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Book review: 'Finding Everett Ruess'

David Roberts investigates the 1934 disappearance of the legendary young adventurer in his new book.

September 15, 2011|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • Everett Ruess in a picture shot by famed depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange in 1933.
Everett Ruess in a picture shot by famed depression-era photographer Dorothea… (Dorothea Lange / Beecher…)

Everett Ruess was a poet, a painter and a wanderer. Over the course of five years, he traveled hundreds of miles for months on end through some of the most beautiful and treacherous territory in the Southwest. During the brutal winter of 1934, he disappeared without a trace in the Utah desert. He was just 20. The ensuing searches became national news, and as theories proliferated about what happened to the young man, a legend was born.

Now, nearly 80 years after his disappearance, mountain-climber-turned-adventure-writer David Roberts casts a fresh spotlight on Ruess in his new book "Finding Everett Ruess."

The book is a cross between an adventure novel and a biography. Roberts has intimate knowledge of the landscape of which he writes, so the book is filled with compelling imagery of the desert and the Native Americans who occupy it.

Roberts explores the mythology surrounding Ruess by looking at the circumstances of his life and the trajectory of his travels. The author is particularly sympathetic to the plight of Ruess' parents, and this is to his credit, as they are fascinating in their own right. His mother, Stella, was a dancer and an artist. His father, Christopher, was a Unitarian minister. Both were bohemian and devoted to literature. They raised their sons, Everett and his older brother, Waldo, in Los Angeles and encouraged them to keep journals from an early age. The family was unusually close, so much so that Roberts speculates that Ruess may have begun wandering in order to gain space.

The book deftly paints Ruess' upbringing before diving into his journeys, beginning with his first trip up the California coast at 16 and ending with his disappearance. The remainder of the book is devoted to his parents' anguished, ongoing search for their son and their tireless efforts to get his rhapsodic, often moody and melodramatic letters and diaries published. The book chronicles the many charlatans who took advantage of the couple, who in the depths of their grief handed over money to anyone claiming to have a clue as to Ruess' fate.

The mystery of Everett Ruess makes for page-turning reading for much of the book, though it does slow down at the end in the many theories surrounding his disappearance.

These theories miss the point, because at the core of the Ruess allure is Ruess himself, a passionate poet and aesthete who struggled with the sense that he was a "freak" and that there was no one in the world with whom he could truly connect with on a deep, emotional level. This tragic, solitary feeling bordered on suicidal and drove him to ever more extreme wanderings in dangerous, wild territory throughout the Southwest.

"I am torn by the knowledge that what I have felt can not be given to another," he wrote in a letter to a mysterious girl whom he met while briefly living in San Francisco to pursue a career in art after graduating from Hollywood High School.

Angst in a precocious youth can produce some truly compelling art. Sometimes the rebel child turns into a thoughtful adult, creating touching work well into maturity (Edna St. Vincent Millay), and sometimes the fire that youth stoked so brightly simply burns out (Arthur Rimbaud). In the case of Everett Ruess, one suspects that had he not disappeared he may have become a noteworthy wilderness writer.

Ruess actively sought out his idols, knocking on the doors of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, all of whom seemed taken by the boy. Lange even took a black-and-white portrait of him — one of the most handsome and telling pictures that remains of him.

However, for all of his dogged self-sufficiency — trudging for months on end through rugged country with names like Canyon del Muerto and No Man's Mesa — Ruess remained financially dependent on his parents to send him food and books.

Some of Ruess' writing conveys a sense of self-centered entitlement that enhances the plausibility that he may well have conducted himself in a reckless manner when facing the dangers of the natural world, and that careless behavior led to his death. Three other main theories exist: that he was murdered by cattle rustlers or rogue Indians; that he "went native," renouncing his life in the white world and marrying a Navajo girl; and that he committed suicide.

His writing is littered with cryptic ruminations, erased lines and literary allusions to an untimely fate, and Roberts lays them out with skill.

"I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness.... God, how the trail lures me. You can not comprehend its restless fascination for me," he wrote to Waldo in 1932 from Chinle, Ariz. "I'll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I'll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is."

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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