WALDO AND EVERETT ARRIVED IN KAYENTA on April 14. From this small town on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona, Everett had launched his first Southwest expedition three years earlier. And here he had met John Wetherill, who had given him his first tips about backcountry ruins in remote canyons such as the Tsegi Canyon system. Kayenta was far more congenial to Everett’s spirit than touristy Roosevelt, where he had been stuck for two months in 1932 as he tried to get his journey under way, while Clark dithered and then lost the heart to join Everett on his rugged trek.
In Kayenta, the brothers went on a couple of short walks, taking photographs of each other that they would trade by mail, before Waldo turned around and started back toward Los Angeles. About a week later, Everett made a deal with a local to buy two new burros. He named them Leopard and Cockleburrs.
Everett kept a diary throughout his 1934 wanderings, but the leather-bound book would eventually disappear with him. A few tantalizing paragraphs from the journal that he transcribed into a letter to a Los Angeles friend survive. If they are characteristic of the kinds of entries he was regularly making, then the 1934 diary was utterly different from the 1933 Sierra Nevada journal, which had been so full of quotidian events, so lacking in deep reflection. The 1934 paragraphs soar into a metaphysical realm.
Once more, as with the 1930 and 1931 excursions, it is chiefly from the letters home that we are able to reconstruct the last seven months of Everett’s wandering career. These letters, too, are strikingly different from the ones he mailed to family and friends from the Sierra the previous year. They amount, in fact, to a kind of high-wire act, for as never before, in 1934 Everett strove to match the beauty of the landscape with beautiful, crafted prose. The letters neglect the homely but concrete detail of daily life in favor of transcendent statements of spiritual belief, distilling the hard-won insights he had gleaned from his relentless vagabondage since the age of sixteen.
From Kayenta around the beginning of May, Everett headed north toward Monument Valley. At once he suffered a misadventure not unlike others he had undergone with skittish pack animals in the past. In a “raging gale,” riding one burro and leading the other, Everett covered twenty-five miles that day. “The seas of purple loco [weed] bloom were buffeted about by the wind,” he wrote to Waldo on May 3, “and the sand blew in riffles across our tracks, obscuring them almost at once.”
Ten miles north of Kayenta, Everett passed by the soaring plug of volcanic rock the Navajos call Agathla. Despite the wind and the oncoming night, Everett dismounted to make a painting of the imposing pinnacle. By the time he hit the trail again, aiming for a hogan he had discovered in 1931, in which he hoped to camp, it was almost pitch dark. Now he walked, guiding both animals by their leads. Just as he found a rock cairn that served as a landmark near the hogan, the burros “suddenly bolted into the night.”
It was a potential disaster, right at the beginning of the trip. In the darkness Everett ran after the burros “until my lungs were afire.” He could hear the thumping noise of saddlebags slapping against the burros’ flanks, but he could not find Cockleburrs or Leopard. “I thought of the smashed saddles and broken kyaks,” he wrote Waldo, “their contents scattered broadcast, of the crushed camera and the paintings lying in the rain.”
In despair, Everett found the faint Monument Valley road and headed back toward Kayenta. Two days after the debacle he wrote,
I started to walk there to ask help of my Mormon friend, but a mile away, I turned about and went back. It was not that I couldn’t stand being laughed at by the whole town, for it really was funny, and such things don’t bother me. But it would be asking too much of the Mormon, and anyway, for a long time I had flattered myself that I could “take it,” and always had, without complaint, so I thought this was a good time to show myself.
At the time, in the windy night, Everett’s predicament was decidedly not funny. Returning to the bend in the road where the burros had bolted, Everett found two saddle blankets snagged in the rocks. With these he approached the hogan, got a fire going inside, and slept fitfully through the rest of the night.
In the morning it started to rain, but with first light he found the burros’ tracks. It was not long before he came upon his pack animals. Cockleburrs “was standing stock still, looking very foolish. Leopard was nearby, equally sheepish, his saddle under him, but unhurt.” A canteen and Everett’s camera were missing, but after half an hour of searching in circles, he found both. All was well, the catastrophe avoided. Everett returned to the hogan, where the fire was still blazing. “I felt perfectly delighted with everything,” he insisted to Waldo, “gave the burros an extra ration of oats, hobbled them out, and put on the pot to cook my supper and breakfast.”
Just how carefully Everett was now structuring the record of his excursion is revealed in the fact that his account of the mishap near Agathla in the letter to Waldo matches almost word for word another telling of the episode in a letter to a family friend, Emily Ormond, even down to the “purple loco bloom buffeted about by the wind.” The letters home, no longer merely news dispatches, had become drafts of chapters in a book he might someday write to share his adventures with the world. In this sense, in 1934 Everett had finally become as ambitious a writer as he already was an artist.
Everett had been in Arizona for only a little more than two weeks when he wrote Waldo on May 3. But he claimed that in that short span, “I had many other thrills when I trusted my life to crumbling sandstone and angles little short of the perpendicular, in the search for waterholes and cliff dwellings. Often I was surprised myself when I came out alive and on top.” He repeated the formula almost verbatim to Emily Ormond, but added, in his characteristic perfect tense, a grandiloquent boast that has nonetheless become one of Everett’s signature mottos: “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear.”
In 1931 and 1932, in pursuit of cliff dwellings that he hoped no other Anglos had ever visited, Everett had done some bold climbing, but now, in 1934, he pushed the margins of safety to a thinner edge than ever before. In these daring scrambles, there may have been a hint of a suicidal impulse. Everett seems to have realized as much, for in a letter to a Los Angeles friend named Edward Gardner, he declared, “Yesterday I did some miraculous climbing on a nearly vertical cliff, and escaped unscathed, too. One way and another, I have been flirting pretty heavily with Death, the old clown.”
If Everett reached and explored Monument Valley during early May, it was during a very brief visit, for by May 5 he was in Chilchinbito, a Navajo outpost sixteen miles southeast of Kayenta. There he made his first new friend of the 1934 outing, a Hispanic trader named José Garcia. To his mother, Everett wrote in praise of the man,
When I came here last night, Jose’s kindness and courtesy almost brought tears to my eyes, for there is something very fine about him, and I have not met many of his kind in this country. His father, a wizened old pioneer of the Spaniards, is here too. They are good, simple people without sophistication, living happily in this at present untroubled part of the world. Jose speaks four languages—English, Spanish, Navajo, and Zuni.
Everett offered to paint a geologic wonder on the western skyline—a triple tower of dark rock called the Three Fingers—for Garcia. Lingering about Chilchinbito, he noted “some handsome, lithe young girls among the Navajos.” (An undated photograph survives, in which Everett stands beside a Navajo hogan, next to a handsome native woman holding a baby in a cradle. Everett supplied the caption: “My Navajo Wife.”)
It was a shock a month later when Everett learned that José Garcia had been killed in an accident. The trader, he wrote Bill Jacobs, “was riding the load on a truck. A wheel came off, and the whole load fell on him.”
Out of the blue, its provenance undecipherable, emerges a long letter to Frances, dated May 5 and written in Chilchinbito. At the Kayenta post office, Everett had received a letter from Frances with photographic negatives in it, presumably mailed from San Francisco. Everett’s response begins guardedly enough, as he repeats almost word for word the encomium on José Garcia that he had written to his mother. Slowly the letter warms toward the personal. “You should see the glorious color,” he tells Frances, “when the first light of dawn spreads on the golden clifftops and the grey-blue pinyon-clad slopes.”
