Hello, Lois Riley

By

I had been there before. So many times that I no longer looked for the marvelous find that every poker-into-the-past hopes to come upon in the abandoned log cabins and ghost towns of the West. Now I strolled the faint paths , enjoying the spring sun on my back and the blueness of Rocky Mountain iris growing in the wet meadow.

The path led to a one-room log cabin, now roofless and floorless and gradually collapsing. Out back, other logs indicated a woodshed, an animal shelter, or an outhouse. A glimmer in the path and I stooped for the small - what tiny fingers you had, Lois Riley - silver-plated thimble with your name scratched carefully around the lip.

Were you called from your needlework by chickens alarmed by a hawk? Did you leave work on a flower-garden quilt to take a small child to the outhouse? To get wood for the stove? Was it summer with New Mexico's thunderclouds rolling in from the southeast? Or was it winter with the drifted snow that is common at 8, 000 feet in the Zuni Mountains? Is that why you never found your thimble, Lois Riley? And years and years later the rains or snows uncovered this tiny relic for me to make my connection with you and wonder who you are.

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It must have been a precious belonging for you to so carefully incise your name. I imagine you searching everywhere, forgetting that you had worn it outside. I can feel your disappointment when you couldn't find it. I imagine a quilt in a frame hanging from the ceiling and you not able to stitch through the layers without your thimble. It would be a long time before you made the 40-mile trip to the nearest town from this high valley in the mountains.

It was called Valle Largo; the small wooden sign is still there. It was a logging camp and sawmill, with two dozen cabins, barns, and a commissary. In the Zuni Mountains the valley nestled almost astride the Continental Divide. Below lay the pinon-juniper forests, but here were magnificent ponderosas - prime lumber.

By the late 1930s the logging camps were gone, the lonely valley stripped of its ponderosas, the sloping sides left for the scrub oak. The air is quiet after the shriek of saws. Cattle graze there now and stumble occasionally into a roofless cabin. There are signs of elk, and wild-turkey tracks imprinted after rains.

Once in a while a rancher rides through the valley rounding up cows. Wood gatherers in four-wheel-drive pickups sometimes come this far, and so do the curious cabin seekers like me. The eternal wonderers of ''What was it like?''

The place seems different after finding the thimble. I look at the straggling line of ruins, most with dumps of tin cans alongside. A feeling surfaces - these were unloved places. I sit on a log that has fallen inside your house, Lois Riley. My hand touches a small gooseberry bush growing in the middle of your floor, and I find one more clue: a piece of clear green glass with a pattern of strawberries wreathed with leaves.

These two small artifacts connect me to a sister who wanted a home in this primitive camp. Lois Riley, I salute you.

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