New Mexico’s ski realm has lost two of its finest. Just four days apart, after 65 years of marriage, John and Judy Miller of Red River passed, respectively, on Nov. 20 and Nov. 24, 2022. John was 88, Judy 86. Founders of Powder Puff Ski Area, and the state’s only commercial cross-country operation, Enchanted Forest, they were inducted into the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in 2008.
Their plunge into the region began in 1935 when John’s father Francis Miller and his uncles Carl Miller and Paul Armstrong bought 128 acres of land in the remote Upper Red River Valley. They built a simple but solid cabin for summer outings, and as a child, John would come with his extended family to the high, cool country underneath New Mexico’s tallest mountain, Wheeler Peak, where they fished, hiked, camped, and rode horses.
Meanwhile, Judy was growing up in Boulder, Colorado, where she too was drawn to the outdoors. They met at UC Boulder, and after a first-date inner tube float on Boulder Creek, it was a quick engagement. They were married on Feb. 3, 1957, and their honeymoon was spent at the venerable Taos Inn, followed by a rigorous ski-in to the Miller’s old cabin far above the town of Red River. And though without running water or electricity, it did have a fireplace!
The Die Was Cast
The die was cast but had to wait several years to roll, as John went off to Navy service for two years, then worked in Amarillo, Texas, in an engineering firm. But the mountains called, and they moved to Red River in 1963. John first worked at Red River Ski Area, then as a clerk and senior planning engineer at the nearby molybdenum mine, while Judy raised their four children and taught skiing at a little local hill named Powder Puff.
Their path really turned toward skiing in 1970 when they — with the director of the Powder Puff ski school, Gary Starbuck, and his wife Fran — bought the ski area from Lester Lewis, who’d initiated it in 1965. With its relatively low elevation, lack of snow plagued them, but Lewis was among the very first globally to create manmade snow, and they improved this system. One year, they tied Loveland, Colorado, as the first ski area to open in the nation, on Oct. 29. They sold out in 1978, and while Judy created and ran a successful art gallery in Red River, John began to lead guided cross-country tours into the Upper Red River Valley and other local destinations. During his days as a backcountry guide, John spent a week at Scandinavian Lodge in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, learning from the great Sven Wiik, a longtime racer and coach of the U.S. Ski Team. The next chapter was about to unfold: the launching of Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski & Snowshoe Area atop Bobcat Pass.
JOHN AND JUDY MILLER Pass the Torch
In 2016, I visited this charming and easy-going locale, and to my delight, I found John and Judy Miller both present. Though in their 80s at the time, they still came almost daily to check things out and get some exercise, after turning over the business to their daughter, Ellen Goins, in 2010.
Judy recalled, “In the winter of 1985, we went out to visit Royal Gorge in California (a long-established XC center) and found it to be such a lovely place that we decided to come back and start our own operation here. John had grown up nearby and knew about this area and its old logging and mining roads.”
They began with a dream on a shoestring budget but created the state’s only commercial XC area with all the amenities of much larger operations elsewhere, including some fabulous ski-in yurts.
The calling led in time to John being elected twice as mayor of Red River and numerous other positions on various commissions and task forces.
“It’s been a labor of love,” noted John. “In a good winter you do all right; in a bad year, you lose your shirt. Grooming is expensive, and insurance.”
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a diehard endurance athlete and cross-country skier, knew them well. In a recent article in the Taos News, he stated, “They’ve been a big part of my life in New Mexico. They were always out exercising every single day — they made it a point to do that. They were always gracious, and they were always wonderful. They were icons in the New Mexico ski community.”
PAJARITO MOUNTAIN HIRING
The smallish ski area above Los Alamos is seeking staff and part-time help for many positions. Management says that if they can find workers, they will be opening soon, so keep your eyes on their website, and if you’re looking for work, give them a call! The Jemez area has received a generous amount of snow in the recent flurry of storms passing through Northern New Mexico, picking up 11 inches in one round, with snow falling as this is written.
Top image: John Miller leads a group of eager cross-country skiers on a guided outing in the high country above Red River. Photo courtesy Miller/Goins Family.
Daniel Gibson was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in October 2022 for his snowsports writing. He is the co-author of Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico (Arcadia Publishing, 2021), with 183 historic photos; and author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, websites, and magazines including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. He can be reached at [email protected] or via DanielBGibson.com.