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Column: Case of following your passion

by Writers on RangePhilip L. Fradkin
| May 7, 2009 12:00 AM

The bones of the young artist Everett Ruess, identified last month through DNA analysis, have at last been found in Utah. They were 100 miles from where he was last seen 75 years ago, and from where his mules were found by a search party in early 1935.

So ends the legends surrounding Ruess’s disappearance and thus begins the murder mystery, with the Navajos blaming the Utes after coming under suspicion themselves – as did everyone else who inhabited southern Utah at the time.

A Navajo man said he saw a young Anglo boy with two mules being chased and beaten by Ute Indians in Chinle Wash, just west of Bluff, Utah, in 1934. His grandson, Denny Bellson, heard the story from his sister last May, and sought out the site.

Bellson found human remains, and David Roberts, a contributing editor to National Geographic Adventure magazine, had the bones analyzed. Roberts recently wrote the story that altered the ending of Everett’s life from a baffling disappearance to an unsolved crime.

The West could do without many of its legends and mysteries that tell of human beings who have done something out of the ordinary, which usually means killing people or being killed.

Everett Ruess was an artistic Los Angeles teenager when he set out in 1930 on a series of annual walking, hitchhiking and horse and mule riding journeys through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and finally the canyon country of southern Utah. Only 20 when he died, Ruess had been on a quest.

He wrote that he was searching for beauty in nature, and he frequently found it, along with its accompanying dark side. For five years he photographed, sketched, painted, and wrote about what he saw in lyrical prose that turned troubled near the end, when it seemed like he might be seeking death.

From the village of Escalante, Utah, Everett wrote his parents in November 1934, “I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.”

He said he was headed south toward Davis Gulch and the Colorado River “where no one lives.” Ruess warned his family it would be two months before he would emerge again at a post office. He was last seen by two sheepherders on Nov. 20 in Davis Gulch.

He had frequently placed himself in the way of “Death, the old clown,” as he worded it earlier that year, except he didn’t know what kind of death.

His story was brought to the attention of a Western wilderness-oriented readership in a series of three books edited by W.L. Rusho and published by Gibbs Smith, both of Salt Lake City. The books, with a boost of 11 pages devoted to Ruess in Jon Krakauer’s story of the wanderings and death of Christoper McCandless in his book “Into the Wild,” raised Everett to cult status. He has been compared to Thoreau, Muir and other nature godheads.

But he was human, a boy-man, and probably afflicted with bipolar disorder during those crucial teenage years. He was also like some other Westerners, or who we might have been had we a driving passion, or even a lesser goal in life. I speak for myself, of course, but also a more universal audience, notably cultures that have a tradition of the walkabout or whatever else such a search or test is called. Parsifal, the eternal innocent who sought the Holy Grail, comes most immediately to mind, along with Huck Finn.

To fashion a coherent whole out of Everett’s life gives me, in my eighth decade, a chance to look back at my youth. I am hoping it does the same for others. There is no end, or coda, to this story, as the discovery of Everett’s bones might suggest. Countless teenagers have and will depart on such pilgrimages, whether they carry automatic weapons to schools and suffer the consequences, or travel in peace, and become revered and elevated to sainthood.

Ruess’s story is the account of the difficult paths we all take in our own ways toward becoming cautionary adults. Most make it; the passionate few have a more difficult, and sadly, a more dangerous time.

(Philip L. Fradkin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the author of 11 books about the American West, the most recent being a biography of Wallace Stegner. He is currently working on a biography of Everett Ruess in Pt. Reyes Station, Calif.)