Taos Pueblo.
In one of her “Before the Road Was Paved” columns, which were originally published by The Red River Miner, John’s older sister Dorothy Dulaney noted, “The home that my family lived in was originally built 100 years ago (1895). The logs had fallen and my Dad rebuilt it as it was… Before electricity there was no way to have running water in the house, but we were fortunate enough to have a beautiful spring running beside the house. It also served as a refrigerator. Mother cooked on a wood stove. At night we read by kerosene or gasoline lamps. We washed outside with a gasoline-powered washing machine. [The Works Progress Administration] built the outhouses and garbage containers in the late ’30s.”
When he was 16, John bought a used ’48 Willys Jeep and engaged in daredevilry that included trying to set a record driving from the cabin to town. He once recalled coming upon a US Forest Service crew building a new “hiking trail” to Middle Fork Lake. He drove his Jeep up the narrow trail, which required backing up on some switchbacks, and the Middle Fork Lake “road” was born.
Judy was 11 when she, her older sister Vivian, and her younger brother Bill, all learned to ski courtesy of the “Eskimo Club” and the ski train, which took passengers from Denver’s Union Station to Winter Park, Colorado. The siblings, along with a host of youngsters took the ski train, sans parents, every weekend for most of the winter. Although she did not initially embrace skiing (“I hated it.”), Judy learned to love it. She recalled those weekends as a fun, special time in her life.
Many summers the family visited Judy’s grandparents, Otto and Ellen Loven, at their lake house in Illinois, so Judy was a beautiful swimmer and loved being around water as much as she loved her mountains.
John graduated from Sudan High School and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, where he earned a bachelor’s in geology in 1957. He later attended Amarillo College and studied business law and electric logging. Although he had been on skis a few times, including skijoring behind his Jeep whenever West Texas had enough snow, John took lessons while attending college and years later still recalled learning Stein Erikson’s exaggerated counter-rotation technique.
John and Judy met while attending summer school in 1956, at the end of Judy’s sophomore year in college. She noticed a khaki-clad man serving lunch at his fraternity house. “He was just the cutest boy at Boulder and that’s the truth,” Judy said with a laugh. “He didn’t know how adorable he was. That was one of his charms.”
The two visited that day at lunch when John mentioned he liked to go tubing on Boulder Creek. When Judy commented that it sounded fun, John said, “We’ll have to do that sometime.” To which Judy replied, “How about this afternoon?” And that was it: They were inseparable. Three weeks later, he gave her his fraternity pin, which, Judy noted, “was like an engagement to be engaged.” They were married the following winter on Feb. 3, 1957, a few months before John’ college graduation when he would be stationed to a new post in the U.S. Navy.
They honeymooned in New Mexico, staying first at the Taos Inn, then skiing up to the Upper Red River Valley to “camp” a few nights at the Miller Cabin, which had no running water, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. “Had we known we would end up here we might have chosen a different location for our honeymoon!” Judy said.
John was stationed first in Philadelphia, then in Norfolk, Virginia, where John, Jr. was born. After two years of active duty, serving on a destroyer “all over the Mediterranean,” John worked for a geophysical company in Louisiana, then a gas reservoir engineering firm in Amarillo where daughters, Mary and Ellen, were born.
Judy saw how miserable John was in Amarillo and suggested they take a chance on mountain life. “[His] family was there and that was nice, but … we didn’t have mountains!” Judy noted, to which John added, “Amarillo was surrounded by huge ranches with “No Trespassing” signs. The only public land you could go to was Palo Duro Canyon.” They moved to Red River in fall 1963. Daughter, Linda, was born the following spring.
John was an office manager at Red River Ski Area before their friend, the late Tony Luteijn, helped him get a job in 1965 at the Molybdenum Mine, where he worked first as a clerk, then as a senior planning engineer.
When their children were little, Judy taught skiing at Powder Puff Mountain under Ski School Director Gary Starbuck. In 1970, with partners Gary and Fran Starbuck, they bought the ski area from its founders, Lester and Jan Lewis.
Powder Puff had 700-vertical feet, three rope tows and few runs and no trails to speak of — other than “Expert” which was so short you could go straight down without having to break into a turn before hitting flat terrain. Lift tickets were $6 for adults, $4.50 for kids. Lessons were $5. Beginners started on 100-centimeter skis using Cliff Taylor’s Graduated Length Method (GLM).
