AFTER WALLACE STEGNER, the next major writer to salute Everett was Edward Abbey, in his 1968 book, Desert Solitaire, which many Abbey fans consider his finest work. In a characteristic passage, the self-styled “desert rat” complained that while “the majority of the world’s great spirits,” from Homer to Joseph Conrad, had responded deeply to the open sea, relatively few good writers had hymned the desert. To a short list ranging from C. M. Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta) to Joseph Wood Krutch (The Voice of the Desert), Abbey appended “such obscure figures as the lad Everett Reuss, author of On Desert Trails.” Summing up Everett’s story in a single sentence, Abbey added a whimsical conceit: “For all we know he is still down in there somewhere, living on prickly pear and wild onions, communing with the gods of river, canyon and cliff.”
When this passage was brought to Waldo’s attention, he wrote Abbey a letter scolding him for misspelling Everett’s last name and for calling him “an obscure literary figure.” Abbey wrote back, “I think if you will read my passages about Everett over again you will find that underneath the perhaps over-facetious or sardonic style there is genuine admiration. If I did not admire him so much I would never have mentioned him at all.”
It was Abbey who, in 1980, directed Gibbs Smith’s attention to Everett. In 1998, Smith wrote,
[Abbey] viewed Everett as a kindred spirit and urged me to try to find out more about him. After some detective work, I located Everett’s brother, who entrusted me with Everett’s letters, other writings, and artwork. We both hoped that a new book would result.… I worked with the material for two years in my spare time, then asked my good friend W. L. Rusho to help organize a book. Bud and I worked together, and the book Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, published in 1983, was the result.
In 2009, Smith elaborated on his first contact with Waldo during a visit to Santa Barbara. “Waldo had a garden shed full of Everett’s stuff,” Smith reminisced, “all of it in boxes and old orange crates. He let me take the letters back to Utah. I had them by my bed for two years. I’d read a few at a time. I slowly realized, these letters are really important. That’s when I went to Bud.”
On a meager advance, Rusho conducted a great deal of original research, much of it in Escalante, where he interviewed old-timers who had met Everett in 1934. The bulk of Vagabond is a selective anthology of some of Everett’s letters from 1930 through 1934, interspersed with excerpts from his essays, a few passages from the 1932 and 1933 diaries, reproductions of some of his best blockprints, and photos of Everett in the field.
For continuity, Rusho inserted paragraphs of boldface text in his own voice summarizing Everett’s doings between trips. And he book-ended the anthology with a prefatory chapter called “The Beauty and the Tragedy of Everett Ruess” and four short closing chapters summarizing the decades of search for the lost wanderer, the theories about his fate, and the lasting import of his legacy.
The book was not an immediate success. Within the first year, Vagabond sold only 1,700 copies of the ten thousand in print. But slowly and steadily the book gained the status of a cult classic. By 2002, more than 100,000 copies of Vagabond and the 1998 follow-up, Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess, had been sold.
In 2009, speaking at a conference in Escalante, Gibbs Smith said, “I’ve been in publishing for forty years, and this is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever published. It’s had a life of its own. It’s been carried almost entirely by word of mouth.
“Everett, in my opinion, was the first unscientific appreciator of this land. His letters are still the best expression of why we so appreciate the beauty of this landscape.”
In his closing chapters, Rusho judiciously weighed the four leading theories about what happened to Everett, but committed to none of them. Each of the four, he concluded, was plausible, but each raised fundamental problems. The theory that Everett had deliberately disappeared or gone native was tempting (especially in view of the numerous “sightings” of Everett in later years, ranging from Florida to Mexico), but the chances of this story being true, Rusho concluded, were “small to the point of being remote.” Moreover, wrote Rusho, “From his letters, it appears that he remained too close to his parents and to his brother, Waldo, to suddenly and deliberately cut all communication—forever.”
The idea that Everett might have committed suicide, in Rusho’s analysis, was linked to the hypothesis of a deliberate escape from the world. But “He was not a recluse; he liked to converse with everyone he met.…” And “Whatever his feelings upon leaving the cities, his letters indicate a gradual return of confidence and good humor” through the summer and early fall of 1934. Stella and Christopher had come to the same conclusion: the last letters home had been too full of joy and enthusiasm to spring from a youth contemplating suicide.
