In the spring of 1992, a twenty-four-year-old man from suburban Washington, D.C., seeking self-knowledge and a meaningful challenge, hitchhiked to Alaska and walked into the wilderness to live off the land. His name was Chris McCandless. As one of his last acts before heading into the bush alone, he mailed a postcard to a friend that cheerfully declared,
Greetings from Fairbanks! This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne.… Please return all mail I receive to the sender. It might be a very long time before I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again, I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.
Four months later, when McCandless’s emaciated remains were discovered by moose hunters near the northern boundary of Denali National Park, Outside magazine assigned me to write an article about the tragedy, which I subsequently expanded into a book that was published in 1996 as Into the Wild. In the summer of 1993, while immersed in the research for the book, I was chatting about the project with David Roberts when he remarked, “You know, McCandless sounds a lot like Everett Ruess …”
“Uh, who’s Everett Ruess?” I sheepishly inquired. Appalled at my ignorance, Roberts commanded me to get my hands on a copy of Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, a collection of Ruess’s letters and diary entries edited by W. L. Rusho, which had been published ten years earlier. As soon as I hung up the phone, I hurried out to my local bookstore and bought a copy, then stayed up the rest of the night reading it. By the time the sun came up I realized that Roberts was absolutely right: A number of the parallels between Ruess and McCandless were extraordinary.
Ruess disappeared in 1934, at the age of twenty, while on a solo trek through the red-rock canyon country of southern Utah—at the time a daunting expanse of wilderness imbued with a mystique comparable to that of present-day Alaska. Like McCandless, he was an idealist and a romantic. Both men felt a passionate attraction to risky endeavors in untrammeled landscapes. Here, for example, are two sentences from a postcard McCandless wrote while paddling alone down the Colorado River, sixteen months before embarking on his fatal Alaskan adventure:
I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up.
And here are a couple of lines from a letter Ruess sent in November 1934, shortly before he vanished without a trace:
As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time.
The uncanny resonance between these and other bits of writing by the two young adventurers was so arresting that a week after learning about Ruess from Roberts, I drove 1,200 miles from my home in Seattle to the headwaters of an obscure ravine called Davis Gulch, the site of Ruess’s last known camp. For most of its four-mile length, as I later described the defile in Into the Wild, it
exists as a deep, twisting gash in the slickrock, narrow enough in places to spit across, lined by overhanging sandstone walls that bar access to the canyon floor.… The country surrounding Davis Gulch is a desiccated expanse of bald rock and brick-red sand. Vegetation is lean. Shade from the withering sun is virtually non-existent. To descend into the confines of the canyon, however, is to arrive in another world. Cottonwoods lean gracefully over drifts of flowering prickly pear. Tall grasses sway in the breeze. The ephemeral bloom of a sego lily peeks from the toe of a ninety-foot stone arch, and canyon wrens call back and forth in plaintive tones from a thatch of scrub oak. High above the creek a spring seeps from the cliff face, irrigating a growth of moss and maidenhair fern that hangs from the rock in lush green mats.
Standing on the canyon floor, pondering the precise spot where Ruess cooked his beans and grazed his burros and slept under the stars, I hoped to divine something from the particulars of the setting—some clue about his essence—that would by extension shed some light, however obliquely, on McCandless. I was not disappointed. My visit to Davis Gulch motivated me to learn as much as I could about Ruess, and ultimately led me to include a chapter describing his abbreviated life and baffling disappearance in Into the Wild.
At the time, the best source of published information was Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty. Now, twenty-eight years after the publication of Rusho’s compilation, David Roberts has written the first comprehensive biography of Ruess. An irresistible read, Finding Everett Ruess is a remarkable book, the best thing Roberts has ever written. Although he doesn’t claim to solve the riddle of his subject’s death, Roberts presents an abundance of provocative new evidence that makes the mystery of Ruess’s evanescent existence more compelling than ever.
Anyone who was intrigued by the story of Chris McCandless is likely to find Finding Everett Ruess utterly fascinating.
The title of this book carries a deliberate double meaning. Since 1998, when I first visited the Escalante country in a concerted effort to see if there was anything new that could be learned about the fate of Everett Ruess, I have cherished the hope that the passionate wilderness wanderer who disappeared so enigmatically in 1934, at the age of twenty, might actually be found. Or if the remains of his body could not be discovered, that enough clues could be ferreted out of the desert and the canyons so that we might be able to determine just how and where the young man met his untimely end.
I was hardly alone in that quest. During the more than seven decades that have elapsed since Everett vanished, all kinds of dedicated sleuths (and not a few mystical wackos) have made it a personal goal to solve the riddle of the vagabond’s disappearance. The cult of Everett Ruess, which has steadily grown over the years, centers on that riddle. Every devotee who responds to the romantic intensity of Everett’s writing or the visionary rapture of his paintings and blockprints wants to know what happened to him after he headed into Davis Gulch in November 1934.
Yet at the same time, steeping myself in the writings and artwork served another purpose, which was to “find” Everett Ruess in the maze of his moods and contradictions. What made him tick? What was he ultimately after? Why did he need such unrelenting solo adventures in the wilderness to test himself? And if he had a goal beyond endless wandering, how close did he come to fulfilling it?
Then, for more than a year, between the summer of 2008 and the autumn of 2009, along with a small group of friends and associates in southeastern Utah, I thought that we might have actually found Everett’s body, wedged awkwardly inside a rock crevice in the sandstone monocline of the Comb Ridge. The ins and outs and ups and downs of that bizarre discovery and its aftermath took all of us on an extended emotional roller-coaster ride, and provoked a public response reaching as far as Russia and Japan.
It may be that the mystery of Everett’s disappearance will never be solved. But thanks to the controversy that swirled around Comb Ridge, we have more hints and clues about the wanderer’s fate—and about his character—than we have ever had before. In that sense, Finding Everett Ruess may form the appropriate rubric for a collective quest to solve a riddle that has no parallel in the history of the American West.
The first page of a letter from Everett Ruess to his brother, Waldo, the last he wrote before his disappearance. Special Collections Dept. J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah