In the middle of Dave Alvin’s brilliant album “Ashgrove” (love that snappy title cut) there’s a haunting song and killer sit-around-the-campfire kind of melody on a track called “Everett Ruess.” I’ve been digging it for years, never had a clue that is about a real character. In Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” there’s a whole section about Everett Ruess but I certainly didn’t put two and two together. Wish I had, know I didn’t.
So along comes David Roberts’ “Finding Everett Ruess” and on page 287 he mentions Alvin’s song and quotes the key lyric:
You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body boys,
Or understand my mind.
Ruess, it turns out, disappeared in 1934 at the age of 20. He was on one of his many solo treks around the rugged country in the Four Corners area. He was, as Krakauer points out in the foreward to Roberts’ book, Ruess was an idealist and a romantic. Sixty years prior to Christopher McCandless’ trip “Into the Wild,” Ruess plunged off by himself into the desert wilderness. McCandless’ body was found; not so for Ruess.
In Roberts’ terrific book, it’s hard to warm up to the self-indulgent Ruess, but there’s no denying he was an individual who followed his heart. It’s hard to watch him take advantage of his parents to pursue his wanderlust (even that term seems to mild) but he’s a unique spirit and reading about his treks—and thinking about how he put his wanderings together—is compelling.
If you know the country in the Four Corners area, the hikes and months-long travels around the inhospitable landscape are even more incredible. The conditions must have been brutal. Have you been to Lake Powell? Ruess’ last known camp site was up Davis Gulch, which shoots off to the west from The Escalante canyon. Now, it’s filled with water and motorboats and houseboats and jet skis, but one can only imagine the extreme conditions back in these canyons prior to the addition of Glen Canyon dam. These were badland. (Read “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey, among many others, for an idea of what this area was once like.)
Roberts’ portrait of Ruess is neutral, clear-eyed. He works to separate myth from reality. Ruess is a warts-and-all character, “almost arrogant.” His letters requesting items from his parents “smacks of entitlement.” He is vagabond but if he’s a paragon of solo adventuring, one hopes he is not a role model for how to treat friends or casual acquaintances or family, for that matter. As Roberts acknowledges, he is a “complicated and articulate young adventurer” and it’s easy to see why Ruess and his fate developed a cult following.
Of course, a mysterious death always helps and it’s the last sections of this book, as Roberts becomes directly involved in the search of his remains that the mystery elements of this account really take off. Roberts is equally upfront about his role in the zealous drive to find the spot where Ruess perished and help tell the story about how he died. Hats off to Roberts for looking hard in the mirror on this one.
I you enjoyed “Into the Wild,” you will likely enjoy this, too. Christopher McCandless and Everett Ruess were joined at the spiritual hip. There are certain people who are just born to live outdoors and who are completely fearless in the effort to place themselves, completely alone, in nature. For me, that was the real pleasure of reading “Finding Everett Ruess,” to think about what propels explorers of any age to venture off on their own and try to capture the experience in words or art.
The Dave Alvin song: