Community profile: 75-year-old retiree pioneers for Rifle area mountain biking
Gary Miller leads active life for mind and body
Gary Miller lives for the outdoors. Whether he’s bouncing around on back roads to favorite camping spots in his 1945 Ford Jeep or zigzagging on the switchbacks of the Grand Hogback Trails on his Ibis HD3 mountain bike, the now 75-year-old retiree has a boundless love for adventure.
Alison Birkenfeld is vice president of the Rifle Area Mountain Biking Association and has known Miller since 2014. Miller recently accompanied her on a trip to Mexico for a mountain biking adventure to celebrate his birthday.
“How many 75-year-olds do you know are flying to international, remote destinations to ride mountain bikes? Not very many,” Birkenfeld said. “I mean, this guy is and should be a serious inspiration to all of us as we weather the progression of life.”
Birkenfeld described Miller as the glue that holds the RAMBO team together and is not only the first one to get out and have fun but is also the first to volunteer when trail maintenance is needed. One of the new trails on the Grand Hogback trail system has been named Miller Highlife in his honor.
“Mountain biking is a huge part of me, and in my case, for the last 30 years it’s constantly encouraged me to try to be more fit, to be a better rider,” Miller said. “It’s constantly making me use my brain, which I’m lucky for, because I’m having (memory) issues, and that’s hard to take.”
Lust for adventure
The lust for adventure was introduced to Miller many years ago when he reconnected with his estranged father, Jack Roberts, who had left Miller’s mother shortly after he was born. A struggling alcoholic and not ready for children, Roberts left the family in Oklahoma for the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1940s.
“He kind of felt that at some point in time I would get ahold of him … and I’m glad I did, because he changed my life,” Miller said.
Miller began spending his summers in Glenwood Springs getting to know his father, and being the small town that it was at the time, everyone knew each other, and everyone knew Jack Roberts.
“I went to church with him one time when I first got here — and this is not an exaggeration — but when we walked into the Methodist church together and, like they do at a wedding, people turned around (started whispering), ‘Is that Jack Roberts’ son?’ You could hear them whispering,” Miller said.
After the small town chatter subsided the newly acquainted father-son duo began setting off on daily adventures. Miller at the time was working a summer job at the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort and had the mornings off until 3 p.m.
“I spent the first summer of ‘67 with him. … He exposed me to so many different things. He actually lived at the base of Hanging Lake. There was a little resort down there until 1969, and the highway forced him to move,” Miller said.
“I had never been around someone like Jack Roberts. … He was someone that almost constantly had to have fun. He was interesting to be around.”
It was during these summer trips to Glenwood Springs that set Miller up for a full time position at Glenwood Hot Springs and a lifetime in Garfield County. He also met his future wife of 54 years, Monica Anderson, who was a hostess at a restaurant.
“As I’m graduating (from college), the general manager of the Hot Springs Lodge and Pool left after about 13 years, and they decided to hire someone to run the pool and the sports shop separate from the general manager,” Miller said.
The general manager had become too overwhelmed with running the entire resort, so in 1971 they started a new position to run the pool.
“I was very lucky, because I was 24 years old at the time, and it was a big job. I was very fortunate to have gotten it,” Miller said.
He continued working in this position for the next 10 years.
Miller particularly liked being able to work with young adults and enjoyed watching them grow from being members of the swim team to working in various positions for the pool before potentially becoming a lifeguard. The hiring age for his staff was as young as 14.
“They didn’t necessarily have to be a good swimmer as long as they had a good attitude,” Miller said. “They would end up being a dressing room attendant, or a suit rental person, maybe a chair rental person then work their way up in the system.”
Miller believes this is one reason he was able to build such a reliable lifeguard staff — they knew they could be a life-guard once they got off the swim team.
When Miller started working for the company, the pool didn’t have on-duty lifeguards during the day — only after school and on the weekends, simply because the demand wasn’t there, and most lifeguards at the time were young people still in school.
“They hired me to go around the pool, and I did, but then finally I presented a program with a budget about what it would cost to guard the pool, and that’s when we started guarding the pool during the day on weekdays,” Miller said. “We had to start hiring some adults and college students.”
