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.
About the Book
“Weaving in excerpts from Ruess's letters and diaries, Fradkin paints a rich portrait of a young man who was both brilliant and troubled, and whose family still deals with his loss. The author's research shines through without bogging down the narrative, making it accessible and eminently readable. VERDICT Highly recommended not just to those interested in Ruess but to a wide variety of readers from academics to armchair historians.”—Library Journal
“Fradkin’s enthralling narrative recounts the unsuccessful search for Ruess, the family’s heartache, and how over the years his strange story became embedded within the narrative of the American West. Throughout the book, Fradkin displays his considerable skills as a storyteller. While simultaneously telling Ruess’ story, he weaves in the rich history of life in California and the West during the Depression. It all makes for a riveting ride through one of the Southwest’s enduring mysteries.”—Zyzzyva
“Fradkin tries . . . to sift through the legends to get to the heart of the genuine person. . . . . Tell[s] a gripping tale of a young man consumed by the nature he so desperately loved.”—National Post
“Fradkin tries . . . to sift through the legends to get to the heart of the genuine person. . . . . Tell[s] a gripping tale of a young man consumed by the nature he so desperately loved.”—Ottawa Citizen
“Delves into his subject’s psyche as few other writers have done. . . . His biography of the Ruess family is worthwhile, offering insight into the tragedy that all parents who lose a child must endure.”—High Country News
“Philip L. Fradkin, a prolific chronicler of the Western mythos, isn’t the first writer on whom Ruess has cast his spell, but this biography might be the most complete. Spare and direct, Fradkin rarely indulges an overstatement, and often lets Ruess speak for himself—sensuous and haunting descriptions of the very wilderness that would eventually swallow him.”—Los Angeles Magazine
“An informed, nuanced analysis and appreciation of Everett.”—Salt Lake Tribune
“Excellent biograph[y]. . . . Maps the complicated emotional landscape of the Ruess family and the endless ache of their loss.”—Wall Street Journal“This is the definitive account of a western American legend, told with the author’s trademark clarity and narrative vigor. Fradkin helps us understand, through his careful reconstruction of a single man’s life, that deeply American search for the heart of the wilderness.” –Donald Worster, author of A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
“Everett Ruess’s short life meanders through three important territories: the west-coast artistic circles of Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange in the depression era; the wildernesses of the southwest, where he vanished; and the American imagination of freedom, mystery and loneliness ever since. Fradkin brings to that life intensive research, new data and insight that give us Ruess for the first time, and tells it with empathy for both the restless son and the bereaved mother and with great attunement to the communities Ruess’s story passes through.” –Rebecca Solnit, author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
“In all cultures, every religion, men and women have gone into isolation and returned with insight. Or, often equally fascinating, they have not returned. Are they lost souls hiding somewhere, or victims of misadventure? They lead many to speculate about the significance of life, and the significance of mystery. This book about Everett Ruess is an adventure story that builds into a mystery. So read and ponder. It kept me up nights.” –William Kittredge, author of The Willow Field
“I found I was turning the pages faster and faster—and couldn’t put them down as the year of his disappearance approached. It is a compelling story, even to the debacle over the misidentification of bones at the end. A fascinating read.” –William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness and The Walk
“Everett Ruess was one of the West’s great conundrums and mysteries. The fact that Philip Fradkin is as indefatigable as a researcher as Ruess was as an outdoors traveler provides the foundation for a remarkable biography. Fradkin draws a portrait that leaves us face-to-face with the power and complexity of nature and human character.” –Patricia N. Limerick, author Legacy of Conquest
“Important or famous people can sometimes disappear into legend. Innumerable young people of aspiration and talent, however—such as Everett Ruess—can vanish into a vast and devouring darkness, lured there by dreams that can never come true and demons that give no rest.” –Kevin Starr, University of Southern California
“The mysterious disappearance of the vagabond artist and poet, Everett Ruess, has fascinated historians and Canyonlands buffs for nearly 80 years. Fradkin doesn’t solve the mystery of Everett’s fate, but he does a meticulous job demythologizing Ruess and making him human—curious, quixotic, intense, often foolish—but very much the embodiment of the youthful loner possessed by a romanticized search for truth and beauty.” –Page Stegner, author of Adios Amigos: Tales of Sustenance and Purification in the American West
Table of Contents
I. Davis Gulch
III. The Legacy, 1859 – 1913
IV. Growing Up, 1914 – 1929
V. On the Road, 1930
VI. Lan Rameau, 1931
VII. The Misfit, 1932
VIII. The Bohemian, 1933
IX. Vanished, 1934
X. The Search, 1935
XI. Healing, 1936 – 2008
XII. Resurrection, 2009
Father and Son Dialogue