The widely held belief that Everett might have fallen to his death from one of his daring climbs into prehistoric ruins, leaving his body lodged in some inaccessible canyon nook or crevice, ran up against the odd fact that the 1935 searchers found evidence of his last campsite, but not his cooking and camping equipment, food, or painting kit. Everett would not, Rusho argued, have been likely to carry all that gear with him on a climb to a ruin.
Rusho devoted his most serious attention to the theory that rustlers had murdered Everett. In Escalante, he learned that rustling had become so widespread in 1934 that the Cattlemen’s Association had spread the false rumor that a government investigator had been dispatched to the region, traveling through it incognito as he hoped to catch the lawbreakers red-handed. Rustlers startled by the sudden advent of a stranger leading his burros might have thought Everett was the government spy.
“It was into this atmosphere of deceit and suspicion that Everett innocently rode his burros south from Escalante,” Rusho wrote. “Of course, Everett must have looked about as dangerous as a puppy dog, but who can account for the possible reaction to him in the mind of a petty thief?”
As Rusho conducted his research in Escalante in 1982, he learned that one local rancher, some years before, had actually bragged about killing Everett. Rusho managed to interview the man in his home, but “found his memory was suffering from old age. He did remember that a young artist had disappeared near Davis Gulch, yet he said that he knew absolutely nothing about the incident.” Rather than leap to a facile conclusion, and out of compassion for the alleged confessor in his confused state of mind, Rusho did not name him in Vagabond, and left the whole rustler theory unresolved.
Rusho’s conclusion about Everett’s fate was, “We are left without a final answer, only riddles within riddles.”
The legend of Everett Ruess is inextricably tied up with the mystery of his vanishing. But Gibbs Smith has often said, “I was never interested in the mystery. It didn’t matter to me.” In the closing pages of Vagabond, Rusho agreed, making the case that it was Everett’s vision, not his disappearance, that accounted for his lasting appeal:
His love of wilderness, his sense of kinship with the living earth, his acute sensitivity to every facet of nature’s displays—all of these, because of their intensity in one young man, gave Everett rare qualities. What made him unique were his reactions to the striking and dramatic landscapes of the American West.
By the time Vagabond was published, Waldo was seventy-three years old. Although Christopher and Stella had not lived to see it, in Rusho’s book the family finally had the solid monument to Everett’s legacy that that they had desired, of which On Desert Trailshad been only a preliminary sketch. Waldo was involved in every aspect of the new book’s production, and he had placed such complete trust in Gibbs Smith that it had led him—despite the Kellner debacle—to hand over all of Everett’s original letters that he still possessed.
By now, however, Waldo had become a sometimes crotchety caretaker of his brother’s flame. The preparation of Rusho’s book caused much friction among the author, the publisher, and the brother (who was executor of Everett’s estate). Waldo dearly hoped that Wallace Stegner would write an introduction to the book, but Stegner declined, saying he was “too busy on a book.” Stegner’s assertion in Mormon Country that Everett “was not a good writer” had stuck in Waldo’s craw ever since 1942. In April 1983 he complained about the judgment in a letter to Stegner, adding, “Of course he had much to learn; if his 1934 journal can ever be found it will represent his most mature writing.”
Stegner responded generously. On Desert Trails, he wrote Waldo, was “a sort of classic of its kind—It is the original lone nature-lover’s journal, the original adventure of a sensitive young man into country then known only to a few Indians and a few Mormons in the oaseis [sic] towns.” To counter Waldo’s disappointment about his declining to write the introduction to Vagabond, Stegner advised, “Forewords go by like water. The book remains.”
Waldo and Gibbs Smith turned next to Edward Abbey for the introduction, but he too declined, citing the pressure of other writing. Yet at Smith’s behest, Abbey wrote a sonnet for Everett that was published as an afterword in Vagabond. In 2009, Smith called it the best poem Abbey ever wrote, while noting that the author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang was not renowned for his efforts in verse. The sonnet is indeed a fervent, mystical evocation:
You walked into the radiance of death
through passageways of stillness, stone, and light,
gold coin of cottonwoods, the spangled shade,
cascading song of canyon wrens, the flight
of scarlet dragonflies at pools, the stain
of water on a curve of sand, the art
of roots that crack the monolith of time.
You knew the crazy lust to probe the heart
of that which has no heart that we could know,
toward the source, deep in the core, the maze,
the secret center where there are no bounds.