The impulse to show the Southwestern landscape to the girl with whom five months earlier he had fallen in love nudges Everett toward a reflection on “my life in the cities.” He concludes a meandering paragraph, “I do not know if I shall ever return to the cities again, but I cannot complain that I found them empty of beauty.”
In the next sentence, Everett’s regret (as quoted in the previous chapter) about the dissolution of his linkage with Frances pours forth: “I was sorry, though, that our intimacy, like many things that are and will be, had to die with a dying fall.”
Then Everett resumes his guarded pose, as he tells Frances in abstract terms about his first three weeks in the desert—“a life of strange contrasts,” as he labels it. “There has been deep peace, vast calm and fury, strange comradeships and intimacies, and many times my life and all my possessions have tottered on the far side of the balance.”
The letter closes with a wistful hint of how much Everett misses Frances:
But much as I love people, the most important thing to me is still the nearly unbearable beauty of what I see. I won’t wish that you could see it, for you might not find it easy to bear either, but yet I do sincerely wish for you at least a little of the impossible.
Love from Everett.
* * *
So far as we can trace Everett’s wanderings during his first few weeks in 1934, they amount to tame Arizona forays out of a base in Kayenta—the first a simple hike up the road (today’s U.S. Highway 160) to Dinnehotso, followed by the jaunt past Agathla toward Monument Valley, then the reconnaisance of Chilchinbito (“bitter water” in Navajo, Everett informed his parents) toward the south.
But Everett had an overriding itinerary in mind, which he outlined in a letter to Waldo on May 3. “Today I am starting for Chin Lee [Chinle], Canyon de Chelly, the Lukachukais, and the Carrizos. I shall probably be gone a month or two. Chin Lee will be my next post office.”
So far as we can tell, Everett carried out his program to the letter, making a loop of 170 miles. He was back in Kayenta by mid-June. Most of the terrain he explored through the rest of May and early June, however, was not new to him. He had had memorable experiences in Canyon de Chelly in both 1931 and 1932, finding the Anasazi necklace the first year, having his horse Jonathan collapse and die the second. In 1932 he had pushed on out of Canyon del Muerto to cross the Lukachukais into New Mexico. Shiprock and Mesa Verde had disappointed Everett, so this time he would not extend his journey to the northeast, but would turn straight north from the crest of the high mesas of the Lukachukais to poke through the neighboring maze of canyons and buttes called the Carrizos—the one part of the loop with which he was unfamilar, and still today one of the most unfrequented regions in all the Southwest.
The whole of that itinerary lay within the Navajo reservation. Despite his ambivalence about Indian character, Everett was determined to learn more about Navajo culture, and to teach himself a serviceable vocabulary of Diné words.
Whether or not Everett was truly bipolar, as some analysts would have us believe, he certainly underwent extreme mood swings over short periods of time. On May 5, the same day that he wrote his plaintive letter to Frances, he dashed off another to Bill Jacobs that is full of exuberance and triumph. “Once more I am roaring drunk with the lust of life and adventure and unbearable beauty,” it begins.
The letter marks the first time in more than a year (as far as we know) that Everett had written to his best friend. In it there is no hint of lingering resentment about Jacobs having so often stood Everett up, backing out of journeys together at the last minute. No matter how deep his funks, Everett seems never to have nursed a grudge. His gentle forgiveness of parents who scolded him or friends who let him down forms one of his most endearing qualities.
Yet that letter to Jacobs is oddly impersonal. Everett voices no curiosity about what his pal may be doing back in Los Angeles. Instead he makes an oracular declaration of the quest he has chosen to pursue. And once again, comparing his proud independence to the wretched lives of “suffering, struggling, greedy, grumbling humanity,” he strikes a tone of Nietzschean arrogance. One of the least attractive aspects of Everett’s five-year swagger across California and the Southwest is the way that, surrounded by the detritus of the Depression, he managed for the most part to ignore the hopelessness and poverty he saw at every hand. And when he did not ignore it, he sometimes railed against the stricken men and women whose paths he crossed as if their blighted dreams and everyday misery were their own fault, the natural outcome of failed imagination and sedentary torpor. All this, while Christopher and Stella were subsidizing his endless ramble.
“I shall always be a rover, I know,” Everett announces to Bill in the May 5 letter. “Always I’ll be able to scorn the worlds I’ve known like half-burnt candles when the sun is rising, and sally forth to others now unknown.” Everett explodes with joy: “Oh, it’s a wild, gay time! Life can be rich to overflowing. I’ve been so happy that I can’t think of containing myself.” Yet such flights are counterbalanced by a sense of doom. “Finality does not appall me,” he tells Bill, “and I seem always to enjoy things the more intensely because of the certainty that they will not last.”
The letter closes with the kind of thundering tonic chord Everett cherished in the symphonies of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky: “Alone I shoulder the sky and hurl my defiance and shout the song of the conqueror to the four winds, earth, sea, sun, moon, and stars. I live!”
Anyone interested in retracing Everett’s extraordinary 1934 journey in day-by-day or even week-by-week detail will be disappointed, for the surviving letters float on such a high philosophical plateau that ordinary events and chance encounters get lost in the spiritual ether. And yet, on the basis of seven paragraphs transcribed into a May letter from Canyon de Chelly to his Los Angeles friend Edward Gardner, the diary too may have glossed over daily life to focus on the transcendental.
That letter begins with a modicum of detail. Somewhere near Chinle, Everett swears, “I narrowly escaped being gored to death by a wild bull.” The letter is headed simply “May,” from “East Fork of Canyon de Chelly.” “For five days I have been in this canyon,” Everett testifies. “I have not seen an Indian, and it is a week since I saw a white skin.” The solitude that he had not seemed to miss in the Sierras the year before had reclaimed him in all its splendor, provoking deep thoughts:
Strange, sad winds sweep down the canyon, roaring in the firs and the tall pines, swaying their crests.… I am overwhelmed by the appalling strangeness and intricacy of the curiously tangled knot of life, and at the way that knot unwinds, making everything clear and inevitable, however unfortunate or wonderful.
This pensée prompts Everett to transcribe the passages from his diary. Since his early teenage years, Everett had striven in his writing to compose aphorisms, one- and two-line gems that nailed strikingly original perceptions. There is always the danger in such utterances of sounding an all-knowing ex cathedra note—not a comfortable pose for a college dropout who had just turned twenty.
Yet a selection of excerpts from the diary passages copied for Edward Gardner makes a small anthology of some of Everett’s lines that are most often quoted today:
All accomplished works or deeds perish or are forgotten eventually. No love lives forever, and no two can completely understand one another, or if they do, it kills their love.
For to think is the beginning of death.
Beauty isolated is terrible and unbearable, and the unclouded sight of her kills the beholder.
But he who has looked long on naked beauty may never return to the world.
The absorbing passion of any highly sensitive person is to forget himself, whether by drinking or by agonized love, by furious work or play, or by submerging himself in the creative arts.… But the pretense cannot endure, and unless he can find another as highly strung as himself with whom to share the murderous pain of living, he will surely go insane.
In 2000, the historian Gary James Bergera would title an essay that argued that Everett had commit suicide “ ‘The Murderous Pain of Living’: Thoughts on the Death of Everett Ruess.”
