Chapter #370: Edward Abbey & Friends at UNM Ch. 3 - September 22, 2019

By the time Edward Abbey was through with his F-100 Ford truck, it had little more than sentimental value - Photo credit Jack Dykinga - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Edward Abbey & Friends, University of New Mexico (1955-1956) Ch. 3

“Long live literature and reading!” – Jimbo Forrest
“I’m not afraid to die!” – Ralph Newcomb
“Sure a lot of noise here!” – Edward Abbey

Jimbo Forrest -
“In this chapter, I will reveal the story of Ralph Newcomb, and guitar playing. I remember a party up in the Sandia Mountains, starting at midnight, and lasting past dawn on a Saturday. With both guitar and vocal sounds transmitting easily through the cool mountain air, there was audible lovemaking going on. I remember Ralph Newcomb running up the side of a mountain in his cowboy boots, whooping and hollering. He contracted polio the following year.”

Author’s Note (Regarding Jack Loeffler) -
Aural historian and author Jack Loeffler in 1971, protesting and educating on the endangerment of Black Mesa and Navajo aquifers - Photo credit Terrence Moore - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Jack Loeffler is a self-proclaimed aural historian, having spent the last fifty-plus years traveling around the American West and Mexico recording folk music, and conducting recorded interviews for several radio series, which he produced for Community Public Radio. He recorded Edward Abbey three times, the most extensive of which he made on January 1, 1983. That was after Jack and Ed left their campsite in the Superstition Mountains and headed back to just west of Tucson. The interview took place in Ed's writing cabin, a hundred yards downhill from his home. A few months earlier, Ed received the diagnosis of “esophageal varices”. Both men knew that Ed’s days were numbered. Later made public, they covered a fair amount of territory in that interview.

When the two men went camping (which was as frequently and for long as they could), they had myriad conversations about absolutely everything. Jack is a lifelong journal-keeper and noted many of their conversations in his journals. He also had posthumous access to Ed's journals while writing his 2002 book, “adventures with ED (a portrait of Abbey)”. Even though Jack did not record any of those campfire conversations, he was able to to present them as they actually occurred.

Jack Loeffler –
Aural Historian and author Jack Loeffler (left) and Jim McGillis at the Moab Confluence Conference in 2008 - Click for larger image (htttp://jamesmcgillis.com)“It helps that I have a fair memory. I've discovered that the act of writing actually helps with memory retention. It was because of Ed that I started writing books. I had a grant to produce a 13-part radio series in 1984. My wife, daughter and I had opted to spend that winter in Tucson to help Ed with his illness. He acted as my “listening editor” for that series. He listened to the whole series twice, and then informed me that it should indeed become a book. He introduced me to a publisher in Tucson, and thus my first book actually came out in 1989 shortly after Ed had died.

I highly recommend Ed's book, “
Desert Solitaire” and his best known novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, which helped invigorate the radical environmental movement. It's not his greatest novel, but it's certainly his best known. Shortly before he died, he asked me to ‘grade’ his books, which was a terrible thing to ask. I answered as honestly as I could, and indeed, Ed agreed with my assessment. I think that “The Brave Cowboy” is my favorite of Ed's novels.

The modest home in Moab, featuring a sandstone hearth, which Edward Abbey shared with his fourth wife, Renee' Abbey from 1974-1978, sold in 2010 for less than $300,000 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The character ‘Jack Burns’ (the spirit of Ralph Newcomb?) also appeared in “The Monkey Wrench Gang” as the ‘Lone Ranger’, as well in “Good News” (pub. 1980), and finally “Hayduke Lives” (pub. posthumously, 1990) where it is revealed that ‘Jack Burns’ is the father of ‘George Washington Hayduke’, and thus the godfather of the radical environmental movement.

Ed's been gone for thirty years as of March 14, 2019. I'll visit with his widow,
Clarke Abbey in Moab, Utah in October 2019, where I have a book signing scheduled for my new book, “Headed Into the Wind: A Memoir”. Ed remains a hero in Moab.”

Jimbo Forrest (to Jack Loeffler) –
“Interesting! I remember Ralph Newcomb well. Actually, I saw him more often, and for a longer period, even though Ed and I were the only two graduate students in the philosophy department. Ralph was really a bit of a wild man, very bitter and frustrated after he, as an adult, contracted polio, around the same time that Jonas Salk introduced his vaccine!”

Jimbo Forrest –
The lower reaches of Lake Powell (foreground) and the infamous, coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in the background, belching nitrogen oxide in 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“I am reading a chapter of Loeffler's book each night. A stint as an Army MP (1945-1947) seems to have sealed Ed's fate as an anarchist and antiestablishmentarian. All too easily, violence can become a way of life. Imagine if they had actually blown up Glen Canyon Dam or that coal train. Revenging supposed “wrongs” can result in worse wrongs.

It is interesting that I knew none of this while at UNM. Maybe that is why Ed was so quiet. In my experience, he was quiet with everyone, every time I saw him with others. He would speak, but after giving the matter some reflection, with virtually a monosyllabic response. To me, he looked like he was thinking all the time (which he probably was), deciding what he was going to say.

