Carl’s Library: Everett

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)

Self-Portrait

I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Philosophy and aesthetic contemplation are not enough. I intend to do everything possible to broaden my experiences and allow myself to reach the fullest development. Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return. 

~ Everett Ruess, letter dated May 2, 1931

Cimarron National Grassland, Kansas

(Much more on Everett coming up in next Sunday’s post…)

The Ecstasy of Gold

(…addendum to last month’s post,Soundtrack“)

Composer John Zorn penned a tribute in The New York Times this week to the great Ennio Morricone, who passed away on Monday at the age of 91. Here is Zorn’s opening paragraph:

Ennio Morricone was more than one of the world’s great soundtrack composers—he was one of the world’s great composers, period. For me, his work stands with Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Ellington and Stravinsky in achieving that rare fusion of heart and mind. Dare we compare the five notes of his famous “coyote call” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with the four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Morricone’s music is just as timeless.

I certainly agree. And those of you who know me understand that I am far from qualified to offer appraisals of orchestral music, which comprises a very tiny portion of my library. Nor am I any kind of an expert on film, having watched far fewer movies in my lifetime than the average citizen. But I do know what works for me.

I’ve always found the Westerns of Sergio Leone to be quite absorbing…in a manner that I have not experienced with other films. I believe that Morricone’s soundtrack is the magical ingredient responsible. Leone’s visuals are striking, and their marriage with the Maestro’s music creates a chemistry that draws my full attention to the screen. There are moments in these films that hold me in a transfixed state—not with tension, but with something more akin to awe and reverence.

Whether or not the Western film genre is to your liking, you may still appreciate the beauty and the power of Morricone’s music, and I encourage you to enjoy the samples of his work that can be found online. Here are two of my favorites to get you started…

“The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, conducted here by Morricone, and featuring vocalist Susanna Rigacci:

Click above to hear “The Ecstasy of Gold” (YouTube video)

And the title theme to A Fistful of Dollars, performed by The Danish National Symphony Orchestra:

Click above to hear “A Fistful of Dollars” (YouTube video)

Morricone had a unique ability to bring drama and fire to a scene, along with that haunting beauty which makes his compositions so very special. Wanderers of the desert and the plains could hope for no better composer to score the desolate majesty that surrounds them. Farewell, Maestro.

Standing on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona

Self-portrait, April 1992
Kodak T-MAX 100 film (35mm)

Seven years later, Winslow dedicated Standin’ on the Corner Park—exactly one block north of this corner—as a convenient photo op for tourists passing by on Historic Route 66.

I’m glad that I arrived before the park was built, and that I stumbled upon this corner; to me, this spot succeeds in capturing the true character of a sleepy desert town.

Per Google Street View, here is what the corner of 1st and Kinsley looks like today:

I hope someone found a good home for the 4 Lanes Liquors sign.

More photos and the story behind this trip can be found in this post.

Places

I have just completed a major update to my road trip photo album, viewable at places.ridingwithcarl.com. The album now contains 63 photos of the states, provinces and other points of interest that the Pontiac and I have visited over the past 29 years.

This most recent journey—covering more than 6400 miles—added 17 new photos to the collection, including five provinces that I experienced for the very first time. Also in the album are shots of my US and Canada wall maps, updated to include last month’s route.

There are only three jurisdictions remaining on the Pontiac’s to-do list: Newfoundland & Labrador, Yukon and Alaska. Note that there are 13 states/provinces currently omitted from this album; I plan to revisit those places in order to get new photos with the convertible top down, replacing the old, inferior top-up images captured on rainy days.

Stay tuned for more uploads after next year’s adventures!

places.ridingwithcarl.com

End of the Road

Stone of the Canadian Shield, visible above and below the cool, clear waters of James Bay. This is the view from the end of Longue Pointe Road, north of Chisasibi. Here, the Pontiac sits at 53.974089° N 79.078265° W—the northernmost drivable point* in Quebec—parked among the boats of local residents and outfitters…

Moment of Zen: Enjoy the softly-lapping waters of James Bay in a brief video recorded on the rocks of the nearby shore…      YouTube      Vimeo

Asterisk

Actually, it is possible to drive farther north in Quebec, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so in a vintage Pontiac.

As I’ve stated in prior posts about trips to the northern limit of a provincial road system, my use of the phrase “northernmost drivable point” pertains to roads that (1) are connected to the rest of the North American highway system, (2) are open to the public, (3) can be used in all seasons, and (4) are suitable for passenger cars with low ground clearance.