We have almost no idea what adventures Everett had or what discoveries he made in 1934 in Canyon de Chelly, the Lukachukais, or the Carrizos, for only four letters survive from that more than month-long circuit, and they unfold a relentlessly internal narrative. A two-page letter to his parents from the Lukachukais, however, recounts an idyllic night and following day. This, too, is a calculated performance, as Everett strives to write beautiful prose. Yet there is promise in that prose of the attentive nature writer he might have become. Riding Cockleburrs and leading Leopard, Everett set out at twilight for a moonlit jaunt to a high crest. But a thunderstorm threatened to turn the lark into an ordeal.
For awhile the northerly sky was clear, and stars shone brilliantly thru the pine boughs. Then darkness closed upon us, only to be rent by livid flashes of lightning, and thunder that seemed to shake the earth. The wind blew no longer, and we travelled in an ominous, murky calm, occasionally shattered by more lightning. Finally the clouds broke, and rain spattered down as I put on my slicker. We halted under a tall pine.
The storm blew quickly by, gone within an hour of its arrival. The rain stopped, the stars came out again, and Everett resumed his ride. “By moonlight we climbed to the rim of the mountain, and looked over vast silent stretches of desert. Thirty miles away was the dim hulk of Shiprock—a ghostly galleon in a sea of sand.”
The next day, in glorious sunshine, Everett lounged in a meadow and wrote the letter:
Flowers nod in the breeze, and wild ducks are honking on the lake. I have just been for a long, leisurely ride on Leopard, skirting the edge of the mountain, riding thru thickets of rustling aspen, past dark mysterious lakes, quiet and lonely in the afternoon silence.
None of Everett’s nature writing the previous year, in either his letters or his diaries, matches the pastoral lyricism of these passages. But in the Sierras, Everett had not once found himself ensconced in such trailless wilderness as the Lukachukais offered in abundance, nor had he been able for days at a time to luxuriate in true solitude.
At the small town of Lukachukai, just west of the aspen- and pine-thick forests rising toward the New Mexico border, Everett had picked up a batch of mail, including, to his surprise, another letter from Frances. Camped alone in a high meadow a few days later, he wrote a long epistle in response. “It shocked me slightly,” he confessed, “when you spoke of my greed for life. That is a harsh word, but I guess it is true. I am not willing to take anything but the most from life.” In defense of that greed, Everett quoted a memento mori from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat: “You know how little while we have to stay, / And, once departed, may return no more.”
Everett was evidently more than slightly shocked by Frances’s stricture, for he devoted another long paragraph to justifying why “I … don’t like to let opportunities for living slip by ungrasped.” From this declaration emerges a complaint:
There are too many uninteresting people—like the trader at Lukachukai. He certainly made me feel like hitting him. He is a typical moron, only interested in food, business, and home. I was telling him about Canyon de Chelly and del Muerto, and with no provocation he remarked that he had lived here a long time and had never been to them and never expected or intended to. Obviously his decision was right for a person like him, because wherever he might go, he would see nothing beautiful or interesting.
Sadly, in the 1934 letters there are all too few such vignettes of Everett’s doings on the trail or in the outposts where he resupplied. With his rationale for his “greed for life” off his chest, Everett lapsed into fine nature writing, as he replayed the moonlight ride through the thunderstorm, adding further details. The subtext of these paragraphs is a defiant claim: “I’m doing fine out here all by myself.” But love broke through Everett’s defenses. “I enjoyed your letter,” he interrupts himself, “and I know I did not mistake myself when first I liked you. We did have some moments of beauty together, didn’t we?”
And with that, Frances vanishes from the chronicle of Everett’s life, slipping away as evanescently as she had suddenly appeared the previous December to disturb him with giddy hope, followed by wistful regret.
From the 1934 journey, a few pages have survived that seem not to have been parts of letters addressed to anyone, but instead resemble set pieces of nature philosophy. Most of them are undated, but they may well have been composed during his month-long loop through the Lukachukais. One recounts a stormy night on a high crest, ending, “Then in wild, whirling fury, the storm rises, boiling and seething until with a furious upward rush, the whole horizon is submerged, and it fills the air with swirling, stinging, blinding snow. With this black dawn I perish.”
Another, dated simply “May,” announces, “I am drunk with a searing intoxication that liquor could never bring—drunk with the fiery elixir of beauty.…” But that intoxication by nature comes at a price: “I am condemned to feel the withering fire of beauty pouring into me. I am condemned to the need of putting this fire outside myself and spreading it somewhere, somehow, and I am torn by the knowledge that what I have felt cannot be given to another.”
Whenever Everett tried most earnestly to express the rapture that solitude in the wilderness brought him, he tended to lapse into melodrama. Beneath the passion pulses a vein of self-pity, as he casts himself as a martyr to his own obsession. But this is the writing of a twenty-year-old. Other passages prove that along with a weakness for the grandiose, Everett had a sense of humor, and could poke fun at himself in an ironic mode. Had he lived longer, the melodrama might well have been tempered by wisdom. There was indeed the potential for a John Muir in Everett Ruess, a nature and adventure writer who could at once sing the glory of the natural world and yet keep a sense of proportion about the limits of human endeavor in the wilderness.
Beauty and friendship remained the twin goals of Everett’s quest. But the short-lived liaison with Frances seems to have convinced him that he could not have both. And if he had to choose, he would choose beauty.
* * *
Back in Kayenta in mid-June, Everett retrieved another batch of mail as he planned the next leg of his open-ended journey. On June 19 he wrote to his parents, “I am on my way to Navajo Mountain now, and probably will not get back until July or August.”
Rising to a summit of 10,388 feet just north of the Arizona-Utah border, Navajo Mountain has long been a sacred location for the Diné. It stands, moreover, in what is still today one of the most remote regions of the Southwest. The sharp, twisting canyons that crease the mountain’s western and northern flanks are among the ruggedest in the United States. Near the mouth of one of those tributaries of the Colorado River, hidden in a bend of sandstone, looms Rainbow Bridge, the largest natural geological span in the world.
In previous years, the closest Everett had come to Navajo Mountain was during his solitary prowl through the Tsegi system in 1931. At the ruin of Keet Seel, the largest cliff dwelling in Arizona, Everett had camped only twenty-five miles southeast of the mountain. On other treks across northern Arizona, he had often seen Navajo Mountain in the distance, for it is one of the lordliest landmarks in the Four Corners region.
John Wetherill, the Kayenta trader, would have told Everett all about Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge. In 1909, Wetherill had guided the first party of Anglos to discover the great arch (though some historians dispute this claim). After that, he built the Bridge Trail traversing the northern slopes of Navajo Mountain, one of the most cunning horse-packing routes in the country, which traverses miles of slickrock slabs. Wetherill then guided scores of tourists along the trail to Rainbow Bridge, among them Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Grey. And in 1922, guiding the Bernheimer Expedition, he blazed another trail to the bridge that linked soaring defiles on the southern and western sides of the mountain, solving the crux passage through Redbud Pass with dynamite.
The route by which Everett planned to approach Navajo Mountain was a challenging one, as he intended to pass once more through Monument Valley, then proceed straight north almost to the San Juan River, where he would turn to the west and cross lofty and seldom-visited No Mans Mesa before arriving at the lower slopes of the sacred mountain. Then, instead of riding one of Wetherill’s trails, Everett planned to find his own way over a high shoulder of Navajo Mountain before winding down toward Rainbow Bridge.
Never in any of his four previous excursions through California and the Southwest had Everett tackled wilderness quite this remote or difficult. By now, however, “I flattered myself that I could ‘take it,’ ” as he had written to Waldo in early May.
