IN THE CHRONICLES OF AMERICAN HISTORY, a quest such as the one Everett Ruess had launched in the Southwest in 1931 was virtually unique. Few vagabonds before him had attempted anything comparable.
Most of the great explorations of the terrain that would become the fifty United States had been undertaken by well-organized teams. On the traverse of the continent led by Lewis and Clark between 1804 and 1806, thirty-three men served in various capacities, and the team was famously aided by the Shoshone woman Sacajawea. On the five expeditions led by John C. Frémont between 1842 and 1853, the man later known as the Pathfinder and hailed by his foremost biographer as “The West’s Greatest Adventurer” never set out into the field with fewer than fifteen accomplices.
Among Ruess’s predecessors, it was the mountain men hunting beaver across the West between 1806 and 1840 who were closest in spirit to the wanderer from California. We know very little about those bold explorers because most of them were illiterate, and nearly all of them thought their deeds were not worth recording. It was not unusual, however, for a trapper to set off into the wilds by himself, and some of the mountain men began their careers at relatively tender ages.
The template for solo discovery among those fearless wanderers was set by John Colter between 1806 and 1808. An ace hunter on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Colter was so little fazed by the hardships of that monumental voyage that on the way home, in what is now North Dakota, he asked to be discharged early so that he could turn around and guide a pair of trappers who had showed up in the government camp back into the regions mapped by Lewis and Clark. During the winter of 1807–8, traveling alone, Colter became the first Anglo-American to discover the thermal wonders of Yellowstone. His reports of geysers, hot springs, and lava pools were almost universally discounted as nonsense, and for a while the unknown region was nicknamed Colter’s Hell.
Even before Colter, a visionary Dartmouth College student named John Ledyard dropped out of school in 1773, at the age of twenty-one, and rode a canoe he had fashioned out of a fallen log down the Connecticut River to his grandfather’s farm. His appetite whetted by this minor voyage, three years later Ledyard joined Captain James Cook’s third expedition into the Pacific Ocean. During his four years before the mast, Ledyard participated in the European discovery of Hawaii, where his commander was killed by natives.
In Paris in 1786, encouraged by the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, Ledyard concocted a wild plan to travel from London across Europe, traversing Russia, crossing the Bering Strait, traipsing south through Alaska and Canada, and resurfacing in Jefferson’s Virginia. Ledyard made it as far as Siberia before he was arrested and deported by Catherine the Great.
Two years later, Ledyard proposed a traverse of Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. He got only as far as Cairo, however, before he came down with a mysterious illness, of which he died at the untimely age of thirty-seven. The unmarked grave in which he was buried on the banks of the Nile is lost to posterity.
Explorers, surveyors, mountain men, and miners were the first Anglo-Americans to penetrate most of the remote regions of the American wilderness. But nearly all these men had utilitarian motives—to claim land for the United States, to scout a railroad route, to find gold, or to bring back beaver pelts to be converted into stylish top hats. An explorer venturing out for purely aesthetic reasons was a much rarer creature.
In this respect, the two renowned American lovers of the outdoors who most closely prefigure Everett Ruess are Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. For Thoreau, walking through the woods or along the seashore (much of his rambling performed alone) was a direct conduit to the metaphysical insights that stitch together his quirky and inimitable books. Like Ruess, Thoreau had a keen eye for nature on its most intimate scale: just as Everett in Yosemite could attentively study the flitting of water bugs on the surface of a stream pool, so Thoreau, strolling the shore of Walden Pond, could observe how “the bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note from the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”
But Thoreau did not really launch his celebrated wanderings until he was in his late twenties. The Walden experiment began in the summer of 1845, when Thoreau was twenty-eight, and his most daring excursion, an early ascent of Mount Katahdin in Maine, came the following year. Nor did any of Thoreau’s expeditions quite compare in ambition or sheer distances covered to the ten-month voyage Everett had made at age seventeen.
John Muir, whose journeys equaled and even exceeded Everett’s in boldness, did not get started as a wanderer before the age of twenty-six, when he made an extended plant-collecting journey along the shores of Lake Huron. Muir’s personal discovery of Yosemite, the landscape with which he is most often associated in the public mind, came at age thirty.
One of Muir’s most famous exploits, climbing a hundred-foot-tall Douglas fir to ride out a Sierra thunderstorm in the treetop, is the kind of jeu d’esprit Everett might have indulged in himself. With the good fortune to live till the age of seventy-six, Muir matured and developed as he became a pioneering environmentalist, co-founder of the Sierra Club, and probably America’s greatest nature writer. (It would seem inevitable that Everett must have read Muir, especially given their overlapping fascination with Yosemite, but the explorer-naturalist’s books are not among the scores that Everett mentions reading in his diaries and his letters. In a June 10, 1933, diary entry, however, in the high Sierra Nevada, Everett writes, “I thought of John Muir and his solitary strolls here, long ago.”)
None of Everett’s predecessors or potential role models, however, launched their wandering careers at anything like the early age of sixteen. And we are left to speculate whether, had he lived as long as Muir, Everett Ruess might be acclaimed today as the artist and writer who, more than any other American, championed the quest for beauty for its own sake as he pursued an insatiable solo vagabondage through the landscapes of his heart’s content.
* * *
On March 22, 1932, Everett arrived once more in Roosevelt, Arizona, having hitchhiked from Los Angeles with his dog, Curly. At the Tonto Cliff Dwellings just south of Roosevelt, Everett rendezvoused with a friend named Clark, who had preceded him to Arizona. We know so little about Clark that even his last name has escaped the record. The young man seems to have been a crony of both Everett and Bill Jacobs, perhaps a former high school classmate. Everett’s plan was evidently to share another ambitious sojourn throughout the Southwest with a good companion. In his first letter home, Everett wrote, “Everyone here is favourably impressed with Clark.” Yet from the start, it was obvious that Clark was a relative novice in the outdoors. He would have to play acolyte to Everett’s wilderness priest.
The excursion got off to a dismal start. The Apache to whom Everett had entrusted his burros over the winter had let Percival get stolen (or so he told Everett), while Cynthia was now pregnant. In the end, Everett sold Cynthia to a couple in Roosevelt, who fancied the burro as a pet for their young son.
The feckless behavior of the Apache triggered an outburst against Indians in general. “I have learned that all Indians are children,” Everett wrote to Waldo, “unable to attain to anything like the white man’s intelligence, and what this [Apache] could not understand, he counted as nothing.”
On March 28, Everett turned eighteen. Unlike the previous year, he made no mention of this milestone in his letters home, preoccupied as he was with getting his vexed expedition under way.
From Arizona, Everett wrote to Bill Jacobs about the travels in the vicinity of Roosevelt that he and Clark took as warm-up hikes. Sometimes the letters record boyish fun: “I am enclosing for you the rattle of a snake I killed. Clark skinned him and I ate him.” But early on, Clark disappointed Everett. In a long letter to Waldo, Everett wrote, “Clark is a childlike slave to tobacco, his grammar is faulty, he has little understanding of art, and he himself has admitted that he is very selfish.”
