Methow native poured his heart and soul into beloved valley
Born on a Methow Valley homestead and raised in the fields, forests and mountains that he spent his youth and his golden years exploring, Carl R. Miller passed away peacefully on Dec. 12, 2020, in Spokane at the age of 81.
After retiring from a 27-year career as a firefighter with the City of Spokane, in 1994, Miller returned to live in the Methow Valley with his wife, Roxie. For some, retirement is a gateway to a slower pace and fewer commitments. For Miller, retirement was an opportunity to invest in people and places, to explore the region, and to spend meaningful time with his younger brother, Claude Miller, a well-known Methow Valley horseman and outfitter.
“Carl was lucky to have his feet in two different worlds,” Roxie said. “He knew he didn’t want to be a farmer or a rancher, and that’s what led him to his construction and firefighting careers. He loved cross-country skiing, and that’s why he got so involved with Mt. Spokane Nordic. But having Claude in the Methow Valley allowed Carl to enjoy both of those worlds. Claude loved horses, loved horse-packing, and he and Carl had such fun together out on horseback or messing with wagons and sleds.”
The youngest of four boys and born just 20 months apart, Carl and Claude Miller had a “rough and tumble” childhood, said Roxie. “There was always a black eye or a scar.” But the brothers shared an enduring bond. “They were both great readers and very into history. They constantly traded books back and forth,” Roxie said. “They were both gentlemen and always kind to people. Claude was the quiet partner behind Carl, but they were cut from the same fabric.”
“I’m fairly sure we wouldn’t have come back to the Methow Valley if it weren’t for Claude,” Roxie adds. “Moving back to live near Claude allowed Carl to have both of his dreams: cross country skiing, and riding horses with his brother. For Carl, moving back home meant moving back to Claude.”
Miller’s position of having “feet in two different worlds” made him singularly adept at bringing people with diverse opinions to a common resolution.
“Carl was unique,” said longtime friend and fellow adventurer Denny O’Callaghan. “He was a good old local boy and loved the countryside and the mountains; he loved the farming lands and orchards and grazing lands. But he didn’t have a centuries-old view of the environment. He had a modern view of science, and he knew that protecting ranching and farming lands had to be done in today’s terms.”
“Carl was proud of his background and very attached to the people and families he grew up with, but he wasn’t wedded to an old-guard mindset,” O’Callaghan continued. “He knew that we couldn’t just put up a gate at Washington Pass and not let anyone else in. He just hoped that the new people would come with a conservation approach — one that would allow for new ideas while still preserving the character of this place.”
Said O’Callaghan, “Carl always said, ‘I didn’t want to come back to the valley just to live and chew things over with the good old boys, I also want to get to know the new people with new ideas.’”
It was this complex understanding of how to reconcile the Methow Valley’s past as a resource-based economy with its more diverse future that made Miller so skillful at navigating solutions to the sustainability of the valley’s character.
“Carl was a bridge of sorts, between the history of this place and those just finding it,” said Methow Conservancy Executive Director Jason Paulsen. “He brought diverse people together around common values and was a tireless advocate for agriculture — the heart of our valley’s rural character — and through its conservation, his impact will be forever visible throughout the Methow Valley.”
Friend and historian Richard Hart describes riding on horseback with Miller through the areas he had lived in as a boy and through the backcountry. “Carl talked about what it was like growing up in the Methow Valley,” Hart said. “He was brought up to view the community as something he was part of and something he was responsible for; he owed the community. It was all part of his family’s view of how the world operated.”
Paulsen, who spent a day in his first week on the job “sharing the bench seat of their pickup with Carl and Roxie bouncing around nearly every back road,” said that “Carl put the landscape into the amazingly rich context that was his life. I left that day thinking his family must have lived on every old homestead in the upper valley at one time or another. Carl knew the Methow, and he made others want to know it too.”
Early on, Miller was one of the first to recognize that the iconic Nordic ski trail system that put the Methow Valley on the map — two short decades after a proposed alpine ski area threatened to do the same — was a resource that at first glance would jeopardize the rural, agricultural character of the valley, but which would inevitably contribute to its economic viability. Miller joined the board of Methow Trails (formerly Methow Valley Sport Trails Association) shortly after his return to the valley, and was instrumental in shaping the trail system and its impact on the valley in a way that coalesced what could have been factions at odds with each other: longtime residents, ranchers, loggers, farmers, newcomers.
