Who was Everett Ruess?
Over the years, when writing about my wilderness adventures or sharing photos online, I have often dropped the name Everett Ruess into my posts. It is well past time that I share the reason for doing so.
Warning: This report contains spoilers…
Like many people, I had never heard of Everett until I read the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild—the biography of vagabond Christopher McCandless. In the middle of that story, a chapter entitled “Davis Gulch” introduced us to an artistic young explorer named Everett Ruess who was swallowed by the Utah desert in 1934; he was 20 years old. The account of the life and death of McCandless was a very interesting read, yet as I continued through the remaining pages, my mind kept drifting back to that all-too-brief chapter about Everett. Upon reaching the end of the book, I immediately returned to “Davis Gulch” for a second pass. It was clear that I needed to track down a biography and learn much more about this enlightened wanderer.
Krakauer used that chapter to highlight the similarities between Ruess and McCandless. Certainly, they did share a number of qualities, but I feel that their differences carry the day. That said, I cannot claim to fully understand all of the motivating factors that led Chris McCandless to that abandoned bus in Alaska. Reading his story, I could sense there was something going on inside Chris that I would never be able to decipher; likely, that something just isn’t a part of my fabric. Not so when reading about Everett—I identified with him instantly and effortlessly. Of all the celebrated wilderness adventurers, Ruess speaks to me like no other.
The best way to know Everett is by reading his beautifully written letters and journals; both collections are presented in the book Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty & Wilderness Journals. Featured are a great many of the letters Everett wrote to his friends and family during his solo adventures from 1930 through 1934.
At age 16, Everett set out on his first journey into the wild beauty of the West, exploring near Big Sur and Carmel before moving on to Yosemite National Park in the summer of 1930. He was away from home for most of the following year, spending February through October immersed in the glory of the Canyon Country in Arizona and Utah (including Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks). Everett returned to the desert between March and September of ’32, while also venturing into southwestern Colorado. 1933 saw his grand tour of California’s Sierras; for five months, beginning in June, he slowly rode up through Sequoia National Park, (what would become) Kings Canyon National Park, and on once more to Yosemite. In April of 1934, he left home for the last time, returning to the canyons of Arizona and Utah that he loved so much. His final letter, written near Escalante, Utah, was dated November 11, 1934.
The pages of this book overflow with Everett’s lyrical descriptions of the sublime western landscapes that surrounded him. But more than that, the letters and journals reveal the evolution of his emotional maturity, as he wrote of the things that truly mattered to him and of the deeper human connections which he desired but rarely found. On several occasions, Ruess referred to his longing for the elusive companionship of someone with an equal ability to appreciate the splendor found in wild lands.
Unlike some champions of the wilderness, Ruess was not a hermit, nor was he a misanthrope. He liked people, he just liked solitude better. While he managed to spend a great deal of time alone during these adventures, much of his travel brought him into national parks, and crossing paths with humans was inevitable. Everett often wrote fondly of his encounters with farmers, ranchers, cowboys, vagabonds, artists, naturalists, park rangers, CCC workers, tourists, campers, sportsmen and Native Americans. Most were merely passing acquaintances, but he did keep in touch with a few.
For Ruess, the beauty he found while wandering through the backcountry was its own reward. As an added bonus, it also served as inspiration for his art. Everett was a highly creative person, and his artistic talent was not confined to a single discipline. He wrote poems and essays inspired by places he had discovered or by events that happened along the way. He would rise before dawn to paint watercolors as the day’s first light illuminated beautiful rock formations. With his camera, he captured dramatic vistas as well as portraits of the people he met. And he created sketches of the scenery which would later be turned into blockprints.
All of this was taking place during the peak years of the Great Depression, and Everett managed to live quite frugally while on the trail. In addition to their letters, his parents would ship care packages to the post office of the nearest desert town, loaded with such items as camping gear, boots, books, art supplies, and edible treats. They would also mail what few dollars they could spare. When passing a ranch or a farm, Everett would offer to perform odd jobs in exchange for a meal or a night’s lodging. Often, he was able to sell or trade one of his prints or watercolors to acquire food and equipment.
At a time when employment and opportunity were scarce, Everett pondered his future, and was at a loss regarding its direction. More than once he expressed his dread at the thought of leading a conventional existence. Were there a way to be paid as a professional wanderer, he surely would have taken that path.
I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.
