Finding Everett Ruess: The Remarkable Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer
by David Roberts
"Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;
Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases;
Lonely and wet and cold . . . but that I kept my dream!"
I first came across Everett Ruess a few years ago, when I was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I thought he sounded like an interesting person, so I tucked the name into some corner of my brain, intending to return to him at a later date. Well, it's been almost four years since then...about time to follow-up, don't you think?
Everett Ruess was rather like a young John Muir. In the early 1930s, he left home for long wilderness voyages. On his trips, which would last up to ten months, he was accompanied only by a pair of trusty pack horses or burros. As he trekked through the Southwest and the Sierras, Ruess painted and wrote, waxing poetic about the beauty of the untamed wild in his journals and in countless letters to his family and friends. In late 1934 – at the tender age of twenty – Ruess disappeared somewhere in Utah; to this day, his fate is unknown.
It's a very romantic image, this young artist wandering the desert in pursuit of beauty. Roberts' meticulously researched biography does poke some holes into the pretty picture, though. Ruess' journeys become a lot less epic when you learn this his parents were largely financing each expedition, sending their son money and supplies during the heart of the Depression, costing them dearly. Indeed, when reading how demanding Ruess was in his letters to his parents I kept thinking What a spoiled brat! But as I continued, his childish entitlement to handouts from his parents kept reminding me how young he was – and made his presumed death, alone in the wild, seem all the more tragic.
Almost as interesting as Everett Ruess' life is what happened after he disappeared. His family was plagued by men who claimed they would be able to find him, but not one ever met with success. Theories abound as to what happened to Ruess – murdered by Indians? Accident in the wild? Living with a Navajo bride? There's no way to know, although Roberts weighs each theory very carefully with the evidence available. He also writes in great detail about a body found in 2009 that was widely thought to be Ruess, until dental records showed that the the identification was impossible.
Everett Ruess may not have been the great artist or naturalist that he wanted to be, but the seeds of potential are there in his diaries and in his woodcuts. Perhaps, if he'd lived longer, he would have become as great an advocate for nature as John Muir or Ansel Adams. (Or maybe he would have been an adult leech, continuing to live off the generosity of his parents. Who knows?) But regardless of his early death, he's become one of the legendary figures of the American West, and this comprehensive biography is probably the best book about him currently on the market.
4 out of 5 stars