“When you’re trying to build something new, it’s critical to get wide community support,” said Jay Lucas, who was Methow Trails’ first executive director. “Through Carl, we got to know the ranchers and old valley families. And when he encouraged acceptance of the trails system, the others got on board. They said, ‘If Carl thinks it’s a good thing, it’s probably pretty good.’”
Miller’s embrace of the Methow Conservancy and conservation efforts in the valley was similarly forward-thinking. “I didn’t get it at first,” said Roxie. “I was raised a farm girl. I didn’t see how putting conservation easements on land could do anything but harm agriculture. But Carl told me, ‘Honey, you’re looking at it all wrong. We’re going to protect this land so it isn’t covered over by concrete. If we do that, it can always be farmed later. But once it’s developed it can’t be farmed.’”
“It was a unique time,” Roxie continued, referring to the 1990s. “There were people who hadn’t been born and raised here who were moving to the valley, and they just loved the place, and they got involved and they contributed to the nonprofit organizations here. Those who didn’t love it, left. The timing was just such good luck for us.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a community member as actively engaged in volunteering for as many organizations as Miller. “We’ve always been volunteers and joiners,” Roxie said. “Our parents always volunteered; it was just what you did.”
O’Callaghan describes Miller as “the doer,” saying, “Carl would always tell me to quit talking and get working, right up to the end.” Most recently, said O’Callaghan, Miller couldn’t fully uncoil his hands due to arthritis. “Carl would tell me, ‘As long as you can wedge a hammer into my hand, I can pound nails.’”
Fellow Kiwanis member and friend John Owen said that he was introduced to Carl shortly after his own retirement. “[My wife] Sam and I were walking through town one day and she saw Carl, who she knew from the nonfiction book club, sitting in front of the Tenderfoot. ‘Carl,’ Sam said, ‘this is my husband John. He just retired and he needs something to do.’” After that, Owen said, “I just hung on for the ride.”
The first job Miller gave him, Owen said, was raking up pine needles and pine cones from the Shafer Museum. “To test my will, I guess,” said Owen. Owen apparently passed the test, and a long friendship and partnership in community service and fundraising was born.
Miller’s fundraising prowess was legendary; friends joke that they had to put their hands over their wallets when they saw Miller approaching. “He was always trying to sell you tickets to something,” said Hart, “but it was just because he was so focused on getting things done for the community. He loved it and cared about it and constantly worked hard for it.”
O’Callaghan tells of Miller raising money to turn the old tennis court beside the school in Twisp into a park. Miller’s older brother Ross wrote a check for $200 and handed it to Miller, who looked at it, then took the pen out of Ross’s hand and added another zero to the sum before pocketing the check.
It’s Miller’s spirit of serving the community that will be his legacy, said Owen. Although many are quick to call Miller irreplaceable, those who knew him well, like Owen, Hart, and Roxie, are confident that Miller represents not an end of an era, but instead a call to action. “It may take two people to do what he did,” Roxie concedes, “but people who love this valley will keep getting involved in keeping it strong.”
Said Paulsen, “Carl was an amazing inspiration for me and so many others in that he understood that to really call the Methow Valley home, and to feel the beauty of this place, you must find ways to give more than you take. Every damn day.”
A consummate recreationalist, Miller could be found not just on horseback, but also on skis, mountain and road bikes, windsurfers, and in whitewater canoes. Photo albums in the Miller house tell stories of biking trips in Oregon, canoeing expeditions on the Colorado and Kootenay Rivers, backpacking forays into the North Cascades, skiing journeys in Scandinavia, and a 1,000-mile bike ride in Michigan to meet a new grandchild. Miller’s lust for life and adventure is evident in the wide smile he seems to be wearing in every photo, regardless of temperature extremes and the absence of creature comforts.
The mischievous sense of humor for which Miller was well-known surfaced readily in the great outdoors. Once, said O’Callaghan, “I was paddling the Okanogan River with the Millers and some members of the Washington State Park board, when I flipped my canoe in McLoughlin Falls. When I came up to the surface of the water I grabbed the first thing I saw, which was the gunwale of Carl and Roxie’s canoe, and nearly flipped them over. Carl took his paddle and starting beating on my knuckles to make me let go!”
