Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife

Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife

by Philip L. Fradkin

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Everett Ruess was twenty years old when he vanished into the canyonlands of southern Utah, spawning the myth of a romantic desert wanderer that survives to this day. It was 1934, and Ruess was in the fifth year of a quest to record wilderness beauty in works of art whose value was recognized by such contemporary artists as Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. From his home in Los Angeles, Ruess walked, hitchhiked, and rode burros up the California coast, along the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and into the deserts of the Southwest. In the first probing biography of Everett Ruess, acclaimed environmental historian Philip L. Fradkin goes beyond the myth to reveal the realities of Ruess’s short life and mysterious death and finds in the artist’s astonishing afterlife a lonely hero who persevered.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520265424
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/29/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Philip L. Fradkin is the author of twelve highly praised books, including Wallace Stegner and the American West and The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, and (with Alex L. Fradkin) The Left Coast: California on the Edge, all from UC Press.

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Everett Ruess

His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife

By Philip L. Fradkin


Copyright © 2011 Philip L. Fradkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94992-8


Davis Gulch

DARKNESS DESCENDED ON OUR SMALL GROUP about halfway across the mesa that separated Davis Gulch from Fiftymile Creek. We had only one headlamp. The last person in line played the light on the moving feet in front of her. We stumbled on the uneven sand and rocks, but no one fell. A rattlesnake warned us of his presence. We skittered sideways and shuffled on until we found a rock warmed by the hot sun but losing its heat rapidly in the early evening hours. We waited and contemplated spending the night with little water, scraps of food, and only our T-shirts to keep us warm in the Escalante Desert of southern Utah.

Our guide had become disoriented by the darkness. He took the headlamp and went searching for the tracks we had laid down that morning coming from camp. We saw his light shifting radically, then lost it. We sang songs like "Show Us the Way to Go Home" and other campfire favorites. Inevitably, we thought and talked about Everett Ruess.

It was in or near Davis Gulch that he had disappeared in late 1934. We had seen his canyon haunts earlier that day and then gotten a late start back to camp. We had made a mistake but were a group. He was alone and made a mistake. What if he had been bitten by a snake, broken a crucial bone, fallen off a cliff, or sunk into quicksand that buried him forever? Did he linger long? We didn't know. We considered the loneliness of it all.

Our guide eventually found the route. We descended the steep sand and rock slope and made it safely back to camp in time for a late dinner.

* * *

Davis Gulch is the black hole into which Everett Ruess vanished in November of 1934. The erratic crease in the wrinkled landscape is like many similar indentations in the desert Southwest across which Everett wandered. It differs from most, however, because of the fleeting presence of the desert pilgrim and the mystery of his disappearance. Emotionally moved by Everett's story, others have followed him into the canyon during the intervening years. Some left their marks, like Everett, in various forms.

The arid canyonlands of southern Utah, and Davis Gulch in particular, are a hard and unforgiving landscape redolent with ancient human presences. Nearly impenetrable, gigantic slickrock battlements encase green fringes of vegetation along intermittent water courses. The trail and now a rough road head south from Escalante, avoiding the slot canyon beginnings of the gulch. The dirt road ends at Hole-in-the-Rock and the Colorado River. These are the remote borderlands between Utah and Arizona.

The first time I visited Davis Gulch, the mouth of the canyon was submerged under the waters of Lake Powell. In a drought year the lower portion of the gulch was slowly emerging from under the massive weight of the reservoir, shaking itself free from a heavy coating of silt and just beginning to reveal its lost past. Our small party, arriving via a rickety pontoon craft, camped under a huge overhang of Navajo sandstone reached by climbing a sandy slope. The shrunken reservoir ended a few hundred feet to the west. Across the bent arm of the submerged canyon, from whose silty bottom dead cottonwood trees emerged like crooked lances, was LaGorce Arch. It was near the arch and farther up the canyon that Ruess had left two clues to his spectral presence. NEMO, a Latin word meaning "no one" or "no man," and 1934 were inscribed on the doorsill of an Anasazi ruin and a rock wall.

