AT THE AGE OF ONLY SIXTEEN, in January 1931, Everett graduated from Hollywood High School. His parents hoped that he would soon go to college, but the headstrong youth had a better idea. In early February, he hitchhiked east out of Los Angeles. The rides he got from strangers amounted to a cross-country adventure in its own right: a Buick Eight driven at seventy-five miles an hour by an old man with a dog; a lift in a potato truck; a harrowing lift from “a couple of Long Beach toughs” who drove through the night without headlights and kept running out of gas; and a final jaunt over “a very wild road” from Flagstaff to Kayenta in the car of an Indian mail carrier.
By February 13, Everett was installed in Kayenta, Arizona, smack in the middle of the Navajo reservation. He would crisscross the Southwest continuously throughout the next ten months. But his first item of business was to buy a burro. That transaction marked the start of a complicated and ambivalent relationship that Everett would cultivate with Navajo men, women, and children through many weeks in 1931, 1932, and 1934.
There was nothing timid about Everett’s initial dealings with the indigenes. Somehow, within days of arriving in Kayenta, he had appropriated a Navajo hogan for his living quarters. (One imagines the sixteen-year-old simply walking up to some family’s homestead and knocking on the door, as he had at Edward Weston’s house the year before.)
Yet certain cultural criticisms had already crystallized in his mind. Within his first few days in Kayenta, he wrote to his parents:
I have had a few disillusionments about Indians, here. For one thing the Navajos are scrupulously dishonest. When I leave my hogan for a while, I have to take all my posessions [sic] down to the store. Once I left a few pots and pans behind. When I came back they were outside in the mud.
And to Waldo, he wrote:
The Indians around here are very poor, having no income except from their sheep and the blankets they sell. A statistician here figured that the per capita income from sheep, including wool and hides, is $13.40 a year. The Navajos live in filth.
In the end, Everett bought a burro for only six dollars. He promptly named the animal Everett, and began signing his letters with the pseudonym Lan Rameau. As others have pointed out, l’âne is French for “the donkey.” It also has, as a second meaning, “the ass” or “the idiot”—suggesting a self-deprecatory joke on Everett’s part. Rameau may have been a nod to the eighteenth-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, for since childhood Everett had been passionate about classical music.
This was the first of three occasions on which the vagabond would reject his given name, assuming a temporary alias in its place. The transformation puzzled and apparently disturbed his family and friends. On March 1, Everett wrote to his parents and Waldo: “Please respect my brush name. It is hard to lead a dual existence.… How do you say it in French: ‘nomme de broushe,’ or what? I would like to know.… It’s not the perfect cognomen but I intend to stick by it.”
In taking on a pseudonym, Everett consciously linked his discomfort with his name to a sense of a “dual existence.” Here is one of the earliest hints of Everett’s melancholy, brooding side, suggestive of a confusion of identity. By calling Lan Rameau a “brush name,” the sixteen-year-old made it clear that in the wilderness he felt himself to be an altogether different person from the one who chafed impatiently at home in Los Angeles.
Everett elaborated in a letter to Bill Jacobs:
As to my pen name, although it is really a brush name, I am still in turmoil, but I think that I will heroically stand firm in the face of all misunderstandings and mispronunciations. I’ll simply have to lead a dual existence.… The name is LAN RAMEAU, and the friend who helped me select it thought it was quite euphonic and distinctive. Personally, I felt that anything was better than Ruess.
During his first weeks in Arizona, the weather was atrocious. “It has rained, snowed, hailed, or showered every night since I have been here,” he wrote his parents in an undated letter. “Now it is blowing an icy gale. Heavy, lead colored clouds are in the offing. On one side, the hills are still covered with snow.”
Neither the weather nor the strangeness of reservation life daunted Everett. His first letters home in February and March 1931 brim with zest and eagerness. As he waited for the snow on the mesas to melt, he planned his initial jaunts: they were to be exploratory probes into nearby canyons in search of Anasazi ruins. If Everett’s fascination with Indian relics had first been sparked by the arrowheads he found in the forest surrounding Valparaiso, Indiana, now he anticipated far more ambitious quests into Southwestern prehistory. In Kayenta, he traded one of his watercolor paintings to the store clerk for “an ancient Indian bowl”—a decorated Anasazi pot.
In Kayenta, Everett also made the acquaintance of the legendary trader, guide, and self-taught archaeologist John Wetherill, who had found more Anasazi ruins on the Navajo reservation than any other Anglo. “Wetherill is the man who discovered Mesa Verde,” Everett wrote Waldo on February 13, “and was in the party which discovered Rainbow Bridge. He is the best guide in the Southwest.” Sixty-four years old that February, Wetherill was glad to share his knowledge of the backcountry with the sixteen-year-old greenhorn.
We know that Everett kept a diary in 1931. That book, alas, is lost, just like his diary from his previous journey in California. Once again we have only Everett’s letters to family and friends by which to retrace his path during his first ten months in the Southwest.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Kayenta, Everett learned from a letter from his parents that a poster he had entered in a competition had won first prize, with an honorarium of twenty-five dollars. The money could not have come at a better time. On March 1, in a letter to his family, he detailed his purchases:
I have spent $6 for a burro, $1 for a seamless sack, $2.50 for a Dutch oven, $2.00 for a Navajo woven cinch and some rope, $8 for a tarpaulin to keep out the wind, rain, and snow. I’ve spent as much again on food, but I have enough to last several weeks now. Bread is not sold in this country, so I have learned to bake squaw bread, corn bread, and biscuits in my Dutch oven. Yesterday the biscuits were perfect.
Despite this boast of self-sufficiency, Everett was not too proud to plead for help from home (as he would throughout the next four years). “I would appreciate it,” he wrote, “if you sent some Swedish bread, peanut butter, pop, and Grape Nuts. They are unobtainable luxuries in this country.”
Everett failed to keep the letters he received from family and friends while he rambled across the landscape, stopping at one remote post office after another to gather his mail. We have only faint echoes in his own letters by which to judge the tenor of his family’s reaction to his headlong flight. Christopher and Stella had always been loving and indulgent, but there is evidence that now they worried about their son’s safety. Apparently they planned to make their own trip to the Southwest to check up on Everett’s well-being, for on March 21 he deflected their parental anxiety with uneasy humor: “As for hunting for me with Dorinda [the family auto], I don’t believe you could get the car here. It would sink in the sand, rattle to pieces on the rocks, get stuck in a river bottom, slide off a cliff, or run out of gas miles from a service station.”
Throughout his ten months in the outback in 1931, Everett wrote faithfully to his parents and Waldo, ending each letter with “Love to all” or “Love to everyone” or (while he was still cloaked in his pseudonym) “Love from Lan.” And he was still dependent on Christopher and Stella for packages of food and painting equipment. Yet there is no getting around the fact that this first really ambitious journey away from home was in part a flight from the family’s intrusive intimacy.
Everett confided to Waldo his need for separation and privacy from their parents. “Of course our letters should be strictly personal,” he wrote to his brother. “Surely mother did not read that last letter, worded as it was? Also I wrote that these private letters should not be opened.” Because Waldo was still living at home at age twenty-one, this insistence on privacy was awkward. “You ask for a separate letter,” Everett wrote in another 1931 missive, “and I presume this is personal, as are your letters to me.”
In 1931, of course, the country had not yet begun its painful crawl out of the Depression. Christopher had given up his vocation as a pastor and taken jobs with the Chautauqua Art Desk Company and later as a probation officer in order to support his family and his own ailing parents. Waldo was living at home to save money while he looked for a job. Everett’s vagabondage during a time of such widespread poverty, combined with his material dependence on his parents, hints at a streak of self-indulgence fueled by a sense of entitlement.
