** spoiler alert **
I first heard about Everett Ruess on NPR, where the author David Roberts was interviewed about his book, Finding Everett Ruess. I thought, “Hey, that sounds fascinating!” but since I was driving I didn’t remember the details and upon getting home, didn’t look it up. However, the name stuck with me, and so did the story of the 20-year-old that went missing in the desert Southwest wilderness in 1934.
The first half of the book is a reconstruction of Ruess’ life based on his letters, diaries, and other primary materials, while the 2nd half covers all the search efforts and speculations about his fate.
This is a well researched, and dare I say, “balanced” book, where the author acknowledged Everett’s legacy without shying away from his “faults and foibles.” However, the title is contradictory, since after many theories, false leads, and even a sensational “discovery”, Ruess (or what happened to him) was never “found.” His missing remains an "unresolved" mystery till this day.
Since I took a road trip to the desert Southwest in 2010 and loved every minute of it, I was particularly interested in this book. I have been to, driven through, or at least remembered many of the locations, such as Monument Valley, Tuba City, Keyenta, etc. I felt as if Everett were a kindred spirit due to our mutual admiration for the striking landscape, the vermillion sandstone buttes and spires, and the open desert horizon. Of course, he took that spirit to a whole new level, while I was just some tourist.
Roberts aptly called Ruess “a precocious artist, a writer of promise, a romantic visionary verging on the mystical, a bold and resourceful solo explorer of the wilderness, and in some sense the first true celebrator of the beauty of the Southwest for its own sake.” Ruess’ blockprints are indeed excellent (esp. given that they were made when he was between 16 and 20). I personally find his writing, while lyrical, at times pompous, grandiose, and melodramatic, but again, amazing for a teenager (I have seen worse writing from college seniors). Some of his most memorable euphoric lines include “Once more I am roaring drunk with the lust of life and adventure and unbearable beauty” and “I am overwhelmed by the appalling strangeness and intricacy of the curiously tangled knot of life.”
Despite the accolades, Roberts didn’t pull any punches when it comes to Everett’s flaws. He described how Everett’s parents unfailingly financially sponsored his vagabondage during the Great Depression when they were struggling to make ends meet, how Everett took their generosity for granted due to his “streak of self-indulgence fueled by a sense of entitlement.”
Like most of the “wilderness explorers” we have read about, Ruess was a loner that craved companionship and “true deep friendship.” He once wrote “I don’t have much trouble getting along with people, but I have the greatest difficulty in finding the sort of companionship I want.” Hmmm… I wonder why. Maybe he was too willful and selfish, and true companionship is not all about you, but about what you can bring to the relationship? In his correspondence with family and his practically only friend, Bill Jacobs, he often assumed the moral high ground, with full on distain for their lives, openly “contemptuous of his unambitious pals”. No wonder Bill turned him down or let him down over and over again, because people don’t want to travel or be with someone who doesn’t respect them.
In fact, this is the problem with all the “wilderness explorers” I’ve read about so far, whether it’s McCandless (Into the Wild), Morgensten (The Last Season), or Ruess. They all regarded their lifestyle as superior to that of the common masses. They all wanted their partner to be just like them and to adopt their lifestyle. Did they want to contribute something to the relationship that was outside their comfort zone? Were they willing to make sacrifices, compromises, or accommodation for the other person? NO. They were all selfish human beings with a God complex that made poor partners.
Roberts made a fair assessment of his character, “One of the least attractive aspects of Everett’s five-year swagger across California and the Southwest is the way that, surrounded by the detritus of the Depression, he managed for the most part to ignore the hopelessness and poverty he saw at every hand. And when he did not ignore it, he sometimes railed against the stricken men and women whose paths he crossed as if their blighted dreams and everyday misery were their own fault, the natural outcome of failed imagination and sedentary torpor. All this, while Christopher and Stella [his parents] were subsidizing his endless ramble.” Touche! I must say I found his arrogance downright repelling.
In the book he was compared to John Muir. I think this is an overstatement. Maybe Ruess peaked too early; if he had started the journey when he was a bit more mature, he might have reached the height of Muir. However, the whole time I was reading this book, my only impression is that 1) Ruess worshipped beauty for beauty’s sake with a blind idealistic fervor, and 2) he is a taker not a giver. Ruess took everything in sight: he took the lives of rattlesnakes, he robbed the Native American sites, he ignored the sacredness of the Navajo hogans… He took the beauty of the Southwest and turned it into art for his own gain (selling his art), but he never bothered to give back to the land. Had it ever occurred to him that there was more to just appreciating the beauty? Did he put in any preservation effort like Muir did? No. He loved to wander, pure and simple. I don’t fault him for that, since he was so young; I just think that comparing him to Muir is an insult to the latter.
To conclude: recommended for people that love the “wilderness adventure” genre.