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Chapter Number #373: Death Valley Winter Camping 2019 - May 30, 2020


In 2019, Death Valley National Park celebrated its 25th Anniversary - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Winter Camping in Death Valley National Park

Each year, I visit the Mojave Desert in late fall or early winter. My two favorite spots are the Hole in the Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, farther to the north. I go to experience the unrivaled ecosystems and terrain of those wild places. The winter season is a great time to visit the desert. Crowds are small and attractions are often empty or nearly so.

In December 2019, before most of us had ever contemplated the need to stay at home or shelter in place, I headed alone to Death Valley. For four nights, I planned to camp and explore some sites I had not yet seen. This is how it transpired.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 – The distance from Simi Valley, California to Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley, California is 280 miles.The Sylmar Cascades are near the end of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the San Fernando Valley. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Departing the San Fernando Valley, I headed up Interstate I-5 North through the Newhall Pass. From there, I could see the historic Sylmar Cascades, which represent the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. That system of gravity-fed trenches and pipes transports water to Los Angeles from as far away as Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada. On its final leg, powerful pumps raise the water, thus allowing it to take a final plunge down a concrete aeration channel and into the Van Norman Reservoir. From the high country near Mono Lake to Los Angeles, most of Eastern California consists of a parched and thirsty desert.

It took just over five hours for me to reach my destination. In that 280-mile stretch, I crossed the San Andreas, Garlock, Searles Valley and Panamint Valley Fault Zones. In July 2019 alone, the Searles Valley and nearby Ridgecrest, California experienced more than 80,000 earthquakes, including a 6.4 magnitude quake on July 6 of that year. On December 16, 2019, just a few days after my return, Ridgecrest registered a 3.5 magnitude aftershock.

Solar Farms, many owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power cover thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Along my way, I passed through the high desert community of Mojave. Over the past sixty years, I have traveled this route many times. On this trip, I reminisced about how the vast territory from Mojave, to Ridgecrest was once an almost uninterrupted stretch of desert. In the past decade, much of that formerly untrammeled desert has given way to thousands of acres of passive solar panels. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) owns many of these "solar farms".

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles notoriously bought up the water rights in and around the Owens Valley, north of Ridgecrest. More recently, Los Angeles has given up much of its water rights, but has quietly industrialized huge swaths of the Mojave Desert. These so-called “green energy” projects have disturbed more desert tortoise habitat and denuded more desert greenery than the L.A. Aqueduct ever did.

The vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley, with Telescope Peak above is hard to describe in words - Click for a larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With Death Valley as my destination, I had a choice of routes. On one hand, I could continue on California Highway 14 (“The Aerospace Highway”). Farther north, that highway becomes U.S. Highway 395. At Olancha (population 39), I could then turn east toward Death Valley. Instead, I elected to travel the more scenic route through Garlock, Searles Valley and the Panamint Valley.

The word “scenic” is wholly inadequate to describe that area. “Surreal” better describes the vistas and terrain. Traveling so quickly from the crowded confines of the San Fernando Valley to the vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley feels like going back a billion years in time. Near Panamint Springs, I turned east on California Route 190 and soon surmounted Towne Pass.

An afternoon view of the Panamint Range, from Towne Pass shows at least five distinct geologic layers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)While descending the long grade into Stovepipe Wells, a McLaren, a Bentley, two Ferraris and a Lamborghini passed me at speed. The designers at the great automotive houses of Europe never anticipated the whoopdeedoos on Highway 190. After dipping into each swale, the exotic sports cars bottomed-out, with sparks flying. Watching them fly off each successive alluvial hump was dramatic, to say the least.

Once I arrived at the Furnace Creek Campground, it felt like I was at home. In the past three years, I have camped there four or five times, so it has the feel of a local neighborhood. Two nights of dry camping on an asphalt pad, then two nights in a full RV hookup (water, power, and sewer) would make for a unique experience. For my first two days and nights, I had to live by my wits, my solar panels and my portable inverter/generator. Nights were cold and my house batteries ran low. I turned off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) and stayed warm in bed by wearing high tech base-layer garments and sheltering under three blankets.

