THIS IS A STORY ABOUT A DREAM, the kind we all have at one time or another, but the kind most of us don't pursue, opting instead to suffer occasional twinges of dissatisfaction with the life we have chosen rather than risk losing it all. But for Marily and Larry Miller, the dream turned out to be something real, which is what makes this a story.
The year was 1975. The Millers' first store at 14th and Fairmont streets NW had been burned during the riots and they had spent the seven intervening years trying to make a go of it with the Loudoun Supermarket. They had three children, a home in Reston and the kind of 12- and 14-hour days that owners of small businesses put in when they are competing with supermarket chains. It wasn't working, and when they faced the inevitable conclusion that their market wasn't going to make it, they sat down and looked at the way they lived and decided to change it. "We were like ships passing in the night," recalls Marilyn. "We spent very little time with ourselves or with our children."
They had always liked New England, and went to visit friends in the Boston area, thinking of relocating there. "It wasn't what we were looking for," says Marilyn, "although at the time we couldn't have given a good definition of what that was." Larry Miller thought it was Lake Winnipesaukee, the magnificent New Hampshire lake he discovered in the almanac. But when they went there, they found that it wasn't what they were looking for. "That really got us down," says Marilyn. "We felt the silver lining we were trying to find just didn't exist."
They decided to visit friends in Maine. The shortest route on the map took them through a town called North Conway in New Hampshire. "It was on Easter Sunday and snowing," says Marilyn. "We hit the entrance to the Mount Washington valley and we drove about a mile and a half through the main thoroughfare and Larry parked the car by the side of the road and got out and walked around and got back in and he said 'I don't know what's here, but this is where we're going to live.'
"And I, not being very calm about the whole thing, told him he was out of his mind," says Marilyn. But the friends they visited in Maine told them that North Conway was, indeed, the kind of neighborly, small town they were looking for. They returned through North Conway and found a real estate agent. "The more he showed us the area, the more we fell in love with it," says Marilyn. All they needed was to find a business to run. That night, the agent called them and told them of a restaurant that seemed "unsettled." The next day, they met the owner, made an offer and 24 hours later had themselves "The Big Pickle." Both Larry and Marilyn were born and raised in Washington. "We did our best to pursuade our family and friends whom we had spent all our lives with that what we were doing was truly a super thing for us," says Marilyn. Within three weeks, the Millers had sold their home, liquidated their business and moved to North Conway. "About 90 percent of our negotiations right down to the purchase of our house and establishment of our business was solely based on handshakes and just the intent of man's good will," she said. After settling on the house and business, however, they had very little cash. The house they bought was "affordable," as Marilyn puts it, because it had a defect: when it rained heavily there was a threat of serious flooding on the first level.The real estate agent told them it could be corrected. "So we took a chance and felt if we could get through the first year without a monsoon we could get to the problem." Within three weeks of moving in, there was a downpour and neighbors called them at work to say the house was filling with water. A plumber came to pump the water out and told them it would take $1,400 to correct the problem. They didn't have the money. "He looked at us and said, 'You have a problem; I will correct it, and when you are able to pay me, you pay me.' Fourteen months later, we paid him."
The Millers have become active in community affairs and take frequent trips with their friends and children in the north country. Their restuarant is only open for lunch and breakfast, so that both of them have had the experience for the past six years of being home when their children get out of school. They own a four-bedroom home on an acre of land, and are within minutes of mountains and lakes and recreational facilities that tourists spend thousands of dollars to see once a year. "We could not afford to live in the city based on the income we are making here," says Marilyn, "but based on what we are earning and the way we are living, we are far ahead of the game."
"You don't have the tension that you have in the city," says Larry. They feel freer about leaving their home unlocked, their children alone or letting them do things on their own. "We go back to Washington once or twice a year. We enjoy our family and friends, but the traffic and hustle-bustle, I don't know how people do it. I was always a small town person and didn't know it," says Larry.
The Millers took a chance, and for the first two years sacrificed a lot to make it work, "right down to our eating habits," says Marilyn. Their only regret is that they didn't do it sooner. "We took a deep breath, packed our bags and went after a dream," she says. "And we were lucky, because we found it."