Another time, O’Callaghan said, Miller walked a dozen miles out from Mt. Gardner to call for a helicopter, when O’Callaghan was injured on the flank of the mountain. “The helicopter wasn’t really supposed to bring anyone else along,” said O’Callaghan, “but when it landed, there was Carl inside. I’m sure he wasn’t at all tempted by riding in a helicopter, he was just making sure he was a part of rescuing me.”
“I had planned to ask Carl to speak at my memorial,” adds O’Callaghan, who is 87, “but I guess he beat me to it.”
The Millers’ beefy catalog of expeditions is thanks in part to a strategic life choice. “We got to retire early,” said Roxie. “Carl was just 55. He had a few family members who died when they were fairly young. We wanted to retire when we were still young and energetic. We made that choice.” The Millers’ decision to take an early retirement sacrificed retirement funds in exchange for a quarter-century of freedom to travel and play, to devote themselves to the community, and to enjoy the people most important to them in the places that meant the most to them.
“This time in the Methow Valley with Carl was a gift,” Roxie said. “My whole life with him — it was just such a gift.”
Miller was known to say “There’s no story worth telling that isn’t worth embellishing,” but when it came to the stories of the people and places that form the modern history of the Methow Valley, Miller was a stickler for accuracy. “Carl really understood the relationship between history and education in promoting the valley and the community,” said Hart. “He knew that despite Winthrop’s Wild West theme, the early non-Native immigrants were focused on education and the arts. They weren’t gunslingers and outlaws; they were settlers intent on advancing themselves. The community we have today is in part the legacy of those immigrants. Carl knew how important it was for this side of the story to be told alongside the ’49er Days version of our valley’s history. Carl embraced that history and worked to understand and promote it.”
Miller’s work with the Shafer Museum elevated it to an institution that is unrivaled among other exhibits of American West history. “It’s a true glimpse of a Wild West town,” said Hart, who attributes the museum’s innovative layout — with many of the artifacts available for viewing even when the museum is closed — to Miller. “Carl worked really hard on the interpretive signs and arranging the mining equipment so that people could walk through and get a good museum experience even after-hours and off-season.”
Much of the mining equipment and many of the buildings at the Shafer Museum were moved and reconstructed on-site under Miller’s direction. In his signature “get ‘er done” fashion, Miller formed the Rusty Metal Gang: a cadre of tinkering volunteers enlisted to repair and improve the buildings and artifacts.
Miller lived just down the street from the Shafer Museum and walked through the museum grounds nearly every day, checking on things and, if visitors were present, frequently spending hours telling stories about the valley in his early days, or demonstrating how particular pieces of equipment worked. “Carl would get that twinkle in his eye,” said Shafer Museum executive director Suzanne Perin. “He was so passionate about sharing those pieces of history. He cared for the museum as much as [museum founder] Simon Shafer did.”
Even while preserving history, however, Miller maintained his sense of humor. Once, Miller located his own 1939 birth certificate in a stack of birth records at the Shafer Museum and noticed that the name was listed as “Baby Boy Miller.” So he corrected it, adding his first name. “It may be the first time anyone has ever filled out their own birth certificate,” Hart said.
Miller’s legacy, of course, is the roster of Methow Valley organizations that are in better shape than they were prior to Miller’s 1994 return to the valley. But the work he was so dedicated to is ongoing.
“We live in a special community in a special valley,” said Hart. “But this isn’t by chance. The valley and the community are the way they are because people like Carl made them that way. Carl always maintained that when people moved to the valley, they should make themselves available for community work — that this was the only way this tiny community could offer so much: arts, theater, conservation, history, social services. He focused on that all the time, and he was an exemplary role model.”
In a valley where most young people have “two homes or two jobs,” said Hart, it’s often left to retirees to carry the torch of community involvement. The best way the community can honor Miller, his friends say, is to get involved in the organizations that make the Methow Valley so special.
As Miller got older and couldn’t do as much, Roxie said, he began to teach new people how to do things. “I’m not an expert in anything,” Miller used to say, “but I can do a lot of things pretty well.” Miller, said Roxie, “taught us not to be afraid to jump in and figure things out. He was never afraid to try something; he knew that to learn anything you had to start at the beginning.”
Roxie feels sure that the work Miller threw himself into will continue without him and said that, oddly, the pandemic will play a role in that. “COVID has helped people readjust, reevaluate, and think about what’s important,” she said. “People love this valley — it’s important to them — and they will rally behind its needs.”
A Celebration of Life will be held later this year.