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."
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.