One curiosity is that in these first 1932 letters to Jacobs, Everett reverts to signing himself “Evert.” At the same time, he is “Everett” in his letters to his family. The “dual existence,” perhaps, had kept its grip on the young man through his winter months at home.
The delay in setting out from Roosevelt was caused by the unavailability of the burros, and by the fact that even at the start of the journey, both Everett and Clark were almost out of cash. As early as March 30, in his first letter to his parents, Everett complained,
It is very peaceful here now—too peaceful. Clark and I are both sick of waiting, and we want to hit the trail as soon as possible.…
I spent thirteen dollars on food and utensils, and have four dollars left. Clark is broke.…
If you are going to send any money in April, right now is the time to send it.
At the end of his 1931 journey, Everett had seemed embarrassed by his financial dependence on his parents. Now, just a few months later, his tone is almost arrogant, as he not only prods Christopher and Stella to send money, but orders from them a minor lending library of books. The works that Everett demands his parents mail to him are Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Voltaire’s Candide, Petronius’s Satyricon, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Zola’s Nana, and Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Of the Mann and the Dostoevsky, Everett writes, “Get them in the modern library series, otherwise they will be too bulky. These two will not cost more than two or three dollars.”
The literary heft of this reading list sounds ostentatious, as if Everett were trying to prove to his parents that he didn’t need college to provide him with a good education. Christopher and Stella dutifully shipped their son the books, although they substituted works by Balzac and Lord Dunsany for the Mann. By April 20, less than three weeks after placing his order, Everett had read all the books his parents sent him except The Brothers Karamazov. Still moored in Roosevelt, he mailed the other books home.
The new tone in these letters to his parents smacks of the entitlement that Everett was always in danger of slipping into half-aware. “Other things you might send,” he adds in the March 30 letter, “are, a sheaf of this paper, the dog biscuits, and a pair of thick white socks which I think are in one of my droors.” As if to soften the peremptoriness, near the end of the letter he teases, “If you send all the things I have mentioned you will be doing very well indeed.”
Hanging around Roosevelt as they tried to organize the logistics of a major journey drove both Clark and Everett to frustration, and they started to get on each other’s nerves. When Clark finally received money from his own parents, as Everett complained in a letter to Waldo, instead of contributing it to the purchase of supplies, he spent it on “his hotel bill.” That glancing remark reveals that rather than camping out, the boys were squandering their diminishing funds on lodging and hotel meals.
By early May, Clark and Everett were still stuck in Roosevelt. And by now they had agreed to part ways. We lack, of course, Clark’s version of the story of the falling-out, but Everett later explained his side of it to Waldo.
I bought grub, candy and cigarettes for Clark and myself for five weeks, then I told him I did not intend to wait any longer. I invited Clark to leave with me, but he refused to consider it unless he could have a horse and saddle. As I did not have one myself I certainly couldn’t offer him one.
At this point, sometime in early May, Bill Jacobs arrived in Roosevelt. To Waldo, Everett wrote,
Earlier in the day Bill had come and persuaded Clark to join him. Bill invited me to go with him, but I had no faith in him and wanted to carry out my plans. I didn’t really believe I’d like them as traveling companions anyway. I had grown tired of Clark already.
After parting from Bill and Clark and setting out alone, Everett had no regrets, though the rancor among the three friends still perturbed him. On May 22 he wrote in his diary, “[Two words illegible] put distance between me and Clark. As companions they don’t fit the bill. Neither has anything to teach me, tho they seem to think so. If they had, why wouldn’t I respect them instead of pitying them?”
In 1998, Bud Rusho published Everett’s 1932 and 1933 diaries, under the title Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess. Except for a pastiche of extracts printed in the 1940 volume On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, the only published versions of Everett’s letters and diaries until now are those that appear in Rusho’s A Vagabond for Beauty and Wilderness Journals. But Rusho omits some letters entirely, and cuts passages from others without indicating his excisions. He also silently removes passages from the 1932 and 1933 diaries, even though he purports to present verbatim everything Everett wrote.
Rusho’s omissions in both books smack of deliberate expurgation. Sometimes the cuts may be dictated by a sense that certain passages may be simply boring or unimportant—long discussions by Everett in letters to his mother, for instance, about the specific materials he needs to make his paintings and blockprints. But other excisions seem aimed at camouflaging unpleasant episodes in Everett’s life. Just as Stella was appalled by her son’s penchant for killing rattlesnakes, so Rusho seems discomfited by some of Everett’s behavior—his thoughtless looting of Anasazi ruins, for instance, and his mailing home the treasures he had unearthed. Rusho likewise edited out Everett’s criticisms of others, or even passages that detail conflict. It is almost as though Rusho were at pains to protect Everett from himself, or from the occasionally childish or churlish sides of himself, and at pains as well to protect those others (Clark, Bill, Waldo, his parents, even the Apache he entrusted with his burros) who, were they living today, might be hurt by what Everett had to say about them.
The cumulative effect, sadly, is to bowdlerize Everett, if ever so slightly. Rusho’s portrait of the vagabond who has by now become such a cult figure needs to be restored to its unretouched state. There is no danger that a fuller picture of Everett Ruess, warts and all, will damage his legacy. He was far too interesting and complex a person for that. Everett survives his faults and foibles.
* * *
Just before saying goodbye to Clark and Bill, Everett paid a local rancher ten dollars for a horse, named Pacer by his owner. At the beginning of his 1932 outing, Everett had decided to use a horse rather than burros to carry his gear. And he intended to ride the horse as much as he could, rather than use it only as a pack animal. It was a trade-off that would vex him throughout his season in the Southwest.
Leaving Roosevelt, Everett forded the Salt River and climbed high into the Sierra Ancha mountains to camp. On his second day out, a disaster of sorts occurred. In a telegraphic shorthand bespeaking Everett’s exhaustion, his diary captures the dark feelings of that panic-stricken night. In the middle of preparing his dinner, Everett realized Pacer was missing.
Dashed frantically in all directions for half an hour, then found his trail back up the road. Half a mile along was the rope, broken again. Soon sighted Pacer and he galloped off ahead. Prayed to God and cussed him. Dark, but half moon. Shouted to car but he went around it. Another car stopped and the driver had Pacer by the neck but I didn’t have the rope ready, and Pacer got off over the hill. Driver must have thot me stupid. Ran and ran. Pacer kept slowing and looking back.… Finally got a loop over his head. Both drenched with sweat. Tied both ends of the rawhide on his neck and rode him back.… Curly had eaten all my supper. I called him and beat him severely. Fried spuds and wrote. Thot of fluent, blistering swearing.
The diary reveals Everett’s ever-present doubt, despite his marathon journey of the year before, concerning his competence to perform such basic trail tasks as keeping track of a hobbled horse. And it makes clear the source of Everett’s fury at his once-beloved dog. A few days before leaving Roosevelt, while Everett was off on an errand, Curly had broken into the henhouse of a resident named Wilson and killed three chickens, for which Everett had to reimburse the owner.