An early sunset at Furnace Creek Campground, in December 2019 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Wednesday, December 11, 2019 – At Furnace Creek, the mobile phone and data coverage is surprisingly good. A mile away, there might be no signal at all. After staying up late watching YouTube, the quiet of Death Valley (and some earplugs) allowed me to sleep uninterrupted for hours. When I awoke, was it nine o’clock or ten o’clock? I do not know. Coffee and a banana helped ease my transition back into terrestrial life.

As noon approached, the sun warmed my coach and the solar panels recharged my house batteries. Soon, I was charging up my phone, earbuds, Bluetooth speaker and camera, all with the batteries and inverter circuit in my coach. As the sun rose further, I had a steady flow of “solar-power in” and an abundance of “electricity-out”.

In California, December daylight hours are short. From Furnace Creek, the sun appears to set behind the towering Panamint Range by 4:15 PM. Following that, is a long twilight, as the sun still shines up into the limitless sky, but not down on Death Valley. One way to avoid such an early sunset is to visit Zabriskie Point, which is on the east rim of Death Valley. From there, you can watch the sun set behind Telescope Peak. If you do, you will experience a phenomenon like no other. As the sun sets, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity comes into play.

Zabriskie Point at sundown creates a long-duration bending of sunlight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As with Einstein’s faraway planet, which bends the light from a solar eclipse, the clouds above the Panamint Range bend the light down to each of us who are waiting in the plaza that sits atop Zabriskie Point. There is a redemptive quality to the experience. When the sun hits the perceived horizon, it does not set, but instead creates a parabolic bend of light. The delay of sunset creates a pause in time, which lasts for several minutes. Most days, it is impossible to tell exactly when the sun passes behind the ridge at Telescope Peak.

That concluded “day two” of my visit. At the time, I was still living off frozen food, well packed and enjoyed. It was a few degrees warmer that night, so adjusting blankets and then, turning off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) now made sense. Can you imagine the first Anglo emigrants, spending almost two years, marooned at Furnace Creek? That was 1849, ninety-nine years before my birth.

The Death Valley `49ers had no idea that their hardscrabble camp would one day be replaced by modern travel trailers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Their forced stay was the ultimate in unexpected self-isolation. It was freezing cold on winter nights and baking hot on summer days. In addition, the ragtag group enjoyed no contact at all with the outside world. As time passed, their situation became more desperate. A full winter and a full summer in the hottest and one of the driest places on Earth took its emotional toll.

Realizing their plight, the scraggly emigrants sent two riders all the way to San Fernando Mission, near Los Angeles. Local ranchers took pity on the riders, giving them three horses and a one-eyed mule to transport supplies back to those who remained at Furnace Creek. Retracing their steps along dry washes and old Indian trails, the rescue party rode one horse to death and abandoned the two others. Upon arrival back in Death Valley, they found only two families, with children had awaited their return. All the other emigrants had departed, trying to find their own way back to civilization. It is unknown how many survived and how many succumbed to the elements in Death Valley and beyond.

The Death Valley`49ers would have passed through the Panamint Valley and the future site of Trona, in the Searles Valley - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)After scraping together what remained of their belongings, the hapless but grateful families boarded their remaining wagons. From there, they faced an arduous 23-day trip across the Mojave Desert. Upon completion of their 250-mile trip to the Santa Clarita Valley, there were no parades or celebrations; only the relief of having survived. Just two years earlier, during the winter of 1846-47, the ill-fated Donner Party, trapped by heavy snow in the nearby Sierra Nevada resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the Death Valley ‘49ers, only one man is known to have lost his life during their ordeal.

Thursday, December 12, 2019 – On the morning of “day three”, I moved my coach to a “full hookup” site at the campground. The Death Valley ‘49ers, 170 years earlier knew nothing of running water, electrical power, wireless data or propane gas. Using those technologies, I resumed access to all the comforts of contemporary life.

At an estimated age of approximately 2,000 years, Ubehebe Crater, in Death Valley National Park is one of the youngest volcanic explosion sites in the Western United States -  Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Ubehebe Crater. Actually, there are two craters at the site, but the smaller one gets no credit. Visiting that place is enough to give you the Ubehebes.

It is the second youngest documented site of a major volcanic explosion in California. Although Ubehebe Crater erupted prior to European or American exploration of the area, only the massive eruption of Lassen Peak in the early 20th century was more recent. Ubehebe is approximately 2,000 years old, or so they say. It is a strange site to see, in that its volcanic ash exploded up through ancient seabed sediments. Although it issued forth around the time of Yeshua, it still looks fresh today. If you like your volcanic explosion sites low-risk, this one is relatively safe. If it only explodes every several thousand years, what were the odds that it would explode on the day of my visit?

