The Desire to Live


“I Have Given the Wind My Pledge”

EVERETT RUESS* WAS BORN on March 28, 1914, in Oakland, California. For his mother, Stella, his arrival was a mixed blessing.

The family was an intensely intellectual and bohemian one. Everett’s father, Christopher, had graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, then attended the Harvard Divinity School. In Oakland he served as a Unitarian minister, though later, to support his family, he would take a series of secular jobs.

Stella was a dancer, an aesthete, and an accomplished artist. Her father, William Henry Knight, had been a Civil War veteran from New York State who migrated to California, where he gained prominence in publishing, music, and science, serving twice as president of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. He also wrote editorials for the Los Angeles Times.

Under Stella’s guidance, the close-knit family produced a constant stream of art and poetry, even while Waldo and Everett were still very young. At regular intervals, Stella home-published collections of this work, under the rubric Ruess Quartette. These miscellanies bore the imprint of the family seal, a sundial inscribed with the motto “Glorify the Hour”—an injunction Everett would live by during his wandering years.

Christopher and Stella had married on April 2, 1905. They would share forty-nine years together before Christopher’s death in 1954, a half-century filled with undimmed love and mutual respect.

The great tragedy of the couple’s life before the disappearance of Everett was the death at the age of six weeks of their firstborn, Christella, in 1908. The girl’s name, of course, was an amalgamation of her parents’. In her journal, Stella later wrote, “Christella was as beautiful as a rosebud, with long dark hair and I thought she was perfect. But after two weeks Dr. Shuey told me that she could not live, her spine was not right.”

Spina bifida, from which Christella suffered, is a birth defect in which the fetus’s spine forms incorrectly. Some of the vertebrae that normally enclose the spinal cord do not close correctly, leaving a hole through which the cord may protrude. Today the defect can usually be surgically repaired, but in 1908 it was often fatal.

On April 2, 1909, on their fourth wedding anniversary, Christopher and Stella scattered Christella’s ashes over San Francisco Bay from a ferry, just as it passed opposite the Golden Gate. Thus was launched a family tradition that would still hold sway a century later.

At the time, Stella was four months pregnant with her second child. Since spina bifida is in part genetic, the parents knew there was a higher than average chance that their second child would also have the defect. But on September 5, 1909, Waldo was born, a completely healthy infant. He was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet and philosopher whom Christopher held (as Everett later would) in high esteem.

Four years later, Stella got pregnant again. Still mourning Christella, she wished fervently for a girl. She had, in fact, already named her unborn daughter.

On April 2, 1914, Stella wrote in her anniversary record:

Dear Kathleen—Little Dream-daughter—

You were invited here for our Wedding Anniversary, but did not come. But you sent a substitute—a dear brother to make one more of the family to watch for you later.… His name, Everett, will endow him with the attributes of kindness and the helping hand for which Edward Everett Hale was noted, the beloved preacher whom Christopher knew in Boston.

Edward Everett Hale, who died in 1909, is best known today for his scarifying patriotic allegory, “The Man Without a Country.”

It was the family’s compulsively literary bent that led the parents to encourage Waldo and Everett to keep regular diaries from an early age on, as well as to copy long passages from those diaries into the letters they wrote to their parents whenever they were separated from them, no matter how briefly. Some observers of the Ruess ménage have seen Christopher and Stella as overly involved with their sons’ private lives, to the point of intrusiveness. According to this view, Everett’s vagabondage was motivated in large part by a need to flee the family’s stifling intimacy. In his early twenties, Waldo moved to China, where he took a job as secretary for a religious mission. Other jobs followed, as he stayed in China for several years. In the voluminous correspondence between father and son during this period, Waldo occasionally bridles at his father’s neediness and insistence on giving advice about everything from marriage to career.

But in the surviving letters from Everett to his parents, there is scarcely a hint of annoyance at Christopher and Stella’s involvement in his life. In a few instances he explicitly seeks out their guidance, notably in a by-now-famous letter from December 1933, in which Everett wrote out a list of eighteen deep philosophical questions that he posed to his father. They include “Are pain and pleasure equally desirable and necessary?” and “Can one make great sacrifices without submerging oneself?” Taken as a whole, this exchange between Everett and Christopher (who answered each question in heartfelt detail) amounts to a parental catechism in how to lead a moral life.

In 1928, Stella wrote a brief synopsis of Everett’s life to the age of fourteen, detailing the frequent moves around the country the family had to make as Christopher changed jobs. This lovingly indulgent sketch begins with a mock first-person epistle that Stella pretended Everett had written to his grandmother on his third birthday. Designed to be cute and charming, this semi-nonsensical soliloquy nonetheless gives a vivid glimpse of Everett as a child, with an emphasis on his precocious curiosity.

Dear Grandma—

Today I am three years old, and 38–1/2 inches tall, and 32 pounds heavy. Papa often says he wishes he had a phonograph record of my prattle, so Mother decided to write down some of my remarks today, just to smile over when I’m big.…

I had a ride on Pegasus, too. That’s my velocipede. I couldn’t play with my Astronomy Game, because we lost it one day. Mama says I knew about 25 names like Leo and Lepus, Cassiopeia, Hercules, Persus [sic], Virgo, Aries, Cygnus and Delphinus. She thought it was funny when I named her Indian clubs Pollux and Castor, but it’s because they were twin brothers.

Fourteen years later, Everett would name one of his burros Pegasus.

Prattle, indeed, must have been the three-year-old’s forte, if Stella’s rendering of it does it justice:

While I was eating lunch, I asked—“How do you spell sandwich? How do you spell boxes? How do you spell one box? How do you spell tocolate? How do you spell hankshadiff? How do you spell tree? How do you spell milk? How do you spell spoon? How do you spell egg? How do you spell sky?” … One day Waldo said, “Everett is a b-a-d b-o-y,” but I said, “No, I’m a good b-o-y!” Mama counted up about 1200 words that I use. That is 200 more than Waldo knew, but you see he didn’t have a big brother to teach him.

Stella’s affectionate impersonation of her hyperactive three-year-old contains a strange scene that suggests that the urge to take off and wander was already part of Everett’s nature:

[Mama] put me in bed after lunch with some books because she thought I wouldn’t be sleepy after my long nap yesterday, but I surprised her. Jerry was tied to the corner post, and I just got quiet and forgot the books—books to the right of me, books under me and books on top of me. Jerry is my left foot. When Mama says, “You must go to sleep today,” she ties Jerry and Jupiter too, but she tells them to kick very hard first so they’ll be tired. When she thinks I’m not very sleepy but she wants to be sure where I am, and that I’m not playing in a mud puddle, she ties only Jerry. When I must go to sleep, she tells Sparkle and Twinkle to pull down the curtains. Those are my eyes, of course.

Such confinement was not limited to bedtime. After six paragraphs of “prattle,” Stella returns Everett to the third person, but reports:

The small “Duck Bab” was always finding every wet and muddy spot in the neighborhood. Several times he ran away so that I came to rope him to the porch. Once he went a mile, over the bridge and the railroad tracks. I telephoned the police station and found he had been reported.

An entry in Stella’s journal further confirms the bondage: “Waldo did some lessons every morning, and every afternoon we went swimming in the Creek. Everett was tied to a tree for Safety First.”

In Everett’s baby book, his mother recorded no fewer than thirty-three “pet names” by which the boy was called by his parents and their close friends. They include Little Contentment, Honeybunch, and Babykin Bye-o, but also Whirligig, Tumble-bug, Bounceritis, and Lord of Misrule.

In September 1918, the family moved all the way across the country, to Brookline, Massachusetts. Christopher felt the obligation to support not only his family of four, but his ailing parents, and so he had given up the impecunious profession of pastor to take a job with the Chautauqua Industrial Art Desk Company. The device the firm manufactured was indeed a desk, but it was festooned with all sorts of doodads, from a color wheel to piano keys to “telegraphic codes,” required to carry out, in the company’s ambitious claim, “a plan to promote the culture of work and play among children in the home.”

In Brookline, Everett started school. Stella later wrote, “During his fifth year summer Everett was so eager to learn that I taught him to add and subtract with sea-beans on the floor, and he filled a copybook with little problems up to ten, including multiplication & division.”

Despite the gap of more than four years in their ages, Waldo and Everett were inseparable chums. Yet they were boys of significantly different temperaments. It is not surprising that when Stella attempted to capture her sons’ characters, she did so in verse. About Waldo, she wrote,

The spirit of adventure leads you far.

We joy to know that Loyalty,

And Purity, and Courtesy

Your true and ever faithful comrades are.

And about Everett,

The God of Poesy has smiled

On you, my nature-loving child.

May you look deep and wide and high;

Your art all nature glorify.

Such verses suggest that Everett was Stella’s favorite. It is hard to imagine Waldo, praised for his purity and courtesy, not holding a grudge against the impulsive younger brother in whom their mother saw a nature-loving poet.

On rare automobile rides from Brookline, the whole family set out on literary tours of eastern Massachusetts, visiting Walden Pond and the homes of Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott; the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, which had inspired Hawthorne’s novel; and the Revolutionary War sites in Lexington and Concord, including the “rude bridge that arched the flood” of Emerson’s poem. Everett’s penchant for wandering off came to the surface on these outings. As Stella wrote in her journal,

One Sunday Christopher took the boys on an historical jaunt to the old North Church, and some way lost his small son. Everett proceeded to hunt up a policeman and journeyed to the police station, there to eat chocolates in perfect confidence that his father would find him. His father did, but it was after several hours of distraction!

In 1920, Christopher was reassigned by the Chautauqua Art Desk Company to a post in New York City. The family spent two years in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, then two years in Palisades Park, New Jersey. Taking advantage of the proximity of highbrow culture, Stella enrolled her gifted younger son in classes at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. From a home in New Jersey that the Ruesses named Cherry Croft, mother and son made frequent trips to Greenwich Village for classes in wood-carving and pottery-making. After class, the pair of aesthetes would head off to New York’s famous museums, or to such bookstores as Scribner’s and Brentano’s, or to poetry readings by the likes of Edward Markham (remembered today, if at all, for “The Man with a Hoe”).

In 1923, after her father fell ill, Stella and Everett took a cross-country journey by train to Los Angeles to care for him. They turned the trip into a sightseeing excursion, making a brief but memorable stop at the Grand Canyon. Then, during her father’s convalescence, Stella and her nine-year-old son visited Yosemite Valley, where they went on several long hikes. In the middle of one, while they bathed in the Merced River, as Stella recalled five years later, “E was nearly drowned in the pool, choosing just the moment when I happened to be swimming under water!”

Everett kept a diary during this long detour into the West. It may be the earliest of his writings to survive. The entries are short and often perfunctory, but they nonetheless reflect the nine-year-old’s wide-eyed curiosity about everything he saw in the countryside, and they presage the voracious wanderlust of Everett’s late adolescence.

The boy’s first reaction to the Grand Canyon is surprising, given the fascination the place would come to have for him in his late teens.

April 4. Saw the Grand Canyon of Colorado. When I first looked over I was scared, but the next time I could see better. There are red and grey stone turrets rising up. The canyon is a mile deep, and I couldn’t even see the river.

I looked at it through a spy glass in the lookout tower. Mother went down to the bottom on a horse. I saw a silly woman on a rock waving her arms. She would have fallen over if another woman hadn’t caught her.

Stella’s ride on the back of a mule (not a horse), while, as she put it, “E’s impressions were all from the rim where he stayed with our English traveling acquaintances,” probably marked the last occasion on which the mother proved more adventurous than her son.

The longest entry in Everett’s 1923 diary is devoted to the several-day trip to Yosemite, where mother and son slept outdoors at Camp Curry. (Everett makes no mention of nearly drowning in the Merced River.) The young diarist briefly notes his first view of El Capitan, the nearly vertical 2,700-foot precipice of sheer granite that commands the valley, but he was more interested in the wildlife. “On the way [to Camp Curry] we saw chipmunks, as numerous as the falling leaves almost, peering at us from every nook and cranny, we saw a fawn and some deer.”

Several days later:

After supper I fed a deer whose name was Jenny. She was a female, but the males would not come near you. The males have horns, but the females do not. I tried to pet Jenny but she balked, and would not let me. Jenny was very greedy and took large bites of biscuits, and I was soon back for more. One lady put a biscuit in her mouth and Jenny walked up and took it out.

For the nine-year-old, the high point of the trip was the nightly tourist stunt performed by Park Service officials well into the 1960s, before it was terminated as an ecological atrocity. Everett describes it with unfeigned awe:

There was a great camp fire, and moving pictures were shown. Then there was a signal from the top of Glacier Point, and every one craned their necks upward. Someone whispered—“The firefall.” Then a stream of dazzling brightness issued from out the sky it seemed. One could not distinguish the outline of Glacier Point from the Darkness. Then it ended.

The spectacle was concocted by setting a huge red fir tree trunk on fire, then pushing it off Yosemite Falls. As it fell, the tree blazed a glowing path, spangled with water-spray, through the night.

By the end of the summer, Stella and Everett were back in New Jersey. The next year, Christopher was once again reassigned by the Chautauqua Art Desk Company, this time to a job in Chicago. The family packed up and moved to Valparaiso, Indiana, from which town Christopher commuted fifty miles to work. He was hardly an absent father, however. On August 5, 1924, already installed in his Chicago office but awaiting the arrival of his wife and sons, Christopher wrote to Everett:

Will you not send me a postal card every day as Waldo does, and on it write your diary entry for the previous day? I would enjoy it. I don’t like to have people feel that one of my sons does this, but that the other laddie forgets his daddy, do I?

At the time, fourteen-year-old Waldo was spending his summer on a ranch in Montana, where he unabashedly bragged about a “little girl” who had become his constant companion. Perhaps this spurred Everett to envy, for in the same letter, Christopher reassured his younger son:

You will also love many little girls as you grow up in that way, and some day when you are older and more of a man and able to earn money and build a home, you will marry as Mother and I did and have beautiful sons and daughters, of whom you will be as proud as I am of you and of Waldo, and as Mother is.

Christopher’s letters to his sons were always loving, but they carry an undertone of stern demand that the boys live up to the highest moral and intellectual standards. “Dear Leonardo da Vinci Everett,” Christopher saluted his son in another 1924 letter. “If you were like him and Waldo were like Ben Franklin, than [sic] would make a great pair of great men from our little family.” A year earlier, while Everett was still only nine, Christopher admonished the “laddie”:

You may let Mother read this letter, too, if she will promise to hug you for me, or spank you, as the occasion may suggest.…

You know President Coolidge has two boys now, and the whole world is watching those boys. They are regular fellows too. They know how to work and how to play.

All this enforced intimacy, combined with such rigorous injunctions to behave as what his father called a “PG” (“Perfect Gentleman”), could have easily turned Everett into a mama’s boy or a precocious show-off at school, or a sullen rebel. Yet Everett seems to have bent in none of these directions. From the Valparaiso years emerge several other examples of the earliest of Everett’s writings to have survived. One of his most beguiling youthful works he titled “All Boy, Age 11, Secret Diary.” The diary was evidently not secret, for the surviving copy has been typed, probably by Everett’s proud father.

The entries reveal an active boy with the normal eleven-year-old’s penchant for both mischief and adventure, and they also demonstrate that Everett had developed a sly sense of humor. There is surprisingly little of the show-off in them. Excerpts:

Jan. 10: Waldo, Mother, Sheldon and I went ice-skating and I found out that I had weak ankles.… I read a book at Sheldon’s house about the land of Oz and I think that it is an awful good book.

Jan. 26: …    Here I go

                    On my toe

                    Through the Snow.

                    The Ice it’s slippery

                    And the Mud, it’s mickery.

                    So it’s quite a job

                    To catch a Bob.…

Feb. 29: There is no February 29th in this year.

March 20: Today I was all happy inside and could hardly keep from yelling for tomorrow I am going to Chicago. I don’t like to do homework. It never does you any good anyhow.

May 11: My turtle has got the crawling fever. He is crawling all over. Mine is named Prince Crawlaway II and Harold’s is Prince Crawlaway I.

Sept. 10: Today I and Harold and Sheldon went out tonight. I honked horns of autos and rang doorbells. We set water traps too.

Oct. 8: I got copped by Mrs. Taylor for shooting a match up to the ceiling and I was told to stay in, but I forgot all about it.

To sharpen his artistic talents, Stella enrolled Everett in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. But the great discovery of his Valparaiso years—1924 through 1928, from age ten to age fourteen—was nature. The countryside was lush with woods, into which Everett wandered at will. An old Indian trail, perhaps blazed by the Miami tribe, passed very close to the town. The kinds of outdoor stimulation that were hard to come by in Brookline, Brooklyn, or Palisades Park now cast their spell over Everett. His passions focused on creatures of all kinds, ranging from insects to mammals, and on all things Indian.

A number of Everett’s school essays from this time survive. These two- or three-page exercises deal with rats and mice, flies, crows, skunks, coyotes, and birds. One is titled “The mt. lion as the friend of the deer.”

During this period, Christopher apparently worried that Everett was becoming too interested in nature, at the expense of human beings. On September 30, 1926, he wrote to his son:

You have a good mind. Now you need to observe people as you observe things and learn to make many friends. Try to please people. You are a little like your daddy, who gets so interested in ideas at times that he is absent-minded about people. That is bad. Because people have feelings.

