IT WAS A CHILLY DAY in November 1934. The country had been mired in the Great Depression for over five years, and no town felt the pinch of poverty more acutely than Escalante. Founded by Mormon pioneers fifty-nine years earlier, the small settlement in southern Utah—then one of the remotest towns in the United States—had been stricken in successive summers by a plague of grasshoppers that ruined the crops and by the worst drought in nearly eight decades.
In late autumn, the arrival of any visitor in Escalante was a rare occurrence. It was all the more surprising, then, when the thin, sandy-haired stranger rode into town from the west, saddled on one undersized burro, leading another that was packed with camping gear. His name, he told the locals, was Everett Ruess. He was from California. And although he was only twenty, he had been wandering all over the West and Southwest for the better part of the last five years.
The young boys of Escalante took an instant liking to the vagabond. During the next several days they rode horseback with him along the nearby ridges, hunted for arrowheads, and shared his campfire dinner of venison and potatoes. One of those boys, ten years old at the time, was Norm Christensen. “He told us all about his family,” Christensen remembers. “Showed us how the Indians could make fire using sticks. We hiked the hills, showed him the Indian writings”—petroglyphs etched on the sandstone walls by Anasazi and Fremont people more than six hundred years earlier. “He didn’t brag on himself. Wasn’t a show-off. He said he’d come out to look the country over and make his paintings. Showed us some.”
Another Escalante native, Melvin Alvey, was twenty-six years old that autumn. Decades later, standing in the front room of the house in which he had lived all his life, Alvey pointed out the window. “I talked to Everett over there in the street as he was leavin’ town,” he recalled. “He had these two little burros. They didn’t stand that high.” Alvey flattened his palm four feet above the rug. “I don’t think either of ’em had fifty pounds [loaded] on ’em. I looked at those two little burros, goin’ out in November. He never even had a tent. Didn’t have a good camp stove.”
Alvey tilted his head back, summoning memories. “He said he was goin’ to go down in the Desert and stay six weeks. Claimed he was goin’ to be an artist and write stories. He didn’t have enough for one week, let alone six. I said, ‘It looks like you’re travelin’ pretty light.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I don’t need much.’ ”
According to Norm Christensen, “Everett had a lot of spotted dog in his pack bags—rice and raisins with condensed milk. We gave him a bunch of potatoes. Offered him bottled fruit, but he just didn’t have room for it.”
Arnold Alvey, Melvin’s nephew, six years old in 1934, recalls, “He came to our place on the outskirts of town. I was standin’ out there by the well, here come this young guy with a coupla little gray burros. I’d never seen burros before.
“He said, ‘Could I water my burros in your trough?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He had on a floppy hat. A light-colored orange shirt that fluttered in the breeze. He had quite high cheekbones. Quite a nice-lookin’ guy. Said he was goin’ down in the Desert to spend the winter. I can see it like it was yesterday.”
“Last night he was here,” Norm Christensen recounted, “he took some of us kids to the picture show. It was called Death Takes a Holiday. Probably cost ten cents. Everett treated us.”
Christensen shook his head. “I still remember him wavin’ next morning as he passed on down the river.”
“I’ve thought about him quite a bit over the years,” Melvin Alvey confessed. “Whenever it gets cold. To go down there and draw as an artist, in November, when you only got three–four hours of decent weather in the day … I think he had some plans that nobody knew.”
From Escalante that November, Everett set out southeast down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. The path had been blazed during the winter of 1879–80 by a remarkable band of Mormon pioneers, as they crossed the Colorado River, forged their way through labyrinthine canyons and mesas, and finally established the town of Bluff on the San Juan River, the first Mormon stronghold in southeast Utah. Fifty-four years after the pioneers, Everett gradually left behind the piñon-juniper forest that sheltered Escalante and its outskirts, as he passed through an increasingly barren landscape of slickrock and drifting orange sand—the badlands that the locals simply called the Desert.
A week down the trail, more than fifty miles out of Escalante, Everett ran into a pair of sheepherders at the head of Soda Gulch, a short, dry tributary of the Escalante River. Addlin Lay and Clayton Porter invited the young man to share their campfire. He stayed two nights, during which he quizzed the sheepherders about the canyons, trails, and prehistoric ruins to the east. Lay and Porter offered Everett a quarter of mutton, but the young man said he didn’t have room for it in his burros’ saddlebags. He had plenty of food of his own, he insisted.
On the morning of November 21, Everett parted ways with the sheepherders. They watched him as he ambled with his burros farther southeast, headed for the Hole-in-the-Rock, the steep cleft in the nine-hundred-foot precipice down which the Mormon pioneers, with painstaking care, had lowered their eighty-three wagons in January and February of 1880 before ferrying them across the Colorado River.
And then Everett Ruess vanished from the face of the earth.
At the time of his disappearance, Ruess was unknown in the larger world. Seventy-seven years later, he is the object of an intense and romantic cult that has no parallel in the long annals of the American Southwest.
Beginning in March 1935, a series of search parties scoured the wilderness, looking for clues to the wanderer’s whereabouts—or, as seemed increasingly likely, to his demise. The first of those parties quickly discovered what has been regarded ever since as Everett’s last known campsite, in Davis Gulch, a far-eastern tributary of the Escalante River. But the odd assemblage of objects those searchers found on the ground remains tantalizing and ambiguous today. In the end, none of the parties came close to solving the mystery of the young man’s disappearance. And in the absence of a definitive answer, all kinds of theories about what happened to Everett after November 1934 were thrust onto the stage—theories that are still fiercely debated by Ruess devotees today.
