Born: July 6, 1975. Resident of Bethesda. Died: May 1998.
David Miller's parents no more could have kept him out of the wilderness than a fish can be kept out of water or a bird from flight.
In the thick family photo albums that now serve as poignant family memory books, there is no mistaking his love and enthusiasm for the rugged, even extreme edge of nature--for Mount Rainier's ice-packed peak, Alaska's glacial crevasses, Maine's isolated coastline. The young man from Bethesda explored these places and more in his 22 years, including the ocher cliffs and tortuous canyons of the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness in Arizona.
Where he died.
Exactly when and how this happened may never be known, and the tragedy only accentuates the full-throttle passion with which Miller lived. "He was never going to do anything at second speed," said Rob Lee, who coached him at Potomac School in McLean. Sports were the most obvious example of this, and between swimming when he was 6 and rugby at 21, there were few sports he didn't pursue. His focus and intensity were obvious to others: time and again teammates chose him as their captain.
"I've coached 20 years and I've never seen a kid [like him], who would give everything he had," recounted Al Hightower, former athletic director at Potomac, where Miller graduated in 1993. "Where that motivation came from, it's certainly a gift."
He was neither a win-at-all-costs competitor nor one intent on personal glory, but played always for the team and led by quiet example. Off the field, he acted much the same. He seemed to care little about the privilege and affluence around him. "There were a lot more important things to him," said his close friend, Nayan Bhula, who regarded Miller's often-skewed tie and disheveled hair with affection.
More important was family, especially a younger brother disabled by a rare bone disease. An older sister, born with the same condition, died in 1984, and those closest to Miller believe his sensitivity to others--including a decided sympathy for the underdog--stemmed in part from the special circumstances and responsibilities of home. "It was almost like David knew how precious life was and how much he was going to do" before the sun set, said Hightower.
The wilderness called to him early; he was 13 the summer he kayaked along the Maine coast. Every person in the group had to pass a 24-hour solo test. Miller spent his overnight on a remote island. Despite later treks just as arduous--backpacking through New England, the West, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska--that first trip remained an epiphany of sorts, one that he wrote about years later when applying to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
At some point, his mother is sure, her son would have come home and excitedly announced an imminent assault on Mount Everest. Both Barbara and Ira Miller knew the dangers of his adventures, but given the limitations at home, they also recognized the importance of letting their son go. "One of our objectives was for him to have a very full life," she said.
He majored in religion at Bates, choosing the Sun Dance of the Lakota Sioux for his honors thesis. His junior year he spent doing research in Albuquerque. "I'm learning about the Lakota Way, which is really cool," he wrote Bhula, signing off with: "Peace and I Love You, Your Brother, Dave!"
If the postcard reflected his individuality, so too did his dream job after college. And when the U.S. Forest Service called to hire him, he was ecstatic. In April 1998, he reported to work as a wilderness ranger in Arizona's Coconino National Forest. Eager, energetic, willing to go anywhere, do anything--that's how his supervisors describe him.
Eight weeks later, they would conclude an intensive but ultimately futile search for his body.
What little is known is that Miller, on his first three-day weekend, set off alone into the dense manzanita bush of that red rock wilderness. He did not return. With no sign of foul play, authorities could only assume he had fallen into one of the isolated, treacherous canyons. They continue to hope that, some day, some trace will be found.
Two ceremonies, both this year, marked his passing. The first was in Bethesda in May, when his parents at last felt ready to hold a memorial service. The second was in Arizona last month, when the marker for a new trail went up near a pristine pass in the Coconino forest.
Fittingly, the trail is named for David Miller.