Before leaving Kayenta, on June 17 Everett wrote a long letter to Bill Jacobs. That piece of writing offers some of the most revealing insights into Everett’s state of mind during his 1934 expedition. Annoyance about his friend’s having backed out of so many trips that Everett had proposed lingers about the opening paragraphs, as he teases Bill, “Do you know, it is in a way rather sad that you cannot have had some of my wild experiences, for you have the desire to use such things, and I do not. Perhaps it is your craving for material security.”
Bill himself was evidently an ambitious writer, for Everett further taunts his friend, “I have no desire to bend my efforts to entertaining the bored and blase world. And that’s what writing amounts to—or at least your kind, I think. Your stories, if polished and published, would serve to divert various morons and business people.”
For Everett, this was an uncharacteristically blunt remark. As if to excuse his peevishness, he went on, “I hope this gets you down, for I feel like puncturing the stupid satisfaction and silly aspirations of the world this morning.”
In his disdain for common humanity, for Thoreau’s “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation,” Everett often veered toward the misanthropic. In June 1934, if the letter to Bill Jacobs is any indication, Everett’s mood reached a new nadir of antisocial contempt. “Often, alone in an endless open desert, I find it hard to believe that the rest of the world exists,” he confessed. And, “Personally I have no least desire for fame. I feel only a stir of distaste when I think of being called ‘the well known author’ or ‘the great artist.’ ” This comment marks the first time in the surviving 1934 letters that Everett ponders the career that, despite his protestations, he had been aiming at for more than four years—that of the wandering artist supporting himself by selling his work. Perhaps the effort to launch that career via studios and galleries in San Francisco had so discouraged him that he felt he had to turn his back on hopes of fame or recognition.
The same letter rails against the Anglo settlers of the small towns Everett had passed through. “It has come to the point,” he swore, “where I no longer like to have anything to do with the white people here, except to get supplies and go on.” Traders, in Everett’s view, were the worst: “Behind bars in their dirty, dingy, ill-lighted trading posts, they think of nothing but money.” Everett had recently bought a Navajo bracelet made of three turquoise stones set in silver. He claimed that he had spent “all my money” on the piece of jewelry “and was broke most of the while since.” During the next several months, the bracelet became Everett’s favorite personal adornment. He never failed to marvel how the stones reflected the glimmer of a campfire or caught the rays of the sun. “But one of my trader friends,” he complained to Bill, “asked as soon as he saw it, ‘How much did it cost?’ ”
In this remarkable, far-ranging letter, Everett made a kinder assessment of Navajos than of white settlers.
I have often stayed with the Navajos; I’ve known the best of them, and they were fine people. I have ridden with them on their horses, eaten with them, and even taken part in their ceremonies.… They have many faults; most of them are not very clean, and they will steal anything from a stranger, but never if you approach them with trust as a friend. Their weird, wild chanting as they ride the desert is often magnificent, with a high-pitched, penetrating quality.
Having proclaimed his disdain for fame, Everett abruptly announces, “Beauty has always been my god.” Like so many of the utterances in the 1934 letters, this is not news shared with a friend (Bill well knew how Everett felt about beauty), but a declaration for eternity. And so it has served, for that line is one of the most oft-quoted sentences that Everett ever wrote.
It is characteristic, however, that in the same letter Everett climbs down from his lectern in the clouds to chat with his old friend: “Did you get The Purple Land?” he asks. “This trip has been longer than I expected. I have wandered over more than 400 miles with the burros these last six weeks, paying no attention to trails, except as they happened to serve me, and finding my water as I went.” The mileage total may be a slight exaggeration, but Everett’s sense of mastery was well earned. Despite the bad start when his burros got loose near Agathla, by 1934 Everett had come into his own as a wanderer.
He was still, nevertheless, tied to his parents’ generous handouts. On June 19, he wrote to thank them for their latest package, which included a bridle, several magazines, and some dried plums: “I had never tasted them before.” Everett goes on to place his next order with Christopher and Stella:
There are a couple of things I wish you would send me; Don Quixote, a Modern Library book which you can get for 95 cents, and eight of those half-pound chocolate bars which you can get downtown for eight or nine cents each. Get half of them plain, and half with raisins and peanuts.
Despite his contempt for the residents of Kayenta, during his brief stop there in June, Everett made the acquaintance of several young men who would furnish one of the highlights of Everett’s 1934 excursion. “There is an archaeological expedition in town now,” he wrote Bill Jacobs. “Some pretty likeable and intelligent young fellows are in it, and I expect to visit their camp when I come back from the mountains.”
From Everett’s daring cross-country jaunt toward Rainbow Bridge, only two letters and a fragment of a third survive. The traverse of No Mans Mesa nearly turned disastrous. A high, elongated butte stretching from north to south, it is guarded on all sides by rimrock cliffs. No trail leads to the top. In late June, Everett led his burros down Copper Canyon, a tributary of the San Juan that runs the length of the east side of the butte, then veered westward to tackle steep slopes soaring more than two thousand feet toward the mesa top. Somehow Everett found a break in the cliffs, but, as he wrote Bill Jacobs a few days later,
Near the rim it was just a scramble, and Leopard, whom I was packing, in attempting to claw his way over a steep place, lost his balance and fell over backwards. He turned two backward somersaults and a side roll, landing with his feet waving, about six inches from the yawning gulf. I pulled him to his feet. He was a bit groggy at first; he had lost a little fur, and the pack was scratched.
To reach Navajo Mountain, Everett now had to find a way off the west side of No Mans Mesa, then cover twenty-five trailless miles across two more mesas separated by the deep ravines of Nokai and Piute Canyons. This was country almost never traveled by Anglos, inhabited only by a scattering of Navajos and a handful of San Juan Paiutes—the latter people belonging to one of the most marginalized Native American tribes in the United States. Of this adventure, Everett wrote not a word.
On June 29 he was camped at War God Spring, 8,700 feet up the southeast flank of Navajo Mountain. There he wrote another long letter to Bill Jacobs, containing another rich outpouring of joy. It had not rained in a month, so he had had to search long and hard for water holes, but, he boasted, he and his burros had never gone more than two days without water. It was now high summer. The brown desert in the distance that Everett gazed upon from his lofty perch scorched in the sun, but the glade in which he sat to write his letter was idyllic.
The beauty of this place is perfect of its kind; I could ask for nothing more. A little spring trickles down under aspens and white fir. By day the marshy hollow is aswarm with gorgeous butterflies.… There are a hundred delightful places to sit and dream; friendly rocks to lean against—springy beds of pine needles to lie on and look up at the sky or the tall smooth tree trunks, with spirals of branches and their tufted foliage.
So transported was Everett by this perfect campsite that he waxed lyrical about how much he loved his burros “when they stand up to their knees in wildflowers with blossoms in their lips and look at me with their lustrous, large brown eyes.”
His afternoon delight nudged Everett to another Nietzschean pronouncement, in which he couched a further reproof to Jacobs for his unwillingness to stray far from his Los Angeles home:
The perfection of this place is one reason why I distrust ever returning to the cities. Here I wander in beauty and perfection. There one walks in the midst of ugliness and mistakes.…
Here I take my belongings with me. The picturesque gear of packing, and my gorgeous Navajo saddle blankets make a place of my own. But when I go, I leave no trace.
Yet the fleeting joy Everett found on Navajo Mountain, he was increasingly convinced, depended not only on solitude, but on his differentness from other people, on the “freakish person” he had confessed himself to be to Bill Jacobs back in 1931. Now he wrote Bill, “I have some good friends here [i.e., in and around Kayenta], but no one who really understands why I am here or what I do. I don’t know of anyone, though, who would have more than a partial understanding. I have gone too far alone.”
War God Spring lies on an old trail that leads to the summit of Navajo Mountain. To get from that camp to Rainbow Bridge, Everett had to traverse a high, trailless forest toward the west and descend 2,500 feet in rugged Horse Canyon to intersect the trail around the mountain that John Wetherill had blazed in 1922. That was a considerable bushwhack, but not one Everett bothered to mention in his letters.
The next day at sunset, he wrote a letter to his parents, locating his camp as “a day’s journey from Rainbow Bridge.” Awed by the landscape opening before him, he tried to describe it to his parents:
[T]he country between here and the San Juan and Colorado rivers and beyond them is as rough and impenetrable a territory as I have ever seen. Thousands of domes and towers of sandstone lift their rounded pink tops from blue and purple shadows. To the east, great canyons seam the desert, cutting vermilion gashes through the gray-green of the sage-topped mesas.
A single line in an August 19 letter to Waldo records Everett’s attainment of the goal of this jaunt through true wilderness: “When I walked to Rainbow Bridge at night I found a six-inch scorpion beside my bed at dawn.” Yet Everett never described the colossal arch in his letters, at least in the ones that have survived.
A curious side of Everett’s nature worship is that truly grand landscapes left him inarticulate. In Yosemite in both 1930 and 1933, he scarcely mentioned the colossal granite monoliths such as El Capitan. Although he climbed Half Dome, he barely described the ascent in his diary. In the Grand Canyon in 1931, his eye was not on towering buttes and plunging gorges, but on damselflies flitting through the air just above his head as he lay on his back on the bank of the Colorado River. Perhaps the monumental sweep of Rainbow Bridge left him comparably speechless. The “friendly rocks to lean against” and “springy beds of pine needles to lie on” at War God Spring were more congenial to his temperament.
By the end of the first week of July, Everett was back in Kayenta. There he caught up with the archaeological team whose members he had first met and liked three weeks earlier. Rather than simply visit their camp, he persuaded the men to hire him on as a cook and packer.
Everett had had a fascination for the prehistoric past ever since childhood, telling his father at age thirteen that he was deliberating between a career as an archaeologist and one as a naturalist. So far, however, his curiosity had mainly taken the form of pocketing artifacts he found in Indian ruins. Now, for the first time, however briefly, Everett would see what professional archaeology was all about, as he participated in an excavation at as remote and eerie an Anasazi site as his fondest wishes could have fixed upon.
* * *
The team outfitting in Kayenta was part of a massive, multi-year project called the Rainbow Bridge–Monument Valley Expedition. Between 1933 and 1938, researchers undertook an extensive survey of Anasazi ruins ranging (as the title indicates) from Monument Valley through the Tsegi Canyon system, and across the Rainbow Plateau to Rainbow Bridge—all in country that was part of the Navajo reservation. The rationale for the project, run by the National Park Service, was to lay the groundwork for a new national park encompassing those scenic and cultural wonders. Had such a park come into existence, it would have torn out of the reservation some three thousand square miles, or about one-eighth of its total area.
Most aficionados of the backcountry Southwest are heartily glad such a park never got established. Instead, today a tiny square around Rainbow Bridge constitutes Rainbow Bridge National Monument, while three more minuscule squares covering the stunning ruins of Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House add up to Navajo National Monument. Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park. And the convoluted Tsegi system (minus Keet Seel and Betatakin), the whole of the Rainbow Plateau (across part of which Everett had traveled from No Mans Mesa to War God Spring), and all of Navajo Mountain remain reservation land. For the most part, the magnificent country that the NPS had its eye on in the 1930s remains pristine wilderness.
The director of the RB-MV Expedition (as it is usually abbreviated), was Ansel Hall, a Park Service archaeologist based in Berkeley, California. In Kayenta, Everett had noted, a number of the “likeable young fellows” on the team were UC Berkeley students, who had friends in common with Everett. During its far-ranging six-year study, the RB-MV project surveyed hundreds of remote and mysterious sites. What was more, the teams also spent weeks excavating some of the more interesting sites.
The team that Everett signed on with was led by Lyndon Hargrave, then thirty-eight years old, the field director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, one of the leading research facilities in the Southwest. But the leader in the field, and the man who hired Everett, was H. Claiborne (“Clay”) Lockett. In a letter to his parents, Everett described Lockett as “a grizzled young chap of 28, widely experienced, and a magnificent humorist. He is an ethnologist and something of an artist as well.” Also on the team, serving chiefly as a guide, was Ben Wetherill, John’s son. As a teenager, Ben had lost an eye when he was kicked in the head by a horse, but he would go on to shape a career as a wilderness guide almost as remarkable as his father’s. Given to depression and dark moods, Ben had a loner’s disposition the equal of Everett’s at his most melancholy.
In July 1934, Lockett’s team had returned to Kayenta from the Tsegi Canyon system to resupply before tackling a remote cliff site they had discovered earlier in the summer. In Dowozhiebito Canyon, six hundred feet above a well-known Anasazi ruin called Twin Caves Pueblo, just beneath the rim of Skeleton Mesa, the team had found a Basketmaker burial cave. (The Basketmakers were the phase of Anasazi before AD 750, who built not masoned roomblocks such as their descendants specialized in, but underground pithouses and slab-lined storage cists.) “Its discovery,” as Lockett later wrote of the new ruin, “was the result of a Sunday climb by some of the more daring members of the Expedition who worked out two routes up the cliff to the cave. The more hazardous parts of both routes were found to have hand- and toeholds pecked into the cliff, evidence that the trails were used in prehistoric times.”
Hand-and-toe trails carved with pounding stones into the surface of sheer cliffs, or “Moqui steps,” as the cowboys called them, were an Anasazi staple—treacherous shortcuts to high places that the ancients seem to have used blithely for commuter runs. The trails are especially numerous (and terrifying) in the Tsegi system. But this was the kind of sport that Everett reveled in: the “crumbling sandstone and nearly vertical angles” to which he boasted of trusting his life again and again comprised many a scary Anasazi hand-and-toe trail.
The team eventually named the new site Woodchuck Cave, after they found woodchuck bones in a pair of cists, “probably,” Lockett wrote, “the first record of this mammal in Arizona.” The official report on the excavation was not published until 1953, or nineteen years after the dig. In it, Lockett (and Hargrave, his nominal coauthor) fail to mention Everett’s participation in the expedition, omitting his name from the list of personnel.
Everett, however, was enthralled by the more than two weeks he spent with the team, as he absorbed a crash course in Anasazi prehistory. “We have been in the cave for four days now,” he wrote to his parents on July 22.
There is a very precarious way down the face of the cliff with footholds in the stone hundreds of years old. The only other way is the horse ladder, six miles up the canyon. We came that way with pack burros, passing the carcass of a horse that slipped. After two days of wandering on the mesa top, in the trackless forests, we crossed the bare rock ledges in a heavy cloudburst and came here.
Several photos survive showing a shirtless Clay Lockett and Everett tugging the burros up the horse ladder. They rank among the finest pictures known of Everett in action in the wilderness. The photographer was apparently another member of the team.
Woodchuck Cave was not, on the face of it, a prepossessing site. The small, low-roofed alcove enclosed not a single habitation structure, but only some fifteen slab-lined cists sunk in the earthen floor. It was the contents of those cists that proved astounding and perplexing. Along with animal bones, pieces of woven baskets, yucca sandals, and a few other artifacts, including wooden dice, the team discovered the whole or partial remains of twenty human beings, seven of them infants. These included not only skeletons but naturally mummified bodies. The burials were identified as belonging to the Basketmaker II period, dating between 1200 BC and AD 500. Everett reported that Lockett dated the cave around AD 500, but the 1953 monograph fixes the date as AD 200, plus or minus one hundred years.
Nearly all the bodies had been placed in classic Anasazi burial positions, lying on their backs or sides with knees flexed upward in front of the chest. What stunned the researchers, however, was the discovery that all of the adults had been beheaded. All the skulls were missing, and only four partial mandibles could be found.
In their 1953 report, Lockett and Hargrave did not speculate what the grisly beheading might have signified, except to say that it looked as though later pillagers had ransacked the graves not for jewelry but for the bones themselves. (Along with the skulls, many long leg bones were missing.)
No further excavation of Woodchuck Cave has ever been undertaken, and during the last seven decades it is unlikely that more than a small handful of hikers, if any, have ever found their way into the inaccessible burial chamber.
Digging up dead people didn’t bother Everett at all. During his weeks of cooking for the team, as he was paid only in free meals, he got along famously with the crew. “We have great fun up here by ourselves,” he wrote his parents, “discovering something new every day, and looking out over everything from our sheltered cave.” He retained an admiration for Clay Lockett.
That feeling, evidently, was not reciprocated. Lockett would drift away from field archaeology, the Woodchuck Cave bulletin his only serious publication. He served briefly as director of the Arizona State Museum, then for a longer time was in charge of the gift shop at the Museum of Northern Arizona. He died in 1984. His obituary identified him as an “Indian trader, lecturer, and authority on Southwestern Indian arts.”
Two years before Lockett’s death, in 1982, researching A Vagabond for Beauty, Bud Rusho interviewed the man, then seventy-six years old. Lockett’s recollections of Everett were consistently unflattering. In Rusho’s paraphrase,
Everett did not impress Lockett with his interest in archaeology, for Ruess spent most of his free time, which was considerable, in gazing out over the landscape. Lockett noticed also that Everett seemed careless about his safety when climbing around cliffs, citing as an example the time Everett wanted to make a watercolor sketch of rain-spawned waterfalls shooting off from several points. According to Lockett, Everett nearly got himself killed finding a vantage point on the wet slickrock. Needless to say, the rain-streaked watercolor sketch was not one of his better efforts.
Lockett is also the sole source for the tradition that John Wetherill was put off by the young vagabond. Again in Rusho’s paraphrase, “[I]t has been reported that Wetherill had little respect for Everett, whom he considered a ‘pest’ who would simply hang around [the trading post] for days seeking information and conversation, but who would buy nothing.”
Given that in 1935 Wetherill put considerable effort into guiding searchers as to where to look for the lost wanderer, this judgment seems dubious. Lockett was, as Everett had noted, “something of an artist.” He may even have been envious of the twenty-year-old camp cook’s talent as a painter.
By the end of the RB-MV dig, in early August, Everett had been in the Southwest for four months. But his 1934 journey was just getting started. From the Tsegi he decided to head south across Black Mesa to visit the Hopi villages, where he had stopped briefly on the way to the Grand Canyon in June 1931.
On that first visit, Everett had not been impressed by the Hopi villages atop the three parallel mesas facing south. All he wrote home about Hotevilla and Oraibi was a complaint about heat and dust, and ancient Walpi, with its incongruous mix of stonemasoned houses and fences made of old bedsteads, had seemed “rather a disillusionment.” But in the succeeding three years, Everett had matured as a connoisseur of Native American cultures. His encounter with the Hopi in 1934 would prove far more consequential, both for himself and for the hosts who welcomed him into their villages.
In August, Everett had learned, the Hopi performed their rain dances. By the 1930s a small number of Anglo cognoscenti made journeys to attend these sacred rituals, marveling at the gaudy and esoteric panoramas that unfurled in the courtyards of old villages. And during that era, the Hopi themselves were far more welcoming to outsiders than they are today (most of the sacred dances are now closed to Anglo spectators).
Everett did not write home again until August 25. The day before, he had watched the Snake Dance in Hotevilla, a village on the Third Mesa that had been founded in 1907 by a group of natives who had seceded from Oraibi, resolving a religious schism that had threatened to tear apart what is often called the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States. Hotevilla was thus one of the more “progressive” Hopi towns, in which Everett seemed to have been openly accepted as a guest. “I have been having great fun with the Hopis here,” he wrote his parents, “and just finished a painting of the village. The children were clustered all around me, some helping and some hindering.”
A week later, in the Hopi village of Mishongnovi on the Second Mesa, Everett not only watched but participated in the Antelope Dance. This was a singular honor for a white visitor, but Everett seems to have taken the privilege almost for granted. “[M]y Hopi friends painted me up and had me in their Antelope Dance,” he wrote his parents on September 10. “I was the only white person there.” In the next breath, he added, “Killed two rattlers the other day. One struck before I saw him. I caught the other alive. Sold a print yesterday.”
As these passages indicate, by this point at the end of summer, Everett’s letters home had grown short and laconic. It was as if he was so caught up in the ceaseless novelty of his adventure that he had little energy or time left to craft the fine writing, the evocations of natural beauty, that he had poured into his correspondence earlier during the journey. At the same time, Everett was growing more independent of his family than ever. It would not be until November that he again made the effort to share his deepest thoughts with Waldo, Christopher, and Stella.
On September 9, Everett arrived at Desert View, the tourist center on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. A few days before, descending a steep trail into the canyon of the Little Colorado River, he had suffered a mishap that could have spelled the end of his 1934 expedition. Two years before, when his packhorse Jonathan collapsed and died near the head of Canyon del Muerto, Everett had recorded the tragedy in vivid emotional detail in his diary, and also in a letter to Bill Jacobs. It may be that Everett’s 1934 diary contained an equally vivid account of the disaster in the Little Colorado. But the only record of it that survives is a single, understated line in a letter to his parents: “Lost a burro (Leopard) down Little Colorado Canyon the other day, with some of the pack, but have already replaced him with a bigger burro.”
The new pack animal, which Everett bought from a Navajo woman for nine dollars, he first named Chocolate (presumably for his coloring), later modified to Chocolatero. “He is young, strong, and good natured,” he wrote to his mother, “inexperienced, but bound to learn from his experienced comrade.”
Thanks to the scarcity of surviving letters, we have no idea what Everett accomplished in the Grand Canyon between the end of August and the middle of October, when he finally pushed on north toward Utah. The only episode he narrates was a visit to Clay Lockett in Flagstaff. Apparently the twenty-eight-year-old archaeologist and his twenty-year-old camp cook were still on good terms, for Lockett had invited Everett to stay at his house. South of Flagstaff, Everett wandered up and down the sinuous bends of Oak Creek Canyon, which inspired him to pull out his watercolor kit. “In Oak Creek Canyon I painted a couple of striking effects of brilliantly lighted buttes against inky storm skies,” he wrote his mother sometime in September. “Also a massive tower, calmly beautiful under shadowing clouds.”
In 1982, Lockett recalled Everett’s visit in ambivalent terms. In Bud Rusho’s paraphrase,
Clay Lockett’s income, in 1934, was only about $30 a month, supplemented by his garden and a few chickens. Everett’s big appetite was not welcomed, especially by Lockett’s wife, Florence, who informed her husband, half in jest, after a week of having Everett as a guest, “Either he leaves or I do!” Lockett then tactfully suggested to Everett that he visit Oak Creek Canyon—immediately.
Yet the archaeologist and his wife were surprised when, on his return from Oak Creek, Everett gave each of them a book.
Lockett concluded that Everett was not trying to take advantage of them but was simply a “free spirit,” who did not worry about the complexities of social behavior, and who simply “loved the Navajos and everybody, loved animals, burros, dogs, kids, and everything.” Everett himself, says Lockett, was a “strange kid.”
Back at Desert View on the South Rim in late September, Everett was surprised to find a letter from Ned Frisius, one of the two Hollywood High School boys with whom he had climbed Mount Whitney the previous summer. The letter Everett wrote in response on September 27 has survived, no doubt a gift from Frisius to the family after Everett disappeared. In it the vagabond recounts a strange episode in his 1934 travels that is preserved in no other document—nor can we guess where or at what point during the previous six months the episode occurred.
Evidently you overheard something of my adventures with my friends the Indians. I have a great time with them, especially the Navajos. I once spent three days far up in a desert canyon, assisting and watching a Navajo sing for a sick woman. I drove away countless hordes of evil spirits, but after I went away the girl died. The sand paintings, seldom seen by white men, were gorgeous.
There is no evidence that Everett ever made up imaginary adventures to regale his friends and family with. He may have exaggerated here and there, but he had no trace of the liar about him, or even of the spinner of tall tales. Yet this Navajo scenario is so unusual that it must bespeak a profound trust that Everett had won from natives somewhere in Arizona. For a traditional family—and any Navajos living “far up in a desert canyon” were traditional—to let an Anglo see the sand paintings that a medicine man would have composed on the ground, and then effaced shortly after they were finished, would have been extraordinary. And to let that Anglo not only attend but participate in a sing intended to cure a fatally ill woman would have been even more extraordinary.
From a few summary judgments in Everett’s letters written between August and November, we can be certain that the adventures he underwent were dramatic and even dangerous. To Waldo on August 19, he wrote, “I have seen more wild country than on any previous trip. I almost lost one burro in the quicksands—he was in up to his neck.…” To Ned Frisius on September 27, “In my wanderings this year I have taken more chances and had more and wilder adventures than ever before. And what magnificent country I have seen.”
Maddeningly, though, we have almost no idea what the actual content of those “wild adventures” was. No doubt Everett spelled them out in rich detail in the pages of his diary. But the diary is forever lost.
We cannot even be sure of Everett’s itinerary after he left the Grand Canyon in mid-October. In Vagabond, Rusho guesses at it, surmising that Everett traveled north along the route of today’s U.S. Highway 89, crossed the suspension bridge over the Colorado River at Navajo Bridge, then traversed the Kaibab Plateau into Utah as he made his way to Bryce Canyon National Park. An October 15 letter to his mother lists his next post office as Ruby’s Inn, Utah—the nearest lodging to Bryce, just west of its western gateway.
During these weeks of travel, Everett had begun to taste a little success as a commercial artist. Able at last to envision real independence from the financial support of his parents, he proudly tried to push aside the stipends Christopher and Stella unfailingly mailed to their wandering son. Sometime in September, from Flagstaff, Everett wrote to his mother, “I’ve sold a number of pictures lately, and you won’t have to worry about me much longer. In fact you can discontinue m.o.’s [money orders] any time you want to. I received the one for 15 early this month, but nothing since.” And then on October 1, to both parents, almost in annoyance, “Evidently you didn’t have my last letter. I don’t want you to send any more money, as I can get along alright and you really need it. I have twelve dollars due me for a picture I made a while ago.”
It was not only his parents’ money Everett was pushing away—it was his parents themselves. The glum conclusion he had come to in May, that “I am torn by the knowledge that what I have felt cannot be given to another,” that if he had to choose between beauty and friendship he would choose beauty, now had the ring in his ears of triumphant freedom. The solitary wandering artist had at last come into his own. And there is no indication in any of the 1934 letters that Everett envisioned an end to his present expedition.
We know that Everett reached Bryce Canyon and spent time there, for he befriended the chief ranger, Maurice Cope. But as early as August 19, in his letter to Waldo from Kayenta, Everett had imagined a journey stretching beyond Bryce into yet another wilderness that was unknown to him: “My plans are not definite, but I think I shall go to the Grand Canyon from the Hopi country, and maybe spend the winter exploring around Thunder River or the Kaiparowitz [sic] Plateau and Straight Cliffs.”
The Thunder River is a short, steep, spectacular canyon tributary to the Colorado on the north side of the Grand Canyon. It is unlikely that Everett ever made his way into it. But when he was last seen by anyone, in November 1934, he was leading his burros southeast along the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, with the massive Straight Cliffs looming above him on the right as they soared toward the summit of Kaiparowits Plateau.
* * *
The last three letters Everett sent home diverge abruptly from the laconic shorthand of his previous efforts. The first, to his parents, was written on November 4 from the Mormon town of Tropic, the first settlement south of Bryce. Maurice Cope, the head ranger, himself a Mormon, had invited Everett to stay for a few days at his home in Tropic, with his wife and nine children. The mood of the letter is ebullient, as Everett admits to having “great fun” with the locals. “This morning I rode out with one of the boys to look for a cow,” he elaborates. “We rode all over the hills, and stopped at an orchard to load up with apples. Then I went to church, my first time in a Mormon church. It was an interesting experience.”
In a postscipt, Everett revels in “more fun—apple fights, church, and until about morning we amused ourselves with some Navajos who were camped nearby.” For his parents, Everett conjured up the beauty of the “grotesque and colorful formations” through which he had ridden on his way south from Bryce, in a way that he had not bothered to in months. “Mother would surely enjoy the trees,” he wrote; “they are fascinating, especially the twisted little pines and junipers. I had never seen the foxtail pine before.”
He had sold a couple of pictures to an eccentric hermit, Everett reported. With the letter, he also sent home a painting he had made of several houses in the Hopi village of Oraibi.
After Everett’s disappearance, some of the searchers held out hope that if they failed to find the young man, they might at least discover the camera he had carried with him throughout his 1934 journey. Developing the last pictures Everett had taken might furnish clues to his fate. But in the November 4 letter, he had dashed such hopes: “I sent back the kodak because it has not been working well and is an extra expense and weight.” (The letter was published in On Desert Trails in 1940, but with this key sentence omitted. The full text was not published until 1983, in Rusho’s A Vagabond for Beauty.)
Much as he enjoyed the Copes’ hospitality and the social life of Tropic, Everett was eager to push on. With the ranger he discussed in detail his plan to pass through the town of Escalante, thirty-eight miles east of Tropic, then push on down the lonely Hole-in-the-Rock Trail toward the Colorado River. To his parents, he explained, “The weather has been delightful, although I was in one snow flurry on the Paunsagunt Plateau [west of Bryce]. Now I am heading across the pink cliffs toward Escalante and the lower country toward the river.”
The logical route would have taken Everett from Tropic along the valley bottom of the Paria River, through the tiny Mormon towns of Cannonville and Henrieville, then northeast over a low divide to the headwaters of the Escalante. Today’s State Highway 12 follows this path. Yet it seems unlikely that Everett took that route, for in a letter to his parents mailed from Escalante, Everett described “a truly delightful trip over the mountains, finding my way without any trails.”
