According to Utah historian W. L. Rusho, author of Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the searchers discovered a makeshift brushwork corral that confined Everett’s two burros, still fat and healthy. On the brush fence the men found a bridle, halter, and rope. In a nearby alcove in the sandstone cliff they discovered empty cans, the impression of a bedroll in the dirt, and numerous footprints. But after intensive searching up and down Davis Gulch, the ranchers never came across Ruess’s camping gear, cook set, or supplies of food—nor his beloved painting kit or the journal he scrupulously kept on every trip.
For decades, scores of wanderers in the convoluted Southwest have disappeared, and their remains have seldom been found. The mystery posed by their vanishing usually lasts for a few weeks in the newspapers. But Ruess’s disappearance launched what can only be called a cult. In bars from California to Colorado, the mere mention of his story could be counted on to provoke a heated debate over the possible ways he met his fate.
In 1940 a small California press published On Desert Trails With Everett Ruess, a handsome collage of excerpts from the young man’s letters home, his poems and essays, and his watercolor paintings and woodblock engravings. It was the first of seven books, along with two documentary films, to chronicle the explorer’s life and vanishing. Then, in 1996, Jon Krakauer devoted ten pages of Into the Wild to Ruess. Krakauer saw in the vagabond a kindred soul to Chris McCandless, the doomed young wanderer who had starved to death in the wilderness north of Denali. After Into the Wild Ruess’s cult status skyrocketed. By now, Ruess has emerged as the subject of pop song lyrics, as a T-shirt icon for adventure, and as the patron saint of an arts festival held every September in Escalante.
Ruess “lives” while other lost wanderers have faded from memory for several reasons, chief among them the fact that his intense passion for wilderness resonates deeply with every romantic idealist who longs to escape. In his flight from all things safe, familiar, and domestic, Ruess stands as the real-life counterpart to Jack London’s sourdoughs or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. He disappeared, moreover, with his dream intact but his pursuit of it poignantly unfulfilled.
In the dozens of letters he sent home, Ruess’s writing soars with rhapsodic, even grandiose, evocations of the wilderness: “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear.” But his aesthetic flights are balanced by a sense of despair and often a premonition of impending doom. “I must pack my short life full of interesting events,” he wrote to his brother from an Arizona outpost at the age of only 17. “I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.”
Like many teenagers, Ruess was convinced that he was destined to be a lifelong loner. “My friends have been few,” he wrote to one confidant in 1931, “because I’m a freakish person.” Only days before his arrival in Escalante, he wrote to his brother: “I stopped a few days in a little Mormon town and indulged myself in family life, church-going, and dances. If I had stayed any longer I would have fallen in love with a Mormon girl, but I think it’s a good thing I didn’t. I’ve become a little too different from most of the rest of the world.”
In contrast to his writing, Ruess’s woodcuts and paintings are strikingly simple and vivid, condensing the landscape into a few bold elements with a Japanese economy: a pair of cypress trees tossed by the wind, a sandstone buttress thrusting into the sky. (The logo of the Escalante arts festival adapts Ruess’s vignette of a silhouetted youth leading burros off toward the unknown.)