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A conversation with Wyoming author Mark Miller

The cover of a book named "A Sometimes Paradise" that has a photo of people riding horses in the background.
Mark Miller

Former Wyoming State Archeologist and author Mark Miller has written a new book, titled “A Sometimes Paradise: Reflections of Life in a Wyoming Ranch Family.” Wyoming Public Radio’s Grady Kirkpatrick recently spoke with Miller about the book.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Grady Kirkpatrick: At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to write this book?

Mark Miller: Oh, I think probably in the early 2000s. I'd been away from the ranch for several years and living in Laramie and had a little time on my hands. And I was worried I'd start forgetting the story.

GK: What or who was the main inspiration behind writing the book?

MM: When I started the book, I did it as a kind of a dedication in my mind to my grandfather, Kirk Miller, because of the circumstances we experienced when I was growing up out there. I felt I owed him a favor.

GK: Your family has quite a rich history in Carbon County. Who first acquired the ranch?

MM: Well, that would be Isaac C. Miller, my great grandfather. [He] went into partnership with Joel Hurt in 1881. Hurt had a homestead out there. He'd been a game getter for when the Union Pacific Railroad went through and started running sheep out there. And they started a partnership in 1881. And the Miller State Company grew from that.

GK: Describe the landscape on the ranch.

MM: Well, it's the western Hanna Basin, [for] those of you that are familiar with Carbon County. It borders on the north by the Seminole Mountains, on the east by the North Platte River in Seminole Reservoir, which also borders the southern part of the ranch where it makes it bend. And then the western margin of the ranch is the Haystack Mountains, which form the east rim of the Great Divide Basin where the Continental Divide splits around the Great Divide Basin.

GK: There are some memorable and humorous descriptions and lines in the book. One was when you referenced growing up on the ranch. You said, “Most of my friends were the four legged kind.” You were around a lot of animals.

MM: Oh, yeah, we had every animal you could think of. I think I mentioned most of them there. But bar none, horses were my favorite. I think they were my brother's favorite. I know they were my great-grandfather's favorite because he wrote that and it's a connection [between] the man and horse. It's hard to beat anywhere else.

GK: One of the chapters is specifically devoted to horses. And I don't think I've ever read a better description of the relationship between humans and horses. You reference many of the horses’ names and their temperaments. Tell us briefly about one of your favorite horses.

MM: Oh, bar none my favorite horse was Tabasco, who I was young enough to really think I knew how to ride. I'm gonna give my brother credit here because he was a better rider than I was. But I worked hard at it. And Tabasco taught me a lot about riding in ways that are harder to remember.

GK: I'll bet. There's also a chapter devoted to your grandfather, Kirk. Describe the influence and lessons learned from your grandfather.

MM: When we were grandkids, there were five of us: my brother [Rod] and myself and three cousins. And we were around Kirk all the time. He was still managing the ranch. But he was old enough to where dad was doing most of the work. So we'd hang out with Kirk all the time.

GK: He was like, a friend.

MM: Yeah, he was like a sixth member of the club. And so he was the first adult on the ranch that really impressed upon me aspects of the country, aspects of the culture and aspects of the fabric of family.

GK: There's a strong connection to family and friends throughout the book, as well as connection to the land and animals, that paints a vivid picture of what it was like to work on a Wyoming ranch in the mid-20th century. A lot of people lament the passing of this way of life. How do you think these strong connections to people in places in the West can continue well into the 21st century?

MM: To me, the big thing was that we had an enduring family ranch when we were managing it. And in terms of the management, we didn't own controlling interest, but the family managed it for a century. And I think whatever Wyoming can do to preserve that aspect of ranching. I think far too many of them are being purchased by out-of-state owners, companies that buy ranches for their corporate recreational opportunities. But the family ranches, [they’re] struggling and I think it's an important part of Wyoming culture that deserves to be protected.

GK: To what extent did growing up on the ranch lead you in a couple of different positions? You worked with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and then became the Wyoming State Archaeologist for three decades. How did growing up on the ranch kind of lead you in those directions?

MM: I grew up on a ranch and when I was old enough to go to college, I didn't know what to major in. And my dad advised me against majoring in agriculture because he knew the fragile nature of our family control over the management of Miller State Company. So he took me to an archeological dig on the ranch that was happening at that time. And he introduced me to George Frison. When I met George there, George talked about the site he was working on and explained it to me, [and] I was just hooked. I went back to university next semester, declared my major in anthropology and archaeology, and worked with him the rest of his life and ended up getting the state archaeologist job when he stepped down.

GK: That's great. You also were co-chair of the public lands with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association at a pretty young age.

MM: In the early ‘80s, 1980-81. Rod [Miller] and I were involved with the Carbon County Stock Growers Association. And we were fighting a grazing environmental impact statement that was using a computer forage model to figure out how much grass cows could eat on public lands in the West. And we found an error in the model. And it wasn't just us. I mean, the university was working on it. Everybody wanted the old adage, garbage in, garbage out. Well, we wanted to see if there's any garbage. And we found some, and they dropped that model. And it was not used to allocate forage because of some of the stuff everybody found. And I think that got the attention of some stock growers at the state level. That's when I was invited to be vice chairman. Rod got on the Game and Fish committee there. And that all happened the last year we were on the ranch. And I moved on to archaeology after that.

GK: One more question, Mark. Are the winters in Wyoming not as cold and windy as they used to be 40 or 50 years ago?

MM: I've been in some pretty cold winters not too long ago. But out there when we're ranching, there were a couple of winters and ‘77 is one I remember. That just was a killer. There was so much snow on the ground, we couldn't even find the county road. We're 20 miles out of town and Dad had to drive up on top of the ridges because they were blown open and get out there. And when we got to our ranch, there's a county road that goes through the ranch. And the county had to try to keep that open. And they were not doing a great job because it was such a bad winter. But they had a long stretch of it cleaned out. They got it down to the asphalt. And there were 10 foot tall walls of snow on either side of the highway. And there were 1,500 pronghorn on a highway between those walls. And Dad and I pulled in behind them and they were going slow because they were sliding all over and we had to follow them at like five, 10 miles per hour until they got on a hill and they could get away. That's the toughest winter I remember being in. Of course Dad remembers the winter of ‘49.

GK: “A Sometimes Paradise: Reflections of Life in a Wyoming Ranch Family,” from Sandra Jonas Publishing. A testament to the spirit of the West. Thank you very much, Mark Miller.

Grady has taken a circuitous route from his hometown of Kansas City to Wyoming. Sometime after the London Bridge had fallen down, he moved to Arizona and attended Arizona State University and actually graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. ("He's a Lumberjack and he's OK……..!") He began his radio career in Prescott in 1982 and eventually returned to Kansas City where he continued in radio through the summer of 1991. Public Radio and the Commonwealth of Kentucky beckoned him to the bluegrass state where he worked as Operations/Program Manager at WKMS in Murray and WNKU in Highland Heights just across the Ohio from Cincinnati.
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