John and Judy Miller: Blazing paths for New Mexico skiing

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Judy and John Miller enjoy an early season ski at Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area in 2013. (Photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)

New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame – 2008

The sun was setting as we finished our end-of-the-day trail “sweep” — more an excuse to get out and ski than to look for lost and injured skiers. Too often, especially when skiing downhill, fast, a skier might be tempted to focus on the path ahead but we were cross-country skiing and, this day, the sun, clouds and timing aligned for one of those heart-stopping New Mexico sunsets, this one a blaze of fire above Gold Hill.

My father John and I stopped and took it all in with reverent awe. This, we decided, was what made it all worthwhile. This is what makes it possible to survive the heartaches of drought years, and the resulting financial ups and downs.

My mother has skied since she was a child growing up in Denver, “The first time I ever skied was up at Berthoud Pass where the 10th Mountain Division was training. They had a ropetow there and I fell off. I couldn’t stand skiing.”

She tried again at Steamboat Springs and then, “I joined the Eskimo Club and took the ski train to Winter Park every weekend. The kids would terrorize all the passengers. They’d open the doors in the tunnels… and it was a steam train!”

My father, a Texas native, spent summers at his family’s cabin in Red River and occasionally “skied” West Texas courtesy of a rope and pick-up truck, but later learned on a actual mountain while attending the University of Colorado. “I started skiing at Arapaho Basin on 7-foot, 2-inch long skis with bear trap bindings. My instructor, who had a German accent, said, ‘Ve go to the top!’ Later I’d go to Winter Park. I’d bust my gut to get there before the ski trains because of the lift lines at the T-bar. I would foot pack for a free lift ticket.”

My parents fell in love while attending CU. “On our first date we rode the rapids down boulder Creek on an inner tube,” Judy says.

Judy and John Miller at their 50th Wedding Anniversary Celebration in 2007. (Photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
Judy and John Miller at their 50th Wedding Anniversary Celebration in 2007. (Photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)

They married Feb. 2, 1957 and honeymooned in New Mexico, staying first at the Taos Inn, then backcountry skiing up to the Upper Red River Valley for a few days of roughing it in the Miller cabin. “It wasn’t winterized so we had no running water and only an outhouse,” says John, to which Judy adds, “It was just beautiful. The weather was lovely.”

‘The heck with it, let’s go to Red River!’

Dad left to serve a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy then the couple settled near his family in Texas. “I was working in a windowless office in Amarillo and so I said to Judy, ‘The heck with it, let’s go to Red River!’”

Despite the protestations of family, many of whom believed they were crazy, mom and dad moved in 1963 with three children in tow and one on the way, and my dad went to work as an assistant manager at Red River Ski Area.

“When we first moved into this house, the water was terrible,” Judy says. “We hauled our water and melted icicles for drinking water. I had to drive to Taos to a laundromat to wash cloth diapers. I was afraid we couldn’t live here if we didn’t get good water.”

Judy skis at Powder Puff in the early 1970s. (Courtesy photo)
Judy skis at Powder Puff in the early 1970s. (Courtesy photo)

They got better water but, says Judy, “finances were always an issue … it seemed like we never had enough.” With four children to feed, John soon left for a job at the Molybdenum Mine down the road. “I’m embarrassed to say it but I was the pit planning engineer so I’m responsible for a lot of those messes.”

Gary Starbuck was Powder Puff’s ski school director, Fran, its business manager, John Miller, its mountain manager, and Judy, its customer service and public relations department. Says John, “If people were cruising the parking lot looking around she’d go out and talk them into skiing.”

Judy’s loudspeaker announcements were also legendary. She used the loud speaker, which could be heard all over the mountain, to sell lessons, find lost parents, kids, announce events, oh lots of things. Sometimes she’d forget what she was going to say altogether, announcing “Attention please……”, then leaving her listeners hanging, waiting for that all-important announcement that was never going to come. Once when my sister went skiing in the early morning she announced, “Attention please… Linda Miller, you put a hat on right now! It’s cold outside!”

My dad, though more low key, also had a reputation — for his unique sense of humor. Once, he 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 said people would stand there, wristwatches extended, trying to make the correct calculations.

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John Miller cross country skis at Powder Puff in the 1970s. (Courtesy Photo)

‘Sighted sub, sank same.’

During the Powder Puff years, John bought a fleet of used wooden cross country skis from another rental shop in town and began teaching cross country skiing in Red River’s backcountry, so when the area sold in 1979, it seemed natural to make that a full-time business. He recalls the year “I’d spend hours foot packing tracks and a snowmobile would wipe them out so one evening I set a beautiful set of tracks across a beaver pond.… As we used to say in the Navy, ‘Sighted sub, sunk same.’”

During his days as a backcountry guide, dad spent a week at Scandinavian Lodge in Steamboat Springs, Colo., learning from the great Sven Wiik, a longtime racer and coach of the U.S. Ski Team.

In spring 1985, a Cross Country Ski Areas Association convention at Royal Gorge in Truckee, Calif., inspired dad to build a groomed ski area on a plateau atop Bobcat Pass. “With back country trips, people would finish the tour and say, ‘Well that was fun but it’s too much work.’ We weren’t getting people to fall in love with the sport — and it’s a great sport!”

Enchanted Forest opened with about 10-kilmoters of trails in winter 1985-86. Today, the area features 33 kilometers of ski trails and 15 kilometers of snowshoe trails.

Mom, as always, has been a public relations marvel for the business. From the beginning she taught lessons and took women out for “Ladies Ski Tours” (these have become the popular Ladies Snowshoe Tours). “I have an affliction,” she says with a smile. “I really, really enjoy bushwhacking. People just love that — but it drives the ski patrol crazy!”

In the beginning, John groomed the trails and taught lessons but the area has grown enough that his role is now “official grooming inspector”.

Today, Enchanted Forest is considered New Mexico’s premier destination for Nordic skiing with customers from all over the world. The area, now managed by Geoff Goins, still plays host to a number of events and has hosted the University of New Mexico Nordic Teams’ NCAA Regional Race several times.

As owners and operators of Enchanted Forest, my parents have persisted in this labor of love through drought years, financial hardship and exhaustion. Why? The answer is simple: They still love to ski!

Says Judy, “I really hope I’ll just keep on doing this!”

—By Ellen Miller-Goins; reprinted from the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle’s 2008/2009 Winter Enchantment magazine. Editor’s note: John and Judy sold Enchanted Forest to Geoff and Ellen Miller-Goins in 2010.

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Judy also created the logo
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Linda Miller was Powder Puff’s brochure cover girl.
Susan Tompkins (center right) with Linda, Ellen and Mary Miller at Powder Puff.
Susan Tompkins (center right) with Linda, Ellen and Mary Miller at Powder Puff.

1 COMMENT

  1. Love this story!!! I always enjoy the stories that your family experienced over the last 60 years. So many memories.

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