Searching for Ernie Flack

by Michael A. Lewis
January, 2001

In 1957, Ed Abbey wrote a story titled, "Underground in Amerigo," about a short episode in his life in early 1950s Albuquerque. The story was later reprinted in "Inside Outside Southwest" magazine, a copy of which was sent to us by Amy from the Abbeyweb.

As Jean and I read the story, we noticed that several of the details rang true with our growing knowledge of Albuquerque and the surrounding area. Is this perhaps a true story, or at least as true as any of Abbey's "non-fiction?" Over the next few days we discussed the possibilities of following the story on the streets of Duke City to see if we could find some of the scenes described. The impending arrival of Tim and Tammy, fellow denizens of HaydukeLives and the Abbeyweb crystallized this nascent project into the Edward Abbey Scavenger Hunt, aka Searching for Ernie Flack.

To follow our quest, you'll want to read "Underground in Amerigo," published in the March/April 1999 edition of "Inside Outside Southwest" magazine. If you don't happen to have a copy lying about, email me for a copy of the story, purely for literary and educational discussion purposes, of course.

Tim and Tammy arrived at a sane and sensible hour on Saturday morning, that is after nine and before noon. After the requisite greetings and hugs, we all piled into the red Ford F150 4X4 extended cab pickup truck that temporarily served as our overly consumerist transportation and headed off across town in search of the beginning of our odyssey: Ed's "favorite junkyard" where the wind "was screaming down First Street."

First Street these days is a bit more complicated than it was fifty years ago. Decades of new construction downtown have chopped the street into fragments and the construction of I-25 pinched much of it off into 2nd Street many years ago. Undaunted, we wound our way through canyons of steel and glass surrounding rivers of asphalt, finally intersecting First Street where it progressed, arrowlike, northward in a reasonable facsimile of its mid-century self.

Although we didn't locate a junkyard with a "tangled contata of rust and iron and old boilers and smashed Chevvies and wire and rails and schoolbuses and broken derricks and ancient steam shovels and trolly cars," we did locate several accumulations of industrial detritus, one of which seemed sufficiently symphonic in its aerial extent, entropic complexity and chronological variability as to have been in place in Abbey's time. We piled out for the celebratory photographs, the lack of authentic screaming winds and blowing newspapers notwithstanding, regained our Detroit steed and turned toward our next objective: the underpass.

The only underpass in Abbey's time was the elevated Santa Fe railroad crossing over Central Avenue at Union Square, just west of downtown. Ed's description of "a diesel locomotive dragging a tube full of FBI agents" confirmed the identification at the same time it begged the question, "tube full of FBI agents?" What could this mean?

We soldiered on, confident that this mystery would soon fall to the unerring concentration of the four intrepid investigators. We turned left onto Central Avenue, drove past the Albuquerque Community Hospital, now a mental health institute, but in its time, the natal site of Ed Abbey's first born. We dove under the relief-giving metal structure of the railroad underpass, noting in passing a large dent left by some unfortunate truck driver with a tall load.
Climbing back into the January sun, we came at last to Pine Street, turning south off the automotive cacophony of Central Avenue, into a forest of botanically inspired side streets. The alleyways here parallel Central, but we chose the paved road instead, the road more traveled, eschewing the literary authenticity of frantic cats and tumbled garbage cans. We arrived at the door of 213 Pine Street within two blocks, pulling up in front of a modest single story Adobe Revival home complete with cement steps heading down into a basement apartment and a large fenced parking area in back, suitable for "a Ford sedan" and "several other cars about."

We had arrived at the scene of the infamous party, the pretty and intelligent girl, the wine and the sandwich, the bunch of violets and the almost deflated tires. The building was somewhat the worse for fifty years of student wear, under destruction or reconstruction, its basement door that Abbey entered and exited covered with a large, weathered and roughly hewn sheet of quarter inch plywood. A glance through the filmy basement windows confirmed that the understory at least was empty. A working man came out the front upstairs door, eyed our assembled multitude with some suspicion and tentatively confirmed that yes, the house was being remodeled. Unimpressed by our story of a literary quest, he set about his tasks as we assembled for more photos, more glances at this the house that Abbey had briefly frequented, more thoughts of what it was like when I was a wee lad of less than ten years old.

As we turned back onto Central, thirst and hunger turned our attention to more Earthly pursuits. We sailed down Route 66 in automotive effulgence, amidst the Art Deco excess of head shops, skateboard emporiums, the consumer consortia of a modern university town, past the Frontier Restaurant and its neighboring imitation, plastic simulacra of latter day fast food establishments, into the restored 50s, Route 66 revival of neo-Hippy nostalgia. O'Neill's Pub seemed a likely watering hole for our Abbey Scavenger Hunt, and despite the disappointment of learning that it was less than five years in this auspicious location, we ordered our beers, wines and a modest repast to fortify our continuing exploration.

Libations and comestibles consumed, we made our way back to the truck, past the costume shop with a fully Hippy-decorated "All You Need Is Love"1966 Volkswagen bus in the display window, complete with overstuffed replicas of the Fab Four: too recent for the tenor of our present quest. We drove onward toward the semi-setting sun, westward down Route 66, re-enacting the People's Pilgrimage, the flight of Abbey and Flack, away from the Pine Street party, in search of Ernie Flack.

