In 1930, at the precocious age of 16, Everett began a series of forays into the harsh desert terrain of the Southwest, traveling alone with just his burros, some meager camping gear and his art supplies. In 1934, at the ripe age of 20, after spending most of the previous five years alone in the wilderness, Ruess vanished into the forbidding Utah desert. No one ever heard from him again.
After his disappearance, Ruess became something of a legend. Since first published in 1982, Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty has been recognized as a regional literary classic. The book collects many of his letters, along with a few journal entries and poems. It also tells in great detail the story surrounding his mysterious disappearance.
Although Ruess dreamed of becoming a renowned visual artist, his blockprints and paintings, some of which are reproduced here, don't reveal a spectacular amount of talent. His verbal ability to describe the landscapes he loved, on the other hand, was quite remarkable, and it evolved dramatically over the years he spent in the wilderness. Ruess frequently expressed his attraction to the beauty around him with an ecstatic passion, but he knew words would never suffice to describe the land he adored.
“Try as I may,” he wrote a few months before his disappearance, “I have never yet, that I know of, succeeded in conveying more than a glimpse of my visions. I am condemned to feel the withering fire of beauty pouring into me. I am condemned to the need of putting this fire outside myself and spreading it somewhere, somehow, and I am torn by the knowledge that what I have felt cannot be given to another.”
From the start, Ruess was an odd bird. He wasn't shy in the least; he made acquaintances with people easily and enjoyed talking with strangers. At the same time, he loved solitude and could spend weeks at a time away from other people. “Beauty has always been my god;” he once wrote, “it has meant more than people to me.”
His letters are often arrogant, naïve, at times even idiotic, but he still comes across as admirable. Ruess struggled to live his life as fully as possible in the short time allotted to him, and in this he seems to have succeeded.
In early 1935, a search team discovered his two burros in the upper section of Davis Gulch in southern Utah. A bridle, halter and rope were draped over a nearby brush fence. Although that team and others searched far and wide, no trace of Ruess' body or gear was ever found.
Some believe that cattle rustlers or Indians might have murdered and buried him. Less plausibly, others believe he might have faked his disappearance, marrying a Navajo girl and building a new life for himself on the reservation. Like Elvis, for years after his death, Ruess was periodically sighted as far away as Mexico.
We'll never know the truth. Regardless of this fact, Ruess' legend remains an enduring and poetic testament to the dangerous beauty of our little corner of the world.