The morning after the moonlight chase, Everett wrote,
Slept late. Curly was not in camp. Called and called as I left. Thot I heard barking, but he didn’t come and I didn’t search. I thot he would trail me but he didn’t.… No signs of Curly. Probably when he finds I’m gone he’ll go back to Wilson’s, kill more chickens, and J.C. will write to my parents. I wish he were shot. His distemper is still bad. He doesn’t know enough to get out of the road. He kills chickens and steals food. I can’t afford to feed him. I can’t trust Clark at all. Curly might drown in the river, but its unlikely.
Poor Curly! Killing chickens and gobbling down what must have looked like leftover supper amounted to normal canine behavior. But the former rez dog may have remembered beatings from before Everett had adopted him, and to slink away for good was a matter of sheer survival.
Both the 1932 and 1933 diaries, in general, are utterly different in tone from Everett’s letters. In this sense, they emphasize how increasingly Everett turned to his letters to craft memorable and rhapsodic passages evoking the beauty and power of the wilderness. They are conscious performances in a way the diary entries are not. Moreover, the diaries reveal the funks, the depressions, even the despair into which Everett periodically lapsed, a side of his personality he tried to keep out of the letters. What a fuller understanding of this enigmatic adventurer we would have if the 1930, 1931, and 1934 diaries were not irretrievably lost!
The diaries also present another conundrum. Everett wrote in pencil, and in the pages of the surviving bound ledger books that he used as journals, many passages have been erased. Rusho indicates these blanks in Wilderness Diaries by inserting brackets, as follows: “[9 lines erased].”
After Everett’s disappearance, one of his parents, probably Christopher, typed up passages that seemed particularly eloquent. In so doing, that parent regularly made minor revisions to Everett’s prose. From this known fact, Rusho leaps to the conclusion that in the diaries themselves “the Ruess family … actually erased sentences that might prove embarrassing to them or to other people.”
There is strong internal evidence, however, that the person who erased the passages was Everett himself.
What is maddening is that the erasures often come just as Everett is probing most deeply into his psyche. For example, on May 19, four days after Curly ran away, Everett reaches a truly low point. The diary: “I’m in a bad position. No dog. An old broken down horse. [2 lines erased.] I may not be able to trade Pacer for a burro. I will die if he gives out on me.”
If it was Everett who erased the passages, his motive may have been simply to guard his privacy, just as, responding to his parents’ wish to read his 1931 diary at the end of the summer, he had refused, citing it as “too personal to be read by anyone but the author, in its present state.” The evidence that it was Everett who later erased the passages emerges in another lacuna at the end of his despondent May 19 entry. As Rusho publishes the text, it reads,
Killed a scorpion in the gunny sack pack. Gnats and mosquitoes. Alone again. The crazy man is in solitude again.… Pacer munched foxtails. The full moon, round and yellow, in the chalky blue sky over distant mesas. No Curly to pet. No [word missing] to hold [8 lines erased].
In the diary itself, however, the eight-line erasure is more accurately rendered as follows:
[1 line erased]
[2 lines erased]
[2 lines erased]
Whoever erased the passage left four words intact—“stupid,” “I’d,” and “be done”—each at the left margin of the page. This practice, repeated often in both the 1932 and 1933 diaries, would have been a very odd thing for a parent determined to expunge embarrassing entries to do. If Everett left those few floating words unerased, they must have served some arcane purpose. To remind himself, perhaps, in later years what the self-censored passage had been about—or perhaps to tantalize a future reader with a kind of cryptogram hinting at secrets too dark to share.
The 1932 journey seemed jinxed from the start. The diary entries through the end of May record almost no joy, and precious little pleasure. For one thing, the country north of Roosevelt, through which Everett now traveled, was not true wilderness, but cattle country. Everett kept running into ranchers, and now and again he performed odd jobs for them to earn a bit of cash.
He seemed, however, to be physically worn out much of the time. On May 18 he wrote, “I felt too weary to climb to the cliff dwellings, so followed the old man about working in the gardens and making fence. I was so weak I could hardly listen to what he said.”
In a July 12 letter to Waldo, Everett confessed his frailty, even while it shamed him:
Physically, I am not very tough. I haven’t the constitution of a day laborer. I soon wear out at a job like road building, or digging & lifting. This seems to be my physical make up, because tho I have tried many times, I find I can’t do a man’s work in physical labor.
This weakness, in Everett’s mind, was tied up with his loneliness: “I don’t have much trouble getting along with people, but I have the greatest difficulty in finding the sort of companionship I want.”
Later commentators, notably Gary James Bergera, have speculated that Everett may have suffered all his life from either pernicious or folic anemia. The former is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B12, the latter from an absence in one’s diet of green leafy vegetables. In a revealing July 21 diary entry, Everett wrote, “Physically I feel very weak. I would not be surprised to learn that pernicious anaemia has set in again. A slight bruise has taken three weeks to heal.” This passage is immediately followed by five erased lines. But once again, not all the words are erased. The cryptic remaining text reads:
[2 lines erased]
H as. If not by happy.
In the letters from 1931, there is virtually no mention of exhaustion or weakness, much less of anemia. Instead, Everett brags about his fitness and his energy. It is hard to disentangle the 1932 diary’s confessions of fatigue and weariness from Everett’s depression and his lingering upset over the rupture with Clark and Bill. Every few days in his diary, he drops a disparaging remark about his former pals, as if to convince himself all over again that he was right to leave them behind in Roosevelt and strike off on his own.
Everett’s immediate goal, as he wandered north and east, was to find more prehistoric ruins. But even these disappointed him. In Pueblo Canyon, where a local had told him he could find a seventy-room cliff dwelling, Everett found far fewer structures, and they were “all crumbled.” “I was unwilling to push thru more brush,” he wrote in his diary. “I was scratched sufficiently as it was. I took one photograph. There was nothing to paint.”
It is striking how seldom Everett mentions painting or drawing in either his diary or his letters from 1932. In the comprehensive July 12 letter to Waldo, Everett admits, “I have not been able to paint for some time, but I am going to try some more before I admit defeat.”
A fog of depression, then, hung over Everett’s first four months in the Southwest in 1932. The traveling seemed to be reduced to a process of going through the motions. And every now and then, the leaden reportage of his daily doings in the diary was interrupted by a wail of existential anguish, as on May 22: “I often wish people meant something to one another, and one could find people to one’s taste.”
On May 23, near the small settlement of Young, Arizona, Everett made a deal with a local rancher to trade Pacer for two burros. He named his new charges Peggy and Wendy, though he later claimed that neither name really fit. Now Everett concocted a modus operandi he had not previously tried: he would ride Wendy, pack his belongings on Peggy, and connect the two animals with a leash. But his progress was thwarted by one snafu after another. The horse saddle, modified to fit a burro, was too big for Wendy and kept slipping off. Peggy stubbornly tugged on her leash, trying to head off in a different direction, thereby stopping Wendy in her tracks. And both burros balked at every stream crossing.
During the last weeks of May and into early June, Everett climbed north through pine forests toward the high escarpment of the Mogollon Rim, which he then followed east before dropping down to the town of Holbrook. His itinerary matched the routes of today’s state highways 288, 260, and 377. Even in 1932, an auto road covered this ground. “Half a dozen cars passed,” Everett noted on May 30, “and one tourist stopped and took my picture for me.”