Hunter, brother, companion of our days:
that blessing which you hunted, hunted too,
what you were seeking, this is what found you.
In the end, for the introduction Gibbs Smith secured the services of New Mexico writer John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War. Waldo so hated Nichols’s first draft that he prevailed upon Smith to force Nichols to make massive revisions. In the midst of these unpleasant negotiations, Waldo wrote a friend about Nichols’s introduction, claiming to be “quite depressed and discouraged (haven’t even slept at all a couple of nights due to thinking about it).”
What so upset Waldo was Nichols’s celebration of Everett as a half-mad desert mystic. Though the introduction is highly laudatory, much of his take on the young wanderer survives even in the relatively sanitized version Smith published. Excerpts:
By the time Everett Ruess disappeared, he had fashioned a magnificent obsession that probably killed him.
At times his writing seems pompous; often it is truly beautiful.
It would be easy to make fun of Ruess, conjecturing that in the end he must have literally exploded, his slight body incapable of containing all the melodramatic sensations he tirelessly ladled into it. But I picture him simply expiring on the edge of a sandstone cliff, in the shadow of some high circling buzzard, convinced that he could never again return to civilization.
Even in this much-revised final version, Nichols’s appreciation of Everett is one of the most nuanced and perceptive that any devotee ever produced. One can imagine that Everett himself would have liked it. But Waldo brooked no criticism of his beloved brother, no matter how balanced by praise. Intimations of madness and suicidal leanings, which Nichols was not the first to suggest, pushed one of Waldo’s most sensitive buttons.
The very word “vagabond” in Rusho’s subtitle disturbed Waldo. “It has negative or bad connotations to many people,” he wrote a friend.
For Waldo, an even touchier subject than suicide was homosexuality. As Gibbs Smith’s editor was putting together the selections for Vagabond, Waldo tried to persuade him to omit the letter Everett wrote to Bill Jacobs on May 10, 1931, with its closing “Love and kisses, / Desperately yours,” but he was overruled.
In 1984, Waldo befriended Diane Orr, a documentary filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about Everett. As the sales of Vagabond in the first year after publication hovered in skimpy numbers, Waldo wrote Orr on July 24, speculating, “Maybe many don’t want to buy it because they think by the Jacobs letters E was a homo.” Orr, who became one of Waldo’s closest confidantes, revealed to him that Bud Rusho himself had wondered about Everett’s possible homosexual leanings.
Waldo adamantly rejected such inferences. As he wrote Orr, “[W]henever E was at home, we had beds in the same bedroom and often talked together before going to sleep. And I think I knew him pretty well. And I think my parents did too. He definitely was not a homo, or homo-inclined.”
Waldo’s liberal temperament was evidently at odds with an unmistakable (if perhaps latent) homophobia. To Orr, he went on:
In my late teens and early 20’s around Hollywood, being very good looking in those days, a number of “queers” tried to make advances, but I had too many pretty girls I was interested in to have any interest at all. I know what queers are like, having seen plenty in Hollywood. Then in our embassies we had problems with quite a few of them, and they are considered security risks. Some were so flagrant that all of us knew about their “persuasion.”
Yet in another letter to Orr, Waldo backtracked a step or two: “It’s no crime to be a homo. But my brother was not one so I don’t want people thinking or saying he was one, even if such a good person as Christ was one.”
For all his discomfort with various aspects of A Vagabond for Beauty, Waldo was keen to see the book succeed in winning a wider audience for Everett’s artwork and writings. The hints that that was starting to happen heartily gratified him. As early as October 1983, Waldo told bookseller Ken Sanders, “I have even had people write me that they wanted to memorize all of E’s writings!”
* * *
One sign of the gathering mystique around Everett came in 1984 from the small Mormon town of Kanab, Utah, just north of the Arizona border. A press release for the “First Annual Desert Vagabond Days” announced, “Everett lives! This is the theme of a unique festival of Western arts to be held in Kanab, Utah, June 15 and 16.”
Invited as an honorary guest, Waldo rode in the opening parade. The festivities, mixing rodeo and art festival, included a square dance, a doll show, a horse show, a “Special Everett Ruess Exhibit,” a “Kaibab Squirrel Celebration,” and a “Highway Sign Shooting Competition.” The festival was repeated in June 1985, again centered around Everett, but adding such events as a horseshoe pitching contest, “Jackpot Team Roping,” a “Western Cooking Contest,” and a “Fun Shoot.”
