Baker City, Oregon resident Mary Miller has led a life of many new beginnings—as a musician, as a pilot, and, most recently, as a sommelier.

Better with Time Mary Miller's Life of Constant Learning

“I PASSED!!!” Mary Miller shared these triumphant words in an Instagram post last year, declaring her newfound status as a level one sommelier with a level two award—the latest in her long list of achievements, adventures, and reinventions. At age 66, her story is one of an unyielding spirit hungering for life’s richness and a willingness to take risks in the pursuit of joy.

Mary’s appetite for knowledge began early in life. She learned to read at age four, swim and water ski by five, and operate a boat by 12. Music was also a cornerstone of her upbringing in a deeply religious family in the American South. By 13, she was skillfully playing the piano and beginning guitar lessons. At 16, barefoot and clad in overalls, Mary captivated an audience at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention with her rendition of an old ballad played with the lap dulcimer, a string instrument she taught herself to play.

Her family heritage was not confined to music. Her father, his twin brother, and numerous other uncles were all pilots. This legacy bestowed a rite of passage upon Mary and her cousins— each was expected to complete a solo flight before turning 16. Guided by her father, Mary began her pilot lessons at 15. Encompassing the full spectrum of aviation skills, she mastered take-offs and landings, cross-country navigation, execution of precise maneuvers such as stalls and spins, and even the art of emergency landings. A few days after her 16th birthday, Mary took flight on her own, piloting a Cessna 140 confidently in the skies above Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Mary earned the special task of ferrying her father to and from Piedmont Triad International Airport near Greensboro, North Carolina, where 

his commercial flights took off. After returning to their local airstrip, she would diligently park and secure the plane before unloading her bicycle from the back of their family car and pedaling to school.

“I value that time in my life more than anything; the peace I felt in the air and the closeness I felt with my father are unmatched,” she says.

Their time together became all the more precious, for just a year after Mary took to the skies, her father received the devastating diagnosis of glioblastoma, a fast-growing, cancerous brain tumor.

Mary learns to fly as a young woman in North Carolina. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Miller

Navigating bouncy landings was an inherent part of Mary’s flight training, yet her father never allowed her to feel inadequate in the face of such turbulence. Instead, he offered steady encouragement and gentle guidance, fostering an environment where resilience was nurtured. These invaluable lessons and her early musical instruction instilled in Mary the virtues of listening, practicing, and putting failure in perspective.

While her father was confined to one bedroom due to his illness, Mary also found herself bedridden as she grappled with rheumatic fever and was subjected to strict bed rest and antibiotics in her own room. Whenever she summoned the strength, Mary would slip out of her room and make her way to her father’s bedside. In these heartfelt conversations, she confided her desire to leave school to work and help care for her mother and younger sister. Despite being acutely aware of her physical, emotional, and academic challenges, her father insisted she continue and finish her degree. His unwavering belief in her ability to face challenges, persevere, and ultimately succeed bolstered her commitment to education. Mary stayed in school and cemented a lifelong love of learning.

Continuing her education, she pursued degrees in both music and nursing while simultaneously working as a waitress and singing in coffee houses. After university, she joined a bluegrass band with her first husband. For over two decades, they performed at festivals, weddings, street dances, and cafes in North Carolina, Washington, and New Zealand.

They moved west to Spokane, Washington in 1986, where Mary continued her nursing career and nurtured her passion for music. Three decades after her first lessons on the piano, she took up the fiddle alongside her toddler son, Paris Gore. She also took voice lessons and earned a coveted spot in the Spokane Symphony Chorale.

During this period, Mary also ventured into the world of mountain biking on a rigid-frame Bridgestone MB3.

“I was terrified of rough terrain, especially going downhill,” she says. “I never imagined I would be capable of improving my bike skills.”

However, when Paris developed a keen interest in downhill racing during his teenage years, Mary surprised him with a special gift—a celebratory trip to Whistler, British Columbia, in honor of his high school graduation. She had driven him to mountain bike camps in Whistler on two prior occasions, where he fearlessly tackled root-strewn singletrack, steep rock faces, and gnarly drops and jumps. Meanwhile, Mary contented herself with swimming, hiking, and leisurely exploring the valley trails.

Mary rides the Broadway Flow Trail at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort west of North Powder, Oregon. Learning to mountain bike later in life gave her newfound confidence in her physical abilities.

This time was different. Knowing Paris would soon be off pursuing his post-secondary studies combining mountain biking and photography, Mary, at the age of 53, was inspired to learn more about his world despite her apprehensions. Guided by her instructor, she first mastered loading her heavy rental bike onto the chairlift before delving into balance, pedaling, turning, and braking fundamentals. By the end of the day, Mary had triumphantly ridden the blue flow trail, B-Line, twice. When her lesson ended, she settled onto a pub patio, wrapped in a cozy blanket, savoring a wellearned beer and beaming with accomplishment.

“I had tackled my fears and learned some new skills, and I have never forgotten how wonderful it felt,” Mary says.

Mary retired after a 31-year career in nursing, during which she served in some of the most demanding environments, including intensive care within a burn center. She relocated with her husband, Don, to the picturesque town of Baker City, Oregon.

At first, Mary was content with gardening, reading books, and exploring the local hiking trails. Eventually, however, she longed for deeper community involvement. She eagerly volunteered her time at the local independent bookstore, assumed a vital role on the Public Arts Commission, joined the annual film festival selection committee, lent her expertise to the board of the local bicycle advocacy group, and took part in building trails—all testaments to her expansive knowledge and diverse talent.

Five years after Mary’s initial foray into mountain biking at Whistler, Paris surprised her with a Liv 3 Lust full-suspension mountain bike. She was awestruck and immediately enrolled in a women’s skills camp in Hood River, eager to further her riding development. However, scorching 105-degree weather, dusty trails, dauntingly steep terrain, an unfamiliar bike, and a trouble- some derailleur mishap made the experience challenging and overwhelming.

Nevertheless, Mary’s indomitable spirit remained unshaken, and the following year, she headed to Bend, Oregon, for another course. This time, she flourished in a small group of other women who shared similar skills, confidence levels, and learning styles. Mary enjoyed herself so much that she signed up again for the following year and has been actively applying these valuable lessons to riding her local trails ever since.

It’s all in a day’s work for Mary—riding at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort

Most recently, Mary conquered portions of the Broadway Flow Trail, a trail she participated in building.

“I have to draw on every ounce of bravery I have to ride it,” she says. “It takes some effort to push past my comfort zone, and I’m not embarrassed to walk some parts until I can ride it a few more times.”

As a trailbuilder, Mary sought to bring people out in nature to share the rejuvenation and sense of self-discovery she experiences. This relentless pursuit of a connection with the Earth and desire for deeper self-understanding led her to embark on a transformative long-distance solo backpacking expedition to commemorate her 60th birthday in 2017.

Throughout the winter preceding her journey, Mary dedicated herself to meticulous preparations. She carefully studied maps from the U.S. Forest Service, absorbed the stories outlined in hiking guides that described the trails she planned to connect, and, above all, plunged into the tales of exceptional women who had accomplished incredible feats of physical resilience. Helen Thayer’s “Polar Dream” was the most influential among these narratives. In 1988, Helen became the first woman, and at the age of 50, the oldest person to ski solo to the magnetic North Pole without resupply. From the pages of Helen’s adventure, Mary gleaned invaluable lessons in success—lessons rooted in experience, thorough preparedness, and unfaltering self-confidence tempered by humility.

She also posted a quote by Helen Keller to her kitchen cupboard, which served as a daily mantra: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”

Adjacent to these profound words is a photograph of an enormous mountain lion, measuring 8 feet and 7 inches from nose to tail. These constant reminders underscore the idea that one can adventure fearlessly with adequate preparation, knowledge, and a steady disposition. They are also reminders to carry her sidearm.

Each step of Mary’s six-day odyssey through the North Fork John Day Wilderness and the Elkhorn Mountains was imbued with a profound sense of joy.

“I could wander those trails forever,” she says. “They feel like home.”

Navigating a variety of terrain, from unmarked, overgrown, and precipitous trails to fording rivers, clambering over fallen trees, and enduring a few tumbles, Mary never doubted her capabilities to achieve her goal. Her remarkable trek finished along rural roads right to her front door—a simple yet unforgettable conclusion to an epic adventure.

A dry rosé at Copper Belt Wines
Mary can be found either behind the counter or out in the vineyard.

Approaching her 70th year, Mary continues to enrich her already impressive resume of talents and experiences. When the local winery, Copper Belt, opened a tasting room downtown, she began stopping in for chats with the staff and wine sampling sessions, and eventually participated in a series of informative classes with their winemaker.

Driven by her desire to deepen her knowledge of all things, including wine, Mary successfully completed an online level one sommelier course, but blind tastings remained a challenge, which prompted her to sign up for a two-day intensive level two course. After sampling a staggering 42 wines, she emerged successful, proudly earning her credentials as a level one sommelier with a level two award.

Today, visitors passing through Baker City may encounter Mary behind the counter at Copper Belt, where she graciously extends invitations and imparts her wisdom to wine novices, guiding them to savor and appreciate the diverse nuances of wine. Alternatively, they might find her harvesting and sorting grapes in the vineyard—a testament to her unceasing enthusiasm to embrace all of life’s opportunities.

Anticipating her upcoming level three sommelier course this coming spring, Mary continues to broaden her horizons. She is learning Italian, a pursuit she initially began while studying opera a few years ago, to better read, understand, and pronounce wine labels.

“Perhaps one day I’ll combine all my interests and study Italian wine, opera, and language all at once in Italy,” she says.

Never allowing social constructs or expectations to limit her, Mary continues to embrace the unknown head-on and infuses each step of her journey with a profound purpose. During one of her heart-to-hearts with her father when he was sick, he told her he would be fine. This didn’t mean a miraculous recovery, but as a profoundly religious man who’d led a fulfilled life of daring adventure, he was fearless in the face of his terminal illness.

“His bravery gave me the courage I needed to also never fear death as I pursued my own life of adventure and daring,” she says.

This fall, Mary completed a solo hike at 8,000 feet in the Eagle Cap Wilderness; in the next few years, she hopes to walk the length of Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail, perhaps the next time she retires.