Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Story of "A Vagabond for Beauty"

A small article in the local paper caught my eye and my interest recently, and after searching into it further, the story began to resonate with me on so many levels that I thought it would make for an intriguing entry. I know that many of my readers are fellow photographers, artists, or nature lovers, so hopefully some will appreciate this as much as me. It may mean more or less to you depending on your experience with art history and the lure of the American West.
"There is a splendid freedom in solitude, and after all, it is for solitude that I go to the mountains and deserts, not for companionship. In solitude I can bare my soul to the mountains unabashed. I can work or think, act or recline at my whim, and nothing stands between me and the Wild."
-Everett Ruess

In November of 1934, a young 20 year old man named Everett Ruess, traveling alone except for two burros and some basic gear, as he had been for much of the previous four years, set out down the Hole in the Rock trail from the town of Escalante, in south central Utah, intending to explore further south towards the Colorado River. He was never seen again after that day... and the mystery of his disappearance became a legendary mystery that remained unsolved for nearly 75 years. What catches the imagination is that he was an extremely talented artist, writer, poet and experienced explorer even at his young age.

Ruess's family lived in Los Angeles and after graduating school, he left normal life behind to wander up the California coast, into Yosemite and the Sierras, sketching and photographing the natural wonders along the way and keeping a detailed record of his thoughts and travels, mostly in the form of letters back home to his family. He explored Yosemite, Sequoia N.P. and the High Sierras in 1930 and '33; Arizona, Utah and Colorado in 1931, '32 & '34. Those letters were compiled into a book called "A Vagabond for Beauty" and form a journal of insights and experiences from some of the most desolate and beautiful areas one could ever hope to see. I have added the book to my Amazon sidebar.. you can click on it to read some sample pages (don't worry, it doesn't cost anything to just look!)

He was one hell of an accomplished writer for his age and was fearless about introducing himself to some of the most established artists of the day. One early trip took him to Carmel, CA where he describes seeking out Edward Weston at his house there... exploring the Point Lobos area and doing artwork with Weston's sons, Bret and Cole and sleeping in their garage. He later stayed with renowned western painter Maynard Dixon and his then wife, photographer Dorothea Lang (who took some of the best pictures of him), as well as photographer Ansel Adams.

He made drawings for reference, then back home in Los Angeles would work them up as linoleum block prints, very simple and graphic, which he could in turn trade for necessities on future travels. There is a site devoted to his artwork and writings here. Probably he was far from reaching his full potential as an artist and who knows how good he might have become had he lived past 20 years.

Some of you who saw the movie "Into the Wild" may think Ruess's story sounds kind of familiar; there is indeed an eerie similarity between Everett's life and that of Chris McCandless decades later, in fact Jon Krakauer devoted a whole section of his book to Ruess for that reason, although it was not covered in the movie. It seems they both wanted to leave their old selves behind: McCandless traveled under the name "Alexander Supertramp" and Ruess is known to have carved "Nemo" ("nobody" in Latin) at some of the places he camped in the desert.

Now, the last chapter of his story is complete. Researchers at the University of Colorado have used DNA from some bones discovered recently, 60 miles from Escalante, to verify that the mystery of Everett's vanishing is pretty much solved. As has been proven many times, events rarely happen a vacuum... so in the early 1970's, a Navajo man named Aneth Nez was told by a tribal medicine man to unburden himself of a secret that he had carried since his youth, when he sat up on a ridge one day and witnessed some Ute Indian boys chase down and murder a young white man to steal his belongings. Not wishing the body to be left exposed and alone, Nez went down and buried it in some nearby rocks. He told the story to his granddaughter and she in turn just last year relayed it her younger brother, who made it his personal mission to search the area his grandfather had described, at last finding bones and some other artifacts along with his grandfather's saddle, which had been left at the scene because it was covered in blood. This part of the tale is written up with great detail this month in "National Geographic Adventure" magazine and you can read part of it for free on their website. There was also a documentary film made in 2000, numerous magazine articles have speculated about Everett's fate, musician Dave Alvin of the Blasters and others have written songs about him and there is in recent years an annual art festival bearing his name in Escalante.

I guess my fascination with all this lies in the overlap of names and places from this tale with many of the same ones that have been influential to me personally. You could say Weston and Adams are two of my idols and I can only imagine how great it would have been to meet them at a young age... and I have been awed to experience even briefly some of the places that Ruess was so devoted to, especially the Grand Staircase region of Utah where he ultimately ended up staying forever, as he would have wished anyway, I'm sure.

"I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities."
... as to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon. I have not tired of the wilderness... It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty... This had been a full, rich year. I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I wanted to do.
- from the last letter Ruess sent to his brother, dated November 11, 1934.

