Everett Ruess: two new biographies
The story of Everett Ruess – the young explorer of the American West who vanished in the 1930s – remains an unsolved mystery to this day.
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Fradkin’s and Roberts’ books each have its strengths; both are gripping and entertaining reads and highly recommended. Fradkin, an environmental historian known for his biography of Wallace Stegner is more assiduous with his research and layering of anecdotal texture; Roberts’ book has the feel, pleasantly so, of a long-form magazine story, like one that might appear in Outside magazine, to which he has made numerous contributions over the years. (It’s worth noting that Krakauer, who penned best-selling work about McCandless and highlighted Ruess in it, offers an insightful forward in support of Roberts’ book).Skip to next paragraph
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Ruess, in the hands of these two authors, proves to be the kind of real life figure that a fictional character could not match. Unlike Amelia Earhart (who disappeared while making an around the world flight in 1937) and British mountaineers Andrew “Sandy” Irvine and George Mallory who vanished on Mt. Everest in 1924, he was an adventurer for common people.
What cannot be ignored is that – despite the veneration sometimes heaped on Ruess – he still was practically a kid. The anguish visited upon his parents, their hope of finding him alive which were continually dashed by leads that turned cold, and the presence of hucksters who tried to take advantage of their grief – this is all part of the very compelling human side of this story.
Was he really a sage with uncommon maturity – or a 1930s version of a slacker? Over the ensuing years, there has been plenty of conjecture as to how Ruess might have left his mark as a philosopher – the idealist who could have grown up and joined the hallowed ranks of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, representing a precursor to the late Edward Abbey.
“In a sense, Everett was the Pied Piper of youthful innocence and freedom without the dire consequences,” Fradkin writes. “He emerged in the role in the small villages of southern Utah, and young people still attach themselves to his myth and follow his example, taking to the wilderness for extended periods of time,” Fradkin writes.
One of Ruess’ emulators was McCandless who sought clarity in the back country of Alaska and perished tragically by his own miscalculation. At least McCandless was found. Where Ruess is concerned, the legend lives on all the larger precisely because the loop has never been closed.
Perhaps some mysteries are never meant to be solved.
Todd Wilkinson is a Monitor contributor.