"When I go, I leave no trace."
I have long been haunted by the fascinating and mysterious story of Everett Ruess. Like all true-life enigmas, he harbored a multitude of dimensions and was a mass of contradictions. His facets were kaleidoscopic and his talents were many : writer, artist, poet, diarist. He was outgoing, courageous, a fearless adventurer. Yet he was also erudite, an aesthete - - intensely sensitive, highly romantic.
Everett Ruess wrote over 175,000 pages of letters, journals, and poems. He painted more than 100 watercolors, and made countless woodblocks and sketches. These would have been admirable lifetime accomplishments for anyone. Ruess did this during the span of only a few short years and at an extraordinarily young age. He was only twenty years old when he vanished in the Utah desert, never to be heard from again.
Ruess at age 16
with burro and dog Curly, 1930
with burro and dog Curly, 1930
He had a fierce aversion to cities and mundane conventional existence - - preferring to be a perpetual wanderer and explorer. He felt most comfortable alone in the isolation and beauty of nature. He was a minimalist and naturalist - - spending the last four years of his life exploring the High Sierras and the remote areas of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.
Woodblocks by Ruess
He rode broncos, branded calves, resided with Indians, learned to speak the Navajo language. He traveled entirely alone on foot or horseback, sometimes using burros as pack animals. During his travels he painted watercolors and made woodblocks, and wrote highly descriptive letters to his parents and brother who lived in Los Angeles.
Watercolor by Ruess
In the summer of 1930, at age sixteen, Ruess hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Carmel, where he met famed photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. He later spent some time in San Francisco, leading a Bohemian life with other artists and writers. In 1931, at age seventeen, he walked across the Painted Desert in Arizona, trekked to the Grand Canyon, and thereafter was obsessed with exploring the wilderness of the American Southwest.
In November, 1934, after a stint in Escalante, Utah, he set out alone in the remote desert canyons. He was never heard from again. Four months later his two burros were found southeast of Escalante, along with human footprints and empty food cans. Extensive searches found no other traces of Reuss.
Ruess and burro
Zion National Park, Utah
With the discovery of skeletal remains in 2009, it was initially believed that the body of Everett Ruess had finally been found. The first DNA test was inconclusive. The second test revealed that the remains were definitely not those of Ruess. The bones were that of a six-foot tall, mature Navajo man. Ruess was a small 5' 7" and only twenty years old. So the mystery continues.
Many theories exist as to what exactly happened to Everett Ruess. He certainly could have had an accident or succumbed to the harsh elements. Another very plausible theory is murder. Ruess was a friendly and trusting youth, who had befriended many unsavory characters in the past.
The theory that Ruess purposefully vanished is remote but still popular. His letters are seasoned with mysterious and romanticized notions:
"I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Then, before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return."
To say that Everett Ruess was brilliant is an understatement. Reading his diaries and letters is imperative to understanding the depths of his soul. Most of his writings have been published. A wide array of biographies about Ruess are available, and several documentary films have been made.
There is something intensely romantic about a mystery. Vanishing without a trace lends itself to a special kind of immortality and is the stuff that perpetuates dreams and creates legends.
Everett Ruess was fascinating in life and even more intriguing in the absence of death.........
Photo of Ruess and his burros