Trading Missile Silos for Thatched Roofs: Gary Miller of Placencia, Belize (Reinvention)

Barefoot Bar Placencia

Barefoot  Bar, Plascencia, Beliz

Scratch, scratch and then silence. Mysterious sounds on the aluminum roofing punctuated our first night in Belize. No more white noise of car traffic and ear-drum blasting by over head private jets, we had arrived. Picked up at the airstrip by the proprietor of Miller’s Landing Eco-Resort in his old, gray, no a/c pick up, we shared the place with a German couple, a big dog, and the owner/ builder/ operators— the Millers.

Raised in the shadow of Vandenberg AFB, Gary Miller has engineering in his DNA. Growing up in Santa Maria, California, the protests that roiled the college campuses in the mid Sixties didn’t penetrate this town about three hours north of Los Angeles. Even these days in Santa Maria, pick-up trucks far out-number the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, and Porsches typically seen in West LA. Down home conservative, my country right-or-wrong values in these parts.

Drafted into military service in Vietnam, Gary returned to the war-weary, fast-life 70s America that has frequently been documented in films and stories. But eschewing the anti-Establishment attitude of the day, Gary Miller attended UC Santa Barbara and received a degree in engineering, a rarity in the70’s. The counter-culture of rock and roll eventually got under his skin and he found himself  living in the fast lane in LA. He found work as a recording engineer for performers like Ike and Tina Turner and Chicago and soon was burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Fueled by the ever present drugs and big money he frequently worked 24 hours in a stretch. He eventually hit the wall after he almost got killed through-no-fault of his own in a moment of road rage on the San Diego Fwy. Heeding that clear warning that his life was out of control, he returned to aerospace with Rocket-Dyne. From then on his engineering career took off with positions of increasing importance posting at a variety of military sites around the country.

But as is common in aerospace, he endured periodic lay-offs between contracts. One of those lay-offs changed his life’s course. Taking a promotion with a firm working on missiles on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, something shifted. Gary found the peace of tropical islands. All went well for several years, until a dispute with a superior and a dream began to take form.

Feeling fed up with the usual constraints of institutional jobs like military contractors, he decided to quit and take his retirement savings and build and run a resort on a tropical island. First he planned to stay in the Marshall Islands, but nixed that when he learned that foreigners may not buy land. He and his wife (who was a sea captain in the Marshalls) took a tour of the Caribbean and tried out several islands, but nothing fit until he got to Placencia.

Placencia is a small, but growing village in the south of the Central American country of Belize. Belize’s biggest resort areas are Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, which specialize in the pseudo-idyllic island vibe common to destination tourist resorts. Placencia doesn’t have any of that comfort seeking ersatz paradise vibe.  Yet!

Needless to say  I went in the back door

I used the back  door, Plascencia, Belize

But like many tropical places I’ve visited, it is poised for a big blow out with stone-still boat marinas and super modern, luxury villas and moored yachts, but very few patrons. A kind of ghost town in reverse, not old and empty, it is new and empty. The village itself houses several souvenir shops specializing in over-priced Mayan textiles and conch shell jewelry. Progress has made an appearance with a juice bar on the waterfront and one coffee bar with a sardonic sign that says, ‘Hippies go around the back.’ A few restaurants, guest houses, car / golf kart rental, and banks mark Placencia’s status as an up and coming tourist town. Serving traveler’s needs, but not in excess, it reminds me of quaint places I visited thirty years ago (Caye Caulker among them); casual and comfortable but ruined when the cruise ships arrive. Let’s hope that sordid fate never falls on Placencia.

But Gary Miller is ready, if it does. He and his wife bought prime-ocean fronting acreage and built their resort, long before the coffee lounge with the vituperative sign and the yoga massage offered in Francis Ford Coppola’s chic, low-rise hotel. Being an engineer, Gary designed all of the buildings and the pool and did much of the hammer swinging. Simple, yet comfortable with the necessities, Miller’s Landing, stands out as an old school tropical resort—family run and owned, small, friendly, and quiet. The loudest sound is the leaves scrapping on the aluminum roofing at night.

Rhino on the spot

The Millers & the author

Over twenty years ago Gary reinvented: Freed from the pressure of supervisors and bureaucrats, he spends a lot of time pondering how to improve his kingdom. Challenges abound other than the obvious, attracting customers and fulfilling their petty needs. While we were there a new visitor came into the restaurant with an insect in a paper cup and asked Gary, “I found this thing running around the room. What is it? I’ve never seen anything like it.” Miller gazed at the creature in the cup, about one inch in length, and said, “That is a cockroach. It won’t hurt you. They are common in the tropics.” Being from Silicon Valley in California, the young man had never seen a cockroach. I guess they hide out from the techies.

Trials and tribulations are inevitable with such a radical reinvention: About ten years ago, the whole resort was submerged in a hurricane. Fortunately, it did not blow down but everything was under water and required replacing or major cleaning. A Mennonite friend of Gary’s rebuilt the place—for free. And before the next high season they were up and running.  The power of community.

With major problems like the hurricane and minor problems like keeping the sewage working, quitting and going back the ‘civilization’ can be tempting. About five years after leaving aerospace, his old employer called and offered him a job with a promotion at double his old salary. What to do? Quit the dream and go back to the pressurized life of an aerospace engineer and make big money, or keep stepping forward living his dream?

Demonstrating commitment to his reinvention, Gary Miller said to the military contractor—No thanks. These days he spends a lot of time reflecting on improvements to his resort, fixing rum punches for pseudo-adventurous tourists, and playing guitar at the weekly open-mike bar called ‘Pigs in the Wind.’  I asked Gary if he plans to return to California: He declared, “I only go there when I have to, like my mother’s funeral about five years ago.”

Our era offers almost unlimited of options of how and where to live, but moves like Gary’s require awareness, courage, and perseverance. And for Gary Miller it includes dealing with naïve tourist encounters with wild animals and apolcalyptic hurricanes. Getting out of LA and checking places like Placencia reminded me that reinvention wears many costumes.

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