A massive deluge of water descended from upstream on Lake Powell in 1983, and Glen Canyon Dam barely survived the onslaught. The rising water level of the lake inundated the floor of the overhang, Ruess's two inscriptions, and a panel of ancient Indian symbols listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since then the water level had dropped considerably, leaving a strange tableau for us to view. A desert storm or storms had incised the silt slope, revealing a scene resembling installation art or a colorful kitchen midden arranged according to the age of various artifacts. Stacked from the bottom to the top were rusted tin cans; glass bottles of various ages, hues, and brands; and aluminum beer cans. I thought it possible that Everett had contributed to this layered collection of detritus.

At the back of the overhang the word DUNN was inscribed on the wall. It posed another mystery. William Dunn had been one of three men who left the first John Wesley Powell expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. The three men may have wandered separately or together. Three bodies that may have been theirs had been found but never identified. There was another, more likely, explanation for the inscription's meaning. Ray and Madeleine Dunn operated the Navajo Mountain Trading Post just across the Colorado River from Davis Gulch at the time of Everett's disappearance.

* * *

There is an overland approach to Davis Gulch that has a different set of reminders of past presences. I camped with two small groups at separate times on nearby Fiftymile Creek after that first visit to the mouth of the gulch. A short distance downstream on the north side of the canyon, locally known as Soda Gulch, was the following inscription: "E Rues [sic] Hunters, June 6, 1935. RS, HC, AT, HS, LCC." The hunters were from the Associated Civic Clubs of Southern Utah. Their initials were surrounded by ancient petroglyphs vaguely resembling antelope, bighorn sheep, circles, dots, and half-completed human figures pecked into the sandstone.

On other days I hiked across the mesa and descended the steep livestock trail hacked and blasted into the slickrock by local ranchers that was the only practical overland access to Davis Gulch. At the bottom of the steps was the large open space where Ruess's two burros were found in early 1935. Instead of the brush enclosure of that time there was now a broken wooden fence. Just downstream on the north wall was the overhang where some of Everett's belongings were found and the rock face where he had inscribed one of his enigmatic Nemos. There were other incisions in the soft sandstone. They consisted of abstract designs, mazes, circles, slashes, and the signatures "J.E. Riding, 1923"; "Walter Allen, March 6, 1935" (Allen had been a member of two Ruess search parties); "Katie, 2002"; and those of more recent scribblers.

Other than these occasional human declarations, the canyon was a world unto itself. The sounds of trickling water, paired ravens, a canyon wren, and soft breezes passing through the grass, tamarisk, willow, and poplar trees came and went. The white-flowered Sacred Datura, more commonly known as jimson weed and used by Native Americans in rites of passage ceremonies, was in bloom. A marsh formed by the ponding of the stream by a beaver dam, gnawed tree trunks, and two beaver skeletons indicated the presence of those busy creatures. There were coyote and deer tracks in the softened soil. Six deer grazing on the opposite slope bounded away in gigantic leaps. The outside world was represented by the narrow panoply of passing clouds crossing the canyon's open maw. They carried messages from afar that could not be deciphered.

There must have been—and there still might be—wild turkeys in Davis Gulch. We found a seven-foot-high representation of such a bird outlined in faded red on the canyon wall. Flowing lines indicated feathers; there was an oval torso; and stick wings, legs, and splayed toes completed the pictograph. Near the giant bird was a four-foot-high male figure with a triangular torso and large feet, possibly encased in moccasins made from fibrous plants. A smaller, more rounded figure, with her hair arranged in buns on both sides of her head, completed what may have been a family portrait. Surrounding these more representational figures were arranged the usual painted, scratched, or deeply etched abstract designs.

Disappearance was a recurring theme in these arid lands. The Anasazi vanished from Davis Gulch around 1300 c.e. They left ruins, which Everett combed for artifacts. Across the stream were a well-preserved kiva and the remnants of storage structures under a massive overhang. The elliptical kiva had survived nearly intact for almost a thousand years. The three-layered flat roof of beams, thin sticks laid crossways, and an adobe roofing material partially covered the subterranean structure. It was nine feet in diameter and rose a little over five feet from the hard-packed dirt floor, in which a rectangular fire pit had been dug. Artifacts indicated a Kayenta, Arizona, cultural origin from the south side of the Colorado River.