Near the entrance road to Scotty's Castle, in Death Valley National Park, recent extreme erosion of a large alluvial fan is evident in this photo - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On the way to the crater complex, I passed the turnoff to Scotty’s Castle, a remote desert mansion built in the Spanish Revival and Mediterranean Revival style. Completed in the early 1930s, the property was the ultimate self-isolation hideaway. Despite its name, Chicago industrialist Albert Mussey Johnson had it built as a getaway for him and his wife. During Mussey’s long absences, front man Walter Scott, known as “Death Valley Scotty” maintained and presided over the castle.

In 2015, the buildings and grounds at Scotty’s Castle experienced severe damage from thunderstorms and flash flooding. Since then, there has been a massive effort by the National Park Service to create new flood control channels and repair damage to the buildings. The road and buildings that comprise Scotty’s Castle will not reopen until at least the fall of 2021.

Compared to fuel stations outside of Death Valley National Park, gasoline and diesel fuel fetch a premium price - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I mentioned before, mobile telephone coverage in Death Valley National Park is limited mainly to the Furnace Creek complex. Yet, for reasons unknown, as I passed the entrance road to Scotty’s Castle, I received a call on my mobile telephone. It was a jarring phone message telling me that the IRS was after me for non-payments. Even though I knew that the IRS does not call you to request anything, it induced a brief feeling of panic in me. Then I hung up the phone and ignored what seemed to be a fraud call.

Upon my return, I visited the new “Ranch at Furnace Creek”. After purchasing some expensive diesel fuel for my truck, I headed out for nearby Salt Creek, which features habitat for the rare Desert Pupfish. That afternoon, there were no visible pupfish and no crowds. In fact, I was the only person at the trailhead.

Solitude is the major theme there in December. Unless a U.S. Navy Salt Creek in Death Valley is home to the rare Desert Pupfish - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)jet is thundering across the Panamint Valley or a Harley Davidson is on a nearby highway, the loudest sound you will hear is the ringing in your ears. If you do not think your ears ring, come here to Death Valley. You may experience silence for the first time in your life. There are no lawn mowers or leaf blowers here. If you are lucky, you may hear the rustle of a desert breeze.

Friday, December 13, 2019 – It was another day in Paradise, as we like to say in Death Valley. The local motto is,
“Death Valley - See it BEFORE you die”.

There was not much on my agenda for my fourth day. I could zoom down the road to Badwater (elevation 280 feet below sea level) and see all the sites, or I could enjoy midday in the comfort of my coach. Before 2 PM, I headed out to The Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley operated for only a few years in the late 1880s - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the Harmony Borax Works, only a few miles away. Most 19th Century mines or chemical production facilities in the West lasted only a few years. Towns like nearby Rhyolite emerged, produced ore and faced abandonment, all within a decade.

After the discovery of borax ore closer to the railroad at Mojave, the Harmony works closed down in 1888. For its brief productive era, a team of twenty mules pulled the semi-refined ore across the desert to Mojave. In the 1960s, none other than future U.S. President Ronald Reagan hosted a quasi-documentary television show titled Death Valley Days. The prime advertiser on that show was "20 Mule Team Borax". The main attractions at the old Harmony Borax Works are two original Borax wagons and a matching water-tender. With the arid desert to preserve it, this Two ore wagons and a water tender made up the heavy load pulled by the famed twenty-mule teams of the Harmony Borax Works - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)original rig looked ready for twenty mules to hook up and pull the wagons across the desert.

Leaving the defined pathway at the Borax Works, I ascended a draw and hiked among hillocks of soft sediment. The sandy soil had a crust of clinkers and small rocks, distributed randomly. Likely, they had rained down from various prehistoric volcanic blasts. From the crest of a final hill, I could see the heart of Death Valley. Within my field of vision, there were no roads, buildings or other human made objects. Other than my sandals scraping along the rocks, there were no sounds. I felt like Yeshua, mounting a hill and beholding the Sea of Galilee.

Saturday, December 14, 2019 – Before noon, I departed Death Valley, heading for home, 280 miles away. In four short days, what did I learn there? I learned Author, Jim McGillis at sundown, at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)that if you feel compressed (or depressed) by the conditions of your human life… the ticking clock, unwanted crowds or the snarl of traffic, then come to Death Valley in December. You might find peace and quiet here. My visit offered me a time and place to rest, rejuvenates and prepare for the unknown events of the coming New Year, 2020.

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By James McGillis at 03:54 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter Number #372: Edward Abbey & Friends at UNM Ch. 5 - September 23, 2019


The 'Abbey's' outpost on Old-66 is long gone - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Edward Abbey & Friends, University of New Mexico (1956-1957) Ch. 5

“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 –
“I returned to Edward Abbey’s journals, edited into the book, “Confessions of a Barbarian”, and decided to look in the index for Ralph Newcomb. A whole bunch of things popped up, including the name of Ralph Newcomb’s wife, which was Scotty (her maiden name was Eileen Scott). There are many references to Ralph in this new book, so evidently he was a much better, longer lasting friend of Ed than I had known or imagined. This “Barbarian” book of Ed’s brings back so many memories.

Edward Abbey, wife Rita Deanin Abbey and son Joshua at Edward Abbey's trailer, Arches National Monument ca.1956 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)A week later, I have now finished Edward Abbey’s “Confessions of a Barbarian”. There were dates listed for each of his entries. Of course, we also knew, but he didn’t, the actual date of his death (March 14, 1989). Whenever you have the time (ha, ha) I recommend you read this series of diary entries. His literary works are one thing, and many have had admiring reviews.

This actual diary of Ed’s reveals, to me, something different. He speaks of his love for his wife (one after the other), and his children (one after the other), and I don’t doubt his sincerity. However, what stands out the most, to me, is extreme selfishness, which I believe, is a (necessary?) aspect of fame, whether one is an actor or a writer. If you give most of your energy to your family, you have little left for self-aggrandizement.

If you read this book, you’ll see he spent an enormous amount of time in his life being alone. In the desert, in the mountains. Almost until he died. Not always alone; sometimes with Jack Loeffler and a limited few other close friends. However, he was seldom with any of his five wives or five children.

(Dead Horses & Sakred Kows)
The author's #2 of 25 published 'Dead Horses & Sakred Kows', a 25th Anniversary limited edition facsimile typescript, which reproduces the original draft of a speech Ed Abbey delivered to the University of Montana in 1985 - Click for larger image(http://jamesmcgillis.com)To produce the many essays and novels that he did, Ed had to spend time alone, in the wilderness, without obligation to family. He became a famous writer. He had an inner compulsion to observe, think, and record his observations and thoughts via typewriter and then to his books. The numerous families get short shrift.

I’m not criticizing or passing moral judgments, only passing on my thoughts after reading this particular diary of his thoughts and activities. What I see is extreme self-centeredness. He had much to say, and took the time (from others) to say it. He was successful, extremely so and, of course, is celebrated for it.

Thinking back, I remember one night when we went up to the Sandias (Sandia Mountains) after my KOB Radio shift ended at midnight. It was then, I believe, that Ralph Newcomb and Ed hoofed it up the mountain in their cowboy boots. It was a dark (not stormy) night, but later with moonlight. I almost had a fistfight with another radio announcer, Don Brooks, and groups on both sides held us back. (That was another story of that night. It had to do with my enthusiasm driving up the mountain, honking my horn. Evidently, it woke Don’s baby.)

Left to right, Ralph Newcomb, Jim (Jimbo Forrest), Edward Abbey, with Malcolm Brown above, ca. 1956 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)People drank, sat around a bonfire, paired off, etc. The night was clear. I was on an upper ledge with a woman named Carol. Down below, we heard the sounds of couples making love in the open air. Dawn came, but I will not divulge my activities with Carol that night. Still, there was a lovely view from up on that ledge, looking down at the valley. I don’t remember if I had to be at work that morning, or not.

Perhaps it was during that particular beer party in the Sandias that someone used my camera to snap the attached photo. Front Row, left to right: Ralph Newcomb, Jim Forrest, Edward Abbey. Back Row: Could this be Malcolm Brown? I met Malcolm once, at one of many desert beer parties (1954-55), and I don’t think ever again. (Kinlock Brown, the son of artist, sculptor, architect Malcolm Brown [1925-2003] verified that his father appears in that photo).