When the Millers and Starbucks bought Powder Puff, it had snowmaking (compressed-air and water). In fact, it was one of the first western ski areas to take that step. Its new owners even had a brochure with a picture of a snow gun blowing snow and the caption, “We make snow!” It was a little confusing: one day, while it snowed outside, a customer came in to complain.
The Millers and Starbucks tried several additions to their new business, including saucer sledding, night skiing, a summer campground, a summer sled ride called the Red Rumbler, and cross-country skiing.
All winter, Judy used the loudspeaker, which could be heard all over the mountain, to sell lessons, to find lost parents or kids, announce events, lots of things. Sometimes she’d forget what she was going to say altogether: “Attention please…” she’d say before trailing off, leaving her listeners hanging, waiting for an announcement that never came. Once when Linda went skiing in the early morning Judy announced, “Attention please: Linda Miller, you put a hat on right now! It’s cold outside!”
John was known for his lively sense of humor. He once put a sign over the clock that instructed people who were coming from Central Standard Time to set their watches back 42 minutes instead of one hour “because of the altitude.” He enjoyed watching people stand there, wrist watches extended, trying to make the correct calculations.
When they sold Powder Puff at the end of winter 1979. Judy opened an art gallery and John began offering guided cross country ski trips in the Upper Red River Valley. Their retail clothing store, art gallery, and cross-country ski headquarters was a popular shop in Lifts West Condominiums on Main Street. They eventually moved Miller’s Crossing across the street next to the Ponderosa Lodge.
No customer can forget Judy’s sales abilities. It was rare for anyone to leave the store without a beautiful new sweater or outfit. John notably said, “Judy could sell snowballs to Eskimos.”
In 1985, after skiing at Royal Gorge in Soda Springs, California, the largest groomed cross-country ski area in the United States, John was inspired to build a groomed area on a plateau atop Bobcat Pass. They opened Enchanted Forest Ski Area in winter 1985-86.
Trail names had whimsical or “enchanted” names like Sherwood Forest or Jabberwocky, but some of its trail names reflected John’s sense of humor. John named “Face Flop Drop” after their close friend demonstrated a face flop on that new trail.
John taught hundreds of cross-country ski lessons. He made cross-country skiing look easy as he glided across the snow on his skis. Later he jokingly gave “snowshoe lessons” by taking giant, slow motion steps across the floor of their shop.
Even before they opened Enchanted Forest, Judy led free weekly Ladies Ski Days in the Upper Red River Valley. She continued that tradition at Enchanted Forest, leading groups from Angel Fire and Red River through the beautiful forest setting. Later, as she and her friends got older, they snowshoed.
Although John and staff created lifelong friends and return customers, he also worked to create a nationwide recognition for the area. Enchanted Forest hosted college-level races and, at daughter Ellen’s suggestion, they created Just Desserts Eat & Ski, which featured desserts donated by Red River restaurants on tables out on Enchanted Forest trails. At every Just Desserts in February it was John’s “job” to ski around as Cookie Monster.
Enchanted Forest was a true labor of love —it really was a passion for John and Judy — but it was always a struggle. “Years ago, we went to our accountant, Bill Simmons, when we had the Enchanted Forest,” Judy recalled. “We were wondering if we should just give it up and he said, ‘You are so lucky. You’re doing something you love to do!’ He’s part of the reason we kept the business.”
In November 2006, a few months before their 50th Wedding Anniversary, Judy’s heart began to fail. It was then doctors finally realized she had had a hole in her heart since birth. They patched up the hole and replaced a mitral valve, but her health was never the same after that. Still, she took up snowshoeing, a gentler sport than cross-country skiing.
Sometime in the ’90s, at the suggestion of their daughter and son-in-law, Geoff and Ellen Goins, they added The Earth Store upstairs at Millers Crossing, where they sold educational books, toys, games, and novelties. They downsized once, moving into a smaller space at the Alpine Lodge. Sometime around 2010, they closed the shop, sold Enchanted Forest to Geoff and Ellen Goins, and retired.
After their retirement, they continued hiking — a shared love that lasted throughout their marriage — and going for evening drives to look for wildlife. John like to joke that Judy was an “elkoholic.”
“One thing we don’t ever take for granted is living here and all the wondrous things we’re able to see and do. Just driving to Taos, seeing the bighorn sheep, Bear Canyon, the sunsets, and the clouds,” Judy said.