Apparently he and Waldo quarreled over this matter. Worse, the younger brother had the gall to deride his sibling as a cop-out for adopting a conventional trade. During a brief period, Waldo worked as a secretary for the Fleischmann’s Yeast Company. On May 2, 1931, Everett scolded him in a long letter:
I feel that you are worthy of a better position than the present one. The idea put forward by some, that all necessary work is honorable and beautiful because it must be done, means nothing to me. As far as I am concerned, your work is quite unnecessary, since I can keep very healthy without Fleischmann’s yeast.…
I myself would sooner walk a whole day behind the burro than spend two hours on the street car.
Waldo, in turn, must have criticized Everett’s unwillingness either to go to college or to look for a job, for in the same letter, Everett fires back:
Somehow, I am very glad not to be home, where civilized life thrusts the thought of money upon one from all sides. With an adequate stock of provisions, I can forget the cursed stuff, or blessed stuff, for days and weeks at a time.
Your censure was quite deserved in regard to providing my needs, but remember that I have asked for no money, and that most of the equipment I asked for was unprocurable here, and necessary to my life.
“Equipment” such as Grape-Nuts and soda pop may indeed have seemed necessary to Everett’s life in Arizona. And before the year was out, he would ask his parents for a sizable sum of money, and receive it with scarcely a murmur on their part.
* * *
From his temporary base in Kayenta, Everett planned his first forays into the canyonlands. It was John Wetherill who turned the young man’s attention to Monument Valley and the Tsegi Canyon system. The trader even drew a sketch map for Everett to follow. Everett’s thirst for adventure had already focused on the dream of finding Anasazi ruins no other Anglos had ever seen. Forty years earlier, John Wetherill and his four brothers had been able to do that to their hearts’ content, but by the 1930s, all but the most minor and remote Anasazi sites had been discovered by government explorers, miners, pot hunters, and archaeologists. Still, Everett wrote Bill Jacobs on March 9:
I am going to pack up my burro, and take a jaunt thru Monument Valley to a row of cliffs I know of, explore every box canyon, and discover some prehistoric cliff dwellings. Don’t laugh. Maybe you thought they were all discovered, but such is not the case.… Most of the country is untouched. Only the Navajos have been there, and they are superstitious. In the event that I find nothing, I shall do some painting and have some interesting camps.
Thanks to an endless stream of classic Western movies, Monument Valley is famous today the world over for its stunning sandstone buttes and pinnacles, but in 1931 it was virtually unknown to tourists. A single rutted two-track dirt road wended its way through dunes and hills to reach the heart of the valley; barely navigable by sedan when dry, the road was impassable after rains. Navajos lived among the monumental geologic formations, as had the Anasazi before them, but the sole permanent Anglo presence was the trading post established by Harry Goulding in 1924. It would not be until John Ford shot the film Stagecoach in Monument Valley in 1938 that the place got pasted onto the tourist map. Only in 1958 did it become an official tribal park.
Everett found Monument Valley all that he could handle. In a somewhat dispirited letter to his family, he summarized his visit: “I spent two days, sketching, reading, cooking, and camping. The coyotes howled close at night, and the burro wandered far.” Everett’s first attempt to probe a box canyon turned into a fiasco. High winds and a snowstorm made traveling miserable; a waterhole he had counted on was dried up; and Everett, the burro, alternately sat down and refused to budge or jostled his load until it shifted so badly that his owner had to stop and lash it back in place. After an overnight in the “gloomy, sunless place,” Everett the sixteen-year-old declared himself “very glad to get out of Gloom Canyon.” He did find some cliff dwellings, but, to his disappointment, “All the ruins I saw had been investigated before.”
The burro that Everett had bought from a Navajo and named after himself was more than a beast of burden; it quickly became a companion. In some of his letters, Everett coyly characterizes the animal’s quirks:
Everett, the burro, has been fattening out and becoming more lively and tractable. The first time I put a real pack on him, he ambled along for a mile and then lay down in the center of a path, but I think he is over that habit. When well treated he is a very droll creature, with his white nose and stubby ears. Every once in a while he snorts and shakes his head from side to side, ears flapping. He keeps turning his ears, individually too.
But learning to train a pack animal by trial and error, with no lessons from experienced wranglers, was a troublesome business. Everett could not conceal the exasperating failures of that first month on the trail:
After sunset I kept going, trying to reach an old Navajo hogan of which I knew. Finally I tied the burro to a tree and floundered around in the darkness and sandhills until I found the hogan. Then I couldn’t find the burro. Then I couldn’t find the hogan, after locating Everett. After two more searches for each, I made camp with the burro. A flying spark burnt a hole in my packsack. My knife got lost, somehow.
If such setbacks discouraged him, or made him wonder whether he was in over his head on this Southwest pilgrimage, Everett kept such thoughts to himself. “This country suits me nearly to perfection,” he wrote Bill Jacobs on March 9. Anticipating his destiny as a loner, he added, “The only things I miss are a loyal friend to share my delights and miseries, and good music.”
On March 28, 1931, Everett turned seventeen. That day he opened a package of food his parents had mailed to Arizona. “What a birthday feast I had!” he exulted in a letter home.
Everett’s second backcountry jaunt, into the maze of the Tsegi Canyon system, was a far greater challenge than his tour of Monument Valley. From eight-thousand-foot-high mesas about ten miles south of the Utah border, five separate streams run south, carving lordly canyons in the ruddy sandstone and leaving sheer six-hundred-foot cliffs riddled with spacious natural alcoves. The streams converge in a single waterway, the Tsegi (Navajo for “canyon”), before emerging from the labyrinth at Marsh Pass, a gentle saddle at 6,750 feet above sea level—now, as in 1931, the highest point on the nearly straight, seventy-mile-long road between Kayenta and Tuba City.
The Tsegi was an Anasazi paradise. Two of the largest and most magnificent cliff dwellings in all of the Southwest, Keet Seel and Betatakin, are hidden away in distant branches of the canyon system. Small squares of land surrounding those ruins define Navajo National Monument today, and visitation at those prehistoric villages is tightly regulated. The rest of the Tsegi is Navajo land, and every branch contains smaller but equally stunning Anasazi cliff dwellings, all of them seldom visited even today. In 1931, the whole of the Tsegi was true wilderness.
The Anglo discovery of Keet Seel came in 1895, by a party including John Wetherill and led by his older brother Richard. The Wetherills spent two seasons digging in the ruins, bringing back an immensely rich trove of artifacts, mummies, and skeletons that ultimately found their way to various museums. Betatakin, tucked away in a short side canyon, was first visited by Anglos only in 1909. The party that discovered it included a prominent archaeologist, Byron Cummings, and was guided by John Wetherill, who learned of the ruin’s existence from a Navajo living near the mouth of the Tsegi.
It was natural, then, that John Wetherill would point Everett Ruess to one of the landscapes he most cherished. The Tsegi, moreover, lay only ten miles west of Wetherill’s trading post. In early April, Everett led his burro into the canyon system, camping out there for the better part of two weeks. His letters home do not rave about the beauty of the ruins or the scenery, but he was struck by the isolation of the place. “No one was in the valley there,” he wrote Bill Jacobs, “not even an Indian, though there was some Navajo stock.” At Keet Seel, Everett discovered, kept, and mailed home an artifact that he called “a mother of pearl ornament of value”—most likely a pendant made of shell traded to the Anasazi from the Pacific. More ghoulishly, he also scavenged and sent home “a part of a human jawbone with teeth.”
Everett’s return to Kayenta triggered one of his dark funks. In an April 16 letter to Bill Jacobs that begins cheerily enough, he reaches a dispirited impasse:
Somehow I don’t feel like writing now, or even talking. Both actions seem superfluous. If you were here, you might understand, but too much is incommunicable. If I were there—but that is unthinkable. You cannot understand what aeons and spaces are between us. I feel very different from the boy who left Hollywood two months ago.
