The Mystery of Everett Ruess


Bitter pain is in store for me, but I shall bear it. Beauty beyond all power to convey shall be mine; I will search diligently for it. Death may await me; with vitality, impetuosity and confidence I will combat it….My heart beats high but my eyelids droop; tomorrow I will go. Adventure is for the adventurous. Life is a dream. I am young, and a fool; forgive me, and read on.” — Everett Ruess

Wandering alone with burros and pack horses through the arid southwest of the 1930’s, Everett Ruess has passed into legend. Still in his teens, he became friends with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon, and Dorothea Lange. Along his desert trail he sent his family and friends vivid letters full of Muir-like ecstasy at all he experienced. When he wasn’t writing, he was painting and sketching — the southwest literally flowed through this remarkable young man.

Then, in November 1934, at the age of 20, Everett Ruess vanished without a trace — one of the great unsolved mysteries of the American West.

This month sees two new biographies of artist, writer, and wilderness explorer Everett Ruess: Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts, and Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife by Philip L. Fradkin (both pictured above).

Both new books acknowledge the mystery of Everett Ruess’ death, but they also help us marvel at his remarkable life, and his travels through a long-gone age.

Everett Ruess blockprint, along with a photo of Everett and his pack burros, somewhere in the Southwest

I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wildernesses. God, how the trail lures me. You can not comprehend its resistless fascination for me. After all the lone trail is the best. I hope I’ll be able to buy good horses and a better saddle. I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.” — Everett Ruess, postscript to a July 12, 1932 letter to his brother, Waldo.

And here’s a few more books on Everett Ruess, from the Land Library’s collection:

wilderness journalsrushodesert trails
Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess, edited by W.L. Rusho (drawing on Ruess’ diaries of 1932-33), Everett Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty, W.L. Rusho’s groundbreaking 1983 book, and On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess (first published in 1940, and still in print).

Even a wilderness wanderer needs the comforts of home:

There are a couple of things I wish you would send me; Don Quixote, a Modern Library book which you can get for 95 cents, and eight of those half-pound chocolate bars which you can get downtown for eight or nine cents each. Get half of them plain, and half with raisin and peanuts.” — June 19, 1934 — Everett Ruess’ letter to his parents.

Monument Valley, blockprint by Everett Ruess

I am going to pack up my burro, and take a jaunt thru Monument Valley to a row of cliffs I know of, explore every box canyon, and discover some prehistoric cliff dwellings. Don’t laugh. Maybe you thought they were all discovered, but such is not the case….Most of the country is untouched.” — March 9, 1931 — Everett Ruess’ letter to a friend.


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