In 1985, fifty years after the Escalante ranchers had started searching for the lost youth, Gibbs Smith commissioned a friend to make a pair of bronze plaques commemorating Everett. His intention was to mount one on Dance Hall Rock, a small but prominent sandstone dome forty miles out the Hole-in-the-Rock Road from Escalante, the other in Davis Gulch, fourteen miles farther southeast. (In the flat hollow on the south side of Dance Hall Rock, the Mormon pioneers had organized square dances in November 1879, to boost morale in the face of oncoming winter and the difficulty of the trail ahead.)
Dance Hall Rock lies on Bureau of Land Management land, while Davis Gulch is wholly within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The former authority granted permission for the plaque placing, but the latter refused. Smith nonetheless organized a mini-expedition of some twenty Ruess partisans. They included Waldo, now seventy-five years old, Bud Rusho, and Pat Jenks, one of the two teenage boys who had picked up a bedraggled Everett near the Grand Canyon in June 1931 and driven him and his burro to the Jenks family ranch near Flagstaff, where Everett spent several weeks recuperating.
On May 11, the ceremony at Dance Hall Rock went off as planned. Within a short time thereafter, however, some relic collector stole the bronze plaque.
Gibbs’s entourage drove on to the head of Davis Gulch, where they camped. Gathered around a fire, the devotees listened as first Jenks, then Waldo, then Rusho spoke about Everett and his legacy. In the morning the party hiked along the rim of Davis Gulch, which in its upper two miles is a very narrow slot canyon. Permission or no, the team had determined to install the plaque. As Waldo later wrote to Diane Orr, “Someone had made a rope ladder maybe 50 or 60 ft. long and many younger people went down it and … set a plaque I guess in some crevice where only very unusual hikers might ever see it.” The plaque is still in place.
With the publication of Vagabond, Everett began to move from the realm of romantic cult figure into the more rarefied circles of academe. In 1989, for instance, Bruce Berger hailed Everett in an essay for The North American Review titled “Genius of the Canyons.” (Berger meant “genius” in the classical sense of genius loci—a spirit inhabiting a place.) Like Gibbs Smith, Berger felt that Everett’s cardinal achievement was to see the Southwest in a new way: “Ruess was almost the first to travel that country not to prospect, to herd cattle, to scheme a railroad or escape from the law, but simply to relish it, to absorb it, and to shape that love in the arts.”
Other critical evaluations of Everett’s achievement followed, including a judicious essay by the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist N. Scott Momaday, who wrote:
Of all the myths that pervade the American landscape, none is more pervasive than that of the solitary man whose destiny it is to achieve a communion with nature so nearly absolute as to be irrevocable. It is the act of dying into the wilderness, actually or metaphorically. When Everett Ruess disappeared in the Escalante wilderness of Utah in November 1934, he succeeded to that mythic ideal; he became one with the wild earth.
These commentators all pointed out that Everett had been only twenty years old when he disappeared. Very few painters or poets have made their mark at a comparable age. In the Western tradition, only two writers who died younger than Everett come to mind: Anne Frank, exterminated by the Nazis at fifteen, whose diary made her posthumously famous; and Thomas Chatterton, the eccentric eighteenth-century poet and forger of medieval documents, who committed suicide at seventeen. Among painters, it is hard to name one whose works live on but who died before the age of thirty. The Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, dying at twenty-eight, is a notable exception.
Give Everett only five or ten more years of life and writing and painting, and his literary and artistic output might have been far more significant.
Stimulated by Vagabond, the Salt Lake City–based filmmaker Diane Orr determined to make a movie about Everett. In 1984 she began a long correspondence with Waldo, which grew into a close friendship. Trusting as ever, Waldo lent Orr many original documents of Everett’s, including his 1932 and 1933 diaries.
Early on, Orr communicated to Waldo her high expectations for the work. At one point, she said, Robert Redford was interested in helping finance the project. And Kevin Costner, she claimed, was in line to play the role of Everett.
Yet the project languished for more than a decade, as Orr had trouble raising funds. By 1990, a note of vexation had crept into Waldo’s correspondence with the filmmaker: “There has been a great deal of stress and strain on me over these many years re my brother and talking about him so much to you and other people. This has been very hard on me and hard on my family.”