A paradox that would lie at the core of Everett’s being during the wandering years of his late adolescence may have had its genesis in Valparaiso. The boy was by nature gregarious and outgoing, so much so that in California in his late teens he would think nothing of going up to the homes of such famous artists as the photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, knocking on the front door, and introducing himself as a fledgling protégé. Yet on his extended journeys with pack animals across the Southwest, Everett would conclude, “After all the lone trail is best”—partly, as he put it, “because I’m a freakish person.”

In Indians, Everett found what for a while seemed the perfect solution to those contradictory tensions. Indians were people, but around Valparaiso it was not living natives that caught the lad’s fancy, but the prehistoric relics they had left behind. In those Indiana forests, Everett found his first arrowheads.

In Valparaiso, he wrote a pair of poems about arrowhead discoveries that are remarkably accomplished for his age. The better of the two, written in November 1927 at the age of thirteen, was titled “The Relic.”

In a deserted field I found an arrowhead.

  Worn by the rains and snows of many a year,

  It had survived its maker, buried here,

For he who shot the arrow from his bow was dead.

How far this chisled piece of stone leads back the mind!

  By careful Indian craftsman it was wrought,

  For many purposes had it been sought.

To me it was a very precious treasure find.

Throughout his later wanderings in the Southwest, Everett would continue to delight in “precious treasure finds,” mailing or bringing home arrowheads, Anasazi pots, and even an intact necklace he found in a burial site. Modern readers of Everett’s letters and diaries, in which he brags about keeping ancient artifacts, are often disturbed by his acquisitiveness, but it is worth remembering that in the 1930s there was no prevailing ethic to discourage the looting of prehistoric ruins. Every country store and saloon had framed arrowhead collections hung on the wall, the points arranged in pleasing designs, and the metates (stone basins) on which the ancients had ground their corn were routinely used as yard ornaments and doorstops.

The school essays from Everett’s Valparaiso years are mostly short and dryly matter-of-fact pieces, but several hint at higher strivings. The most interesting of them is an eerily prescient short story called “Vultures.” It begins:

A man lay sprawled on the stinging hot sand beneath a twisted Joshua tree in the desert. Its crooked shade made a fantastic pattern, and fell in sultry stripes across his weary body. The shadow moved, and with a tired lurch, the man moved his head into a band of shade.

This dramatic beginning is clarified only in the third paragraph:

The man was an artist. He had come here to die—or to recover his lost ambitions. His sensitive eyes roved over the unreal landscape; the barren wastes of sand, the desert cliffs, the bleak, bent cactus trees darkly outlined against the moon, over which there passed a ghostly wraith of cloud. But the artist’s soul was dead within him; the weird beauty was not reflected in his face, stoical and hopeless.

The story is only two and a half typed pages long, but the prose vividly evokes the desert landscape that would become Everett’s chosen wilderness. The unnamed artist’s mission is a three-day stagger in search of an epiphany. At last it comes:

Though he had not found the inspiration he sought, the desire to live was suddenly reawakened. Tortured flesh complained insistently and would not be denied. In sudden frenzy he turned about and began in tottering haste to retrace his way.

But the turnaround comes too late. Out of water on the third day, the man crawls atop a lonely butte to die. A torrential rainstorm sweeps the landscape.

The rain passed, leaving the desert glorious and cool. As the vultures poised in the air and came to tear him to pieces, he looked toward the horizon. All that was left of his anguish now vanished, and a light shone in his eyes, as he saw the dying sun flood the waste lands with splendor. The last thing he saw was the burnished bronze of a vulture’s wings, glinting in the sunlight, as it snatched his eyes out.

He did not feel the pain. A moment later, the blood-hued sunset passed swiftly to night.

In the summer of 1928, after the Chautauqua Art Desk Company had folded, Christopher found a new job in California. The family moved from Valparaiso to Los Angeles, where Christopher started work as a county probation officer.

Less than two years later, Everett would begin the serious vagabondage that became the true mission of his short life, and that would, against all odds, make him posthumously famous.

*   *   *

In June 1930, at the age of sixteen, while still a student at Hollywood High School, Everett set out on the first of his five annual expeditions, as he hitchhiked up the coastal highway from Los Angeles to Carmel. The diary that Everett kept during that first rambling trip may be irrevocably lost. What we know of the 1930 outing (the least ambitious of the five that Everett would undertake) comes from some sixteen letters he wrote to his parents and to Waldo, and a single letter to his high-school friend Bill Jacobs.