How far from the true wilderness forays of the previous year was this dispirited trudge with recalcitrant burros! Everett was not even sure where he was headed, or why. During his down moments, the whole journey started to seem pointless. “Felt that the trip was foredoomed to failure,” he noted on May 31, “that I’d be overcome with melancholy if I visited the places I’ve seen before. Afraid to go home because that would be an admission of failure & I’d be ashamed to face Bill and Clark. [2 lines erased.]” The blank in the diary immediately preceded another cryptic complaint:
If only Sam would write to me about New York. I can’t yet believe that he has left me in the lurch. I felt distinctly different from other people, knew that I was a freak, in spite of Jean’s angry denial of it. Already I’ve drifted too far away from other people. I want to be different anyhow, I can’t help being different, but I get no joy from it, and all common joys are forbidden me.
At this remove, we have no idea who Sam or Jean was, or what they meant to Everett.
However obliquely or privately, in passages such as this Everett was slowly coming to terms with the destiny he felt forced upon him, which was to be a lifelong loner. A little more than a month later he would announce his fate in a triumphant postscript to Waldo, but now there was more gloom than gratification in the realization. To be a loner meant to be condemned to loneliness. On May 29, Everett’s diary recorded another anguished outburst:
I wish I had a companion or someone who was interested in me. Bill and Clark, however, would be worse than none. I would like to be influenced, taken in hand by someone, but I don’t think there is anyone in the world who knows enough to be able to advise me. I can’t find any ideal anywhere. So I am rather afraid of myself. Obscurantism.
During his slow burro march toward Holbrook, Everett was going through a dark night of the soul. But that ordeal would ultimately have a curative power. After Holbrook, Everett’s wandering regained purpose and even a modicum of joy, although the transports of 1932 would never match those of the previous year.
Since he was seldom alone for very long on the road to Holbrook, Everett began to strike up casual friendships among the local ranchers. Most of them were Mormons, who with characteristic hospitality offered the young man a place to stay and free meals. During the month of June, in fact, Everett spent more time sleeping in ranch houses and barns than he did camping out.
Frustrated by the tribulations of managing Peggy and Wendy, Everett changed his mind about burros and decided he wanted to buy or trade for a pair of horses before continuing his journey. From June 6 to 27, he lingered in and around Holbrook. At several different ranches he helped men break wild horses, castrate cattle, brand cows, build a shack, and other chores. Everett was thus getting an excellent apprenticeship as a cowboy, but he knew that was not his ultimate goal. The hard work seemed to justify the free room and board his new acquaintances offered the vagabond, but if one reads between the lines of the diary, it seems that Everett was essentially mooching off the generosity of the locals.
All this interplay with Arizona families, however, distracted the young man from his solitary woes. The diary abounds in pithy appraisals of these new friends. Of a drifter nicknamed Hot Cakes, Everett wrote, “[He] has an inferiority complex, I think, and he talks big in order to hide it.” Of another ranch hand, “Oscar is a small man, all muscle, with a turned up red nose. I like him the best of the bunch.”
Everett hung around Holbrook long enough to attend the town’s June 25 parade and rodeo, which culminated in a drunken brawl (a wide-eyed bystander, he recounted every blow and insult in his diary). He argued with a Mormon host about whether the Earth was only six thousand years old and had been created in six days. To humor the man, Everett attended church, where he rose and read out loud a favorite passage from the Book of Ruth (“Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God”). “On the whole, it was quite interesting,” Everett recorded in his diary, “and Mr. Crosby must have thot I behaved quite well for an unbeliever.”
Yet true companionship still eluded him. “I haven’t met anyone to talk to since Bill and Clark,” he lamented on June 22. “Yesterday I wrote them a good long letter, with any irrepressible superiority complex showing thru. Clark says I antagonize everyone and whoever learns to know me finally becomes disgusted. There may be some truth in that. I don’t try to please people I don’t respect.”
In keeping up a correspondence with the friends he had left behind in Roosevelt, Everett evidently was not willing to burn all the bridges between himself and Clark and Bill. Bill and Everett would in fact stay friends and trade letters through the rest of Everett’s life. Yet in Holbrook, he was still contemptuous of his unambitious pals. In that town he received several letters from his parents, who also sent money and a whole new package of books, including Mann’s The Magic Mountain. From Stella, he got news about Bill. “Mother wrote that Bill’s mother drove out to take him home,” he noted in his diary. “What a fuss about him. I suppose Bill and Clark went, because they certainly couldn’t do anything in this country.”
After much haggling in and around Holbrook, Everett secured two horses. There he abandoned Wendy and Peggy, without bothering to mention in his diary what happened to the burros, just as he had traded away Pacer near the town of Young without apparent regret. The first of the two horses, purchased from a rancher for six dollars, was “skinny as a rail, and twelve years old.” A local man colorfully disparaged this nag by telling Everett that “he wouldn’t give two hoots for the powder to blow my horse to hell.” It would be a prescient appraisal.
For the next several weeks, Everett called his horses Bay and Whitie, before renaming them Jonathan and Nuflo, respectively. By the end of June, he was restless to hit the trail. All the socializing and the indoor comfort had worn thin. On June 23 he wrote in his diary,
I will be glad when I am alone again. It is too much work for me to get along with other people. Yesterday I lay on the bed looking at the ceiling papered with ragged yellow newspapers, and thot of other ceilings I had looked at dismally. Trees and skies don’t give the same futile feeling.
Even before Holbrook, Everett’s spirits had started to take a turn upward. Camped near Zeniff, a straggling Mormon community below the Mogollon Rim (a ghost town today, Zeniff is reduced to three crumbling adobe buildings), Everett recorded a gleam of hope on June 3:
Again I am in the desert—the desert that I know, red sand, cedars, great spaces, distant mesas, and behind, the blue of the Mogollons.
The fire flamed straight up, and for awhile, I was almost able to be happy in the present, rather than in anticipation.
* * *
On June 27, Everett made his getaway from Holbrook, heading northeast. Despite his fear that he would be “overcome with melancholy if I visited the places I’ve seen before,” he had decided to return to Canyon de Chelly, where he had had some of his most transcendent experiences in 1931.
Twenty miles north of Holbrook, Everett crossed the boundary of the Navajo reservation. Now the strangers whose paths he crossed were not Mormon ranchers, but Indians. As he had started to do the year before, Everett made an effort to befriend Navajos and to learn about their culture. Sharing their campfires, he unsqueamishly ate native food—coffee, mutton broiled over the fire, and naneskadi, or Navajo bread. One man agreed to teach Everett Navajo phrases. He dutifully recorded his lessons in his diary: “Chynn ya go—I want to eat.… Ado beg zduh ut si seh ut-t-ih ha day sha to—Don’t be afraid, little girl, I’m going,” and the like. The next day, Everett learned that the man had been pulling his leg, uttering nonsense syllables and proffering bogus translations, while his friends listened in silent amusement.