In the same letter, Waldo confessed, “I am aged 80 and really ‘slipping’ lately and don’t know how much longer I’ll last. I seem to remember hardly anything anymore.”
As it would turn out, Waldo lasted another seventeen years, dying on September 6, 2007, the day after his ninety-eighth birthday. During his last years he suffered from some kind of dementia. Friends attributed it simply to old age, but his daughter, Michèle Ruess, is convinced that his mental decline dated from a single accident that occurred in July 1987, when, working in his garden in Santa Barbara, he was stung by a horde of yellow jackets. Waldo went into anaphylactic shock and nearly died. According to Michèle, he was never the same after that.
Orr’s movie was finally released in 2000, sixteen years after she had started work on it. Titled Lost Forever: Everett Ruess, the movie mixes documentary artifacts such as newspaper clippings and Everett’s paintings and woodcuts with reconstructed scenes. In the latter, Everett is played not by Kevin Costner but by a young actor named Mark Larson. And those scenes take considerable license with the known truth. In particular, Orr portrays Everett as homosexual, and she dramatizes a final rupture with his parents that never took place.
Waldo was not happy with Lost Forever. According to Michèle, “My father was very upset by Diane Orr’s film. He saw it once and never wanted to see it again.”
It took Orr so long to make Lost Forever that her film was preceded a year earlier by a Turner Broadcasting System documentary about Everett called Vanished! The director of this effort was Dianna Taylor, daughter from the second marriage of Dorothea Lange (who had taken the memorable black-and-white photographic portraits of Everett in 1933). A feeble production, Vanished! strays even further from the historical record than Orr’s semi-documentary did.
Vanished! aired on TBS in 1999, then dropped out of sight. It is unavailable today, while Orr’s Lost Forever still sells steadily on DVD.
* * *
In 1987, Waldo sold the rights to Everett’s woodblock engravings and prints to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) for $8,000. Three years later he complained to Diane Orr, “The last I heard they were selling for $2200 a set but I heard they were raising the price.” SUWA adopted Everett’s print of a youth leading two burros in silhouette as the alliance’s logo. During the first eleven years of merchandising the artwork, SUWA took in $88,214 from sales of the prints.
In 1998, Bud Rusho and Gibbs Smith collaborated to publish Everett’s 1932 and 1933 diaries as Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess. As he had in editing Everett’s letters, Rusho omitted many passages from the diaries, without indicating their excision even by ellipses.
Vagabond was still selling well, fifteen years after it was first issued. In 2002, Gibbs Smith brought out a “combined edition” of both Vagabond and Wilderness Journals, adding many photographs that had never been published before, including a generous selection of pictures of Everett in his childhood and early adolescence. Two years earlier, in 2000, Smith had also published a new edition of the 1940 On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, adding a provocative afterword by the Utah historian Gary James Bergera.
No single event, however, ratcheted up the megawatt power of the Everett Ruess cult like the publication in 1996 of Into the Wild. In a long feature article for Outside magazine, Jon Krakauer had first written about Chris McCandless, the alienated and idealistic young man who had graduated from college, fled his family, hitchhiked and driven all over the West, then made his way to Alaska, where he hiked into the wilderness north of Denali, intending to live off the land. After 113 days on his own, McCandless had succumbed in August 1992 either to starvation or to accidental poisoning from a wild potato plant. He was twenty-four when he died.
Fascinated by this passionate loner and vagabond, with whom he closely identified, Krakauer expanded the article into a book. To research McCandless’s zigzag peregrinations, he performed a tour de force by retracing the young man’s path over two years, locating and interviewing many of the otherwise obscure men and women who had befriended the wanderer as he ranged from Texas to California, Washington State to South Dakota. And in Alaska, Krakauer backpacked down the Stampede Trail to the abandoned Fairbanks city bus in which McCandless’s body had been found three weeks after he died.
As he set out on the trail of Chris McCandless, Krakauer had never heard of Everett Ruess. Tipped off by this writer to the parallels between the two romantic adventurers, Krakauer devoured A Vagabond for Beauty, then made his own trip into Davis Gulch. In Into the Wild, he devoted an eleven-page chapter to Everett. The book became a surprise success, eventually spending 119 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. By now it has been translated into more than twenty-two languages, including Korean, Finnish, and Catalan. And in 2007 it was made into a feature film directed by Sean Penn.
