Another day of sunshine and rain, rapids and rolling on the muddy Green River is behind us. We sit in a circle on a beach in Desolation Canyon with guitars and glasses of whiskey and wine, playing the songs we know. Emanuel “Manu” Tellier strums and sings, “He’s a real nowhere man, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me?” “A bit like Everett Ruess, no?” Manu says to no one.
A bit like Everett Ruess, yes.
Ruess, a young artist/wanderer who disappeared into the southern Utah desert wilderness 85 years ago still haunts the imagination of writers, filmmakers, artists and wanderers young and old. Last August, Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books, and French journalist/musician/filmmaker Emmanuel Tellier organized a raft trip down the Green River—“Down the River with Everett Ruess and Friends” to celebrate the Escalante premiere of Tellier’s film, Le Disparition d’Everett Ruess and a screening at Moab Star Hall.
Days and nights on the river were filled with references to Ruess, discussions of his work and readings of his poems, music composed and played by Tellier and violinist songwriter Kate MacLeod, all inspired by Ruess’s enigmatic life, passion for the wilderness and mysterious disappearance in 1934.
Utah’s dean of letters, Wallace Stegner, wrote about Everett Ruess in his book Mormon Country—Stegner called Ruess, “a spiritual and artistic athlete who die[d] young.” He was “one of the few who died—if he died—with the dream intact.” Gonzo environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote “A Sonnet For Everett Ruess” writing, “You knew the crazy lust to probe the heart of that which has no heart that we could know.” In Into the Wild, the book Jon Krakauer wrote about young Chris MacCandless who abandoned civilization to discover himself in the wilderness, the author quotes from Ruess’s letters, saying they could have been written by McCandless: “The beauty of this country is becoming part of me. I feel more detached from life and somehow gentler. I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly.”
The story of Everett Ruess has haunted the Western imagination for generations and it still does.
Everett Ruess was born in Oakland, California on March 28, 1914, to Christopher Ruess, a Unitarian minister, and his artistic wife, Stella. He had an older brother, Waldo. The family moved often when Everett was young and ended up settling in Los Angeles. Ken Sanders, who advised Tellier on the new film, says, “Ruess was always a precocious artist, writing and drawing when he was a child—extremely observant, as you can tell from his letters.” Ruess corresponded with his family throughout his short life, describing his life and travels, exploring his thoughts and explaining the reasons for his way of life. He took his first road trip when he was 16, hitchhiking through Yosemite and the Sierras before returning to finish high school. Then he took off again.
Except for a semester at UCLA, Ruess never attended college, but began wandering the West, traveling with burros and horses through the Sierras and the high deserts of the Colorado plateau in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. He searched out ancient Indian ruins and petroglyphs, learned to speak Navajo and took part in Hopi ceremonies. He worked intermittently on ranches and with archaeologists, he sold a few prints, but despite his expressed scorn for regular employment, he depended mostly on his parents for support.
For awhile in the early 1930s, Ruess lived in San Francisco, befriending artists like Ansel Adams, Maynard Dixon and his wife Dorothea Lange. In Big Sur, he met photographer Edward Weston. The older artists mentored him, encouraging him in his work and his wanderlust. In his wanderings he befriended Indians, sheepherders and rancher Pat Jenks, who met Reuss along a road in 1931. The artist was worn-out, the burros were tired—Jenks loaded the whole sad caravan into his truck and Reuss stayed at his Deerwater Ranch for a month or so before taking to the road again. There are a number of encounters like this recorded in Reuss’s letters—chance meetings, brief employment and fleeting but memorable friendships that all ended with Reuss on the road again with his donkeys and his dog, Curly. Reuss never wrote a book, he wrote poems and he was a prolific letter-writer. Later, these were gathered and published by Peregrine Smith Books in a book called Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty.
“Have you seen my son?”
Everett Ruess left Escalante, Utah on November 12, 1934, headed for some of the least-explored, roughest landscapes in the country. As usual, his intention was to paint, explore ancient Indian cliff dwellings and continue his life of solitary self-discovery with his paints, his books and his two burros. He sent a final letter to his parents in Los Angeles explaining that he was headed into wilderness and that he would be unable to communicate for two months “…as to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon. I have not tired of the wilderness…”
He never came back.
After three months with no word from Everett, his parents became alarmed and called on locals to search for their missing son. Scouts, Indians and other volunteers hunted through the canyons and mountains for days; they built signal fires and fired guns. A shepherd reported seeing Ruess on November 19, near the treacherous intersection of Escalante Creek and the Colorado River. Searchers found his two burros grazing peacefully in Davis Gulch, a canyon off the Escalante River. There was evidence of a campsite and it looked as though the camper had every intention of returning. Cut into a rock face they found the words “NEMO 1934”—nemo means “nobody” in Greek, the word Odysseus used to escape the Cyclops and the name of Jules Verne’s intrepid undersea captain in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a favorite book of Everett’s. In 1957, some camping equipment, presumably some of Everett’s kit, was found stashed in a nearby cave. Stella doubted they were Everett’s and now the site—and NEMO—is drowned under Lake Powell.
Everett’s mother Stella came to Utah several times to search for her son, even making the arduous trip to Davis Gulch. She tried to keep the search alive until she died in 1964.
In the end, no one knows what happened to Everett Ruess. Was he murdered by cattle rustlers? Did an attempt to cross the river fail, sweeping him downstream in the wild water? Did he marry a Navajo woman and lose himself in Navajo country? Did he purposely disappear, leave behind his identity and live out his days anonymously in Mexico? No one knows. His trail ends in Davis Gulch, but his story endures.