The xenophobia of some of the Navajos, Everett handled in stride. “They talk about me in Navajo,” he noted on July 7, “and I retaliate by speaking French.” On the reservation, Everett regularly sought out empty hogans in which to sleep—a practice that would have offended the natives, had they known about it. (Even though he carried a tent, he pitched it and slept in it only rarely.) On July 2, Everett unabashedly recorded in his diary how he had broken the lock on one hogan and forced his way inside. A week later he took apart a half-ruined hogan and burned its logs in his campfire. Such deeds shock the modern reader, but they were not uncommon in the 1930s. Everett’s thoughtless appropriation of Navajo dwellings can also be seen as stemming from his sense of entitlement, the same cockiness that allowed him to knock on Edward Weston’s door and introduce himself (as he would with other famous artists in 1933 and 1934).
Along the trail, after killing every rattlesnake he could find, Everett kept the rattles as souvenirs. Once that summer he horrified some Navajos by flaunting a newly killed rattlesnake. (In Diné mythology, the Great Snake is a supernatural being woven into the very geology of the landscape.) In his diary, after he showed the dead snake to some young men, he recorded their reaction: “They said I would die, and looked at the snake. They ran like little girls when I waved it at them.”
Everett’s ambivalence about Native Americans emerged in another set piece, as he sermonized in his diary about the limitations of Navajo culture:
I have been observing more and more fully that the Navajo owes everything he has to the white man. His food is mutton, bread, and coffee. All these were brought by the white man. [Sheep, to be precise, had been introduced to the Diné not by Anglos but by the Spanish.] His clothes are borrowed. All he has left is his language, ceremonies, and a few customs. In spite of all the things he did not have before, he seems a pitiful creature to me. Yet he is always ready to laugh and sing.
Yet tempering such pronouncements was Everett’s openness to individual Navajos. In Ganado, near the famous trading post established by John Lorenzo Hubbell in 1883 (the first Anglo trading post on the rez), Everett was invited to stay in the hogan of a Navajo who lived nearby. “His oldest daughter, Alice,” Everett wrote, “is the most beautiful Navajo girl I have ever seen.” During the next few days, Everett paid inordinate but shyly mute attention to Alice’s comings and goings.
Such an observation could be cited to argue that Everett’s orientation was firmly heterosexual. Yet only two days after meeting Alice, a strange episode involving a young Navajo named Lefty (Everett calls him “a boy”) with whom he had shared some ranch chores occurred.
At night he wanted to sleep with me, outside. He crawled under and snored irritatingly. Late at night the sky darkened, wind whistled, and a light shower moistened the air. We moved inside.
[The next morning] I managed to awaken but fell asleep again while Lefty was preparing breakfast. I had an ugly dream about him.
Even as his spirits gradually improved, Everett continued to suffer from the exhaustion that had debilitated him since setting out from Roosevelt two months before. His stupor was intensified by the desert heat of summer. And he had developed a new problem with his eyesight. On June 28 he wrote, “My eyes are wretched. They have been paining me severely. I couldn’t recognize my horses until I was upon them.” Two days later, “For hours I lay half dead on the sand under the pinion, feeling too weak to rise. My eyes burned when I read, and nothing seemed to give joy. Mentally I wrote my last letter.”
Despite the pain in his eyes, Everett voraciously read the books his parents had mailed him. In June and July his diary records the consumption of Mann’s The Magic Mountain (which alternately bored and enthralled him); the Arabian Nights; Shakespeare’s plays; Ibsen’s Ghosts; Emerson’s essays; a collection of letters from famous men (Everett singles out Mendelssohn, Wagner, Liszt, Jules Breton, and the sculptor-poet W. W. Story); an anthology called The Fifty Best Poems of America; a travel narrative about the Pacific by Frederick O’Brien; William Morris’s medieval novel A Dream of John Ball; Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; George Bernard Shaw’s Socialism for Millionaires; a government report of a survey among Navajos; religious tracts the zealous Mormon Mr. Crosby had given him; and assorted newspapers and magazines he found in stores and homes along the way.
In terms of his own Southwest odyssey, the most interesting book Everett read that summer is one whose title and author he does not name. On July 12 his diary reports that he
read a book about the Navajo country & a boy who started in New Mexico, had money, good horses & equipment but was the grossest sort of tenderfoot, stayed on the highways for several months, met a friend in Santa Fe, then together they went up thru Frijoles to Mesa Verde & to the reservation. They were here several years ago when things were much wilder. There was hardly any trail to rainbow bridge—they picked their way very adventurously. They were always changing horses—trading one & paying 8 to 15 dollars to boot. They got to see the Indian dances & sand paintings, met all kinds of interesting people.
The book was Clyde Kluckhohn’s To the Foot of the Rainbow, today regarded as a Southwest classic. Despite Everett’s put-down of the “greenhorn” who was a rich kid and who overpaid for horses, Kluckhohn and Everett were kindred souls. (It is a pity they never met.) The book recounts a 2,500-mile ramble across the Southwest undertaken in 1925 by Kluckhohn, twenty years old at the time, and two buddies of the same age. Kluckhohn had the same appreciation for scenic beauty and the same curiosity about Indian cultures and prehistoric ruins that Everett did. He would go on to become a Harvard professor and the leading Navajo ethnographer of his era.
Despite his suffering and his loneliness, on the reservation Everett was reawakening to the magnificence of the landscape. On July 1, in the midst of a storm, Everett wrote in his diary, “The rain beat down steadily. I made a sketch and photographed a butte. The beauty of the wet desert was overpowering. I was not happy for there was no one with whom I could share it, but I thought how much better than to be in a school room with rain on the windows.”
On July 11, Everett reached Chinle. Renewing his friendship with some of the residents gave his morale another boost. There, at the gateway to Canyon de Chelly, he made a new resolve, writing in his diary, “I think I’ll extend my leave another year. I’ll get a couple of good horses and a good saddle.” At last, it seems, Everett had not only come to terms with his destiny as a loner, but had embraced it with passionate conviction. On July 12 in Chinle, he wrote five densely crowded pages to Waldo, summing up the first four months of his 1932 adventure. It is one of the longest and richest letters Everett ever sent to anyone. The epistle is penned in ink, but at the bottom of the last page he added a postscript in pencil:
I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wildernesses. God, how the trail lures me. You cannot comprehend its resistless fascination for me. After all the lone trail is best. I hope I’ll be able to buy good horses and a better saddle. I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.
This manifesto has become the most oft-quoted statement that Everett ever wrote. And in light of his subsequent disappearance, the sibylline final sentence has stood as a kind of epitaph for the vagabond for the last seventy-seven years.
* * *
Now, instead of wandering somewhat aimlessly, Everett had mapped out his destinations for the next few weeks. He would ride up both Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, emerging at the headwaters of the latter branch, then cross the Lukachukai Mountains to arrive at Shiprock, New Mexico. Resupplying in that town in the northeast corner of the reservation, he would head farther north to expore Mesa Verde. In 1931 his looping forays had never taken him so far east. Except for the trip by train across the country at the age of nine, Everett had never before entered New Mexico or Colorado.