With the publication of the book, an instant Chris McCandless cult was born. Over the years, hundreds of devotees have made their own pilgrimages to the derelict bus in the wilderness, which has gained the numen of a holy shrine.
The success of Into the Wild brought Everett Ruess a huge new audience. Readers who admired the mystic flights embodied in McCandless’s letters and the makeshift diary he kept in the Alaskan wilderness found in Everett a true kindred soul. Like Everett scorning Waldo’s humdrum life, McCandless wrote a long letter to an eighty-year-old friend he had met hitchhiking in southern California, all but ordering him to hit the road and “adopt a helter-skelter style of life.” Amazingly, the octogenarian, swayed by his young friend’s ultimatum, did just that. Like Everett, McCandless adopted a pseudonym, calling himself Alexander Supertramp, before reverting to his given name in a last, desperate SOS note taped to the bus. Like some of Everett’s letters, several of the last ones McCandless mailed to friends have the resonance of farewell notes, including the postcard he wrote, just days before starting down the Stampede Trail, to a man who had given him a temporary job in South Dakota: “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.”
In the chapter titled “Davis Gulch,” Krakauer noted the “uncanny parallels” between McCandless and Ruess, the “incendiary passion” they shared. “ ‘NEMO 1934,’ [Everett] scrawled, no doubt moved by the same impulse that compelled Chris McCandless to inscribe ‘Alexander Supertramp/May 1992’ on the wall of the Sushana bus—an impulse not so different, perhaps, from that which inspired the Anasazi to embellish the rock with their now-indecipherable symbols.”
Ranging across the Southwest on McCandless’s trail in 1993, Krakauer heard echoes of the romantic myth that Everett was still alive decades after his disappearance. As he later wrote:
A year ago, while filling my truck with gas in Kingman, Arizona, I happened to strike up a conversation about Ruess with the middle-aged pump attendant, a small, twitchy man with flecks of Skoal staining the corners of his mouth. Speaking with persuasive conviction, he swore that “he knew of a fella who’d definitely bumped into Ruess” in the late 1960s at a remote hogan on the Navajo Indian Reservation. According to the attendant’s friend, Ruess was married to a Navajo woman, with whom he’d raised at least one child.
Krakauer tracked down Ken Sleight, with whom he discussed the significance of the enigmatic NEMO inscription on the granary in Grand Gulch. Sleight offered his theory that Everett might have drowned trying to swim the San Juan River at the mouth of Grand Gulch. Then he mused,
“Everett was a loner, but he liked people too damn much to stay down there and live in secret the rest of his life. A lot of us are like that—I’m like that, Ed Abbey was like that, and it sounds like this McCandless kid was like that: We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again. And that’s what Everett was doing.
“Everett was strange,” Sleight concedes. “Kind of different. But him and McCandless, at least they tried to follow their dream. That’s what was great about them. They tried. Not many do.”
* * *
Gary James Bergera’s “ ‘The Murderous Pain of Living’: Thoughts on the Death of Everett Ruess,” published as an afterword to the 2000 reprint of On Desert Trails, makes the most thoughtful case to date that Everett may have committed suicide. “For many readers of Everett Ruess’s remarkable letters home,” Bergera begins, “a terrible melancholy permeates almost every line.” The essay assembles a small anthology of the gloomiest and most despairing quotations from those letters, including the ones in which Everett anticipates his own death. Bergera freely admits that “I focus on particular aspects of Everett’s character at the exclusion of others.” Yet he is convinced that “what emerges from a careful review of Everett’s writings is a portrait of a gifted yet depressive young artist whose tortured engagement with life both powered his creative expression and propelled him toward his own self-destruction.”
Bergera does not go so far as to label Everett as bipolar. Instead he sees him as hypomanic—a psychiatric diagnosis that indicates a milder form of bipolar affective disorder. According to one source, hypomania is “characterized by optimism, pressure of speech and activity, and decreased need for sleep. Some people have increased creativity while others demonstrate poor judgment and irritability.” All these symptoms closely match some of Everett’s recurrent states and moods.