The year before, on his California pilgrimage, even in Big Sur or Yosemite, Everett was seldom alone for as long as a day at a time. It may be that in the Tsegi the loner Everett felt destined to become was born. The April letters to Bill Jacobs reveal a side of his character that he had almost never before let others see. On April 18, Everett wrote again to Jacobs:
These days away from the city have been the happiest of my life, I believe. It has all been a beautiful dream, sometimes tranquil, sometimes fantastic, and with enough pain and tragedy to make the delights possible by contrast. But the pain too has been unreal.
In this letter, for the first time, Everett articulates the link between solitude and pain, treating both as if they were his inevitable burden as an artist. That tension may have been at the heart of what he called his “dual existence.” As he wrote to Jacobs, “A love for everyone and everything has welled up, finding no outlet except in my art.”
But tragedy? Surely the nuisances of burro management did not justify such a grandiose term. One wonders whether Everett was simply being melodramatic, dignifying an acute sense of loneliness with a literary conception of irrevocable harm.
It is clear, however, that his journey into the Tsegi had a profound impact on Everett. Never before had he confronted such deep wilderness, much less traveled solo through it for days at a time. The experience changed him for good, as the letters he wrote home demonstrate. The April 18 letter to Bill Jacobs contains the first paragraph that stands by itself as a conscious performance, almost a prose poem. And that paragraph marks the first time that Everett lapsed into his strange usage of the perfect tense, as if he were looking back on a life that lay behind him:
Music has been in my heart all the time, and poetry in my thoughts. Alone on the open desert, I have made up and sung songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the wind, the low, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.… I have been happy in my work, and I have exulted in my play. I have really lived.
Yet in Everett’s heart, joy was inextricably tied up with a sense of doom. On May 2, he wrote to Waldo:
I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Philosophy and aesthetic contemplation are not enough. I intend to do everything possible to broaden my experiences and allow myself to reach the fullest development. Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.
As if to certify his transformation, Everett now dropped the pseudonym he had adopted for the last three months and invented a new one. In the same letter to Waldo, he explained:
Once again, I have changed my name, this time to Evert Rulan. It is not as euphonious or unusual as Lan Rameau, but to those who knew me formerly the name seemed an affectation. Evert Rulan can be spelled, pronounced, and remembered, and is fairly distinctive. I changed the donkey’s name to Pegasus.
“Rulan” looks like an amalgam of “Ruess” and “Lan,” and of course “Evert” is much closer to “Everett” than “Lan Rameau” had been. The new pseudonym seems to signify a shift in Everett’s mind as he edged back toward acceptance of his given name and his true identity. By the middle of September 1931, he was once again signing his letters “Everett.” It would be more than three years before he assumed his third and last alter ego, giving himself an alias stranger and more ominous than either Lan Rameau or Evert Rulan.
By May, Everett was ready to push on from his Kayenta base camp. In a letter to Waldo, he outlined a planned itinerary that was so ambitious, it has the stamp of fantasy about it:
After the Grand Canyon, Kaibab and Zion, I shall go South for the winter, perhaps pausing in Mesa [Arizona], where a friend has relations. After working in the cactus country of southern Arizona, I may go northward thru New Mexico, Rocky Mt. Park, and Yellowstone to Glacier.… At all events I intend to spend a year or two in the open, working hard with my art. Then I shall wish for city life again, and to see my old friends if they still exist.
Such a journey would have covered, at a very minimum, 1,700 miles. Everett did not specify to Waldo whether he planned to cross such expanses on foot with his burro, or give up tramping for the hitchhiking that had propelled him through California the previous year.
This long May 2 letter really amounts to a blueprint for the life Everett imagined himself leading:
After having lived intensely in the city for a while (It may not be in Hollywood), I feel that I must go to some foreign country. Europe makes no appeal to me as it is too civilized. Possibly some unfrequented place in the South Seas. Australia holds little allure for me now. Alaska is too cold and Mexico is largely barren, as is most of S. America. Ecuador is an interesting place with its snow capped volcanoes, jungles, and varied topography. As to ways and means, that problem will be solved somehow.
This worldly-wise appraisal of foreign lands by a teenager who had never been outside the United States may be tongue-in-cheek. But about his goal as an artist, Everett was dead serious.
It is my intention to accomplish something very definite in Art. When I have a large collection of pictures, done as well as I can do them, then I am going to make a damn vicious stab at getting them exhibited and sold. If this fails, I’ll give them away to friends and those who might appreciate them.
What is so striking about Everett’s life-plan is that he saw his wandering not as a distraction from the business of becoming an artist, but as a crucial prerequisite for it. Other artists and writers (one thinks of Gauguin in Tahiti, Sir Richard Burton in Africa and the Near East) shared the same kind of vision, linking travel to exotic lands with creativity itself, but to find that conviction so firmly fixed in a seventeen-year-old is rare indeed.
Meanwhile, Everett had gained a new companion. Somewhere near Kayenta in April, he had adopted a “rez dog”—a mongrel, probably abused and abandoned, of the sort that hung around trading posts scrounging for scraps of food from strangers. “I found him last night, lost and squealing for help,” Everett wrote to Waldo on April 19.
All the longing for friendship that had gnawed away at Everett during his solitary canyon jaunts was now directed toward the dog. As he wrote to his brother:
He is a little roly poly puppy with fluffy white fur, and blue brown patches on his head and near his tail. His eyes are blue, and his nose is short.…
I haven’t yet decided about his name, but may call him Curly, because of his tail. When he is large enough, I am going to train him to go behind the burro, occasionally nipping the donkey’s heels, so that we shall be able to go faster.
Curly would be Everett’s constant companion through the next thirteen months. Rather than nipping at the burro’s heels, the pup learned to ride on its back, comfortably seated between the saddlebags. After Everett finished his 1931 ramble through the Southwest, he would take Curly home to Los Angeles with him, then back to Arizona in March 1932.
As he left Kayenta in early May, Everett set off to the southeast toward Canyon de Chelly. The great twin-forked sandstone labyrinth at the head of Chinle Wash, as John Wetherill no doubt told Everett, was full of Anasazi ruins, some of them, including Antelope House, White House, and Mummy Cave, as spectacular as any in Arizona. Canyon de Chelly was also one of the most sacred places in the Navajo universe.
Only a month before Everett set out, on April 1, 1931, President Herbert Hoover had declared Canyon de Chelly a national monument—in celebration of the Anasazi ruins, not of the Navajo presence. (The people who lived in the canyon were never consulted about the governmental decree.) If Everett was aware that the place had just been made a national monument, he did not mention the fact in his letters. Eighty years after Hoover’s fiat, Canyon de Chelly remains unique in the National Park System, the only park or monument devoted to prehistoric ruins but inhabited solely by Native Americans who endure the uneasy compromise of leading their private lives while tourists tramp and truck-ride through their backyards.
It took Everett four days to cover the seventy miles from Kayenta to the ramshackle town of Chinle, at the mouth of the canyon system. His first several days there served to sour his feelings about Navajos. The poverty of the town struck him forcefully, as he tried unsuccessfully to snag even the most menial temporary job to boost his meager funds. But the prejudices of his privileged upbringing trumped his compassion. On May 10, he wrote to Bill Jacobs:
The Indians are not very lovable here. This morning, when I looked for my burro, I found that his bell and tie rope had been stolen (from his neck). Peg[asus] had evidently been mistreated, as his legs were skinned.… Experienced Indian traders say that a Navajo is your friend only as long as you give to him. Certainly none of them would go to church if the missionaries did not give them food and clothes.
Once launched in this vein, Everett vented his pent-up disdain:
The Navajos do not help one another. If one Indian is trying to corrall a herd of horses, and they start to escape past another Indian, the latter will stir neither hand nor foot, but will only laugh. When a Navajo begins to be helpless and decrepit, the others cease to have anything to do with him. The government used to give such Indians a few rations once a week, but now times are hard and they only get grub once a month. In consequence they go to all the white people and beg.