Riding up Canyon de Chelly, Everett was assailed by nostalgic memories of his 1931 jaunt.
I passed the sandspit where I shot the burro last year, and came to the fork of Monument Canyon and Upper Canyon de Chelly recognizing the spot where Pegasus had stuck in the quicksand. I saw my old campsite and remembered how I raised my cocoa to my lips and drank “to the long, long dead whose bones are there above me” (in the dwellings). I remembered how I fondled Curly, then a small puppy, and sang to the moon and the rising night wind.
At last Everett started painting again, and he spent hours copying Anasazi pictographs and petroglyphs. Every day he greeted Navajos living in the canyon, yet once more he unhesitatingly spent nights in disused hogans. And at least once, he again burned the logs of an old hogan in his campfire, for he records that an elderly Navajo woman “taunted” him for doing so. (The taunting was more likely a stern berating. Navajos will usually abandon a hogan after someone has died in it, and sometimes they will break down a wall “to let the spirit out” or even burn the structure. But for an Anglo to take apart a hogan just to feed his campfire would amount to a serious profanation.)
Once more, Everett sought out “untouched” prehistoric ruins—ones that he hoped no one had visited since the Anasazi abandoned them in the thirteenth century. He made a daring climb toward a high cliff dwelling, but backed off fifty feet below it. “For a long time I looked at the dwelling and shuddered,” he wrote that evening in his diary. “Once I made as if to climb up, but the rock crumbled.… I might have climbed up the narrow crack of soft sandstone, but I knew I would be terrified at descending, with no place to put my feet and the rock crumbling in my hands.”
In Canyon de Chelly, Everett seemed rejuvenated. At night, he “chanted” poetry out loud as he perused his anthology by flashlight. Reading Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” provoked a meditation on his own belief system:
[Emerson] like many others I have read is horrified at the atheist, or rather, he pities him. Personally I seem to be an agnosticist. I don’t see how an intelligent person can believe anything, even determinism.… I can’t believe in a God just because other people do.… Prayer is foreign to my nature. I could not seriously attend church and worship.
Although he did not need to say so in his diary, this declaration was an implicit rejection of his father’s faith, for Christopher had not only graduated from the Harvard Divinity School, but had served for years as a Unitarian minister.
Digging in Anasazi ruins, Everett found arrowheads that he undoubtedly kept. Scraping away the floor of a subterranean kiva, he unearthed a yucca sandal. But on July 19 he recorded another onset of the pain afflicting his eyes: “I felt drunken. I reeled and swayed in the saddle and felt decidedly out of my usual nature. For some time I could hardly see.”
Somewhere near Spider Rock, the striking 810-foot-tall, freestanding pinnacle, Everett turned around and headed back down Canyon de Chelly to its junction with its northern branch, Canyon del Muerto. Whether or not the pain in his eyes darkened his spirits, Everett plunged abruptly into the doldrums. All at once, the manifesto he had sent as a postscript to his July 12 letter to Waldo seemed hollow. After spending a whole afternoon sitting in a hogan reading Emerson and Ibsen, Everett wrote in his diary,
I felt futile. It seems after all that a solitary life is not good. I wish I could experience a great love. I find that I cannot consider working, even in art. To be a real artist one must work incessantly, and I have not the vitality.… More and more I feel that I don’t belong in the world. I am losing contact with life. It seems useless to paint, when Nature is here, and I can’t paint anyway.
Three days later his mood had not changed. “I think I have seen too much and known too much—” he wrote, “so much that it has put me in a dream from which I cannot waken and be like other people. I love beauty but have no longer the desire to recreate it.” In his funk, Everett once more pondered death, as he misquoted from memory two lines from Edwin Arlington Robinson: “ ‘Who goes too far to find his grave, / Mostly alone he goes.’ ”
Such passages reveal how invaluable the surviving diaries are for anyone who wishes to comprehend the mind and soul of Everett Ruess. Nearly all the “famous” Ruess quotes—the ones reprinted as mottos on calendars and posters—come from the letters. The 1932 and 1933 diaries are far less deliberately poetic than the letters he sent home from the trail, but they are truer to his real experience. If we had only Everett’s 1932 letters by which to judge his second Southwest expedition, we would have almost no awareness of the doubt and despondency that plagued him throughout the journey.
Several students of Ruess, combing the texts of both the diaries and the letters, have advanced the theory that he was bipolar—or, to use the term current in the 1930s, manic-depressive. Certainly the evidence is there of extreme and sudden mood swings. But to lay a psychiatric diagnosis on a person one has never met (pace Freud on Leonardo) is all too facile a guessing game. In the effort to understand Everett’s sexuality, it is more important to attend to all the nuances of his attraction to various friends and strangers than to label him as gay or bisexual. In the same way, the mood swings speak for themselves, and to deduce that Everett had a bipolar disorder does little or nothing to aid our understanding of this complicated and articulate young adventurer.
Despite his gloom, Everett pushed on up Canyon del Muerto. On July 21 he finally renamed his horses. Bay became Jonathan “because he is so sweet tempered, meek and gentle,” wrote Everett; Whitie became Nuflo “after the mischievous old guardian of Rima in [W. H. Hudson’s] Green Mansions.” By a twist of fate, the renaming would have the effect of a malediction.
Fifteen months earlier, after his April 1931 foray into the Tsegi, Everett had written to Bill Jacobs about suffering “enough pain and tragedy to make the delights possible by contrast,” but he never made clear what that pain and tragedy were. Now a real tragedy occurred.
On July 22, at the head of del Muerto, Everett started his horses up the steep trail leading out of the canyon. That evening he vividly recorded what happened:
It was so steep that I led Nuflo, and Jonathan had to be urged. Finally he fell or lay down at a rough spot about half way up. I thwacked him but he would not rise, so I unpacked him there.… When I pulled out the pack saddle, Jon slid off the trail, turned over three times on the downslope, and tottered to his feet. I led him up, put Nuflo’s saddle on him, packed Nuflo, and slowly descended.
Instead of continuing his ascent out of the canyon, Everett wisely returned to his previous night’s camp. But then:
I unloaded and led the horses on the bank where the grass was very sparse. I didn’t hobble Jonathan. He went around in circles and didn’t eat. I washed a cut on his leg and he stood for a while, then staggered sidewise and fell into a clump of cactus where he lay awhile. Then he got groggily to his feet, tottered again and collapsed. Then I prepared myself for the worst and began looking at my maps to see how near a railroad was. In a little while, I looked at Jonathan again, and he was dead—eyes glassy green, teeth showing, flies in his mouth.
“So for me,” Everett sermonized that evening, “Canyon del Muerto is indeed the canyon of death—the end of the trail for gentle old Jonathan.”
On the spot, Everett devised an unusual funerary rite. Carrying Jonathan’s saddle, he climbed up to the ruin where the year before he had discovered the Anasazi cradleboard. There he deposited the saddle. In his diary he wrote,
I don’t think anyone will find the saddle. The baby board was where I left it last May, except that the hoops had fallen into the bin. My printing on the board—Evert Rulan etc., was almost obscured. The rain washed away my tracks. The saddle is well cached. The ghosts of the cliff dwellers will guard it.
