I've stood on dirt where
buildings once stood, read accounts of life in places that no longer
exist, studied maps of old towns that vanished long ago. I wonder not
only what those towns were like, but why they went away. That's really
what I chase: an understanding of how and why it happened, of what it
was like to be the last person to close the last door. The prey is
I thought about the chase as I set out to Mount
Riley. The drive is beautiful, as are most in New Mexico. The day was
sunny and warm. In the distance, I could see smoke in the mountains,
probably the Forest Service or a local rancher "burning out" the area
-- burning vegetation and brush to fertilize and make room for the new.
I wasn't sure exactly where Mount Riley was, so by
the time I stumbled on it, I'd pretty much figured I'd passed it. The
foundations of the old town are between Columbus and Santa Teresa, on
either County Road B2 or A3, depending on whether you're coming or
going. What's left of the town are visible off the sides of the road,
marked now only by a sign for nearby Mount Riley Ranch.
There's not much to see. Most of it is cement, and
most of it is foundations. On the south side of the road are two or
three remains, one with steps still intact (shown below). On the north
side is a square cement base with a view of Mount Riley -- for which
the town was named -- in the background (shown above). Bits of
scrap tin and metal lie scattered on the hard earth around the
For a moment, as I stood near the old cement
foundations that had made up this community, I began to feel I'd caught
my first ghost.
Maybe ghost towns are history's way of "burning
out." Maybe towns die because they have to; they die so that what we
know as New Mexico today can grow. Maybe by their death, these places
nourish a new place somewhere else. The remains of these old places,
their lives, their long-forgotten histories, their good times and bad,
fertilize and strengthen the communities we know today.
So then, did the last person in Mount Riley think about
their sacrifice and the eventual good it would do as they closed the
last door for the last time? I doubt it. They were busy chasing their
own ghosts. But if it's true, we owe them a debt of gratitude.
On behalf of all of us, Mt. Riley, thanks.