Since its first publication by Bud Rusho in A Vagabond for Beauty in 1983, this May 10 letter has triggered an endless stream of speculation, for Everett signed it
Love and kisses,
Amateur psychologists have seized upon this scrap of verbiage to buttress their arguments that Everett was gay, or at least bisexual. But it seems far more likely that the sign-off was mere badinage between long-time buddies, as Everett parodied the style of teenage love letters.
Everett spent nine days in Canyon del Muerto, the system’s northern branch, and three in Canyon de Chelly proper. Exploring Anasazi ruins was his chief objective, painting with watercolors his main diversion. Upon his return to Chinle, he bragged in a letter to Bill Jacobs, “Saw a goodly portion of the 1200 cliff dwellings, & made half a dozen paintings.” (There are actually even more than 1,200 Anasazi sites in Canyon de Chelly, but in a mere twelve days no mortal could have seen more than a small fraction of them.) “Many of the ruins are well nigh inaccessible,” Everett added, detailing the kinds of risks he was willing to take to get into a remote prehistoric site: “I made a foolhardy ascent to one safely situated dwelling. Part of the time I had to snake my way along a horizontal cleft with half my body hanging out over the sheer precipice.”
To his disappointment, Everett saw that the ruin “had already been rifled” by previous pot hunters (or archaeologists). Even so, it was here that he made the finest discovery yet of his short career as a wilderness sleuth:
One room, however, was rocked shut, & on opening it, I thot for a moment I saw a cliff dweller in his last resting place. But the blankets, tho mouldering with age, were factory made, & a Navajo baby was buried therein. Odd, because the Navajos are superstitious about the Moquis [Anasazi]. However, in sifting dirt in a corner, I found a cliff dweller’s necklace, a thousand or so yrs. old. About 250 beads, 8 bone pendants, 2 turquoise beads, & one pendant of green turquoise.
Odd indeed. As Everett had learned, Navajos generally steer well clear of prehistoric ruins, for they believe that places of the dead are full of physical and spiritual danger. Although not unheard-of, a Navajo burial in an Anasazi ruin was a rare phenomenon, bespeaking some shamanistic ritual that an Anglo latecomer could only guess at.
Everett kept the necklace and later mailed it home. It was, as he had written in the poem he had composed at age thirteen, “a very precious treasure find,” one he remained proud of throughout the rest of his short life.
In another Anasazi ruin nearby, Everett found a baby’s cradleboard. This relic he left in place. Some fourteen months later he would return to the site, under very strange circumstances.
The twelve-day journey into the sandstone labyrinth was not without its tribulations. Three times Pegasus got stuck in quicksand. Another debacle was caused by a burro that was a resident of the canyon. Everett solved it with the shotgun he had carried throughout his 1931 journey so far, but which he had almost mailed home as unnecessary. The only use he had made of it before entering Canyon de Chelly was to kill a chipmunk that turned out to be “too small to eat.”
In the May 23 letter to Bill Jacobs, Everett recounted the drama with the local burro as quixotic comedy:
Au printemps [in the spring], a young burro’s fancy seriously swings to thots of homosexual love. My burro is old & virtuous, but was handicapped by the pack, which he swung under him, then dented both canteens, & dragged about till it came off. Then the white ass pursued him about the country while Pegasus kicked constantly & ineffectively, only drawing blood once. I wanted to continue my way, but tho I pelted the ass with stones, he didn’t seem to mind. Then I peiced [sic] the old Stevens together, loaded it with 7 1/2, & almost shot off the animals [sic] anus. But the next day, when I repassed, he came for more trouble, & I gave it to him in the legs.
Back in Chinle, Everett managed to sell one of his paintings for a dollar. In the letter to Jacobs, Everett narrates the transaction in the arch, worldly-wise tone that seems to have been the default mode of communication between the teenage friends. But the scene reverberates with an ambivalence about relationships that had already become part of Everett’s makeup.
Pretty soon I can start in as a columnist giving advice about how to be happy in love. Pretending interest in my pictures, the doctor’s wife enticed me to her home & spent almost 4 solid hours this aft. telling me about her troubles. Her husband, 43, is going with a young nurse, & she’s disconsolate. All about her little boy that died & how she’s getting estranged from her husband. She couldn’t decide whether to go away or stick it out.… Another of the tragedies of life.
Was the doctor’s wife flirting with Everett? If so, was he interested? This encounter may have been another of those half-glimpsed possibilities with women, like the lakeside invitation to dinner by a woman friend of his family camping alone in Yosemite the previous summer.
On the same day that he wrote to Jacobs, Everett mailed a far less personal letter to his parents and Waldo. The jaunty note amounts to a plea for financial support. Ever solicitous, Christopher and Stella had mailed their son a package containing groceries and cash, which he opened upon his return to Chinle. Everett expressed surprise at such parental generosity, especially when, as he wrote back, “the financial situation is so pitiful at home.” One item in the package delighted him: “Secretly, I had wished for puppy biscuits, but never dreamed you’d be thoughtful enough to send them.”
Yet Everett was still strapped for funds to continue his journey. He had long since spent the twenty-five dollars in prize money he had won in the poster competition. He had tried to wangle odd jobs, but “All attempts to find work have failed. Hard times prevail [in Chinle] as elsewhere.” As if embarrassed by having to beg for an allowance, Everett sketched out a mock-serious budget of his living expenses. Opposite such items as “rent,” “electricity,” and “telephone,” he proudly entered “nothing.” Likewise for “burro insurance” and “doctor bills.” Totaling up the column, he wrote “usually under $20.”
There is no question that Everett was practicing an extremely frugal existence. But the odd one-dollar sale of a painting was not going to tide him through the months of further ramblings he still craved. In the May 23 letter to his parents, he announced his next destination: “the Hopi country and Grand Canyon—about 200 miles distant.” As the crow flies, the three Hopi mesas lay only about sixty-five miles west of Canyon de Chelly. But the nearest rim of the Grand Canyon was another seventy-five miles farther west. Two hundred miles was a reasonable guess as to how far Everett would have to travel on foot. And the country between Canyon de Chelly and the Grand Canyon was some of the starkest in all the Southwest.
Everett did not write home again until June 8, a little more than two weeks later. In the interim, he made his way to the Hopi mesas, which on this first visit disappointed him (he would later change his mind about those ancient villages). “The pueblo of Walpi was rather a disillusionment,” he reported to his family. “There is an element of incongruity in the juxtaposition of old stonework and fences made of bedsteads.” Oraibi, which vies with Walpi for the claim of being the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States, was also a letdown. Everett’s only comment: “The dust and heat were extreme.”
The truth of the matter was that on this trudge across the Arizona badlands during the scorching days of early June, Everett got into serious trouble. On June 7, somewhere near the outpost of Cameron, a pair of teenage boys driving a pickup south toward Flagstaff encountered the loner with his burro and his dog. One of them, Pat Jenks, nineteeen at the time, never forgot this chance meeting. In 2009, at the age of ninety-seven, he recounted it to a Tucson newspaper reporter. Jenks and his friend Tad Nichols were surprised to see “a boy hunched over without a cap to protect him. He looked forlorn and he looked very sad.
“We stopped the car,” Jenks went on, “got out and talked to him. He told us who he was. He was discouraged because he hadn’t been able to sell his woodblocks.
“We asked him, ‘You want a drink of water?’ He misunderstood. Handed us his canteen—it was almost used up.
“I said to Tad, ‘We’re not leaving him out in the desert this way. We can’t do that.’ ” The boys tied Everett’s gear to the roof, unloaded the back of the pickup, and managed to coax Pegasus onto the flatbed. They drove on to Jenks’s family’s Deerwater Ranch, west of Flagstaff. “I guess he stayed about a month,” Jenks recalled in 2009. (The actual stay, according to Everett’s letters, was less than two weeks, but ranch life among the cool pines and aspens at eight thousand feet on the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks served to rejuvenate a badly depleted youth.)