This is the only surviving admission that Everett ever made about carving or writing his name as a graffito in a prehistoric ruin. It was not the last time he would do so, however. (If, in subsequent years, some Navajo or pot hunter or archaeologist revisited the ruin and found the strange assemblage, with Everett’s 1931 alias inscribed on the cradleboard, he or she left no record of the discovery.)
Jonathan’s body, of course, Everett had to leave in the grass where the horse had collapsed. “I suppose the Navajos will steal his shoes,” he noted in his diary.
The remark about pulling out his maps to look for the nearest railroad seems to indicate that at the moment of Jonathan’s death, Everett realized the rest of his journey was doomed. But later in the same diary entry, he mused, “I don’t think I’ll buy another horse. I haven’t the money and one will do. Having only Nuflo, I’ll care for him more solicitously.”
Gamely, Everett coaxed the heavily laden horse up the steep trail out of Canyon del Muerto. At a trading post near the Navajo settlement of Tsaile, he bought supplies—not only cookies, peanut butter, and cereal, but cigarettes. The 1932 diary first reveals the fact that Everett regularly smoked on the trail. One entry a few days after his resupply makes no bones about the pleasures of tobacco. Ensconced in yet another hogan, “I smoked half a dozen cigarettes, watching the beautiful spirals of blue smoke, blowing rings, and looking at the fungus on the rafters.” Everett’s mother had voiced her concern about her son’s habit, for in his next letter to Stella, he minimized his usage: “No, I haven’t smoked regularly, just once in a few weeks.”
Even as he struggled on, crossing the Lukachukai range, walking beside Nuflo more often than riding, Everett felt his weariness spread through his whole body. On July 23 he confessed, “[T]here was such a stiffness and soreness in my limbs as I had never known before. My shoulders seemed bruised and my thighs ached piercingly when we climbed.”
On July 26, Everett crossed the state border into New Mexico. The town of Shiprock, the largest he would pass through since having left Holbrook, lay a mere twenty miles ahead. The day before, he had jotted down a cryptic testimony about his private feelings:
I went swimming, made pop corn, and wrote a good letter to Bill. While there is life, there is hope. I still think at times that the future may hold happiness. I shall wait and see. I have waited three years already, and not in vain.
Despite his falling-out with Bill and Clark in May, Everett was determined to preserve his friendship, at least with Bill. The “good letter” devoted several pages to recounting Everett’s adventures of the previous months, including a long passage (much of it copied verbatim from his diary) detailing Jonathan’s death and Everett’s caching of his saddle in the cliff dwelling. Yet toward the end, Everett complains about his old friend’s failure to keep up his end of the communication: “Now I expect some kind of reply from you—if it isn’t a better letter than the last one, I really won’t answer.”
Yet Everett was unwilling to end on a sour note. Instead, he mooted the question of some later voyage with his pal. Everett closed,
I might be back there [in Los Angeles] in a few months, tho I don’t know how I would get back. If I did, would we have a chance to hit the trail together into the Sierra wilds? Give me some advice, tell me my faults, my virtues, if any, open up your heart, and write lengthily if you love me.
The tone here is quite different from the “Love and kisses, / Desperately yours” sign-off of Everett’s May 1931 letter to Jacobs. In some sense, Everett genuinely loved Bill, and the feeling may have been mutual. This says little or nothing, however, about any overtly homosexual relationship between the young men.
From Chinle, Everett had announced in his letters home that his next post office would be Shiprock. But when he arrived in that flatland town on the banks of the San Juan River, he was disappointed to pick up only a single letter, from his mother. He wrote her back, offering a short account of Jonathan’s death. “I’m going on to Mesa Verde,” he vowed, “about 70 miles by highway and trail. There I expect to rest awhile, and if I can find a tourist who will take me to Los Angeles, with my luggage, I’ll go with him.”
Jonathan’s death and Everett’s physical ailments had taken their toll. On July 27 he wrote, “My legs are weaker than ever. I’m filled with a violent desire to go home.” Yet he would stick it out in the Southwest for another month, and castigate himself for not staying longer and attempting more. On July 29 he wrote in his diary,
I could not sleep for thinking of the future. I was sure I wanted to go on thru the Carrizos to Kayenta and Monument Valley, Betatakin, Keet Seel, Inscription House, Rainbow bridge, and Grand Canyon. I felt I’d never forgive myself if I went away without seeing more of the West.
Such an itinerary would have effectively doubled the mileage of Everett’s 1932 wandering, as he would have looped back westward to revisit the places that had meant the most to him the year before, throwing in some new destinations (Rainbow Bridge, Inscription House) to boot.
Instead, from Shiprock Everett headed north toward Mesa Verde. For almost twenty miles, he followed a highway, the old Route 666 (today’s U. S. Highway 491). At one point he hitched a ride in a truck driven by a Navajo. Nuflo was tied to the back of the vehicle. “It irked him,” Everett noted, “to be obliged to step along at a proper pace.” Other autos passed by as Everett walked or rode his horse.
There were two comely girls who slowed their car to look at me. One, in a red and black shirt, looked quite nice. Then there was a Louisiana car, with a haughty young fellow with black mustache and sombrero and a longhaired black beauty beside him.
On July 29, Everett crossed another state border and entered Colorado, at the same moment also leaving the Navajo reservation. At a trading post on the Mancos River, he left Highway 666, planning to head east up Mancos Canyon. The trader, however, professed to know nothing about this southern approach to Mesa Verde.
Everett bought new supplies, including half a watermelon, and set off, following a faint trail that paralleled the river. He had gone only a quarter of a mile when the second disaster of his 1932 campaign occurred. Once again, his diary vividly recounts the fiasco.
[T]he trail led along the edge of a bank in a quite narrow pass with the high bank above & below. I supposed it was passable, because it was there. Nuflo went ahead, scraped safely by, but around the turn, the ledge was narrower. There was nothing to do but go on, and Nuflo was within a few yards of safety when at a particularly narrow spot, his kyak [pack sack] pushed him out and he began to slip off. He lunged up again, but once more, the pack pushed him off. He clawed the ledge frantically, then fell down into the current of the muddy Mancos. It was deep near the bank, and he floundered about and wet his pack. When the kyaks were full of water, he could not lift them, and he floundered miserably and floated downstream several yards. He could not stand up.
Petrified, Everett stood on the bank and yelled, “Oh, for God’s sake, for GOD’s sake.” Then he sprang into action, leaping into the river up to his waist. As he tried to pull the horse back onto the bank, a neck strap broke and the saddle and pack sacks fell off. Everett got Nuflo onto shore, tied him to a cottonwood, then went back into the river after the sodden gear. A precious blanket floated away. At last, hauling his equipment in pieces, Everett got the rest of it onto dry land. “I … heaved at the bedroll,” he later wrote. “It weighed like lead. I had to try a dozen times before I could get it on the bank.”