Another of Bergera’s medical speculations makes the distinction between pernicious anemia and folic anemia. On July 21, 1932, Everett wrote in his diary, “Physically I feel very weak. I would not be surprised to learn that pernicious anaemia has set in again. A slight bruise has taken three weeks to heal.” During one of his stays at home in Los Angeles, Everett may well have been diagnosed as suffering from pernicious anemia. In the 1930s, the cause of the malady—a deficiency of vitamin B12—had not yet been identified. Bergera notes that this form of anemia “affects people primarily over age fifty.” It is more likely, he believes, that Everett suffered from folic anemia, caused by a dietary shortage of raw leafy vegetables. (During his travels, Everett seldom if ever mentions eating vegetables of any kind.) In the 1930s, doctors made no distinctions among the various anemias—they were all lumped under the quaint heading of “tired blood.”
Although anemia might explain Everett’s bouts of lethargy, fatigue, and sore muscles and joints, particularly during his 1932 journey, it would have had nothing to do with his possible hypomania, whose causes remain unknown today. But both, Bergera believes, could have contributed to suicidal inclinations.
Bergera briefly discusses Everett’s sexuality, citing both passages in which he writes about being attracted to girls (Frances, the Mormon girl in Tropic, the Indian woman whose photograph he jokingly captioned “My Navajo Wife”) and to men and boys whose good looks he found appealing, as well as the sign-off in the Bill Jacobs letter, “Love and kisses, / Desperately yours.” But he stops short of labeling Everett as bisexual. Instead, Bergera gathers all these inklings under the rubric of Everett’s “attempt to understand his own sexuality.”
At the end of “ ‘The Murderous Pain of Living,’ ” Bergera spins out a possible scenario covering Everett’s last days. He admits that there is no hard evidence for this chain of events—they amount at best to a what-might-have-been. The virtue of this narrative is that it dovetails neatly with the puzzle of what the searchers found—and didn’t find—in Davis Gulch in March 1935.
In Bergera’s telling, Everett led Cockleburrs and Chocolatero into the gulch by the livestock trail. From a camp on the canyon floor, “he explored nearby side canyons, cliffs and buttes, until he found a wild, lonely spot that reminded him of a place he had been before.” Back at his camp, he loaded up one of the burros with his camping gear, food, diary, and painting kit, led the animal to his special spot, and unloaded the baggage. Then he led the burro back to the Davis Gulch camp and constructed the brushwork corral to confine the two animals in the upper part of the canyon, where they had plenty of grass to feed on.
Returning to his special place, Bergera imagines, Everett “gathered up his gear, all the beauty he had carried with him, and secured it in a recess he knew no one would ever find.” Then,
Slowly with the setting sun, the misery and anguish of the past four years began to wash away and Everett felt life loosen its grip. From this altar of beauty, he gazed one last time across the horizon. Content that he had kept his dream, Everett knew he was now going to make his destiny.
What the actual agent of Everett’s suicide might have been, Bergera does not venture to guess. In the end, the scenario is simply a romantic fantasy, to which few of the partisans who make up the Ruess cult subscribe.
Along with well-thought-out and sensitive commentaries such as Bergera’s, the enigma of Everett’s disappearance has elicited responses from clairvoyants and mystics just this side of the lunatic fringe. The most ambitious and curious work in this vein is a slender book by Mark A. Taylor called Sandstone Sunsets: In Search of Everett Ruess, published in 1997 by Gibbs Smith.
The problem with Sandstone Sunsets is that it’s really about Mark Taylor, not Everett Ruess. On the very first page the author announces, “This year marks the tenth anniversary of my quest to find Everett.” Yet near the end of his 116-page meditation, he admits, “I had not solved the mystery of Everett’s disappearance.” His consolation: “I know much more than when I began, especially about my own undefined quest or journey.”
The pity is that here and there, Taylor may actually have been on the trail of important new evidence about Everett’s fate. In Escalante, he heard a rumor that one of the 1935 searchers had stolen and kept hidden for decades all of Everett’s camping gear, perhaps even his journal. Taylor goes so far as to contemplate breaking and entering the houses of one or two of these “suspects,” but manages to restrain himself.