As the years progressed they started having requirements through the health department that there has to be a guard on the deck for every 50 people that are in the water with the exception of the therapy pool.
After a decade of running the pool, Miller and his wife decided to take a leap and open a retail shop. He left Glenwood Hot Springs, and the two opened Miller’s Dry Goods in downtown Rifle.
“I really felt like, even at the age of 24, that I was getting a little bit too old for the job because it involved so many young people. The oil shale boom was going on in Rifle during that particular time, so we bought an existing store,” he said.
The Millers wanted something already established so they bought a store that had originally opened in downtown Rifle in 1914. They purchased it in 1981, and very quickly, business was booming.
“We had an incredible amount of business; we were even open at night a couple of days a week,” Miller said.
Exactly one year after they bought the business and six months after they purchased a new house, Exxon pulled out of its oil shale operations in western Garfield County — an event that would be known as Black Sunday.
“Our business became horrible, but we did survive it, and we got through it,” he said.
They cut expenses considerably, only had a couple of employees and were careful about what they bought and honed down the inventory.
“It was a tough time, and it would have been easier to bail,” Miller said.
A few years later they purchased Anderson’s Clothing from Monica’s parents in downtown Glenwood Springs.
“I’ve always liked old downtowns, the more original the better,” Miller said. “I became very involved in the community. I’d never run on anything political, because I thought it could be damaging to my store, but I’ve been involved on the retail level of many committees.”
He was soon elected president of the Retail Merchants Committee in Rifle, on which he was honored to serve since he felt like a bit of an outsider being from Glenwood Springs.
‘Basically a clothes horse’
Miller was the buyer for the sports shop at the Glenwood Hot Springs and had experience and contacts in the industry and knew the market.
“I am basically a clothes horse,” he admitted. “I even kept track of what I wore in high school; it was a little bit obsessive with me. I’ve always enjoyed fashion. I like design work, cool cars, cool architecture. … it’s just always been fascinating to me.”
Miller quickly found that owning a clothing store in a small town introduces you to a lot of people. He grew accustomed to spending over an hour at the grocery due to inevitably running into someone he or his wife knew.
“A small retail store in a small town gets you involved with the community,” Miller said. “You just almost don’t have a choice, but it’s good for you. It’s good to be active in the community.”
Closing up shop
The Millers decided at the beginning of 2020 that they would close up shop, a decision that came mostly due to age but also losing a fighting battle to the online shopping industry.
“Amazon was just killing us, it was absolutely killing us,” Miller said. “Once they started doing free freight we were done. Our business dropped off to the point that we knew we had to get out.”
They liquidated the store and sold the building.
Though they ran into bad timing shortly after opening the business in 1981 with the departure of Exxon, they lucked out by closing the store only two months before COVID-19 closed stores nationwide.
“My last day to work was the 11th of January; then by March we all knew what was hitting us,” Miller said. “By the time March hit and we had been retired maybe six weeks, it was major, and it would have killed that store.”
What does he like about western Garfield County? The accessible public lands and mountain bike trails so close to Rifle.
“Gary’s enthusiasm for mountain bike trails in the Rifle area over the years is a large part of how we got to this point today,” Birkenfeld said. “Without his passion, drive and enthusiasm about adventuring on bikes in our area and the network of bike-minded friends he’s made over the years, I’m afraid to say but the trails may not have existed to this day.”
He has also volunteered for many years at the Ute Theater in Rifle, though he took a break from doing so due to concerns about COVID-19. He plans to return as a volunteer usher soon at smaller shows.
Forty years after working for Glenwood Hot Springs, Miller is reconnecting with the kids he once hired to work for him.
“Some of them make very nice comments about my managerial abilities during those days, and even though I was very strict, they admire that they knew what the guidelines were, and they respected them. It was a very good group,” he said.
As he reflects back on his life, one of his greatest achievements is the raising of his son, Wade, who is a well-known sailboat captain in Florida. He also credits his sharp mind to the active lifestyle he continues to live.
“I’m 75 years old. You’re not supposed to stay together forever, but at least I’m fit,” Miller said.
Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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