Everything he owned was soaked through. His camera and flashlight were ruined. With a sense of desperation, Everett hung everything on a nearby fence, hoping to dry out his gear. To his further dismay, his precious sketch case was also soaked. He spread out the papers on which he had made his paintings and drawings, but, as he recorded, “Most of them are spoiled.” His food had turned to mush. Even the diary was soaked. (Later, in Los Angeles, after Everett disappeared, his mother wrote on the cover of the bound record book: “1932 diary. This fell into the River with all of Jonathan’s pack, in Canyon del Muerto.” Stella had confused the two horse catastrophes, but her pride at saving the diary in legible form was self-evident.)
As he had started up Mancos canyon, Everett entered the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. He was no longer in Navajo country. While he struggled with his gear, he wrote later, “Two women came by—smiled, but did not offer to help.”
To his further dismay, it started to rain. Everett flung a tarp over the “wreckage,” left Nuflo tied to the tree, and hiked back to the trading post. There he bought cigarettes and candy and borrowed clothes, a rug, and a canvas to sleep in before returning to the debris of his camp. At the end of the long day, Everett wrote, “Tho I had not let it show, I really felt overwhelmed by what had happened.”
During the next few days, Everett struggled slowly up Mancos Canyon, searching for any of several tributary gorges that would lead up onto the high tabletop of Mesa Verde. His mood was dismal. Several times he got lost, but Utes more helpful than the two women who had smiled at his river predicament put him back on the right trails. “Nuflo was exasperating,” Everett wrote on July 31. “If I tried to lead him he pulled back like a burro, and if I drove him, he was constantly turning around and leaving the trail.”
The next day, Everett recorded, “I am in no great rush to reach the park. It will mark the termination of my wanderings—my independence. I can’t even see the [cliff] dwellings independently. All tourists go in an auto caravan with a ranger.”
On August 2, Everett entered the national park, visited the headquarters, and then adjourned to the group campground. He was disappointed to find not a single letter awaiting his arrival. The next day he wrote to his family, putting up a brave front:
In spite of all the reverses, hardships, and difficulties, I find the wilderness trail very fascinating.… I think it would be cowardly to turn back at this stage of the game.… You have no idea how flabby and pale the city is, compared with the reality, the meaningful beauty, of the wilderness.
But Mesa Verde, thronged with tourists, was not wilderness. And Everett was played out. During the next few days, as he joined those auto caravans to visit the famous ruins, he looked hard for a tourist from California who would be willing to drive him home.
* * *
After August 2, Everett stopped writing in his diary. The reason was not that he had lost interest in keeping a record, but simply that he had run out of pages. In the last six pages of his bound journal, Everett had transcribed quotations from famous poets. These passages had been entered earlier, perhaps even before he left Los Angeles.
The quotations form a small anthology of some of the verses that meant much to Everett. The poets cited range from Stephen Vincent Benét to John Masefield, from Keats to Yeats, from Euripides to Baudelaire. Everett may have been quoting from memory, for in his transcription of parts of Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine,” he inadvertently dropped the sixth line of the famous penultimate stanza:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
The diary situation is further clarified by a line in Everett’s August 3 letter to his family, asking them to mail not only books by Baudelaire and Blake but “a diary book (mine is full).” When the new diary did not arrive in time, Everett scrounged some loose pages on which he made highly telegraphic entries from August 3 to August 17 (those pages are folded and tucked inside the bound, river-soaked original journal, now housed in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah).
However brief, those entries record a series of visits to Anasazi ruins. What Everett did with Nuflo during his two weeks in Mesa Verde is unclear, but he got to the ruins by riding with tourists in their automobiles, and he put up with the regimen of ranger-guided tours. By now Everett had given up camping as well, as he spent his nights in a ranger cabin.
The entries read like a laundry list of ruins knocked off: “On to Kodak House.” “Jug House ruin.” “Over to No. 11. Couldn’t get in.” Occasionally, Everett elaborates: “Went to No. 16. Upper terrace well preserved—Fine doors. Skeleton ex. preserved. Fondled skull.” On August 11, Everett wrote, “JW 1890.” In some ruin, he had found the inscription of the Kayenta trader and self-taught archaeologist John Wetherill, engraved in the rock forty-one years before Wetherill would meet Everett and set him on his Anasazi path toward the Tsegi Canyon system.
Despite the blasé tone of these entries, constrained as they are by a shortage of paper, Mesa Verde made a lasting impression on Everett. One of his best blockprints is a deft rendering of the four-story ruin called Square Tower House, as seen from the rim above.
In Mesa Verde, Everett managed to get poison ivy again. He met a few strangers interesting enough to consider as friends, but backed away: “Herb very travelled—music, studied at Chi. Art In. [the Art Institute of Chicago]. Yet we don’t seem to strike a note.”
What Everett did not find was a tourist willing to drive him to Los Angeles. After making a four-day excursion to some of the more remote western arms of the national park, Everett wrote a last letter home on August 25. Then he started hitchhiking. What happened to Nuflo, he did not bother to record.
From Mesa Verde, Everett got a ride not all the way to Los Angeles, but only to Gallup, New Mexico. From there, as he wrote a friend seven months later, “I persuaded an unwilling chauffeur to take me as far as Williams [Arizona]. Then he wanted to drop me again, but helped by my magnetic personality I persuaded him that he was foolish not to take me to the [Grand] Canyon, which he finally did.”
The great chasm briefly reawakened Everett’s wanderlust. He lingered long enough to make two round trips down five-thousand-foot trails to the Colorado River and back up to the South Rim. Both times he carried his own gear in a knapsack, rather than rent a burro from the Park Service. Somewhere in the canyon depths he killed his eighth rattlesnake of the summer—“a rare species found only in the Grand Canyon,” he bragged unabashedly.
At last Everett got a ride to Kingman, Arizona, just thirty miles east of the Nevada border. From Kingman he mailed home most of his gear. But during the next few days he managed only to patch together short rides westward. “Stranded” (his word) in the blazing heat of Needles, California, Everett sent a telegram home pleading for rescue, “but the wire was never received,” he later wrote, “and I got a ride straight through, arriving in dense fog in a strange part of the city.”
It was a fitting end to Everett’s star-crossed 1932 expedition. Looking back on that journey, Everett could not have failed to be disappointed by how far short his accomplishment had fallen from the standards he had set during his 1931 excursion. He had spent five months in the Southwest, not ten, and during some ten weeks of his time, he had effectively been marooned, first in Roosevelt, then in Holbrook. His 1932 journey had covered less than half the distance of his previous year’s pilgrimage, and relatively little of his traveling had taken him through true wilderness. Much of the time on the trail in 1932, Everett was plagued by exhaustion, by aching throughout his body, and by some kind of painful eye affliction. He never sorted out the logistical problems posed by a series of inadequate pack animals. And he had suffered four calamities—the schism with Bill and Clark, the beating and disappearance of his dog Curly, the death of Jonathan, and Nuflo’s plunge into the Mancos River.
Back home, Everett was not at all sure what he wanted to do with his life. His parents had plans for their younger son, however, and they had nothing to do with further vagabondage in the outdoors.