In Carmel, one of the first things Everett did was to find the studio of the famous photographer Edward Weston, knock on the door, and introduce himself. “A man who gave me a ride near Morro Bay had told me about him,” Everett wrote to his mother.

Weston was forty-four years old that summer. He had already taken some of his most celebrated photographs, including many of the nudes and still lifes that would become his hallmark achievements. Solo exhibitions in New York City had been devoted to his work. Two years after Everett’s visit, in 1932, Weston would cofound Group f/64 with Ansel Adams and others.

The brazen confidence it took for Everett to thrust himself upon such a distinguished artist may have originated in his upbringing. The boosterism of his parents (“Leonardo da Vinci Everett”) may well have instilled a sense of entitlement in the aspiring poet and painter. But the fact that Weston did not simply turn away the uninvited guest testifies to Everett’s charm, and perhaps to the notion that Weston saw real talent in the lad. During the next several days, Everett palled up with Weston’s teenage sons, Neil and Cole (both younger than he), for fishing and swimming excursions. Weston himself invited Everett to eat dinner with the family and to sleep in his garage.

In view of Everett’s later obsession with the desert Southwest, it is interesting that on this first journey, it was the ocean and the seashore that captivated him. During the days spent in the Westons’ orbit, Everett sometimes camped out on the beach. Writing home about these solo bivouacs, he could not suppress a gleeful pride in his newfound self-sufficiency.

First I chopped plenty of firewood. Then I made my bed, and cooked supper. A short time after supper, I went swimming. After the swim, I went to bed, and enjoyed the extra blanket.

Wednesday morning, I had Cornflakes and condensed milk for breakfast.…

All his life, Everett would suffer agonizingly from poison oak and poison ivy. In one letter home, he admits, “The poison oak is nearly over on my face, but it is still flaming on my legs and hands.” Given how sensitive he was to the oily resin that caused his outbreaks—the rashes forced him to be hospitalized more than once—it is a puzzle that in both California and the Southwest, Everett never seemed to learn how to avoid coming in contact with the three-leaved plants. Instead, Everett seemed to accept the itchy rashes as a medical condition like asthma or anemia.

Whether Edward Weston made any appraisal of the young artist’s paintings, Everett’s letters do not reveal. Those epistles home, some as long as five pages, only rarely strive for rhetorical or poetic effects, as they would increasingly over the following years. They are still closer in style to the reportage of Everett’s Valparaiso years, as he simply summarizes his adventures. But some of the poems and essays Everett was writing at the time already struggle to express in words the transports that landscape brought to his spirit.

I awoke with a quiver, nerves tautly on edge. It came again, what had wakened me—the harsh, weird scream of a grey gull swooping low above me in the darkness. A heavy, clinging fog had set in, making the place indescribably desolate. Nothing was visible.

After hanging around Carmel for more than three weeks, Everett decided to strike out for wilder country, setting his sights on Big Sur, which in 1930 was still little traveled. A combination of hitchhiking and walking brought him to the rugged seacoast, where he camped out, climbed the hills, explored the shore, and painted. For the first time, Everett carried his belongings and food in a backpack. Even the tribulations of this first foray into semi-wilderness added zest to the outing. As he wrote his family on July 24:

I made a watercolor under the most difficult conditions I have yet endured. The wind blew sand into my paint and on my picture all the time I was painting. The sand is still stuck to the picture, and produced an interesting effect, but I don’t think there will be much color left on the picture when the sand comes off.

As the days flew past, Everett took an odd job here and there to earn a little cash to pay for his groceries. While still in Carmel, he spent several days caddying at a local golf course. To picture the future desert wanderer lugging gentlemen’s clubs around a manicured eighteen-hole layout requires an imaginative stretch, and in fact, Everett hated the routine that required him to show up at the caddymaster’s shack and hope to be assigned to a foursome.

One of Everett’s best poems, which he called “Pledge to the Wind,” evokes a landscape like Big Sur. It closes,

Here in the utter stillness,

  High on a lonely cliff-ledge,

Where the air is trembling with lightning,

  I have given the wind my pledge.