Anthropologists had found seven corncobs with sticks stuck into them. I could see only one in the kiva. When I have encountered similar dried corncobs dating back a thousand years or so at other Anasazi sites in the Southwest, I have felt uncomfortably close to ancient peoples. I could almost see, feel, and taste what the teeth of the ancients had bitten into. It was a very intimate sensation.

Our last stop before retracing our steps was Bement Arch near the head of Davis Gulch. The arch was dramatically outlined against the blue sky with an expansive view from the shade of its graceful enclosure toward the head of the canyon. On one buttress was scratched NEMO 34, a crude imitation by a pretend Everett.

The depth of time and the variety of peoples who have passed through Davis Gulch are also represented by the impermanence of the names attached to the two arches. I have no idea what the Native Americans or early Mormon settlers called them, if anything. The locals called LaGorce Arch, in the lower canyon, Moqui Eye, Moqui Window, Roosevelt Memorial Natural Bridge, and, after Everett's disappearance, Nemo Arch. (Moqui referred to the Hopi and other early inhabitants of the region, such as the Fremont and Anasazi cultures.) What is now known as Bement Arch was called Davis Arch, Ruess Arch, and Nemo Arch.

Then the National Geographic Society took over the naming process, much to the consternation of the people who lived in the region. After a society expedition to Davis Gulch in 1954, the two arches were given new designations. Ruess Arch was named for Harlan W. Bement, the Utah state aeronautics director who had spotted it while flying low over the canyon. Bement brought the natural arches in the canyons of the Escalante River watershed to the attention of the society. The second arch was named after John Oliver La Gorce, one of the three original employees of the society and editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor's "man Friday," as he described himself. Davis Gulch was named for Johnny Davis, who ran cattle in the canyon.

* * *

The writer-teacher-conservationist Wallace Stegner led me to Everett Ruess, whose trail I followed until it ended in Davis Gulch. Both westerners were shaped by landscapes and transcended their respective eras in their own distinctive ways. I read Stegner's book Mormon Country in the late 1970s in preparation for writing a book about the Colorado River and the West. The Stegner book mentioned Ruess's brief life, its fleeting promise, and his mysterious disappearance. Thirty years later I wrote a biography of Wallace Stegner. I described a man who lived a long, full life. I now write about a youth who lived a short, fragile life.

I have had a personal investment in the books I have written, but none to a greater extent than this book. To varying degrees, we all searched for something during our early years. Like Everett, I was raised in the Unitarian Church, with its emphasis on independent thinking, had progressive parents who believed in letting children find their own way, traveled west when a teenager to work among strangers, and embarked alone on a quest, hitchhiking for six months through Europe. One major difference was that I returned with no written record of my journeys; Everett disappeared but left diaries, letters, and illustrations to document his wanderings.

This book is the story of all of us and our loneliness and confusion during the teenage years, only writ larger because Everett went to extremes. At that age our lives spread out like a topographical map before us, offering numerous diverging trails through the wilderness to choose from. How wonderful, how frightening, and how dangerous those years were. I hope readers, both young and old, can relate to Everett Ruess through either their own experiences or those of their children, a young relative, or a more distant youth. My parents and others experienced the wrenching grief following the loss of a child; that sadness and the process of healing are also part of this story. Everett's era forms the backdrop. His wanderings provide a snapshot of growing up nearly one hundred years ago on the East Coast and in the Middle West, the Depression years in California and the interior West, and the spaciousness of the national parks, monuments, and Indian lands in the Southwest.

In searching for a meaningful Everett Ruess, I sought the reality of who he was, or as close to that reality as I could get. I found the real Ruess to be far more interesting than the mythic one. I don't view him as a western Thoreau or a younger Muir, as some do. Those two men described and thought about their respective regions. Everett described places beautifully. However, he thought primarily about himself, which is perfectly understandable given his age. I don't know in what manner he would have matured, but I do know he was exasperating at times. This quality alone made him more human and interesting, at least for me, than the patron saint of western wilderness, as he has been portrayed.

