(Reading time: 5 minutes, 1000 words)
In 1934 Everett Ruess—a 20-year-old vagabond, misfit, poet and artist—wandered into the desert of Utah and disappeared forever. With his outfit strapped to two burros, he ventured into Escalante canyons to explore Indian ruins; he never ventured out. To this day, his remains have never been found.
Everett was no stranger to the wilderness. At the age of 17 he began trekking the mountains and deserts of Utah, California, Arizona, and New Mexico—alone. He made wood prints and watercolors of the landscapes he saw, which he sold and traded to support himself. He also steadily kept a journal. But the gem of Everett, the shining legacy of his short but deep life, is the soul he bled onto the letters he wrote home. They have been arranged into a collection called A Vagabond for Beauty.
Everett's letters reveal that he was a purist, but not in any conservative sense. He rejected the shallow thinking and behavior of those who subscribed to the common path—get a job, settle down, and trade hours of life for paychecks. No, Everett was a purist in the best sense. He saw life as an adventure, a tapestry to pore over; he followed beauty wherever it took him, meandering in crooked canyons and hollow washes; and he adhered to a core, his core, which guided his wandering way.
But Everett wasn't wandering aimlessly. In writing of his life's intentions, he expressed to his brother in 1931:
I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Philosophy and aesthetic contemplation are not enough. I intend to do everything possible to broaden my experiences and allow myself to reach the fullest development.
In that same letter, Everett spoke of "working hard with his art" and making a "damn vicious stab" at getting his paintings exhibited and sold. Should he fail, he'd give his pieces to friends and family. Then, as he put it, he'd "live intensely" in the city for a while, experiencing culture in all its forms before traveling to some obscure foreign country. Everett was determined to savor life by the drop, and in the beginning that meant for him eloping with mother nature.
Despite his solitudinous way, Everett saw art as reciprocal, as needing some subjective validation. "An artist can't paint for himself alone—he must find someone else who thinks his stuff is good," he wrote to a friend. Repeatedly he expressed this sentiment. Writing to the same friend in another letter, he reiterated his subjectivism:
Art needs an audience or it will die, just as the world ceases to exist if there are none to contemplate it.
Although Everett wanted his art to be appreciated, this didn't deter his self-exploration. He was committed to the lonely path. And though he frequently wrote friends and on occasion solicited their companionship, he seldom found responders. This seemed to bother him little. Everett valued a good friend, yes, but he also relished his own peculiarity.
My friends have been few because I'm a freakish person and few share my interests. My solitary tramps have been made alone because I couldn't find anyone congenial—you know it's better to go alone than with a person one wearies of soon. I've done things alone chiefly because I never found people who cared about the things I've cared for enough to suffer the attendant hardships. But a true companion halves the misery and doubles the joy.
But Everett made no indication that he felt lonely. He was content (as much as one can be) and he didn't lack social skills. He regularly befriended the outcast and the elite. Acknowledging his oddity, he 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.
Everett Ruess wrote beautifully of art and authentic living. But perhaps most interesting is his repeated reference to disappearing. As if by some eerie prophetic foresight, he writes of becoming a ghost.
Initially, Everett's utterances seem romantic, as though simply expressing a deep longing for solace and beauty. But their increasing occurrence adds a provocative element to his writings and life. Writing first in 1931:
Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.
In 1932, writing of his lust, his need for adventure:
Unless I'm having new experiences, broadening horizons, some sort of change, I cannot feel that life is worth living.
Then, in 1933, his early plans to sell art and travel the world begin to obsolesce:
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 cannot comprehend its resistless fascination for me. After all the lone trail is best. . . I'll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I'll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.
In 1934, the year of his disappearance:
I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.
And, as if predicting that the world should mourn him, Everett wrote:
Personally I have no least desire for fame. I feel only a stir of distaste when I think of being called 'the well-known author' or 'the great artist.' I fear, or rather, the rest of the world should fear, that I am becoming quite antisocial.
Everett's disappearance was tragic, no doubt. But it's difficult not to memorialize, even romanticize him. For both his writings and mode of departure leave a signature on his life that stirs men and women and youth to sorrow, hope, and wonder. And isn't that the work of all great art, of all great living—to draw out the nostalgic and wonderful?
Whatever the case, Ruess' life and writings tug on something. They appeal to that sense which is most fine, that sense that gives us an inkling of what it means to live an honest life. And though his life demonstrates that the journey is intimately personal, his letters serve as a roadmap, as some guide for exploring the world and self, whether in cityscapes or human faces or desert panoramas.