The Mystery and the Meaning of Everett Ruess
Clues left behind in a decades-old mystery tell a dark story of love and death
“We did have some moments of beauty together, didn’t we?”
Those wistful words were penned by a young vagabond named Everett Ruess in 1934 in a farewell love letter to a girlfriend. Several months later he disappeared forever in the desert of the American Southwest.
The line is quoted in the book Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of A Legendary Wilderness Explorer by David Roberts (Broadway Books, 2011). It’s part of a mystery still talked about by wilderness lovers in the American West more than half a century later.
Everett was born on March 28, 1914, to Stella and Christopher Ruess, intellectual parents with a literary bent who encouraged strong and independent thought in their children. At an early age, Everett and his older brother Waldo (named after the poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) were keeping their own diaries and asking themselves deep, philosophical questions. Almost from the beginning, it seems, Everett was destined to walk a different path.
When he graduated from high school, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Options and opportunities were few and far between for men of his age. He was fortunate enough to have the means to go to college, and he attended UCLA for one semester before something inside Everett Ruess told him that school wasn’t meant for him.
He dropped out and started taking off on solo hikes through the tall canyons and vast mesas of California and southern Utah. By the time he turned 20 he was a self-declared wanderer and explorer. He was also an aspiring artist, poet, and nature writer. In letters and journals, he showed an introspective depth and creative promise beyond his years.
As he saw it, being an artist was about searching long and hard for truth and meaning in the world. By 1934 he was obsessed with the idea of going on a prolonged journey, a quest, to challenge himself physically and mentally like never before. For that, he turned to the beauty and danger of the desert.
He bought two pack mules and set out for the rugged, isolated lands in and around Navajo country of Arizona and Utah, armed with little more than his painting kit, a writing journal, and the carefree hubris only youth can create. As for food and provisions, he packed what he could, which wasn’t much. He would worry about that later.
The desert became his home. He hiked and climbed from dawn till dusk. He slept in the dirt under the stars in one canyon after another, reveling in the solitude and freedom he couldn’t find in city life. Yet his adolescent angst did show through as his diaries spoke often of melancholy desires to find a special companion to share his life with. That, along with his devotion to pushing physical limits, and drawing pictures of nature, were constant themes in his journals and letters.
Occasionally Ruess would pass through a small town where he would find a local post office to send correspondence with family, friends, and the aforementioned girl of his dreams, Frances. (Exactly who she was or how he met her remains a mystery.)
The last known letter Everett wrote was to his brother and was dated November 11, 1934. It included the following declaration:
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…Do you
blame me then for staying here, where I feel that I belong
and am one with the world around me?
Two sheepherders came upon Reuss on the trails outside the town of Escalante, Utah on November 21, 1934. He was never seen again. As the months rolled into 1935, his parents grew alarmed when the letters stopped coming. They funded and organized horseback search parties, but by the time those parties got going they feared time and the vast desert spaces were working against them. Hopes were raised briefly when two mules were recovered in the middle of a canyon hungry but unharmed. But to this day no physical trace of Everett Ruess has ever been found.
Several theories have been put forth as to his fate — from being ambushed and murdered by area cattle rustlers, to his committing suicide by drowning in the Colorado River. Others said he faked his death and took a Navajo bride, living the rest of his life in private seclusion.
What makes the story all the more mysterious is the fact that his writing spoke of a dark and foreboding awareness of things to come.
From a poem he titled “The Wilderness Song”:
Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;
Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases;
Lonely and wet and cold…but that I kept my dream!
And this, in an earlier letter to his brother:
I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.
The story of Everett Ruess is eerily similar to that of another romantic nomad who died alone in the wilderness sixty years later — Christopher McCandless, whose sad story was memorialized in the bestselling book and film adaptation Into the Wild.
Like Ruess, McCandless was young, idealistic, and by all accounts full of great potential. He fancied himself a free spirit unbound by caution or anyone else’s expectations, only to meet with tragic results in the end. In the case of both men, a curious fascination has grown up around their story, based in no small part on the soulful words they left behind.
So, did Everett Ruess find the peace and meaning he was looking for? Did he pay the ultimate price for beauty, or did he deliberately plan his own demise? Did life in the desert enlighten him, or did it overtake him? Nobody knows. But as evidenced by one line in a love letter to a woman, it might be that he found the truth he was looking for, not in nature but within his own heart.
“We did have some moments of beauty together, didn’t we?”
Such is wisdom. And, all too often, the high price paid to obtain it.