Andromeda M31's Reviews > Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer

Finding Everett Ruess by David  Roberts
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Jun 10, 12

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bookshelves: non-fiction
Read from June 03 to 10, 2012

Americans love to deify the lost, young wanderer. There is terrible envy in the Dave Alvin lyrics on Everett Ruess: "You give your dreams away as you get older / Oh, but I never gave up mine / And they’ll never find my body, boys / Or understand my mind."

In Finding Everett Ruess, Roberts chronicles the life of the youthful Everett Ruess, a young poet artist wanna-be, who, mooching off his parents during the Great Depression, would buy himself two burros and camping supplies and wander off into the desert and mountains for weeks at a time in search of beauty, inspiration, and himself. Everett climbs mountains, befriends fellow travelers, Mormons, and Indians, and traverses the few spots of wilderness left in the world with sketchpad and diary in hand. Manic-depressive, bipolar, suicidal, misanthropic, homosexual, or perhaps simply a teenager struck with wanderlust, Everett's soul is bared in his letters home and his diaries, which, like his artwork, have become famous long after his body has been swallowed by the Utah Desert. In death, Everett becomes the stuff of legend, and devotees devour what pieces of his work exist while traipsing off into Escalante canyons, hoping to find an answer to his disappearance.

Roberts writes a portrait of Everett, detailing his life before his legendary wilderness excursions, and analyzing and presenting extracts from Everett's writing during his wandering years, and carefully follows his physical location throughout his journey. Or, Roberts discusses what writings he can find. It's evident throughout the story that lost diaries and forgotten letters would have allowed a hopefully clearer picture of Everett, but alas these scriptures are lost to time and hoarders and thieves come and gone.

The first half the book is the story of Everett's life. Roberts presents a fervently chronological story, explaining exact locations of Everett's wanderings and his relationship to his family. Roberts stops short of over analysis, he presents what he finds, but never over stretches his imagination. And his lamentations for the lost works are tangible, and a third of the way through, the reader understands his frustration at the missing documents. Everett becomes ever more available to the reader as the years pass by. Initially, I could not decide if Everette was competent. He was clearly a city boy in love with the beauty of the outdoors, but he never lets his inexperience, lack of funds, and several dangerous close calls, stop him for forging ever onward. As the years pass, his writing matures, and in his final foray into the wilds, I felt I had finally gotten to know Everett from his letters, when suddenly the man begins to appear within the boy. The reader is brought into Everett's nature worship in his detailed descriptions of sunsets and desert flowers.

And with that feeling of intimacy, of understanding, developing within the reader, half way through the book Everett is lost to the desert. It is abrupt, startling, and brilliantly placed. The last communication with Everett is the mysterious "NEMO 1934" scrawled onto walls and crevices in the wilderness.

The third fourth of the book is painful saga of a family's search for their lost son. The ghost of Everett haunts his parents. Strange charlatans creep out from the mid-west to tempt money and Everett's valuable writings from his family, leaving Everett's parents tantalizing lies of possible Everett sitings. Rumors have him living with Navajo, or running to Mexico. As Roberts systematically goes through the correspondence of each of these con men who weasel money out of Everett's parents and his brother, the heartache and loss the family feels is palpable. The book becomes almost too grossly intimate, and I'm not sure I was prepared to feel so close to a family's very personal agony.

The last fourth of the book describes the modern search for Everett, lead by the author and other outdoorsmen. It is a strange mystery, involving xenophobic Mormons, superstitious and noble Navajo, and old family stories, which results in a grave, but not an answer. If anything, the last part of the book allows the reader to glimpse the forgotten corners of the US. There is a different world, out in those hills, and it has little to do with ours.

I was surprised how I quickly I sped through the book. However, in certain wanderings, where Everett's descriptions are lacking or lost, Roberts provides only names of the places traveled. As someone who has backpacked through the Sierra and around Utah, I believe the reader deserved further visuals of the landscapes Everett moved through, or at least basic geologic characterization. Roberts wisely leaves the prose descriptions to Everett, but the setting that so inspired Everett is important to his story, and I would be afraid the average reader would miss something vital. The black and white photos of Davis Gulch are not enough. Images of Everett's wood cuts are also important, but are not within the book.

Everett is easy to empathize with, even with his strange penchant for killing rattlesnakes, his morbid thoughts, and lonely nature. All of us want to identify with the man who gives up everything to follow his dream.

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