In his June 8 letters to his family and to Bill Jacobs, Everett completely played down his semi-rescue by the boys with the pickup. To Jacobs he wrote,
[W]hen I was at the Little Colorado river yesterday, about to turn westward [toward the Grand Canyon], two boys in a light Ford truck stopped to talk. They were very much interested in what I was doing. One of them wanted to buy my picture of a cliff dwelling, but he didn’t have the money, of course. Suddenly he decided to take me, my burro, and Curly to a ranch of his in the Coconino forest in the San Francisco peaks. I didn’t think it feasible, but the three of us lengthily shunted the donkey on, after much maneuvering.
In Everett’s telling, this change in his plans was simply an unplanned lark, a chance to make new friends and to explore yet another corner of the country. But in the same letter, he admitted that his burro was in bad shape: “Peg is old and broken down, and his broken leg scrapes the other and bleeds. Tho I gave him a couple of days rest, his back is sore. He is really only half a burro.” How the animal broke its leg, Everett never explained—much less why he had tried to push on with a crippled beast of burden.
More vaguely, Everett admitted to Jacobs, “A host of misadventures have occurred, and while they were very unpleasant at the time of happening, I don’t regret one of them now.” In the letter he wrote the same day to his family, Everett did not even hint at such “misadventures,” nor did he mention the maimed and worn-out condition of his burro.
At the Deerwater Ranch, Everett chipped in with the chores of cutting down aspen trees and building fences. He also hiked up some of the peaks that towered to the east. Six months later, back home in Los Angeles, Everett wrote a thank-you note to Pat Jenks, as he conjured up the delights of his recuperative stay at the ranch. He spent hours, he remembered, “lying in the long, cool grass or on a flat-topped rock, looking up at the exquisitely curved, cleanly smooth aspen limbs, watching the slow clouds go by.”
Before he left, Everett gave Jenks one of his paintings, a canyon landscape. The two young men corresponded for the next three years, and after Everett’s disappearance, Jenks stayed in contact with his family. In 2009, the old man still had Everett’s watercolor painting hung on his wall.
Still bent on exploring the Grand Canyon, Everett headed north from the Deerwater Ranch around June 20. En route, he stopped for six days at a sheep camp, where he earned a bit of cash by chopping wood and watering and branding lambs. The camp was full of “interesting characters,” as well as an abundance of burros. Eventually Everett traded his shotgun for a fresh burro, which he named Pericles, or Perry for short. To Bill Jacobs he wrote, “The new burro, though older than Pegasus (about 25), has four sound legs, a strong back, and is far handsomer.… Pegasus was left behind, free to kick his heels as he listed.”
By June 30, Everett was camped on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. From Chinle he had walked, by his own reckoning, three hundred miles to get there. The whole of his 1930 ramble up the California coast to Yosemite had lasted two months. Now Everett was almost five months into his far more ambitious peregrination across the Southwest. Despite his trials and setbacks, and his poverty—“My total monetary wealth is 4 cents,” he wrote Jacobs, only half-facetiously—Everett had not the slightest urge to head for home. He would stay on the trail, in fact, for another five and a half months.
* * *
The adventure Everett had been living since early February had changed and shaped his character. In June 1931 he was still only seventeen years old. The surviving letters that he periodically mailed from wayside post offices give us the only window into Everett’s personal development during that year, but they are full of potent hints.
By the end of June, the wanderer was still signing himself Evert Rulan. The notion of a “dual existence” was all tied up with Everett’s quest to understand himself. In his mind, that duality had much to do with the difficulty of intimacy with others.
By 1931, apparently, Bill Jacobs was Everett’s best friend, replacing Waldo as his closest confidant. The letters to Jacobs are deeper, more private, and more confessional than the missives he headed “Dear Father, Mother, and Waldo” or simply “Dear Family.” The bond between the two adolescents was a strong friendship bordering on a kind of love. But to express that affection, Everett took refuge in the mannerisms of boys feigning learned pomposities with fancy vocabularies. Lapsing into this mannered style, Everett produced some truly clunky sentences. From the June 30 letter to Jacobs: “Not having enjoyed a college course in psychology, I surmise from your writings that you feel rather belabored by circumstance, and, unable to strike back, have striven, in a small way, to bolster up your ego by laying bare to me my frailties.” It is not hard to read between the lines, however, to see the teasing fondness beneath the put-down. In a sense, the banter between Everett and Bill was not unlike that of athletes trading locker-room insults.
In the June 30 letter, Everett admits that he is writing regularly to other friends.
You inquire … about my other correspondants [sic].… Aside from my parents, three “fortunates” are blessed by my letters. One is five years your senior, the other four years younger than you. Of the three, you are by far the most prompt in replying. By all means hold your place.
It seems weird that Everett did not identify the other two correspondents by name. Today we have no idea who they were. But the tenor of Everett’s coy admission is akin to that of a man taunting his lover with the threat of unspecified rivals.
Something to do with intimacy scared Everett, even while he fiercely craved it, and that tension lay at the core of the insatiable wandering loner he was fast becoming. It is tempting to trace the tension to the intrusive closeness Christopher and Stella had forced upon both their sons. Yet in his letters to his parents, from childhood through age twenty, Everett never once lashed back, never shouted “Leave me alone!” Nor did he ever cut off communication with them.
In the same letter to Jacobs, Everett commented, “My grandmother wrote one solicitous letter. ‘When are you coming home?’ she asked.” It was a question not worth answering. To Jacobs, as to his family, Everett reveled instead in the open-air freedom and self-sufficiency of his new life, even while he seemed a bit surprised that he was capable of pulling it off:
I throw my camps in all manner of places. I have slept under cedars, aspens, oaks, cottonwoods, pinyons, poplars, pines, maples (not the typical maple), and under the sky, clouded or starry. Right now I am under cedars [junipers], with pines all around. Cedar bark is excellent tinder.
Desert rats have told me few camping secrets, but here and there I’ve gleaned some. I can take care of myself rather well now. Before I had the pack saddle, I used the squaw hitch, but now I throw a double diamond hitch. It wasn’t hard to learn.
Everett spent the next five weeks in the Grand Canyon—two weeks on the South Rim, two weeks in the canyon depths, and a last week on the North Rim. The majesty of the landscape clearly held him in thrall, for he would return in future years to make further probes into the colossal chasm. Yet the letters home are strangely lacking in evocations of the beauty of the place. One such effort appears in a July 16 letter to Everett’s father:
I followed obscure trails and revelled in the rugged grandeur of the crags, and in the mad, plunging glory of the Colorado river. Then one sunset I threw the pack on the burro again and took the long, steep uptrail. I traveled for several hours by starlight. A warm wind rushed down the side cañon, singing in the pinyons. Above—the blue night sky, powdered with stars. Beside—the rocks, breathing back to the air the stored up heat of the day. Below—the black void. Ahead—the burro, cautiously picking his way over the barely discernible trail. Behind—a moving white blotch that was Curly.
The heat in the inner gorge in mid-July was debilitating. Everett claimed that the thermometer rose above 140 degrees Fahrenheit—an exaggeration, for the all-time record at Phantom Ranch, at the foot of the Bright Angel Trail, is 120 degrees. The average daily maximum on the river in July, however, is a searing 106.
Everett cooled off by swimming in the turbulent Colorado, unintentionally “drinking gallons of the muddy water” as he did so. Then he lay on the sand in the shade of the suspension bridge across the river and watched damselflies flitting through the air. To get Pericles to cross the bridge, however, proved a strenuous challenge. The burro balked time and again, until, as Everett wrote to Jacobs, “I finally banged him across with an old shovel.” This initial difficulty in getting a pack animal to cross a major river, even on the secure span of a bridge, would be repeated on future outings. And it would eventually furnish a critical clue in the mystery of Everett’s disappearance in 1934.
The reticence of Everett’s letters during his five weeks in the Grand Canyon (he writes more about Pericles and Curly than about his own doings) is curious. Only a single cryptic sentence in an August 1 letter to Bill Jacobs hints at an adventure of consequence: “Recently I had the most terrific physical experiences of my life, but recovery was rapid.” Recovery from what? An accident? A bad scare? Simple exhaustion?