On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, a collection of poems and letters, was published in 1940, but it was long out of print when Utah publisher Gibbs Smith ran across a copy. According to Catherine Smith, Gibbs’ widow who went with Sanders and Tellier “Down the River with Everett Ruess,” her late husband, along with river-runner Ken Sleight, who had been telling Ruess’s legend around campfires for years, joined with writer W.L. Rusho to rediscover the story of Everett Ruess.
“We became Everett sleuths,” she says. “We went to the Ruess family neighborhood and house in Los Angeles. We visited Mexico to meet Pat Jenks, the person with a truck who rescued a tired Everett in northern Arizona. We got to know Waldo, a member of the Explorers Club in New York, and held a Gibbs Smith sales meeting there. We visited with Ansel Adams about his trading a photograph for a Ruess block print, and checked out his time in San Francisco.” They went to meet Waldo and his grown children in Montecito, and brought boxes full of the life of Everett to Kaysville, Utah.” We put up Ed Fraughton plaques for him in Davis Gulch near the NEMO, and at Dancehall Rock. I think these were quickly stolen. But one resides in Boulder at the Burr Trail Outpost and Grill.”
Le Disparition d’ Everett Ruess
“Down the River with Everett Ruess” was an 80-mile raft trip down Desolation Canyon organized by Ken Sanders and produced by CRATE (Colorado River and Trail Expeditions). A group of 12 Ruess enthusiasts, including Catherine Gibbs, one of the original researchers, Utah filmmaker Trent Harris, documentary filmmaker Marcia Franklin, musician Kate MacLeod, (see her Small Lake City Concert here) French journalist, musician and Reuss filmmaker Emanuel Tellier and his wife Nathalie and David Murrell and Mary Beckerle, who introduced Tellier to Ruess, plus others who simply have been fascinated by the legend of the long-gone Reuss, traveled down the Green River in a six-day trip punctuated by discussions and readings about Ruess.
So how did Everett Ruess end up in Paris?
When noted cell biologist Mary Beckerle and her husband David Murrell took a sabbatical year in Paris for Beckerle to work at the Curie Institute, they happened to enroll their children in the same preschool that Emmanuel and Nathalie Tellier’s child attended. The couples became fast friends, often vacationing together. The Telliers visited Utah, staying in Beckerle and Murrell’s home in Torrey. Murrell, whose own youth was spent wandering, had long been fascinated with Ruess. Nathalie picked up a book about Ruess, read it and handed it to Manu, saying, “You could do something with this.” As Manu delved deeper, Murrell introduced him to Ken Sanders, whose store is a repository of Ruess lore and who has been fascinated by Ruess since he first read about him. Tellier produced a two-person musical play, an album of original music, How the Wild Calls to Me, inspired by Ruess and performed by Tellier’s band, 24 Swimming Pools. Finally, six years later, Tellier’s first film, Le Disparition d’Everett Ruess premiered, with music adapted from the original 24 Swimming Pools score for the play.
Why does the story of this particular young man still hold such power? The answer is personal, but universal.
Tellier says Ruess’s story illustrates “the capacity to fully enjoy and embrace little things, little bits of beauty here and there, when they happen. Today, everything has become easy, so we tend to take everything for granted. Everett could have had a quieter and simpler life in LA…but he chose a more demanding path, where things that matter mean even more.
Russell Neilson, a member of the river expedition, says, “My paternal grandfather is my “Everett Ruess” whom I’ve been following for all my life. As a young boy of 12 he left home and herded sheep in the deserts of Nevada. He didn’t disappear, although he very easily could have as someone took a bullet for him in a gunfight during those early years of the 20th century. He lived to become a schoolteacher, poet, orator, photographer, etc. Grandpa John R. died many years before I was born after raising seven children. Each of them adored him, as did the community, which he had a lasting impact on.”
Catherine Smith says, “In the search for him through the items he left—journal entries, poems and art work, I had a glimpse into his short life. I have found a reflective piece of my life, and discovered qualities in the lives of ancestors who have made me who I am today.”
Waldo Ruess lived until 1998 and attended the first Everett Ruess Days, held every September in Escalante. He once said, “He kept his dream. Most of us go lock-step through the decades, talking about what we’d like to do and never doing it.” Frank Cook of Peregrine Smith Books once said Everett Ruess represents “that special spirit which exists in all of us but which few have the courage or opportunity to express.”
Tellier, who made the French film, says, “It’s a universal story of a young man, a child, really, going off to find himself and his art.” The story made him think of his own child, says Tellier. “Would you let your child do that? I think not.”
In 2009, National Geographic headlines proclaimed: “Everett Ruess Mystery Solved!” University of Colorado researchers found human remains 60 miles from where his burros were discovered. The DNA in the bones appeared to match Ruess’s. But a further DNA analysis confirmed that the body was not that of Everett Ruess.
“His legacy is what it’s all about,” says Sanders. “It’s not about finding his bones.” The last Utah screening of Le Disparition d’Everett Ruess before the Tellier’s return to France was at City Library. The place was packed with boomers with a sold-out dream behind them, young hopefuls with lives before them, all dreaming of freedom, living wild, owing nothing to nobody. There was a sense that the dream of living free, of seeking self in the wilderness, the fascination with one who dared to step out of the mundane and into the unknown, was in the heart of everyone who came to watch.
The quest for Everett Ruess continues, but you can’t help but wonder if it’s better that Ruess never be found. Perhaps this mystery is best left unsolved. Its lingering questions allow dreams to live on.
More to read, view and hear Many films and books have been written about Ruess. Ken Sanders Rare Books is the place to find them, old and new. Tellier is returning to Utah in December for a reprise showing of Le Disparition d’Everett Ruess. Look for details at saltlakemagazine.com or kensandersrarebooks.com.
See all of our Issues and City Life Coverage here.