Long before there was Christopher McCandless (the young solitude-seeker immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into The Wild” and Sean Penn’s movie of the same name), America already had a prototype in Everett Ruess.
Ruess vanished in 1934 when he was 20, and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance have been the subject of speculation ever since.
Did he have an accident while traversing the canyons of Utah’s Escalante River with his mules? Was he murdered? Or did he ingeniously fake getting lost in order to eccentrically pursue ultimate freedom?
Ruess is, for a number of reasons, an archetypal folk hero, especially among the daydreaming outdoor set of the 21st century who fantasize of going off the grid to escape the pressures of contemporary life.
The fact that Ruess has never been found – in spite of a forensic debate that flared as late as 2009 – has only heightened his mystical stature. Indeed, to have successfully transcended the physical world and achieved a grander profile in the human imagination is a feat worthy of saints.
Ruess is on our minds again this summer, thanks to not one, but two new biographies. The first is Philip L. Fradkin’s Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife (University of California Press, 332 pp.) The second is David Roberts’ Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer (Broadway, 394 pp.)
Ruess was the son of nomadic parents who settled in Los Angeles and he grew up with artistic passions and a relentless sense of wanderlust. As a teenager during the Depression, he drifted solo north to San Francisco and the Sierra mountains and back to the deserts of the Southwest – along the way meeting people like famed photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Weston, and painter Maynard Dixon.
During his brief existence, he displayed a charming precocity, showing sensitivity as a writer, poet, photographer and free-spirited thinker.
At one point, he wrote in a confident, self-assertive letter to his brother, that he could never remain captive to a city. “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,” he wrote. “I don’t think could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.”
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).
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.