Oh yeah,... my two pieces (both are linked to larger versions for this post): for the color one, I caught the early light of a winter morning on some bare cottonwood trees along the Virgin River in Zion Canyon. The monochrome image is of Metate Arch in the Devil's Garden, found about 20 miles down Hole in the Rock road, south of Escalante, and very likely a spot that Reuss passed on his last fateful journey.


Michelle B. Hendry said...

What an amazing story... And your images are amazing! The great ones always do what the many will never entertain and that's what makes them great.

roentare said...

This is such a wonderful post with great history and excellent images.

I found your landscape most intriguing among the best I have seen

Mandy said...

It is the strangest thing - I felt so sad to read that he had been murdered! It really tugged my heart strings. I guess I identify with his free spirit and was sad to see that he had been murdered. In the great wide open beauty of the wilderness, I would have far preferred for his death to be natural or accidental.

betchai said...

I agree with the quote above from Everett Ruess. Solitude in the mountains has helped me a lot in coming up with research proposals when I was struggling for my college and graduate thesis, escaping to the mountains was very effective for me to come up with scientific thoughts to explore once back to the city. The story of Everett is both inspiring and sad, sad because life ended that way. Your last picture is so powerful, it is hard to explain it in words, but just like the force of nature, it strongly draws you into it. i really love it.

Joanne Olivieri said...

Fascinating details. I enjoy learning and your blog always affords me that pleasure. Beautiful photography as well.

storybeader said...

I was going to ask if you've been to the site of Ruess' death. What a fascinating story - he looks so young in the photos... who knows what he would have accomplished. I'm putting the movie on my Netflex!

airplane5312 said...

An amazing and sad story. A young life and great talent wasted for greed and sport.

Unknown said...

Fascinating post Mark.

I really like the colour image where the trees have a little infrared aspect. Really really beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Great photos and great story.

Ashrays said...

An interesting article you have written here Mark thanks :)

And once again two excellent images to accompany it. I'm always amazed at how sharp and clear your work is two more stoaters!

Lynda Lehmann said...

Too bad that such a talented and inquiring soul had to be killed for no good reason.

I guess most of us artists and photographers know that feeling that he carried, about the freedom and joy and peace of being in the wild.

Your photos are lovely. I have to get to Utah one of these days.

We should come up with a name for that quiet excitement we feel when entering a new canyon or trail-head, ready to enhance our exploration and observance of nature with our cameras or paints.

That stone bridge is beautiful, Mark! And your photo of it.

The light reflecting off the rock-face and tops of the trees in the top photo, is stunning, too.

Ashrays said...

Hi Mark

I'm not sure whether to leave this or not and honestly only if you have time!!!

As you probably sell loads of shots could you please give me your valued opinion on my last post? As I said only if you have time! said...

Thanks, Mark.

What a great story. I thought he had probably slipped on rocks and knocked himself out and wouldn't have guessed that he was essentially mugged right out there amidst all the beauty that he loved. And he was so young, yet knew exactly what he was meant for. He would have made an excellent conservationist. What a sad loss...

Your photos are excellent. I especially like the two kissing birds!

Mark Alan Meader said...

Thanks a lot to all of you who took the time to read this one.. I know it was kind of long and not specific to photography, but thought it was such an interesting story for all of you who devote a large part of your life to working on your art, be it photography, painting or various crafts, or those who just enjoy exploring the world.

@Michelle: I know you often delve into the back story for your work, so glad you enjoyed this.

@betchai: "both inspiring and sad".. that's a perfect summary, isn't it? I though you would be one of those who would especially appreciate this. Thanks.

@Deb: No I haven't been to that specific area, though I may make a point of it someday if I am nearby, which I hope to be this year. As for the documentary, I haven't found anyplace to rent it, looks like you might have to buy it. "Into the Wild" though, is readily available and well worth seeing if you haven't yet.

@Holly: Getting "mugged" is a good description; hadn't thought of it that way, but entirely accurate. Ironic about it happening way out there, though, isn't it?

Thanks to everyone for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Incredible story, sad, amazing. . . thank you for posting it.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark, I have been away for a couple of weeks and am catching uo]p. This is an incredible story, although sad.
I look at your fabulous rock photograph and think of the people passing through over time and wonder who else ventured through and what mysteries there are still. Thanks for bringing some history alive.

Mark Alan Meader said...

Koe: Thanks for reading.. I really appreciate it.

Chrissy: Welcome back.. I had the same thought.. working in this spot for several hours all alone, I was trying to imagine all who had passed by and admired this unique formation over the course of hundreds of years. Experiencing places like this are the real benefit of what I do.

GulfGal said...

Mark, your photography is absolutely beautiful.
Your stories are intriguing and very enjoyable.