It would be understandable for Everett to minimize close calls and hardships in his letters to his family, but for Bill Jacobs’s ears, such ordeals ought to have made for juicy telling. By July, Christopher and Stella were getting even more worried about their wayward son. Once again they proposed an auto trip out to Arizona to meet him, apparently with the idea of bringing him back to Los Angeles, even if it meant bringing Pericles and Curly to California as well. And once again, in a letter to his father, Everett fended off their solicitude:
You must be definite in any plans you make for me, as I am crossing to Utah before much longer. It would cost money to have the burro fed and cared for, and the city is no place for a dog. Again, could you spare the time for the trip—two days each way? Eight days altogether. Then too, you would probably have trouble with the car. Personally, I feel no craving for city life, unless it is for the more expensive aspects of it. But use your own judgment in the matter.
Christopher and Stella took the hint and stayed at home.
From the North Rim, Everett headed toward Zion National Park. It took him nine days to cover 130 trail miles—slow going for Everett, because each day he hunkered down in the shade through the hottest afternoon hours. “Zion Canyon is all I had hoped it would be,” he wrote to his family on August 18. But except for a single passage in a letter to Bill Jacobs a month later, Everett sent home no account of what he saw or did in the park. One paragraph in a letter written to Jacobs while he was still in Zion hints at a certain burnout: “I write by firelight. The crest of the sandstone cliffs is bathed in moonlight. I know it is beautiful, but I can’t feel the beauty.”
But this blasé mood may have had a mundane cause. In Zion, Everett contracted a bad case of poison ivy. To Jacobs, he vividly described the rash’s torments:
For six days I’ve been suffering from the semi annual poison ivy case—my sufferings are far from over. For two days, I couldn’t tell whether I was dead or alive. I writhed and twisted in the heat, with swarms of ants and flies crawling over me, while the poison oozed and crusted on my face and arms and back. I ate nothing—there was nothing to do but suffer philosophically.
As he had the year before in California, Everett seems to have regarded poison ivy as a congenital predisposition to which he had the bad luck to be prone, not as an infection that could easily be avoided. He complained to Jacobs,
You may remember that last year I took antitoxin injections and bounced happily off on my vacation—within a few days I was suffering it again with dull resignation. One chap says to use saltwater, another gasoline, another claims tomato juice is a sure cure. Nothing I used in times past alleviated the raging perceptibly.
The only inkling of Everett’s awareness of the cause and effect of poison ivy emerges in a defiant line in the same letter: “I get it every time, but I refuse to be driven out of the woods.”
The low mood brought on by the poison ivy nudged Everett toward some unusually deep reflections upon his own nature. In the August 27–28 letter to Jacobs appears one of the paragraphs most often quoted by latter-day analysts of Everett Ruess:
My friends have been few because I’m a freakish person and few share my interests. My solitary tramps have been made alone because I couldn’t find anyone congenial—you know it’s better to go alone than with a person one wearies of soon. I’ve done things alone chiefly because I never found people who cared about the things I’ve cared for enough to suffer the attendant hardships. But a true companion halves the misery and doubles the joys.
To those who want to see Everett as homosexual, the phrase “a freakish person” rings as a veiled admission of that orientation. Yet even if it implies nothing more than that Everett felt too different from others to kindle lasting friendships, one wonders just how hard he tried to find a “true companion.” In California the year before, he had made instant pals of Edward Weston’s teenage sons, and in Yosemite he had had no trouble finding hikers to share a trail with. But in Arizona and Utah in 1931, there is no indication that Everett invited anyone to set off into the backcountry with him.
In any event, this letter marks the first unambiguous expression of the longing for a soul mate that would plague Everett throughout his short life. He never acknowledged the kind of terrible loneliness that the extraordinary solo journeys he was undertaking would have inflicted on a normal seventeen-year-old. But he would return now and again to the lament that he could not find that “true companion”—whether or not he meant lover, mentor, or partner in the wilderness.
There is more, however, to this manifesto of a solitary aesthetic than meets the eye—or less, depending on how one parses it. In Vagabond, Rusho published only part of the letter to Bill Jacobs. The full text gives a personal context to Everett’s oft-quoted statement about being “a freakish person.”
The paragraph that in Rusho’s book begins with “My friends have been few …” actually starts with a preceding sentence: “What’s all this poppycock about half formulated plans and half hearted invitations?” Then, after penning his manifesto for the solitary life, Everett complains,
Then too I never could make anyone do anything for me; I’d feel like someone if you actually kept your promise; it was one, you know.
How I looked forward to that Christmas trip with you—it fell thru. Always then you told me you’d certainly be with me this summer; you waived my doubts. Yet we both feel the undeniable lure of far places.
But I know there are many drawbacks to my way of living & traveling—things you wouldn’t want to do. Don’t come unless you want to.
Your letter was good; I couldn’t complain—but letters are poor substitutes for speech and companionship.
It seems clear, then, that Jacobs had backed out of a promise to share the 1931 ramble through the Southwest—or at least the summer portion of it—with Everett. And a planned Christmas trip before that had failed to materialize, presumably because of Jacobs’s change of heart. “Don’t come unless you want to” may imply that Everett had renewed the invitation in mid-journey, asking Bill to join him somewhere near Zion.
Worse, Jacobs had gone off on other trips with other friends. “Why do you say no news,” Everett went on, “tho you tell me nothing of your trips except that you took them; what sort of companions did you have? what were the ups and downs?”
The August 27–28 letter thus serves in part as the wounded outcry of a jilted friend. The pain and jealousy Everett cannot hide imply nothing about overt homosexuality, but Bill Jacobs was the true companion with whom Everett had hoped to share his wandering quest. Yet the letter modulates away from anger, as Everett tries to repair the friendship with news of his own adventures. Toward the close, he quotes the first four lines of a poem he had been working on, written in a loose blank verse:
I have been one who loved the wilderness—
Swaggered and softly crept between the mountain peaks
I listened long to the sea’s brave music;
I sang my songs above the shriek of desert winds.
Everett would continue to work on this poem—arguably the best he ever wrote—for another two years. It was published posthumously in 1935, under the title “Wilderness Song,” in the Los Angeles Daily News. Its penultimate stanza (quoted in the prologue to this book) has served ever since as a kind of autobiographical epitaph for Everett:
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!
The remarkable August 27–28 letter to Jacobs, signed simply “Evert,” contains another important declaration: “I expect to resume my old name soon.”
* * *
Seven months into his 1931 expedition, recovering from the bout of poison ivy, worn out by the desert heat, and perhaps beginning to tire of the natural beauty he so ardently sought, Everett might have been expected to pack it in and head for home. But nothing could have been further from his thoughts. On August 28 he wrote his family, “I expect to continue my wanderings for a year more at least—my itinerary is planned, & I have work to do.” This letter, which Christopher and Stella must have read with dismay, also elaborates on Everett’s intention to revert to his given name: “Uncle Alfred was mistaken or trying to be ironic when he said I went back to the old name. However I expect to do so anyway very soon. I tire of the experimentation & entanglements, and after all there’s not much in a name.” He closed the letter, “Love from Evert.” Only on September 18, for the first time all year, did he write “Everett” at the bottom of a page of correspondence.
From Zion, Everett planned to return to the Grand Canyon, then, as the days grew chillier, push on farther south. “As to what I’ll do when it’s cold,” he wrote his family on September 9, “I expect to spend the winter in the cactus country of southern Arizona. I’ve never seen that country, and it’s warmer there.” Everett’s resumption of his given name was tied up in some psychic way with the geography of his journey. “I think it would be better to use [Evert] Rulan until I am out of the Grand Canyon country,” he explained.
