On Finding Everett Ruess

I’m in the midst of reading the latest book in the Everett Ruess fascination pantheon. Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts is fairly gripping so far, although that may mostly be due to the fact that I’ve been an Everett fan since I first heard about him in 1999, just after I moved to Torrey. Thankfully, Roberts doesn’t sugarcoat. He includes portions of letters and journal entries that were left out of earlier books about the young, ego-driven wanderer; the newly-included information is a sometimes wincingly glaring announcement of Everett’s less-than-heroic thoughts and beliefs. Yet for all the “ah, I can’t believe he really wrote that” moments, they also shine as being exceedingly, baldly human.

I’ve been reading online reader comments about this book, and one thing that strikes me the most is many either/or reactions. Either you’re an Everett fan/aficionado, or not. Either you like Roberts’ style, or you don’t. Either you understand the pull of his tale, or you don’t. What many of these reactions seem to lack┬áis an appreciation of the fullness of his existence as a human being. He was imperfect, disorganized, undisciplined, crude, stingy, careless, hearty, loving, generous, tender–quite simply, he was just human. And that part is key.

Everett Ruess as photographed by Dorothea Lange


Everett Ruess was achingly, fully, exuberantly human, he sought answers, and he willingly tramped into the remotest wilderness areas he could find. For these reasons, I believe, the many people who are drawn to Everett Ruess find his story fascinating because they can relate in so many ways themselves.

I know that’s true for me. I’ve written about Everett Ruess before, both in my blog and for a magazine. His allure and mystique resonated with me from the first moment I read his words, watched the documentary, and most importantly, walked and scrambled the canyonlands of Utah where he too had perhaps wandered and drank in the beauty. Something about this land is tremendous and enriching and indescribable, despite numerous attempts over many years by many different voices to capture the elusive quality that causes people to fall in love with the bare earthscape┬áitself.

Something I find particularly intriguing is the often pronounced difference in how Everett’s story is seen between Southwest dwellers and those who have not been to the areas Everett explored. On wilderness trips, I’ve inquired about my fellow travelers’ thoughts about his tale. I wish I’d recorded some of the answers, most of which could be summed up as “Who knows,” but which were intriguing nonetheless. These replies were of course from those who were already familiar with the story, those who have lived in Escalante or Boulder or Torrey for years now. Many people who have not discovered the treasures of this area just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I think it’s critical to visit and savor this landscape in order to get a deeper sense of what Everett was about.

An acquaintance with whom I spent some time last fall told me of a shared deathbed confession recently, from a man who was the grandson, I believe, of a man who claimed to be present at Everett’s death. If I come across this relating in Roberts’ book, I’ll write more about it here in a later post. Did my acquaintance’s tale seem plausible to me? Yes. Could it be true? Absolutely. Do I have any way of finding out for sure? Probably not. But let me tell you, it sure fired up my imagination again!

Ultimately, what drives the Everett legend for me, at least, is an intense familiarity with and love of this landscape.

Davis Gulch, Utah Spring 2011


I can’t claim to have walked in his precise footsteps, but I have been to some of the same places, and I fully understand his passion for the land itself, the way it calls to and succors and challenges and embraces and strips bare every soul which dares to step through its careless tumble. I remember reading pieces of his journal entries and letters to kids in the field when I worked at Aspen. How his words utterly resonated with some of them! They got him, in a way likely few adults truly can.

Anyway. Not quite halfway through the book but felt the need to write something about its subject. Back to finishing it now….

austere landscape of southern Utah where Everett tramped




Filed under Random Musings

4 Responses to On Finding Everett Ruess

  1. Joe W

    Whoa, that is quite a bombshell about a possible deathbed confession! There is a lot of speculation in the Robert’s book (I devoured the entire book over the weekend) about such a thing happening, was any of Robert’s scenarios in line with what you have heard? Fascinating!!!

    Just a few comments on the book, too. I loved a lot of gaps Robert’s filled on on what we known about Ruess, loved all the additional detail on his parent’s extensive search (this didn’t come thru in any of the Rusho books), and I loved that Robert’s didn’t hide ERs warts. I was disappointed to learn that Rusho had edited some of the ER letters, too, and I could have done without the whole Comb Ridge fiasco (though the story was very entertaining.)

    I’m also VERY curious how the book is going over in Canyon Country. Any comments from the locals?

  2. Julie

    Hi Joe, thanks for stopping by. I’ve finished the book now and plan to post some further thoughts I’ve had. Very interesting read! I’ll actually be reviewing it, along with the other Ruess book coming out at the end of the month, for a review site. Will post that when it’s written, though that won’t come out till September or October, probably.

    Not many comments from folks I know around here, although I haven’t talked to very many about the new book yet. Quite a few people won’t even read it or care much, actually, but those who do, I’m interested in conversing with at some point. Do I have my own theory as to what happened? Sure. I have ever since I saw the documentary. More comments in a later post, though!

  3. Keith

    Julie – did you ever post any more of your thoughts on Everett?

    • Julie

      Not recently, I don’t think. Although, funnily enough, I just watched another Ruess documentary last night. NEMO 1934: Searching for Everett Ruess, by Corey Robinson. I’d also recommend watching Everett Ruess: Wilderness Song by Lindsay Jaeger and Lost Forever: Everett Ruess by Diane Orr.

      Who knows if anyone will ever discover the truth of what happened to him. Frankly, I think it extremely plausible he was killed by an Escalante resident(s); yet I also think it extremely plausible he fell off a cliff, or drowned in a river, or died any number of the other ways in which this landscape can end a human life. However, by the time of his disappearance, he’d spent a good amount of time in this area and likely had a much deeper understanding of and respect for the land. The longer you spend in it, the less vulnerable you tend to get, simply by dint of knowledge of how to safely traverse the places you want to go. But with so many good questions about his end–why were his burros left untouched, where is his last journal, etc.–there is much room for conjecture still.

      I was actually thinking of writing about him again sometime soon. Not that I have anything groundbreaking to say. :) Just that he’s always a good tug on the imagination of those who love these wild places.

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