Everett was a hero, not because of what he accomplished, but because he persevered. His story dates back at least as far as Parsifal and the Arthurian legend of the innocent youth who embarks on a quest for the Holy Grail. It resembles the more contemporary tales of Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Christopher McCandless, who undertook odysseys of adolescence down the Mississippi River, on the streets of New York City, and into the wilds of Alaska, respectively.

Everett's unfiltered voice gives a tactile sense of who he was. Because he wrote so many words that form an autobiography within this biography, I have integrated his language into the text. I have differentiated his voice by the use of italics. The exact quotes of others are offset by the usual means: quotation marks for shorter phrases and indented paragraphs for longer passages. I make an occasional appearance in the narrative and notes to emphasize Ruess's relevance to the present and to other people. Given the facts that most readers don't read endnotes and that footnotes clutter pages and remind one of homework, I have sought a compromise. Notes that provide context or are particularly interesting are designated by an asterisk and placed at the bottom of the page. All other notes have been placed at the back of the book.

After I began working on this project, others supplied a surprising addendum. Everett's bones were supposedly discovered three-quarters of a century after he disappeared and one hundred miles from where he had last been seen. Misguided and sales-driven journalism, as practiced by a publication of the National Geographic Society, drove the bad science that resulted in two false DNA positives. The third test, by a more experienced laboratory, proved that the bones did not belong to Ruess and that science has its own types of fragility. Then the silence of the desert returned.



DISAPPEARANCES CREATE MYTHS, whose durability depends on the renown of the wanderers, the circumstances of their vanishing, and the fervor of their followers. Everett Ruess appears on almost every list of better-known individuals who have vanished: writer Ambrose Bierce, Congressman Hale Boggs, hijacker D.B. Cooper, aviators Amelia Earhart and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, explorer John Franklin, labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, mountaineer George Mallory, band leader Glenn Miller, outlaw Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy), anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, silk merchant Jim Thompson, and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg.

Around each of these men and this one woman a cottage industry of suppositions about their fate has developed, fed every now and then by some discovery or rumor. What these people have in common is that they pushed the envelope in some way, sought to go beyond known limits, became lost in attempts to find themselves, and were subsequently immortalized in myths.

Disappearance is "the place we go when we are ready, or forced, to throw down language and measurement," wrote an Alaskan author, whose state, like desert regions, has an unusually large percentage of the lost. Alaska was where Christopher McCandless disappeared for four months and then was found dead in an abandoned bus just north of Denali National Park in 1992. The book Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, with eleven pages devoted to Ruess, and a film of the same name by Sean Penn elevated McCandless to the mythic status of a lost soul. McCandless and Ruess were wanderers who sought solitude in the wilderness under assumed names, Alexander Supertramp for McCandless and Evert Rulan for Ruess. That both were young added to the poignancy of their deaths, McCandless's from starvation and Ruess's from unknown causes since he simply vanished, adding mystery to loss.


Excerpted from Everett Ruess by Philip L. Fradkin. Copyright © 2011 Philip L. Fradkin. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I. Davis Gulch II. Wanderers III. The Legacy, 1859-1913
IV. Growing Up, 1914-1929
V. On the Road, 1930
VI. Lan Rameau, 1931
VII. The Misfit, 1932
VIII. The Bohemian, 1933
IX. Vanished, 1934
X. The Search, 1935
XI. Healing, 1936-2008
XII. Resurrection, 2009

Appendix A: "Wilderness Song"
Appendix B: Father and Son Dialogue Acknowledgments Notes Selected Bibliography Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The author's research shines through without bogging down the narrative, making it accessible and eminently readable."—Library Journal

"Enthralling narrative. . . . A riveting ride through one of the Southwest's enduring mysteries."—Zyzzyva

"Fradkin tries . . . to sift through the legends to get to the heart of the genuine person. . . . . Tell[s] a gripping tale of a young man consumed by the nature he so desperately loved."—National Post

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