The young man’s haughty assertions of independence were undercut by his need for regular shipments of food and money from his parents. On September 18, for instance, he wrote, “If you want to send food don’t send Eusey’s jell a teen—it tastes like glue. It is a long time since I’ve had cookies. The peanut butter, raisins, & prunes you sent were good.” The day before, “I cashed the welcome 5 dollar m.o. [money order]. Money doesn’t seem to go very far, tho. Soon I must buy new shirts, socks, and shoes.” Everett was aware that his parents’ own budget was stretched to the breaking point. On September 17 he sympathized, “I don’t understand how you scrape along now that Mrs. Ryall’s rent is gone.”
The unabated affection in Everett’s letters to his parents does not ring of cynical manipulation, as if he were posing as a dutiful son in order to keep up the flow of his allowance. The love sounds genuine. One must chalk up Everett’s fending off his parents’ attempts to control his life at the same time as he pleaded for supplies and cash to the sense of entitlement in which he had basked since childhood. At his most selfish, he treated his parents almost as though they were patrons committed to supporting a budding artist through thick and thin. Thus: “If you wish to send things, you might send a bottle of India ink. The bottles it is sold in are not much good, for the corks always come out easily.” Or: “Some time in October you will receive some negatives of pictures of Curly, Pericles, & me. A hiker from New York took them. I wish you would make four prints of each, sending three of each to me.”
Yet Everett did not even feign politeness as he rejected his parents’ attempts to bend his life’s path. Christopher and Stella were deeply disturbed that Everett showed no interest in going to college. Sometime that summer, they sent him a brochure for a junior college. On September 17, Everett wrote back,
I studied the Junior College pamphlet, and I don’t feel enthusiastic. The place must be like a jail, with all the rules and regulations. What an anticlimax it would be after the free life. There was nothing in the art course that seemed worthwhile.
At some point, Christopher and Stella also asked Everett if he would send home his diary so that they could read it. The sharing of diaries had been a mandatory family ritual since both Everett and Waldo were old enough to write. But now Everett responded, “Regarding the diary, I must dash your hopes. I’ve finished writing it, true, but I’m not done with it. It is too personal to be read by anyone but the author, in its present state.” (It is this 1931 diary that has long since gone missing, probably for good.)
It took Everett eight days to reach the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as he traced a different return path from the one he had followed heading out toward Zion in August. On September 30, writing to Bill Jacobs again, he announced his plan to “start down the hole,” cross the Colorado River, and make the five-thousand-foot ascent to the South Rim. On the North Rim, at an altitude of eight thousand feet, Everett sensed the changing of the season:
Winter is close at hand; the maples are crimson, and flurries of yellow aspen leaves swirl about with each breeze. On many hillsides the yellow leaves have blackened, and the trees stand bare and silent. Soon the snows will be here, but I won’t.
Such lyrical evocations of the countryside are increasingly rare in the letters Everett sent home from September on. It may be that he poured all his poetic energy into his diary. A single letter to Waldo quotes eight paragraphs from the diary—the only passages from his 1931 journal that have survived. And those sentences brim with the rhapsodic:
Sunset made all the misery worth enduring. Far to the north and east stretched the purple mesas, with cloudbanks everywhere above them. Some were golden brown and vermillion [sic] where sunshafts pierced the low clouds. A rainbow glowed for a moment in the south. That was a promise.
Clouds of all kinds and shapes arched overhead, stretching in long lines to the horizons. Some were like swirls of smoke. Then twilight—a rim of orange on the treeless western hills. The full moon appeared, rolling through the clouds.
On the strength of paragraphs such as these, we can safely judge that, eight months into his 1931 expedition, Everett had not even begun to burn out on natural beauty.
By the second week in October he was camped on the South Rim. Not since May 2 had he written a letter to Waldo: all the epistles home bore the salutation “Dear Father, Mother, and Waldo,” or simply “Dear Family.” On October 9, however, Everett sent two long letters to his brother. Along with the letters to Bill Jacobs, these are the most personal and heartfelt that Everett penned in 1931. The first one begins, “I was delighted to hear from you yesterday. I’d almost given you up—thought you were tired of me.” Apparently the fact that for months Waldo had not bothered to send a letter separate from the ones their parents had mailed had led Everett to fear an estrangement. Now he half-confides a secret in the first paragraph: “I would have replied yesterday, but I was expecting an important change which has not occurred. The season is changing—cold winds shriek ominously, and then there is meaningful silence. I expect change in my life too.”
The allusion remains cryptic, for Everett never made clear what the change in his life would have been. But the tone of both the October 9 letters is almost conspiratorial against the parents. In the first (as quoted above), Everett writes, “Of course our letters should be strictly personal. Surely mother did not read that last letter, worded as it was?”
A few paragraphs later, Everett makes another cryptic remark: “My only choice between getting out on my own and going home is the first alternative. I couldn’t go back—not defeated, at least.” One wonders what sort of defeat Everett contemplated. He had already performed a momentous solo journey full of intense experiences and discoveries. The defeat may have been attached to his financial dependence on his parents, for Everett goes on, “In that last letter I told you to tell father to send no money; I wish you had made that clear to him. It might have saved me more trouble than the money saved.”
Money in fact preoccupied Everett’s worries, and a defensive mixture of pride and shame pierced his sense of entitlement. To Waldo, he reported that in eight months their parents had sent him “only 52 dollars.” He felt that he had to give his brother a full accounting of his finances on the trail.
I started with 50 dollars, parents sent 52, 35 came from prizes, I procured 15 from various sources.
I have spent 136 dollars altogether. Considerably more than a third went for equipment—all the rest for food. Needless to say, I have earned dozens and dozens of meals.
But this reckoning stirred Everett to a sudden fit of anger. “Not for God’s sake,” he wrote, “or yet for Hell’s sake can I sell any of my paintings. The world does not want Art—only the artists do.”
Everett was not so self-centered as to be oblivious of the Depression in which the country still floundered; his letters mention the poverty of every town he visited, the scarcity of work. Waldo was living at home at the age of twenty-one, taking what stopgap jobs he could find to support himself, while Everett was cruising across the Southwest, trying to “become” an artist. Yet “It is unfair to you to be chained at home,” he wrote to his brother.
In the second October 9 letter to Waldo, Everett mentioned that he was mailing home “a small pink arrowhead” and the beautiful Anasazi necklace he had dug out of the cliff dwelling in Canyon de Chelly. He also dropped a comment that for Everett’s devotees today still reverberates as a bombshell:
Whatever I have suffered in the months past has been nothing compared with the beauty in which I have steeped my soul, so to speak. It has been a priceless experience—and I am glad it is not over. What I would have missed if I had ended everything last summer!
After Everett’s disappearance in 1934, some observers speculated that he might have committed suicide. Seventy-seven years later, there are still theorists who argue that suicide is the most likely explanation of the wanderer’s fate. The paragraph quoted above forms those theorists’ prime piece of evidence. It remains the only extant statement in Everett’s hand that he ever seriously thought about killing himself.
Most of the summer of 1930, Everett had spent hiking and hitchhiking in California. There is no hint of the suicidal in any of the surviving letters he wrote from Carmel, Big Sur, or Yosemite. Yet the implication of the October 9 passage is not only that Everett had contemplated suicide, but that Waldo knew about it.
* * *
Camped on the South Rim, Everett had reached an impasse. In the first of the October 9 letters to Waldo, he complained, “For the present I am stranded here, with no means of moving my equipment. My clothes are fairly well worn out. As soon as I can procure two good burros, which is my greatest concern at present, I’ll be traveling south.”
What must have stranded Everett was the condition of Pericles. None of the letters mention the old burro breaking down, but after traveling hundreds of miles, including two traverses of the immense gorge of the Grand Canyon, Pericles may have been too worn out to continue. Evidently, Everett abandoned or sold the faithful burro on the South Rim.