Yet even Big Sur was not wild enough for Everett’s increasingly restless soul. By early August he had determined to head off to Yosemite, still vivid in his memory from the 1923 trip there with his mother. He arrived on August 4, laid out his campsite on the banks of a tributary of the Merced River, and spent “the most miserable night of my life.” By the next morning he could joke about the bivouac in a letter to his family:

At first it was so hot that my blankets were covered with sweat. But I had to swathe my face in a towel to keep out a few of the millions of mosquitoes. Burrs got stuck to my blankets. After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke up in the hot sunshine, and found that thousands of ants were swarming through my pack.

So far, Everett’s California travels had been relatively tame, yet the sight of a sixteen-year-old lugging a fifty-pound pack on his solo journey had caught the attention of many a passerby. “On this trip,” he wrote his family, “I have been given all kinds of advice, from whether or not one should own a car, and if so, what kind, to whether I should go crooked or straight.” It is odd, given Everett’s passion for travel, yet somehow characteristic, that he never learned to drive an automobile.

During his days in Yosemite, Everett swam in the Merced, hiked the park’s trails, and marveled at the tameness of the wildlife (in broad daylight, a deer entered Everett’s camp while he was off hiking, tore loose the wrapper on a loaf of bread, and ate every crumb). Even in 1930, in August Yosemite was thronged with tourists. If Everett sought solitude, he was bound to be disappointed. At Camp 7, “Some people from Oklahoma moved in on one side of me,” he wrote home. “Another car is on the other corner, while in back of me, two young men who work for an Insurance Company in Los Angeles, have their tent.”

To pose himself a physical challenge, Everett joined a ranger-led group hike from Camp Curry to Glacier Point, a 3,200-foot ascent in only two miles of steep trail. “It took me 3 hours and a quarter to climb up,” he boasted. “The usual time is 3 and 1/2. But the record is held by an Indian, who went up in 46 minutes.”

In 1930 it was still possible to find prehistoric Indian relics in the park. Guided by an expert amateur who had collected three hundred arrowheads in Yosemite, Everett found his first three points, made of black obsidian, after digging in the ground of an ancient campsite on the valley floor. He pocketed the arrowheads without a second thought.

During the next few days, Everett undertook his first solo hikes. But since there was no escaping the campground crowds, he also embraced the park’s makeshift social life. At Camp Curry, his group was treated to “selections on the piano, violin, & banjo in addition to whistling,” followed by a “two-reel movie” about Yosemite’s bird life. “The Park Naturalist whistled the calls of all the birds.”

To his delight, Everett felt that he was getting in shape and toughening up as a camper. “As to being lonesome for a good bed,” he announced to his family, “I sleep quite well on the ground here and don’t mind it at all.… I could very happily keep up this life indefinitely if I had the money.” Instead, he dreaded the onset of September, with its “coming of school time.”

Though his parents and his brother were lovers of the outdoors, Everett’s backpacking was a self-taught process of trial and error. Midway through his Yosemite lark, having exhausted himself on a hike to Merced Lake, he realized that his blankets were unwieldy: he needed a sleeping bag. “You can buy one for $15, that is quite good enough,” he hinted to Christopher and Stella. “My blankets weigh far too much, take up too much space, and aren’t as warm as a sleeping bag.”

In the third week of August, Everett headed for the high country of Tuolomne Meadows. By now he had worn his boot soles “nearly to paper,” and had rubbed holes in all his wool socks, so that “I am wearing them with the heels on top.” Solo hikes were his preference, but he had not yet concluded that “after all, the lone trail is best.” Often Everett joined other hikers on the way to distant lakes. He was curious enough about these chance companions that he could later mail home thumbnail résumés of their lives. Several of these strangers were homesteading in the park, having lost their jobs in the first year of the Great Depression. Others hailed from as far away as Australia.

Yet a certain shyness kept Everett from forming any lasting attachments on the trail that summer. On one hike he ran into a party who were in the middle of a nine-day cross-country backpack. Everett envied their ambition; had he known such a long jaunt was possible, he wrote home, he would have signed up for it. The party included “some very nice young women who were from Washington D.C. and Michigan. I hiked with them until I reached Little Yosemite, about 8 miles from my camp.” But then there is no further mention of the women.

On another occasion, Everett struck up a conversation with a woman camping alone at Booth Lake. It turned out that she was from Hollywood, and “She owns a flat four doors from Grandma, whom she knows well. Her name is Mrs. Miller.” Everett added, “She wanted me to be her guest at supper, so I had another good meal.”

The 1930 letters are not often reflective or deeply personal, and of course no teenager shares all his thoughts and feelings with his parents. Yet, here and there, Everett offers a glimpse of his inner self, foreshadowing the wilderness worshiper he would become in the following years.

There are many things I do, and which I think out, while on the trail. When I halt for a rest, I watch an ant crawling out of a footprint, or I toss stones, seeing how near I can get them to the edge of the path without making them fall off. As I hike, I count the burro’s shoes which have been cast. Or if it is a steep climb, I feel the sweat drip from my face and hair. This morning when I stopped to rest, I found an unfinished arrowhead beneath a tree.

And only rarely in the 1930 letters does Everett attempt to ponder his mission in life: “It seems that my ambitions are always to be allied with the A’s—artist, author, archaeologist, and adventurer. Lately, the arrowheads have preceded the art, but I expect to get back to sketching quickly.”

Despite selling a few of his watercolors over the summer, Everett was running out of money. On August 12 he wrote to his parents, “I have only a little left as it is, and prices are high in Yosemite.” He added, “You might send a dollar or two, but don’t send five dollars.” The bashful pleas for handouts from home would continue throughout the next four years.

Over the summer, Everett had covered far more miles hitchhiking than he had on foot, even though he calculated that his season’s tramping had added up to two hundred miles. But he finally identified the critical flaw in his first extended campaign of vagabondage: the fifty-pound pack was too much for him. As early as July 7, from Carmel, he complained in a letter to Bill Jacobs, “After I hike about a mile, my both arms begin to go numb from fingertips to shoulders, because the pack cuts off circulation. After a few more miles, they are paralyzed, so that I can’t tie a knot or even unfasten the pack.”

In his last letter home, mailed from Yosemite on August 22, Everett outlined the scheme that would transform his wandering.

I was becoming extremely weary of being told by everyone that I had a load, or, “Say, isn’t that heavy,” or “what a load that boy has,” etc. ad nauseum [sic]. So I went to the Camp Curry scales and weighed it. What was my surprise to learn that, with but a pound of food left, it weighed 48 pounds! Evidently I am not as weak as I thought I was.

However, I have thought for some time that I would like to have a burro next time I start a hike of this kind. They cost $1.50 a day, and you can buy them for $15 or less.

One of the longest letters Everett wrote that summer, covering four pages in tight pencil scrawl, this missive serves in some ways as a précis of his apprenticeship in wandering. As always, Everett paid close attention to the minutest phenomena of the natural world:

At one of the brooks where I stopped for a drink, I noticed the curious shadow effect produced by the skaters, or water bugs. They have six legs, four large, and two small. Each leg, or foot, is placed on a drop of water which somehow throws a shadow. As the skaters move, these small round dots of shadows skim to and fro on the bottom of the pool.

But Everett also had a zest for outdoor play, as he and another hiker climbed the cliff behind camp, seized a log, and pried loose a huge granite boulder to send it plummeting down the precipice. “It finally slid off, and with a great flurry of sparks from the friction, it crashed down,” wrote Everett unashamedly. “There was a short silence, and it struck the ground far below, crashing through the brush and over some trees.”

During these August days, Everett felt a growing malaise about returning to “normal” life:

In the morning, I shouldered my pack once more, and started down to the valley. The whole atmosphere was one of anticlimax. I was returning from the mountains and the solitude to the valley, the noisy, uninitiated tourists, and eventually to the city and its sordid buildings and business places.

By the beginning of September, Everett was back in Los Angeles, where he started the last semester of his senior year at Hollywood High School. He could not wait to set out into the wilds again. But he would not immediately return to Big Sur and Yosemite: the goal for the 1931 pilgrimage would be the vast and daunting Southwest, of which Everett’s sole experience was his fearful stop at the Grand Canyon in 1923, at the age of nine.

*Curiously, we cannot be sure how Everett Ruess pronounced his last name. Over the decades of the twentieth century, various family members pronounced the patronymic either as “Roo-iss” (rhyming with “Lewis”) or as a single-syllable “Roos.” As recently as 1960, Everett’s brother used the two-syllable version, but today most of Everett’s closest surviving family members prefer the Germanic “Roos.” The reason for the variation is itself obscure, but may derive from Everett’s mother’s feeling that “Roo-iss” was a more poetic pronunciation. The cultural origins of the name are also uncertain: it could be Russian, as in Russland, or German (Ruß is German for “soot,” and may allude to the profession of chimney sweep), but the name “Ruess” is exceedingly rare in Germany today.

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