Author’s Note –
Edward Abbey knew classic literature, and developed wide knowledge from what he read. His personal life and strange career inclined him to lonerism and bigotry. On the other hand, Ed intuitively knew that the world could not support an ever-rising population. Most of his adult life, Abbey spoke and wrote eloquently about and against the ruination of wilderness and open space.

In 1965, the author walks alone up the trail to Landscape Arch in old Arches National Monument, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In Desert Solitaire Abbey wrote,
Wilderness. The word itself is music.

Wilderness, wilderness.... We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.

 
Edward Abbey grew up during The Great Depression, on a near-subsistence farm in Home, Pennsylvania. From personal experience, he knew the value of water, firewood and a substantial garden. He often talked or wrote about his desire to go back to the land and live a romantic, subsistence lifestyle. (For Ed, subsistence living also included using his old pickup truck for regular “beer runs” into town).

Jimbo Forrest (Postscript) –
In 2019, the spirit of Ralph Newcomb (left) sits with Jim (Jimbo) Forrest as they discuss their earlier lives in 1950's New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“We did definitely identify Malcolm Brown in that one picture taken “100 years ago”. I believe that was the only time I saw Malcolm. Circuitous email route: Me to you, you to me, me to Jack Loeffler, Jack to you, you online to Malcolm’s son, the son to you, and then you to me. It is wonderful what we can do with on-line computers and the internet.

We have discovered a lot, beginning with an online ad from Amazon to me. I saw a picture of Jack Loeffler’s book, “adventures with ED.” I ordered it. Read it. I wrote to the publisher, trying to contact Jack. They forwarded my letter to Jack; Jack answered. I did something, can’t remember what… there was a big flash and then I was in contact with your blog and you.

How did that happen?

The rest is recent history, including an obituary for the original “Brave Cowboy”, Ralph Newcomb. My head is still spinning, trying to integrate 1954 with now, and all the experiences between then and now.

As we say in Spanish, Híjole!”


End of Part Five and our Story - To read Part Four, Click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE.

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By James McGillis at 03:59 PM | Personal Articles | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter Number #371: Edward Abbey & Friends at UNM Ch. 4 - September 23, 2019


From left to right, Jim (Jimbo) Forrest, Prof. Alfredo Roggiano, Edward Abbey at the UNM Campus, January 1955 - Photo Credit Julian Palley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Edward Abbey & Friends, University of New Mexico (1956-1957) Ch. 4

“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 –
“When I knew Ed Abbey, talked with him, walked with him, and drank with him, he didn’t talk very much. He was always listening, I was sure, and thinking, but I cannot remember really having a conversation with him. Reading Jack Loeffler’s book “adventures with Ed (a portrait of Abbey)”, I can see that Ed was a serious introvert, and a very shy, deep thinker. (By contrast, I have been a talker, teacher, radio announcer, TV newscaster, narrator, master of ceremonies, interpreter [Spanish-English], etc.) Ed was tall. I short. As the only two graduate students of philosophy at University of New Mexico in 1954-1956, there was so much contrast between us.

Like a billboard on Old-66, Edward Abbey seems to appear everywhere in Four Corners regional history - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After skimming through parts of Ed’s journals, titled “
Confessions of a Barbarian”, I am now reading the book, slowly, in proper order, underlining countless passages. One sentence after the other informs me now that Ed really was a deep thinker. He put his thoughts into his journals, and later into his many published works. I first met Ed in September 1954. Exactly fifty-five years later, in September 2019, I’m beginning to understand who he was.”

Author’s Note –
According to his friend and biographer, Jack Loeffler, Ed was hard of hearing, which progressed with age. People who cannot hear well often pretend that they can and just listen. No one wants to act the fool (Ed’s book, “Fool's Progress”?). Showing some simple attention to another human can make one look more intelligent. As we know, Ed was an avid reader. He preferred solitude, which did not require listening or speaking, except to “himself”.

Jimbo Forrest –
A 1955 Sears Christmas Catalog, filled with Bullet holes, as Jimbo Forrest oncedid - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“I was at the University of New Mexico philosophy department with Ed for only two years, from 1954-55. After that, we went separate ways to different places, but we did run into each other by chance a couple of times after that.

In the school year 1957-58, I taught English at Española High School, in Espanola, New Mexico, 25 miles or so north of Santa Fe. Being extremely frustrated with the principal of the school while there, I took up shooting a .22 rifle almost every day after school. I put an old Sears catalogue next to the house (we were in a rural area), and filled it full of .22 bullets.