Between adventures, Everett returned to Los Angeles to be with his family, attend school and work on improving his artistic technique. In October of 1933, he decided to spend the fall and winter living alone in San Francisco, and for those five months, he was on a mission to absorb as much culture as possible, through art exhibits, museums, concerts, operas, plays, lectures, films, books, and gatherings of creative people. By day, he would roam the city and paint. As exhilarating as these cultural experiences proved to be, Everett knew from the beginning that his stay in San Francisco would be temporary; once April arrived, he would be back on the trail with two new burros, exploring the desert’s rugged beauty.
Though Ruess had doubts about his ability to forge a career as an artist, his creative drive never left him; whether in the city or in the wild, inspiration found him and new pieces were constantly taking shape. And he was always on the lookout for opportunities to receive advice and constructive criticism. Within days of leaving home on that first adventure along the California coast, Everett showed up unannounced at the studio of famed photographer Edward Weston; he quickly became friends with Weston and his two youngest sons, Neil and Cole. Three years later, Ruess repeated that move just after his arrival in San Francisco with a visit to the studio of painter Maynard Dixon, and in short order, befriended Dixon and his wife, photographer Dorothea Lange. They saw each other often; effectively, the power couple played the role of surrogate parents to Everett while he was in the Bay Area. Maynard shared valuable insight that would help the young man develop his artistic eye; Dorothea and Everett enjoyed many photographic and cultural outings together, including this little jaunt to a presentation by one of my favorite authors:
On Tuesday, Mrs. Dixon and I went to Berkeley to hear Rockwell Kent. We enjoyed seeing the cuts and paintings shown very large on a screen.
There was also a meeting with Ansel Adams…
(The Adams photograph which Everett describes can be viewed here.)
It’s no surprise that I hold Ruess in high regard, nor that he comes to mind now and again when I’m reveling in my own adventures under a big sky. Though he had his burros and I have my Pontiac, we share an affinity for solo wilderness exploration, as well as three of my greatest diversions—photography, music and books. He wrote often of the books he was reading while on the trail, occasionally quoting passages that moved him. And my thanks go out to Everett for recommending a few titles that I had yet to discover, such as Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Generally, I am not prone to envy; however, there is a little of it at play in this case. To be sure, carpooling with Everett and Dorothea to the Rockwell Kent lecture is on my time-travel wishlist. But the envy I have in mind applies to broader aspects of Everett’s life—his education, for one. It’s astonishing that these letters and journal entries were written by a teenager. Ruess strikes me as exceptionally articulate and erudite for his age, with a remarkable grasp of philosophy. That certainly cannot be said of me or my friends when we were 16. (Can I blame that on growing up in the age of television? Were all students back then as bright as Everett?)
Additionally, I envy the freedom of movement that Ruess enjoyed in the early ’30s. While hardly ancient history, it’s far enough back that the West was much more wild and open than it is today. I would love to see it as he did…fewer inhabitants, fewer highways, no cell towers, less development, and much less fencing.
It is out of admiration for Everett—not envy—that I write this post; admiration for daring to follow his heart into the wilderness, for the ardent joy he derived from the beauty of the West, and for the wealth of living he packed into those final five years.
A web search will reveal that the vast majority of the public’s interest in Everett Ruess centers on the mystery of his disappearance. I find that unfortunate; his intense love of nature, his art, his writing, his ability to find bliss in solitude, and his passion for living life to the fullest are worthy of much greater appreciation. As to the how and why of his departure, I really don’t care…but then, the mystery and crime genres have never appealed to me. I can certainly understand why his family and friends cared enough to go looking for him, but at this point in time, I’d rather see people focus on Everett’s brief yet fascinating life and, with finality, declare his whereabouts as “unknown.”
Frankly, I can think of no better ending for a true lover of the wild. And, for the record, should anyone wish to pull out the phrase “That’s the way he would have wanted to go” once I have gone over the Big Ridge, qualifying circumstances would include an accident while exploring lonely roads in the Pontiac, or a mishap while hiking or camping in the wilderness—lightning strike, severe weather event, landslide, being eaten by wild animals, falling from a cliff, direct hit by a meteorite, and so on. Spending my last moments in a hospital or, for that matter, anywhere indoors? No, thanks—that’s the most dreadful possibility I can imagine. If I have any control over my exit, I’ll be guided by the words Everett wrote to his brother Waldo in 1931:
…I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.
~ ~ ~
Photograph of Everett Ruess (top of page) by Dorothea Lange, 1933
Illustrations and text by Everett Ruess, 1930-1934
Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty © 1983 by Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.
Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess © 1998 by Gibbs Smith, Publisher
Everett Ruess Combination Edition © 2002 by Gibbs Smith, Publisher
(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library)