Where has love gone, and will it ever come back?
February 3, 2016
I WAS A TRAVEL WRITER in those days and had wandered into the lovely and isolated Passaconaway Valley, almost hidden by the shadows of the always rugged and sometimes angry White Mountains of New Hampshire.
They rise above acres of farmland that cling to the shoreline of the Connecticut River. Up in the high country, the forests are thick, peaks make every effort to touch the sky, and more than a hundred waterfalls cascade over rocks and ledges toward the landscape far below.
Hovering above it all is Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. The summit is a feared and a dangerous place. The weather torments and batters the rock landscape without mercy. The land at the top of the world can be so cold in the dead of winter, and the winds attack it with the force of cyclones spun out of control.
Down below, it’s an emerald world.
Peace resides in the valley.
Love wavered. It never left.
Davis was a child of the mountains. He had been raised amongst them and had never found a reason to drive away. He tried once. He didn’t go far. He looked at them in his rearview mirror. He sadly shook his head, turned the car around, and came back.
We drove into Passaconaway, and Davis parked in front of a little one-story home, weathered and scarred.
It was old. The years had not been kind.
“That’s where she lived,” he said.
“They called her The Hermit Lady of Passaconaway Valley,” he said.
“When did she live here?” I wanted to know.
“Back in the late eighteen hundreds.”
“She live alone?”
Dave paused and stroked the stubble beard on his chin.”
“But she didn’t want to,” he said.
“What happened to her?”
He sadly shook his head. “A bad man.”
Dave shrugged. “Bad luck,” he said.
We walked toward the little house, and Dave continued his story. “Ruth’s daddy had a some money,” he said. “Amzi Russell was a lumberman, and he ran a little store. Traded mostly with the Indians. Ruth got herself a good education over at the Tiftonborough Academy. She could have gone anywhere and found a pretty decent job.”
Dave shook his head.
“She came back to help daddy with the store,” he said.
He stopped in front of the door.
“Those were bad times,” he said.
He frowned. “She hooked up a bad man.”
Dave shrugged. “She had herself a run of bad luck.”
Here’s what he told me.
Ruth Colbath watched her neighbors all hitch up their wagon and ride out of the valley. They were tired of farming. The city was calling. Farmers were going broke. Most had already busted.
She looked up one day. And Ruth was the only one left, unless you count her husband, Thomas. She did. She was a woman in love. She was loyal. She would stay with Thomas through thick and thin.
Mostly it was thin.
“One afternoon during the autumn of 1891,” Dave said, “Thomas stood up and looked out the window. He turned to Ruth and said, ‘I’m going out for a walk. I’ll be back in a little while.
“Ruth nodded. She cleared the table. She sat down and waited for Thomas to return. The day grew dark. The night grew late. Ruth walked over, lit a lantern, and placed it in the window. She smiled. It would make his journey home so much easier, much safer.”
A cloud blotted out the sun, but only for an instant.
Dave shrugged again. “Ruth never saw him again.”
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Nobody knew,” Dave said. “If anybody did, no one said a thing.”
Dave pointed toward the end of the house.
“See that window?” he asked.
“Ruth placed a lantern in that window at night for the next thirty-nine years,” he said.
She became a postmistress.
And she waited.
Her mother died.
She kept waiting.
The dark was never dark in Passaconaway Valley. A lantern kept the light shining.
As a reporter wrote: “No other woman leads such a lonely life during the bleak winter months as this dear old lady of solitude.”
He had crutches
And a cane.
Some nights she had to drag herself across the floor, but the lantern was always in the window. It was always burning.
“It was still burning the night she died,” Dave said.
“End of story?”
This time, I was the one who waited.
“Thomas came back three years later. No one expected him. Everybody thought he was dead. But he showed up looking for his wife.”
“Where had he gone?”
“What had he been doing?”
“Didn’t say anything about that either.”
Thomas came to say hello. Instead he said goodbye. Ruth was gone. So was Thomas. He had no reason to stay, Thomas said.
“He thought Ruth would wait for him,” Dave said.
“She did,” I said.
Dave shrugged. “Thomas saw it differently,” he said.
“She didn’t wait long enough.”
The winds were gentle in the valley. On top of Mount Washington, they were raging