The cult of Everett Ruess owes much to the mystery of his vanishing. Yet in the long run, it is the writings, paintings, and engravings the young man produced before his twenty-first birthday that anchor and validate his lasting fame—the very fame he longed so passionately to achieve. Whether or not Everett Ruess, had he lived, might have become a major writer or artist is another question that his partisans debate endlessly. But in a sense, it is beside the point. The Ruess cult ultimately springs from the young man’s ecstatic vision of the wilderness, tied to an insatiable wanderlust that drove him to one solitary challenge and ordeal after another, as he traversed the deserts and canyons of what in the 1930s was the wildest landscape in the United States. Although other writers and artists profoundly influenced Everett—he was a voracious reader and a habitué of art galleries and museums—the vision that transfixed him was uniquely of his own making.
Not every aficionado of the Southwest subscribes to the Ruess mystique. Skeptics and realists tend to hold his effusions at arm’s length, as the fevered strivings of a precocious but self-conscious idealist. Yet for the thousands of lovers of the outdoors who hold up Everett as a poet-saint, his utterings have an aphoristic glory. Quotations from his letters and diaries are recited today with all the reverence accorded to Henry David Thoreau’s apothegms or Mark Twain’s bons mots. Everett’s blockprint engravings have been stenciled onto T-shirts, printed on the covers of blank notebooks, and embossed onto refrigerator magnets. The world of his devotees has expanded beyond the borders of the Southwest, even beyond the boundaries of the United States. Today, Everett counts among his acolytes men and women as far away as Russia and Japan, few of whom have ever visited the canyons and mesas where the young adventurer walked and rode with his burros into the mystical wild that cost him his life.
* * *
Grief-stricken at the loss of their son, Everett’s parents, Christopher and Stella, determined to keep alive his memory. Since childhood, the boy had written letters to his parents and to his brother, Waldo, every time they were apart for as short a stretch as a day or two. During the years of his vagabondage, from 1930 to 1934, those letters steadily deepened in thought and feeling. His family kept every page, and later collected many of the letters Everett had written to his best friends back home.
Those letters are no mere newsy bulletins: instead, Everett strove for oracular declarations to capture the transport that wilderness brought him. “Once more I am roaring drunk with the lust of life and adventure and unbearable beauty,” he wrote to one friend his own age. And to another, “I am overwhelmed by the appalling strangeness and intricacy of the curiously tangled knot of life.”
At his jauntiest, Everett struck a Nietzschean pose: “Alone I shoulder the sky and hurl my defiance and shout the song of the conqueror to the four winds, earth, sea, sun, moon, and stars.” Yet those vaulting flights were counterbalanced by passages that dwelt on hardship and agony, tinged with a premonition of doom: “Bitter pain is in store for me, but I shall bear it.… Death may await me; with vitality, impetuosity and confidence I will combat it.”
As a poet, Everett also aimed at the oracular, writing about himself often in the past or perfect tense, as if his life were already over. Thus, in “Wilderness Song”:
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!
As well as encouraging Everett to write poems and essays, Christopher and Stella had taught both their sons to keep diaries from an early age. Diary-writing was, in fact, such a family compulsion that all four members routinely transcribed passages from their daily entries to share in their letters to one another.
An artist herself, as well as a patroness of the arts, Stella had taught Everett how to paint with watercolors and how to carve the linoleum blocks that he used to make black-and-white prints. Especially in his blockprints, well before the age of twenty Everett had achieved a certain mastery. He reduced the ruin called Square Tower House at Mesa Verde to an almost abstract design of oblong roomblocks, black squares for windows, and horizontal streaks intimating the arching sandstone alcove that guarded the prehistoric village. He rendered a California seacoast as a single storm-tossed cypress floating over an adamantine granite boulder.
For years after 1935, Christopher and Stella tried to interest publishers in a small volume collecting Everett’s poems, passages from his essays and letters and diaries, and specimens of his artwork. Their efforts bore fruit in 1940, when a small California press brought out a slender miscellany titled On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess. Though the book sold only modestly, it attracted the attention of Wallace Stegner, who devoted a chapter to Ruess in his 1942 book, Mormon Country. Stegner held Everett’s soaring idealism, his intense quest for beauty for its own sake, at arm’s length. But he concluded memorably, “If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age.”
Slowly over the decades the Ruess cult gathered momentum. But it was not until 1983, when W. L. (Bud) Rusho published Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, that a rich anthology of Everett’s writings gained a wider audience than that of friends and family. Though not a true biography, Vagabond laid out the essential facts of the adventurer’s short life, and pondered at some length the mystery of his disappearance.
Rusho’s book in turn caught the eye of Jon Krakauer, who saw in Ruess a striking parallel to Chris McCandless, the equally passionate loner who died in the wilderness north of Denali in Alaska in a prolonged effort to live off the land. In his 1996 bestseller, Into the Wild, Krakauer devoted eleven pages to Ruess. Tens of thousands of readers who had never before heard of Everett intertwined their fascination with Chris McCandless with the puzzle of the romantic wanderer who had vanished in Utah back in 1934. The Ruess cult soared to a new level.
Then, in 2008, an entirely new twist to the seventy-four-year-old mystery came like a zigzag of lightning cleaving a blue sky. It sprang from the most unlikely of sources: an eerie tale guarded secretly for decades by a Navajo man, who eventually handed it down to his granddaughter, who in turn told it to her brother, who went out to search in the Utah wilderness.…
The controversy spawned by this strange discovery smolders on. Thanks to the intensity of feeling that it stirred up, the Ruess cult has gained a new dimension, in which fervent admiration clashes with partisan polemic, and the believers in one theory of how he met his end raise their rhetorical rifles to fire at the opponents who cling to another.
In the words of more than one graffito scrawled in trailhead registers in recent years: