The Mystery and Meaning of Everett Ruess
One Man’s Search for Truth and Beauty in this World
“We did have some moments of beauty together, didn’t we?”
Those assuring yet wistful words were penned by a young vagabond named Everett Ruess in 1934 in a farewell love letter to a girlfriend several months before he disappeared 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) and adds another twist to a strange story still celebrated and analyzed by wilderness lovers more than half a century later.
Everett was born on March 28, 1914, to Stella and Christopher Ruess, intellectual parents who possessed a literary bent that welcomed strong and independent thought. At an early age Everett and his older brother Waldo (named after the poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) were encouraged to keep their own diaries and ask themselves deep, philosophical questions. Almost from the beginning, Everett was destined to walk a different path.
By the time he graduated high school the country was staggering in the midst of the Great Depression; options and opportunities were few and far between for men of his age. But he had the means to go to college and attended UCLA for one semester before something inside him told him that wasn’t what he was supposed to do.
He dropped out and began taking off by himself on solo travels 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, as well as an aspiring artist, poet, and nature writer. In his letters and journals he showed an introspective depth and creative promise well beyond his years.
As he saw it, being an artist was about searching for truth and meaning in the world. By 1934 he was all but obsessed with the idea of going on a 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 provide. 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 as he hiked and climbed and slept in the dirt under the stars in one canyon after another, reveling in the solitude and freedom from city life. Yet still his adolescent angst showed 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 the limits and writing and painting pictures of nature, were constant themes in his journals and letters.
Every so often Ruess would pass through a small town where he would find a local post office to send and receive out 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 sheep herders reported seeing Reuss on the trails outside the town of Escalante, Utah on Nov. 21st of that year. Then he vanished. As the months rolled into 1935 his parents became alarmed when the letters stopped coming. They funded and organized horseback search parties, but by the time those parties got going they already feared time and the vast desert spaces were working against them.
Hopes were raised briefly when his two mules were recovered in the middle of a canyon hungry but unharmed. As for Everett Ruess, however, no trace was found. Thus grew a riddle that lasts to this day.
Many 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 went so far to say he faked his death and took a Navajo bride, living the rest of his life in private seclusion.
What makes it all the more unsettling is the fact that his writing occasionally 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!
To 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.”
If any of this rings a bell, it may be that the story of Everett Ruess is eerily similar to that of another romantic nomad, one who would die alone in the wilderness of Alaska some sixty years later — Christopher McCandless, memorialized in the bestselling book and film adaptation Into the Wild.
Like Ruess, McCandless was young and idealistic, fancying 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 somehow overtake him? His enduring legacy is that nobody knows. But as evidenced by one line in a love letter to an unknown woman, he might have found at least one answer, not in nature but within his own heart.
“We did have some moments of beauty together, didn’t we?”
In the midst of it all — the doubt, the pain, the loss — there are still moments of beauty in this world to be found and cherished forever. Such is wisdom. And the high price we pay to obtain it.