Everett Ruess was twenty years old when he vanished into the canyonlands of southern Utah, spawning the myth of a romantic desert wanderer that survives to this day. It was 1934, and Ruess was in the fifth year of a quest to record wilderness beauty in works of art whose value was recognized by such contemporary artists as Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. From his home in Los Angeles, Ruess walked, hitchhiked, and rode burros up the California coast, along the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and into the deserts of the Southwest. In the first probing biography of Everett Ruess, acclaimed environmental historian Philip L. Fradkin goes beyond the myth to reveal the realities of Ruess’s short life and mysterious death and finds in the artist’s astonishing afterlife a lonely hero who persevered.
Everett Ruess His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife
Disappearances create myths, whose durability depends on the renown of the wanderer, the circumstances of their vanishing, and the fervor of their followers. Everett Ruess appears on almost every list of better-known individuals who have vanished: writer Ambrose Bierce, Congressman Hale Boggs, hijacker D.B. Cooper, aviators Amelia Earhart and Antoine de Saint Exupéry, explorer John Franklin, labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, mountaineer George Mallory, band leader Glenn Miller, outlaw Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy), anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, silk merchant Jim Thompson, and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg.
Around each of these men and this one woman a cottage industry of suppositions about their fate has developed, fed every now and then by some discovery or rumor. What these people have in common is that they pushed the envelope in some way, sought to go beyond known limits, became lost in attempts to find themselves, and were subsequently immortalized in myths.
Disappearance is "the place we go when we are ready, or forced, to throw down language and measurement," wrote an Alaskan author, whose state, like desert regions, has an unusually large percentage of the lost. Alaska was where Christopher McCandless disappeared for four months and then was found dead in an abandoned bus just north of Denali National Park in 1992. The book Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, with eleven pages devoted to Ruess, and a film of the same name by Sean Penn elevated McCandless to the mythic status of a lost soul. McCandless and Ruess were wanderers who sought solitude in the wilderness under assumed names, Alexander Supertramp for McCandless and Evert Rulan for Ruess. That both were young added to the poignancy of their deaths, McCandless's from starvation and Ruess's from unknown causes since he simply vanished, adding mystery to loss.
Wandering is a form of separation from the tribe and parents and a rite of passage for youths, though perhaps not always in such extreme forms. In northern Europe there is the tradition of the Wanderjahr, the hiatus between the end of formal education and the start of a career. In Australia aborigine youths practice the walkabout. This is the time when the boy separates from his mother. "There is also a practical connection between initiation and wandering," wrote a Freudian psychologist. "Initiation begins with the separation of the boys from the mothers and ends with the readmittance of the boy, as a man, to the society of the mothers and other women. Between these two there is the transition period, the bush-wandering of the newly circumcised young man." Ruess never emerged from this transition period.
There is a dark side to wandering. The symptoms are disorientation and suicidal tendencies. Ruess displayed these characteristics in his last years. A University of California anthropologist, who spoke the language of the Pit River Indians of northeast California, wrote:
I want to speak of a certain curious phenomenon found among the Pit River Indians. The Indians refer to it in English as "wandering." They say of a certain man, "He is wandering," or "He has started to wander." It would seem that under certain conditions of mental stress an individual finds life in his accustomed surroundings impossible to bear. Such a man starts to wander.... People will probably say of such a man: "He has lost his shadow."
Two fictional wanderers-Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield-and McCandless and Ruess had the vast spaces of the American West in common. The West symbolized a place where they could find relief from their adolescent angsts. In the penultimate sentence of a Twain novel, Finn says he is going to leave the Midwest and "light out for the Territory" in order to escape being "sivilize[d]." Caulfield, the New Yorker, ends up in a Los Angeles sanitarium after having fantasized about working on a Colorado ranch or hitchhiking West, "where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job." For McCandless the desert West and then Alaska were empty spaces to escape to. Ruess repeatedly left Los Angeles in search of beauty in the mountains and deserts of the interior West. His most valuable legacy is his story, meaning his history, and is alluded to in what Holden Caulfield's prep school teacher tells his former pupil:
Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them-if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.