That makes me think about speech-inhibited people, or someone trying to speak in a non-native language, looking for the way to say something. Ed and I had very different personalities. Perhaps this would explain Ed’s thousands of different words in his books, and my years as a disk jockey, radio announcer and English teacher. However, the dialogues Ed engaged in with Loeffler fascinated and confused me. The back and forth conversations were not what I had experienced, the few times I was alone with Ed.

The Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad, made famous in Edward Abbey's novel, 'The Monkey Wrench Gang' ceased operations in the summer of 2019. Score one for Edward Abbey - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I’ve been thinking more about Jack Loeffler, Ed and Jack’s book “adventures with ED (a portrait of Abbey)” and happened to look though the index again. I noticed two references to Ralph Newcomb, which I had not reflected on when I first read the book. The second reference speaks of Ed and Ralph taking a rafting trip on the Colorado River in June 1959 (later featured in “Desert Solitaire”).

When I went to UNM in September 1954 to enroll in the philosophy department as a graduate student, I met Ed, and shortly thereafter, Ralph. Eventually, I spent more time with Ralph and his family, and had a closer relationship over a longer period than I did with Ed. I have many memories of Ralph, and always wondered what happened to him. With regard to Ed, I found out a LOT more about him in the press, but particularly in recently reading Loeffler’s book. In many ways, Ralph remains a mystery to me.

The Peabody Western Coal Company 'Black Mesa Complex' removed their roadside sign in shame years before the coal mine ceased providing coal to the Navajo Generating Plant in Paige, Arizona - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By August of 1955, I felt compelled to go to Mexico City, and on to Acapulco. My Spanish was adequate for getting around, but it didn’t register in my mind that “
AGUA NO POTABLE” meant that I shouldn’t drink it. Well, it was hot and humid in Acapulco, I was thirsty, and there was water. At age twenty-two, I was invulnerable, or so I thought. (I did meet a young woman in Acapulco, however, and a year later, we were married, subsequently producing three daughters.)

Returning to Albuquerque for the new school year in September 1955 I started having symptoms, which sent me to a local doctor. She commented on my yellow eyeballs, and dark urine, and informed me that my liver was the culprit. Later, my young brain made the relationship between my liver and “AGUA NO POTABLE”. Not being able to take care of myself, I flew back to Illinois to be with my parents. A week in the hospital, a month in bed reading Russian authors (they wrote thick books), I was up, got a job, and then went back to Albuquerque in June 1956.

Fitted with a custom roof rack and front grill, Plush Kokopelli wondered if this was the large sedan that Ralph Newcomb and family once drove to Mexico - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At that time, my friends informed me that Ralph Newcomb had contracted polio, ironically just before the release of the first vaccine. I visited him, found him on crutches and heard him speak about being determined to return to his previous health, which had allowed him to climb up the Sandia Mountains while wearing cowboy boots, at a fast pace. If not, he considered suicide.

Later, Ralph decided to buy a large, old car, and take his family to southern Mexico; Salina Cruz pops into my head right now. He spoke of living off the land, watching young Mexican women with bare breasts walking around in the tropics, etc.

I became involved in academics at UNM, had my first child, worked at radio station KOB, and heard aught of Ralph. Did he arrive in Salina Cruz? Was he able to climb mountains again at a fast pace? Did he commit suicide? On the other hand, did I hear something about Ralph Newcomb later moving to Oregon?”

Author’s Note –
Ralph Newcomb is a mystery no more. On the website, TheWorldLink.com
is an obituary for one Ralph W. Newcomb (1925-2011). Although not Looking north from old Arches National Monument, toward the Book Cliffs and Thompson Springs in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)corroborated by other sources, the details of this particular Ralph Newcomb’s life coincide almost perfectly with what we know of “our Ralph” from Edward Abbey, Jack Loeffler and Jimbo Forrest.

The Obituary for Ralph W. Newcomb reads as follows:
“Ralph's journey on earth ended July 15, 2011, in Coos Bay and another journey begins for him. Ralph, 86, of Allegany, Oregon was born June 23, 1925, in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest in a family of four children.

Ralph's early years were spent in Newport, followed by a couple of years in the military during World War II. He left the military and moved to Wyoming and then Montana, where he became a cowboy and bronco rider in rodeos for a few years. While living in Montana, he married Eileen Scott. They spent the First published in 1968, Edward Abbey's 'Desert Solitaire' has appeared in many covers, including this trade paperback edition published in 1990, one year after the author's death - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)first part of their marriage on a horseback trip, crossing the Rocky Mountain Divide, riding through the Red Desert of Wyoming and then into the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.

Eventually three children were born to Ralph and Eileen, Ralph Teton, Katchina and Scott Ross.

Ralph was an artist, creating beautiful sculptures from soapstone. His subject was wildlife. Deer modeled for him in his back yard. His carvings have been on display up and down the coast. Another talent he had was playing the guitar and singing folk songs. He also studied art, music and anthropology at the University of New Mexico. He received a degree in anthropology from UNM.

Ralph is survived by, Eileen of Allegany; son, Scott Ross; and a brother and sister. He was preceded in death by a sister; son, Ralph; and daughter, Katchina”.

End Part Three - To read Part Four, Click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE.

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