The "new four lane bridge across the river" has become a newer six-lane bridge, there to ease the weary burden of the motoring commuter journeying to the burbs after a hard day's travail in the city, back home to the wife and kids, if any.

The astute reader may have anticipated our upcoming plight: the dirt roads of Abbey's day, the more than adequate equine and automotive paths across the red sandy soil of West mesa and its sedimentary aprons bordering the Rio Grande, have been replaced over the years, and in fact multiplied to excess, by the far less interesting but ultimately more durable macadam pavement of a civil engineers' delight. There are many roads to the north off Central Avenue; which one to take became a dilemma never adequately solved: we turned north at the earliest opportunity.

Our ribbon of asphalt took us to the top of West Mesa above the river's edge, which remained out of site behind an encircling crenellation of modern houses. We looped and spiraled vaguely northward, looking for a route that would take us "about three miles north of the city." The moon hung in the west, half full and pale, rather more than an icy fragment, as we followed ever diminishing urban streets in search of "one of the stony little hills on the west."

Inevitably, our path crossed that of Coors Boulevard, a modern, industrialized, six-lane, yellow-striped, urban thoroughfare, complete with all the conveniences and necessities of 21st century motorized transportation: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Lotta Burger, WalMart, K-Mart, Cosco, Texaco, Exxon, Conoco; all the finer things of life. Eventually, the capitalist fervor petered out, as the road curved gently easterly, closer to the sibilant suck of muddy waters heading south, constrained, confined and convoluted by the arching branches and winter-bare twigs of the cottonwood bosque.

About where I expected, based on a rough cartographic calculation estimating three miles north of Abbey's diminutive Duke City, the unending expanse of urban development... ended. Or diminished at least in number and density, if not in extravagance. There, marching off to the north, stood a row of "stony little hill(s) on the west," each a remnant of geologic history, now largely engulfed by very ungeologic human development, but standing bravely nonetheless, facing the river and the Sandias beyond as they had done for untold millennia. Unfortunately, none of them sported a "juniper crouching in forelorn isolation on the summit of the hill." Our task became more complicated.

Picking the likeliest, or at least, the least unlikely of the hills in the nearest vicinity, I shifted our trusty red steed into compound supermacho, left the civilized safety of the paved highway and ground uphill across the shifting sands of distant memory to the top, the pinnacle, the denouement of this bump of Pleistocene stratigraphy overlooking the river plain. No juniper stump in sight, no poignant remnant of a hand carved cross, no pathetic depression in sand and gravel. Only cheat grass, opuntia, and snakeweed to hold the restless sands temporarily in place. Take a picture, climb back on board, retrace our tired furrows to the bottom, the road, the quest.

Wait a minute, not ready to give up yet, this hill looks promising, is that a stump up there? We parked across the street from a brooding condominimum, picked our way carefully among the discarded detritus of urban despair, made our way to the clean sands of the hillside, to the top. No juniper stump at the summit, but an interesting and suggestive cloister of mesquite and bunch grass, oddly disturbed. And there at the bottom, a dirt road, winding provocatively between the bottom of the hill and the river beyond, suggesting the tantalizing possibility of hearing "the oily surge of the river sliding past the mudbanks." Jean ran over the crest of the hill, down the north facing slope, scaring up a lone jackrabbit as the sole representative of non-human participation in the day's festivities, and her shout brought us within sight, to see her holding up a weathered stump of, could it be? Yes it was... a juniper stump!

We declared this modicum of physical evidence as sufficient to mark at the least the possibility of the completion of our quest, the "discovery" of the final resting place of Ernie Flack, if he ever was real at all, if he had ever lived and died, he might as well have been buried here, or some here very much like this one.

To celebrate our success, we drove further west and north to the Petroglyph National Monument (Hours 8-5 daily), paid our extorted usury and parked at the base of a looming cliff face of fractured and tumbled basalt, whereupon humans of reddish hue had in ages past carved their culturally acceptable graffiti. All it took was one quick scramble to the top and back to convince us that even in the desert of eastern New Mexico winter was a real and present season.

Not to be denied our celebratory mood, we adjourned to a local eating establishment featuring cold margaritas and hot chiles and congratulated each other on the success of our weekend exploits.

But what about the tube of FBI agents?

While Tim and Tammy plugged themselves into the electronic ether and reconnected to the demands of the cyberworld, I went to my shelves of analog information sources and browsed through Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, by James Bishop, Jr. Therein I learned that on his return from Scotland and the continent, Ed Abbey discovered that he had been the special subject of investigation by J. Edgar Hoover and his band of merry agents, intent on uprooting subversives, communists and other detractors of the patriotic status quo in the halls of academe.

It seems that Abbey's reputation had wafted across the miles to Washington, DC, there to gain the attention of the security arm of the mightiest nation in the history of... nationality. Not only had his undergraduate domestic activities caught their official attention, but they had queried their Celtic counterparts as to Mr. Abbey's whereabouts and subversive activities on the bonnie, bonnie banks across the pond.

Abbey was hounded by the constabulary at least until the end of this McCarthy-inspired official silliness, and perhaps even longer. It was the grinding irritation of this authoritarian paranoia that prompted Ed's FBI remark and fed his lifelong rant against centralized authority.