In Escalante, Everett camped beside the river, rode horseback with the local boys, hunted for arrowheads with them, and treated the boys to his campfire dinner of venison and potatoes. With the ranchers he discussed his plans for the coming weeks, maintaining his insouciant poise in the face of their skepticism. On his last night in town, he took several of the boys to the movie theater. The next day, as he rode away down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, he left everyone who had met him in Escalante with indelible memories of his brief visit.
Before he left, Everett mailed his last two letters, one to his parents, one to Waldo. In Vagabond, Rusho heads them both “November 11,” and calls the letter to Waldo “the last—so far as is known—to be received by anyone.” This is the sequence that ought to have been, for the letter to Waldo is one of the deepest Everett ever wrote, and in light of his disappearance, it has a prophetic power.
But Everett actually wrote to his brother a few days before he wrote to his parents. The letter Christopher and Stella received is dated
The one to Waldo:
November the? 1934
Escalante Rim, Utah.
Internal evidence gives us a more precise date. To Waldo, Everett wrote, “Tonight the pale crescent of the new moon appeared for a little while, low on the skyline, at sunset.” A new moon in 1934 occurred on November 6. The pale crescent Everett observed would have been visible only from November 8 to 10. His camp on the “Escalante Rim” was probably pitched near the divide separating the Paria and Escalante drainages, at least a dozen miles west of the town.
With the letter to his parents, Everett sent home yet more paintings. His subjects ranged from the volcanic pinnacle of Agathla to the Anasazi ruin of Betatakin. The best of the lot, he wrote, “I … mean to frame for my room.” In this phrase there is a hint of an anticipated return to Los Angeles. But at the same time, Everett wanted no more handouts from his parents. To the contrary,
As I have more money than I need now, I am sending you ten dollars, and I want both of you to spend five for something you have been wishing to have—books, or a trip, but not anything connected with any kind of duty. Let this be the first installment on that nickel I promised you when I made my first million.
As he wrote the letter, Everett was sitting by his campfire beside the Escalante River, cooking dinner with two of his youthful new friends. Turning his thoughts to his burros, he recounted a problem that would have a crucial bearing on the search for Everett after he disappeared:
Chocolatero is a good burro by now. It was hard to get him across the Colorado river suspension bridge, as he was very frightened by it. A packer dragged him across behind his mule, and he left a bloody track all the way across. Later it was hard to teach him to make the fordings where the water was deep and swift, but now he does not mind.
In mid-November, with the leaves mostly dead on the trees, winter was not far away. But Everett had no plans to curtail his journey. In the letter to his parents he outlined various plans for the coming months, in a passage that would be pored over by Ruess partisans for decades:
I am going south towards the [Colorado] river now, through some rather wild country. I am not sure yet whether I will go across Smokey Mountain to Lee’s Ferry and south, or whether I will try and cross the river above the San Juan. The water is very low this year. I might even come back through Boulder, so I may not have a post office for a couple of months. I am taking an ample supply of food with me.
The letter to Waldo, to whom Everett had not written since August 29, tries to summarize the doings of his last two months, while at the same time insisting on the impossibility of sharing them with others.
Since I left Desert View, a riot of adventures and curious experiences have befallen me. To remember back, I have to think of hundreds of miles of trails, thru deserts and canyons, under vermilion cliffs and thru dense, nearly impenetrable forests. As my mind traverses that distance, it goes thru a long list of personalities too.
But I think I have not written you since I was in the Navajo country, and the strange times I had there and in the sunswept mesas of the Hopis, would stagger me if I tried to convey them. I think there is much in everyones life that no one else can ever understand or appreciate.
To his brother, Everett confided an intimacy from his visit to Tropic that he had not told his parents about: “I stopped a few days in a little Mormon town and indulged myself in family life, church going, and dances. If I had stayed any longer I would have fallen in love with a Mormon girl, but I think it’s a good thing I didn’t. I’ve become a little too different from most of the rest of the world.” After the Ruess cult had gathered momentum, locals in Tropic and Escalante would trade speculations as to who the Mormon girl was, but Everett had been too shy in his attentions for an obvious candidate to emerge.
With these declarations, it seems, the wilderness loner emerged full-blown. As he had done several times in the past, Everett turned his pride toward a haughty dismissal of Waldo’s way of subsistence: “Even from your scant description, I know that I could not bear the routine and humdrum of the life that you are forced to lead.”
Somewhere between Tropic and Escalante, Everett had shared a camp with a pair of Indians:
I even met a couple of wandering Navajos, and we stayed up most of the night talking, eating roast mutton with black coffee, and singing songs. The songs of the Navajos express for me something that no other songs do. And now that I know enough of it, it is a real delight to speak in another language.
In the 1930s, Navajos from the reservation crossed the Colorado River every autumn to trade for horses in and around Escalante. Everett’s fraternization with these indigenes would also play a role in the theories about his fate.
The November letter to Waldo has a valedictory tone throughout, as if he were composing a testament for eternity.
I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax. That is one reason why I do not wish to return to the cities.…
This has been a full, rich year. I have left no strange or delightful thing undone that I wanted to do.
And it contains the single paragraph that, more than anything else Everett ever wrote, has come to stand as the eloquent manifesto for his vagabond life:
As to when I shall visit civilization; it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the street car and the star sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.
Everett closed this passionate and oracular letter with a sentence about his future plans that has haunted his devotees ever since: “It may be a month or two before I have a post office, for I am exploring southward to the Colorado, where no one lives.”
A week later, more than fifty miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, Everett bumped into the sheepherders, Addlin Lay and Clayton Porter. For two nights he shared their camp near the head of Soda Gulch. On the morning of November 21, as Everett prepared to push on, the men offered him a quarter of mutton, which he declined, telling them he had plenty of food. They watched as he ambled away to the southeast with his burros, Cockleburrs and Chocolatero.
As far as we know—which is not nearly far enough—that was the last time anyone ever saw Everett Ruess.
Portrait of Everett Ruess at age nineteen, shot by Dorothea Lange in San Francisco in late autumn, 1933. (Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California)
Everett’s mother, Stella Ruess, in front of the family house in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Family gathering in Los Angeles, ca. 1924. Left to right: Stella, Waldo, Christopher, Everett. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett (left), Waldo, and Stella pose with the family automobile, a Dodge they named Dorinda, ca. 1929. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
A young Everett receives an art lesson from professional sculptor Edith May. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett reading at home in Los Angeles, ca. 1929. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett with the burro he named after himself and Curly, the rez dog, somewhere in the Southwest, 1931. (Special Collections, the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)
Everett leads Curly and his burro along an exposed trail in Zion National Park, 1931. (Special Collections, the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)
Everett and Waldo with Curly, at home in Los Angeles, late 1931 or early 1932. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett with his burros, Nuflo and Jonathan, in Canyon de Chelly, 1932, shortly before Jonathan’s death. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett in front of a hogan on the Navajo reservation, date unknown. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett exploring a cliff dwelling, probably in Mesa Verde, 1932. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett standing on his burro’s back, Sierra Nevada, 1933. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett at a lake in the high Sierra Nevada, 1933. (Courtesy of the Ruess family)
Everett and Clay Lockett (shirtless) pack a burro up the old Navajo trail to Woodchuck Cave, Tsegi Canyon, 1934. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College, Center of Southwest Studies, Ansel Hall Photograph Collection)
The search party emerges from Davis Gulch, spring 1935. (Special Collections, the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)