Less than an hour south of the town of Radisson, a gravel road leads northeasterly off of the James Bay Road and takes you 414 miles (666 km) deep into the heart of Quebec’s vast boreal wilderness. This is the Trans-Taiga Road, and at it’s terminus you would be 59 miles closer to the North Pole than the spot where I am parked in the photo above.

This extremely remote road is open to the public, but it was constructed to service the area’s massive hydroelectric industry. It is mainly used by trucks, usually moving at high speed. There are no towns along the Trans-Taiga; access to fuel and food is very limited. Also, this road has a reputation for eating tires and windshields. Learn more about the hazards of driving the Trans-Taiga Road through this link.

(Below, a look at the first kilometer of the Trans-Taiga Road. This is as far as went went…just wanted a taste. Farther on, the road becomes narrower and rougher.)

I couldn’t justify the risk of damage to the Pontiac simply to get that extra 59 miles of latitude, so I passed on the Trans-Taiga. Additionally, I suspected that using the end of that road as a northern benchmark would have been anticlimactic; the thought of making that very long and difficult drive, only to arrive at a gated industrial complex in the middle of the forest, just didn’t thrill me. But conquering the full length of the James Bay Road and reaching the boat landing on Longue Pointe, overlooking the crystal-blue waters of James Bay…that felt right. To me, that spot does a great job of capturing that “end of the road” flavor.

I may drive the Trans-Taiga Road someday, but only in a 4WD vehicle that is outfitted for camping. Driving up Route de la Baie-James in the Pontiac was a great experience; I enjoyed the scenery and the friendly people I met along the way. If you’re interested in traveling either of these roads, I encourage you to make it happen. But take the time to research the trip before leaving home, and make sure your vehicle is thoroughly ready for the journey.

Overland to Nunavut

I’m not that keen on being hauled to a destination by plane or by boat; I prefer to get there on my own, either by driving or by walking. As for visiting the territory of Nunavut, boats and planes are, very nearly, the only options.

Nunavut is Canada’s newest and largest territory, created April 1, 1999 from the eastern and northern portions of the Northwest Territories. It is a gigantic and sparsely populated wilderness, and there are no roads leading to Nunavut from the rest of North America.

The boundaries of Canada’s provinces and territories have undergone many changes since 1867; don’t be surprised if these adjustments continue. For reasons unclear (as noted in this article), Quebec’s territory stops at the shoreline. All of the islands in James Bay and Hudson Bay—even those within throwing distance—belong to Nunavut.

However, there are several spots along these northern shores where Nunavut and Quebec share short land borders. These exist in certain places where land sits below the high tide line…even though that land may appear to be dry and verdant. Edward Bearskin, the Tourism Coordinator in Chisasibi, informed me that there is one such area west of town, just north of the end of the James Bay Road…

I was quite happy to learn about this location, as I would no longer need to charter a boat to one of the nearby islands in order to visit Nunavut. Edward told me that there are no trails leading into this acreage, no signage marking the boundary…just raw coastal wilderness. Fine with me; it would add a little pioneering spirit to the hike as I forged my own trail.

Of course, the car would have to stay behind in Quebec. After coming so close, it seemed only fair to carry a photo of the Pontiac into Nunavut, just to complete its journey.

(Ocean in View: Below, the Pontiac’s first look at northern seawater. We reached the shore of James Bay after driving all 434 miles (699 km) of Route de la Baie-James. This is as near to Nunavut as the Pontiac will ever be, parked just above the territorial boundary of the high tide line.)

Stepping off the road and into the wild, I worked my way northward. Though not a long hike in terms of distance, it was no easy stroll; the brush was often tall, tangled and quite dense, sometimes hiding deep holes. I made several detours, and occasionally had to crawl under some of these thick shrubs. Other areas consisted of soft, wet muskeg. By the time I had reached the open air again, I had a few cuts and scrapes, and two very soggy boots.

After walking across a low, marshy area, I was standing on broad slabs of granite surrounded by shorter brush, and I could see the waters of James Bay. It appeared that I had reached my destination…

The GPS locator on my phone told me that I had indeed crossed the “border.” Welcome to Nunavut…

(Phone screenshot, captured 1309 EDT, September 16, 2019.)

From there, I continued walking northward to the shore, where I spent some time playing on the large, colorful rocks awash in the calm sea. I also enjoyed a sip of Nunavut’s cool, clear water (yeah, yeah…it was fine; so many rivers empty into James Bay that its salinity is very low).

(Give a Hoot: This card was not left on the stone; it’s back in my wallet.)

Not exactly a proper visit to Nunavut, but it will do for now. I expect to return someday, as there’s enough wild beauty up there to get me on an airplane; Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island are on my list.