As an avid reader of Southwest non-fiction and a southern Utah resident, I knew of author David Roberts and the legendary Everett Ruess before I delved into Roberts’ new book, Finding Everett Ruess. Roberts built his writing reputation on non-fiction climbing writing, but he has also pursued more historic/anthropological topics, and one of my favorite books, “In Search of the Old Ones”, discusses the Ancestral Puebloans and their mysterious cliff dwellings. LOTS has been written, sung, painted, and celebrated about Mr. Ruess, a young artist from California who ventured and ultimately disappeared into the canyon country east of Zion, near Escalante. The town of Escalante even holds an annual “Everett Ruess Days” festival, celebrating art, music, and writing on behalf of this “canyon country poet.” So I figured I was in for a treat as these two characters mingled when I started turning the pages.
First, an introduction: Everett Ruess was a young man who, in the 1930′s, criss-crossed Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, including much of the Navajo Nation and areas now included in Grand Staircase-Esclaante Monument, Glen Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce and Zion. In the 30′s, this area was generally overlooked and seldom traveled, a true Western “wilderness.” In his journeys, Everett writes, paints, and photographs the landscape with a passion similar to John Muir or Ansel Adams, holding court with Edward Abbey as one of the literary fathers of Southwest literature.
So what “happened” to Everett is the big mystery. In 1934, at the age of 20, Everett disappeared, last seen or known to be near Escalante. What happened to Everett is ultimately unknown, but Roberts presents a captivating mystery as he searches for answers, first through Ruess’ parents’ research, then through his own.
Overall, the book is a good, easy read. Unlike other writings on Everett Ruess (Ruess’ first-person accounts and the grand celebrations of the Ruess, the poet), I really enjoyed how Roberts took a journalistic approach and presented Everett’s writings, his family’s involvement, interviews with those who knew Everett, and even the continuation of possibly finding Everett’s body deep in the Arizona Strip.
For the adventure-literature minded, Everett echoes the likes of Chris McCandless (of Into the Wild fame), traveling around the canyonlands alone way before Aron Ralston and 127 Hours. The book seems best suited to readers who have some idea of Ruess and his art and writing, or perhaps someone who loves the story of the solo wilderness traveller.
I think I enjoyed this book more because I was reading WHILE traveling through the country Ruess wandered. The landscape certainly served as muse for Ruess, and it becomes the most fascinating “character” in the book. From the hoodoos of Bryce, the slopes of Navajo Mountain, the hidden Tsegi Canyons of the Navajo Nation, and the corners of the Canyons of the Escalante, Ruess urges us to go to these still-wild and untravelled places. Those of us who live on or visit the Colorado Plateau have a sense of the raw wilderness and vulnerability lying in the harsh rocks and landscapes here, and Ruess helps us connect words to the emotions the landscape provokes.
Just after I finished the book, I backpacked through The Barracks (East Fork of the Virgin River, bordering Zion NP) with a friend. The route is not well travelled and generally “off the map,” so Everett’s experiences were fun to ponder out there. Imagine traveling the slickrock desert with a burro, years ago, without maps or roads or people to help out… what an impressive and brave feat! Outdoor recreation grows every year as access improves and more people are drawn to these beautiful areas, but I’m always surprised how easily I feel I could get lost, abandoned, or head the wrong way. It’s kind of a fun feeling: being small, vulnerable, and alive, but also reassured in the year 2011, the car is parked somewhere over the slickrock and civilization awaits us. As we popped up into the Zion backcountry on the “escape route” out of the East Fork and headed back to Checkerboard Mesa, we looked out along miles and miles of slickrock and junipers. Following a shaky route, I realized I always have a sense the landscape WOULD and COULD swallow me up without a trace if I let it… just like it did with Mr. Ruess, 75 years ago.