The answer to his logistical woes was to double the number of his pack animals. (Was this the “important change” in his life that he hinted at to Waldo?) The problem was that he couldn’t afford to buy two burros. Swallowing his pride, Everett sent a telegram home begging for money. Loyal as ever, Christopher and Stella sent cash to their prodigal son, but the transaction sparked some hard feelings. On October 23, Everett wrote defensively to his mother, “I could not buy two burros with my ten dollars, so I wired you to send some money. It came this noon, and I felt much better. This is the first time on this trip that I’ve asked you outright for money, and I needed it.”
Before acquiring his new burros, however, Everett made his way to Mesa, Arizona, probably by hitching a ride with Grand Canyon tourists. Today a suburb of Phoenix, Mesa even in 1931 was far from wilderness. After the solitary remoteness of the Tsegi, Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon, and backcountry Zion, southern Arizona must have seemed bland and civilized to the vagabond.
From Mesa, Everett made his way east along U.S. Highway 60 to the largely Hispanic mining town of Superior. As Everett wrote his mother, “The Mexicans use burros to haul wood, and there are dozens of them here.” With his new allowance from home, Everett purchased two fresh pack animals, which he named Cynthia and Percival. The bickering with his parents continued. “It hurts me to think you consider me selfish for wanting another burro,” Everett wrote to his mother. And, “Neither Pegasus nor Perry were good burros—they were too old, and suffered under their loads. I had to travel light and carry part of the pack myself.”
One can hardly blame Christopher and Stella for their resentment. Pinching pennies themselves, they were effectively subsidizing their son to stay away from home as long as he pleased. More than a month after the burro purchase, Everett was still arguing about it with his parents. “[Y]our idea of a burro’s load is hardly correct,” he wrote them on November 28. “The blankets and the canteens alone weigh more than 60 pounds. There is usually a hundred pounds on each burro. When I only had one, he occasionally had a burden of 150 pounds.”
Through the rest of October and all of November, Everett made minor excursions around the parched hills and scrubby desert east of Phoenix. He visited the Tonto Cliff Dwellings (today, Tonto National Monument) on the Salt River, ruins of villages built not by the Anasazi, but by their contemporary neighbors to the south, the little-known Salado. He fell in with some tourists from New York who were determined to visit an “amethyst mine” in the Four Peaks area just north of the Salt. Everett talked these greenhorns into hiring him to burro-pack their gear for the three-day excursion. Later he used the burros to gather firewood that he sold to other tourists. Money was Everett’s constant concern. On November 13 he wrote Bill Jacobs, “The outlook was quite dismal for a time, but now I am assured of enough to keep me going for a month or so.”
Those weeks spent in the comparative warmth of the lowland desert lacked the adventurous spark of Everett’s bold wilderness forays during the preceding months. Instead of solitude, he found himself constantly in the company of strangers, some of them interesting. To Jacobs he wrote,
I have been meeting all types of people—artists, writers, hoboes, cooks, cowmen, miners, bootleggers.… The bootlegger said that as soon as he sold his stock on hand he could offer me a job guarding his still in the mountains and packing barrels to the retreat.
Nothing came, however, of that odd job offer.
For a while, Everett pursued an ambitious scheme to make decent money. A shopkeeper named Mr. Dupre encouraged him to transform a drawing Everett had made of the Tonto Cliff Dwellings into mass-produced Christmas cards that the two of them would sell. To do so, however, Everett had to send home the drawing, beseech his mother to make a linoleum block based on it, and then ask her to print a thousand copies. In several letters to Stella, Everett made peremptory demands: “We want this card to be stiff paper, cream color perhaps, and larger than a post card. There must be a thousand envelopes too.” Poor Stella dutifully made and sent the blockprint, only to have Everett complain, “The printing is terrible.… There is no use printing the thing unless larger type is used.” In the end, the Christmas cards got made and sent to Arizona, but it seems doubtful that Everett ever sold more than a handful (at the then exorbitant price of forty cents apiece).
After nearly ten months in the Southwest, Everett still did not want to go home. He had set his heart on wandering indefinitely as he slowly built up a practice as a landscape artist. He shared his dream with Bill Jacobs:
I am confident that I can make something of my work—the problem is how to keep alive until I have succeeded in a larger measure. My plan is to ramble about the Southwest with donkeys for a couple of years more, gathering plenty of material and mastering water color technique—then to get some windfall so I can work with oils and do things on a larger scale, perfect my field studies, and then do something with what I have.
Instead, Everett had painted himself into a corner. The only windfall was the dribs and drabs of allowance his indulgent parents kept mailing to him. Everett’s blind idealism kept him from recognizing just how naïve it was for a seventeen-year-old in the middle of the Depression to hope to build a career as an itinerant painter carrying all his belongings on a pair of burros.
Sending home treasures like the Anasazi arrowhead and necklace was a way of trying to placate his parents. Yet even in this respect, Everett misjudged their tolerance. In October he wrote his mother:
I now have another trophy to put on the wall of my imaginary studio. It is the skin of a Gila monster which I caught. It took me all morning to separate the skin from the monster, and then it wrinkled when I stretched it. In a few days I will have it dried, and I can send it to you. It should be sewn with fine thread on a piece of felt.
Throughout his several years of traveling in the Southwest, Everett would gleefully kill every rattlesnake he could find—even though he knew that his mother (an environmentalist before her time) was appalled by that practice. Stella may have been an artist, but it is hard to imagine her making a wall hanging out of a Gila monster skin.
By the end of November, Everett was reconciled to returning home. “I want to be in the city for a couple of months this winter,” he wrote his parents on November 28, “but I’m not sure just how I’ll get there. I would like to spend hours in a library, and to put some of my sketches in oils.” Not once in his letters home did Everett let down his guard enough to offer his parents or Waldo even a perfunctory gesture of affection, such as “I miss you” or “It’ll be good to see you again.”
On Thanksgiving Day, feeling a bit sorry for himself, Everett wrote Bill Jacobs, “I suppose you are sitting around a groaning table now while I am all alone in a tent with my feet frozen.” He had a proposition to make. He would give Bill one of his best paintings if he would drive out to Arizona and pick him up. “The proper time for you to arrive here would be December 6th, 8th, 10th, or 12th,” he wrote. “If you drive rapidly, you could be under parental wings again within five or six days.” The edge of annoyance toward the friend who had stood him up in the summer tainted this letter. “Here is how you can earn my everlasting gratitude and respect,” he threatened, “or fail to do so.”
Jacobs evidently declined. On December 6, Everett wrote a petulant letter to his mother. “I had no intention of paying Bill anything,” he griped. “I told him it was an opportunity for him to earn the picture he has been clamoring for me to give him.” This letter reveals Everett at his most spoiled and selfish. “I wish you would please send me more Christmas cards soon,” he demanded of his mother. “I think I had some unused pieces of linoleum in my droor [sic]. Please send them—large and small, and any others you can spare. If you have an extra carving knife, I’d like to have it.”
Then, in the next paragraph, “I am not coming home.… I’d never have thought of coming home if you hadn’t spoken of it two or three times.”
But Everett had nowhere else to go. Toward the end of December, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles. He left his burros, Cynthia and Percival, in Roosevelt, Arizona, entrusting them to a local Apache to keep through the winter. With him on the road, however, Everett brought Curly, the “roly poly puppy with fluffy white fur” he had adopted on the Navajo reservation in April.
By all indications, Everett returned to Los Angeles in a sullen mood, weighed down by a crushing sense of failure. Yet he had behind him an exploratory adventure the likes of which few Americans so young had ever accomplished. In ten months he had traveled perhaps a thousand miles on foot, most of it solo, and seen more obscure and beautiful corners of the wilderness than other devotees of the canyon country do in a lifetime.
Of Everett’s next three months at home with his family, we know almost nothing, except that he could not wait to get back to the Southwest. By the end of March 1932, he had arrived in Roosevelt once more, ready to reclaim his burros and hit the trail. Ahead of Everett lay another aimless but purposeful pilgrimage.