Hunting season came, and I heard my students talking about getting “their” deer. One kid told me he had a 30-30. Well, I went to the general store and bought one, on credit. That made a louder bang, and tore up the catalogs faster.

I went to a hunting area with an old friend, and we trudged along. Before too long, a deer ran across a ravine below me. After all of the practice shooting catalogs, I made a kill. (I still feel guilty about that, and would never do it again.) Ralph Newcomb had told me before that if I killed a deer, he would
Female Mule Deer, standing alert in a meadow - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)help me cut it up, if he could have part of it. Deal made. Both of our families had venison for some time.

Jump ahead a year or two (I have no idea when it was), I was at the UNM campus (can’t remember why) and Ed Abbey walked by me. I hadn’t seen him for some time. We chatted awhile, and I asked him if he was interested in a deer hunt. He said he could probably borrow a deer rifle from a friend, and we could meet the next day.

We met, and drove to a hunting area. He went one way, I another, and we agreed to meet back at the same spot in an hour or two. My hunt showed no tracks, no scat, and no deer. I returned to our meeting spot. Ed had not yet returned. We had bought a 6-pack of beer, and left it there before we went on our hunt.

This photo of Edward Abbey, by Mike Essig is a classic, displaying Ed's feelings about electronic technology and TV, in particular - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Waiting for Ed, I had a beer. (Maybe two?) What to do with the can(s)? Throw them as far ahead as possible. What to do next? Shoot at the cans, of course. A few minutes later Ed dragged in, bereft of any venison. His first comment was, “Sure a lot of noise!” reminded me of actor James Stewart, who would also speak in a laconic manner.

We sat awhile, finished off the beer, said nothing important, and parted. I believe I saw Ed two more times: once by chance, once by design.

Jimbo Forrest – Regarding Ralph Newcomb
Now back to my memories of Ralph Newcomb. When my first wife was pregnant with our first child, drunken Ralph came to our house in North Albuquerque. For reference, our child was born August 2, 1957.

Ralph saw LIFE magazines on our coffee table. He grew angry, resentful, loud, claiming that was ‘NOT LIFE’, or some such thing, and swiped them off the table strongly with his arm. I knew then he was trouble, with a “capital T”. I motioned my wife into the bedroom right next to the living room, told her to keep the door closed and not to say anything. Maybe that is when I grabbed my camera and took the photo of Ralph in the chair, pointing his finger of accusation at me. He announced something about his polio crippling him, and that he was going to overcome it, or he would kill himself… something like that.

Ralph Newcomb raises his finger in accusation to photographer Jim (Jimbo) Forrest at Jimbo's home in Albuquerque, New Mexico ca. 1956 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Shortly after that, he stood up, removed his jacket and rolled up his left sleeve. He then took out his buck knife, opened it, and declared that he was not afraid to die (or some such thing). With a large swing, he sliced open his forearm. A large spurt of blood shot out, up, and down onto the (used) light gray carpet I had recently installed.

Later, he went outside, backed up against the wall, and shot his head back against the window. The second time it worked, breaking one of the panes. The windows were behind the curtains you see behind Ralph when he was seated. Ralph had brought a friend with him (seen partially in the image) whom I had never seen before, and seemed incapable of doing anything. In that photo of Ralph and friend, there are two liquor bottles. He said that they had been drinking all day, either tequila or mescal, as I remember. Eventually the two departed.

Much like Edward Abbey and Ralph Newcomb did in 1959, this family enjoys rafting the spring flood of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah in 2006 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Somehow, I had a phone number (not clear to me now), and called the person who had been with Ralph. He said that they had called the Bernalillo County Sheriff. I asked if maybe someone could knock Ralph out before he killed himself, or someone else. (This person was fairly big and strong.) He said he had tried, but nothing fazed Ralph.

I remember this vividly, including the season of the year, but not what happened subsequent, and whether I ever saw Ralph again. The idea of Ralph & Ed floating down the Colorado in 1959, as stated earlier makes me shake my head in wonderment. Of course, I didn’t keep up with Ed or Ralph very much after I got married in August 1956 and had three children between 1957 and 1965.”


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

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By James McGillis at 12:23 PM | Personal Articles | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter Number #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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