One is tempted to dismiss this whole line of inquiry as Taylor’s fantasy, but for some odd facts. In A Vagabond for Beauty, Rusho unambiguously claimed that the first 1935 search party had come upon Everett’s burros in their brushwork corral, and that “[o]n the fence were a bridle, a halter, and a rope.” According to Rusho, Gail Bailey, a member of the search team, took the gear and burros back to Escalante, kept the animals there for a while, where they were “ridden occasionally by the village children,” then removed them to a sheep camp in the high country.
In his 1939 article in Desert magazine, however, Hugh Lacy, whose own Escalante research was conducted only a few years after the Davis Gulch discovery, reported, “The burros were in a natural corral large enough in good season for several months’ grazing, but the weather was backward and they were thin and starved. Their halters had been found weeks before, it later appeared, by an Escalantan who thought nothing of their significance.”
Indeed, for six decades after the search, until his death in the 1990s, Gail Bailey was suspected by some of his neighbors of having come across Everett’s last camp on a solo outing sometime before the March 1935 search, and of having appropriated Everett’s belongings. In that most xenophobic of Mormon towns, however, such scuttlebutt was rarely shared with outsiders.
Scrambling for a dramatic climax to his quest narrative, Taylor decides to hike to the top of Kaiparowits Plateau. That gigantic, convoluted tableland overlooking the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, he argues (as have other commentators), has never been thoroughly searched for signs of Everett’s passage.
From his camp, at sunset, Taylor gazes at the horizon.
Out on the line between heaven and earth, the silhouette of a face began to form. One by one, each facial feature appeared like magic; they were perfect to the minutest detail. It was my friend Everett Ruess! I had been waiting and watching for this moment for a long time. Everett was smiling, and his lips seemed to reach up, tenderly kissing the heavens above. The wind swirled around my head, and I felt almost giddy.
“Good night, Everett,” says Taylor out loud, before returning to his campfire.
* * *
In one sense, the proof that a cult has staying power comes when its iconography enters the realm of kitsch. In 1994 Waldo made a deal with a Utah-based designer and artist, Steve Jerman, licensing him to produce and sell memorabilia incorporating some of Everett’s best blockprints. On the website everettruess.net, today’s customer can buy numbered prints, postcards, journals, T-shirts, coffee mugs, water bottles, and refrigerator magnets (eight dollars apiece, shipping free) decorated with prints given arbitrary titles after Everett’s disappearance such as “Granite Towers,” “Fishing Shack,” “Junipers,” and “Tree No. 1.” Escalante Outfitters, a restaurant and outdoor gear shop in Escalante, sells Vagabond Ale, with a Dorothea Lange portrait of Everett on the label.
Two bad detective novels, Jenny Kilb’s Pilgrim Fool (2003) and Jack Nelson’s To Die in Kanab (2006), spin their plots around modern sleuths solving the mystery of Everett’s fate. Debora L. Threedy, a University of Utah law professor, wrote a full-length play called The End of the Horizon that premiered in 2008 at Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theater Company. The play dramatizes the anguish of the family’s loss after Everett’s disappearance (in the premiere, Threedy herself played Stella Ruess).
It was perhaps inevitable that pop and folk song writers would take up the Ruess legend. A number of ballads about the lost vagabond are regularly played at festivals, and can be downloaded on the Internet. Perhaps the best of them are “The Wild Escalante” by Walkin’ Jim Stoltz and “Everett Ruess” by Dave Alvin. The latter song memorably ends,
You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.
Aneth Nez and his wife at his Enemy Way curing ceremony, 1971. (Daisey Johnson)
Denny Belson and Daisey Johnson. (Dawn Kish)
Comb Ridge, near where Denny Belson found the anomalous crevice grave. (Dawn Kish)
The crevice grave, after it was disturbed by the FBI team. (David Roberts)
A button, found in the crevice grave, made by the Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, a Salt Lake City-based manufacturer of clothing goods. (David Roberts)
Beads and pendants from the grave site. (David Roberts)
The upper and lower jaws of the skull found in the crevice grave, prepared for study by Dennis Van Gerven in his University of Colorado lab. (David Roberts)
Daisey Johnson (left) and Michèle Ruess, Everett’s niece, near the grave site on Comb Ridge. (David Roberts)
A sketch by inscription expert Fred Blackburn of the faded “NEMO” found in Grand Gulch. (David Roberts)
The NEMO inscription found by Greg Funseth in 2001 on the Escalante Desert. (David Roberts)
Davis Gulch from the rim. (David Roberts)