Judy and John offered wildflower identifying treks through the Red River Community House and taught friends and visitors how to identify and hunt for choice mushrooms, a skill they honed under the tutelage of the late Carlo Gislimberti.
Before marrying, John and Judy had gone through marriage counseling during which they were advised to have a God-centered marriage. “With our ski business and with our store, we missed church but now, it means a tremendous amount to both of us, reading the scriptures together every morning and evening and praying together,” Judy said, “I do believe that a family that prays together, stays together.”
John has his own tip for a happy marriage: “I don’t try to run Judy’s life, and I don’t try to run my life.”
At the conclusion of an interview, which they graciously gave to Ellen in 2017 on the eve of their 60th Wedding Anniversary, Judy concluded, “I cannot impress upon you how proud I am of every one of you children and all your incredible talents, how blessed we are with each of you.”
After the Town of Red River formally incorporated in 1971, John served on the first town council. He was the town’s third mayor and served two terms. One of his proudest achievements was overseeing completion of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that could handle the community’s burgeoning tourist industry and maintain the river as a quality cold water fishery. While serving as mayor, John was elected secretary-treasurer of the New Mexico Municipal League. He was past president of the Red River Chamber of Commerce, he was race chairman of the Red River Ski Club, and was President of the Red River Kiwanis Club. He was on the Boards of Directors of the Red River Bank and Ski New Mexico, and served on the Questa School Board. In 1978, with the Red River Chamber of Commerce, he established the first Century Bicycle Tour around the Enchanted Circle.
As an artist, Judy sold watercolors at a galley on Bent Street. Not long after Red River incorporated, she was part of the Parks & Recreation Committee and was instrumental in the establishment of Mallette Park and Brandenburg Park and was on the Red River Chamber of Commerce board. She participated in the Red River Women’s Club and taught Sunday school at the Red River Community House during summer months.
Judy served on the Music From Angel Fire Board and was appointed by then Gov. Gary Johnson to serve on the New Mexico Recreational Trails Advisory Board, a volunteer review committee that helped choose recipients for state Outdoor Recreation Division (ORD) Trails grants. She was named New Mexico Mother of the Year in 2014. In later life she was a member of The Order of the Daughters of the King, which is for women who are communicants of the Episcopal Church. As a younger woman, Judy regularly cheered up some of the town’s older residents — like Earl Roemer, who was over 100 years old — by bringing them food or visiting with them.
In fall 2008, the couple were inducted into the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame for their contributions to the sport of skiing, both at Powder Puff and Enchanted Forest.
John was preceded in death by his parents Francis and Edith Miller and siblings Francis “Choc” Miller and wife Betty, William “Bill” Miller and wife Barbara, Dorothy Dulaney (née Miller) and husband Bowen. Judy was preceded in death by her husband John; her father and mother, William and Florence Dorrance; and her brother-in-law, Clinton Jarvis.
The couple is survived by Judy’s sister and brother, Vivian “Francesca” Jarvis of Tucson, Ariz., and William Dorrance and wife Harumi, of Kyoto, Japan; their son John (Karen) of Houston, Texas; daughters Mary Miller and Ellen Goins of Red River, and Linda Miller of Questa; grandchildren Jack (Jia) Miller, Michael (Katie) Miller, William Goins, Nathan Mieras, and Helena Mieras; great-grandchildren Jackson, James, and Riley; numerous nieces, nephews, family relations; and many dear friends. They never stopped loving former-sons-in-law Geoff Goins and Dave Mieras.
John and Judy adored all their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, extended family, Red River family, and all their friends.
Funeral services for Judy and John were held Saturday, Dec. 10, at St. James Episcopal Church in Taos, with Fr. Mike Olsen officiating. Inurnment followed at the church.
The family hopes to have a Red River memorial for Judy and John in summer 2023.
The family will be forever grateful to the men and women of Red River’s EMS/Fire Department, nurse Susan Bale and the staff at Mountain Home Healthcare Service, and people in Red River and Questa who have supported their family during this difficult time.
Donations may be made to Red River EMS, P.O. Box 1020, Red River NM 87558; St. James’ Food Pantry, 208 Camino De Santiago, Taos, NM 87571; or the Red River Valley Foundation, P.O. Box 452, Red River, NM 87558 or http://www.redrivervalleyfoundation.org/donate.html
Arrangements by Rivera Family Funeral Home. To share a memory, please visit www.riverafuneralhome.com