And when the time comes to die, I'll find
the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.
(July 12, 1933, to Waldo Ruess,
from Chinle, Arizona)
At the tender age of twenty, Everett Reuss disappeared into thin air in the wilderness of Utah in 1934. His burros were found by the search party corraled in a box canyon. No trace was ever found of this boy-poet who walked bodily across the desert into legend. He graduated high school in the city of self-delusion – Hollywood – and quickly became disgusted with it, finding consolation in the wilderness. Everett crossed and recrossed the wilderness of the Southwest on foot, sending letters home to his family in Los Angeles that are filled with precocious wisdom. He was resigned to ruin like a sage, sweet and at the same time ruthless.These words ring with the potency of a prophet, word in which ”poet” lies concealed. They vibrate like Isaiah’s words on the fate of Babylon:
The Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jimenez wandered over the province of Huelva with his burro Platero, and Platero y Yo became a modern classic. Everett’s burro was named Chocolatero. He rode into the town of Escalante, Utah, his clothes tattered and dusty, his dangling feet nearly touching the ground. It could have been a scene from Don Quixote in a god-forsaken village of La Mancha. Everett himself saw the picaresque humor of this entry: ”Do you remember that Sancho Panza rode an ass? [...] Christ once rode a donkey. So I am not the only one.”
Here is Everett’s essence. Appearing to his dull and spite-filled fellow men as a young buffoon (as Jimenez was considered el loco), he was in truth a holy man filled with light. A twentieth-century poet-prophet like Isaiah, he felt modern cities to be ”big mistakes,” and ultimately fulfilled his ”pledge to the wind” that he had made as a fifteen-year-old:
Onward from vast uncharted spaces,Such exuberance as this poem reveals emerged from a young soul wandering alone in wild places, camping and reading Shakespeare, Rabelais and One Thousand and One Nights by the campfire, awakening with cheerful humor: “Early up. I flipped pancakes of my own inimitable mix with surpassing dexterity and gusto.” “I packed with surpassing adroitness and celerity.” “I stuffed my pockets with cookies and went on.” “I creased my hat and thought about the future.” (Wilderness Journal)
Forward through timeless voids,
Into all of us surges and races
The measureless might of the wind. [...]
In the steep silence of thin blue air
High on a lonely cliff-ledge,
Where the air has a clear, clean rarity,
I give to the wind...my pledge:
”By the strength of my arm, by the sight of my eyes,
By the skill of my fingers, I swear,
As long as life dwells in me, never will I
Follow any way but the sweeping way of the wind.”
(published in On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess,
with introduction by Hugh Lacy and foreword by
Randall Henderson, Desert Magazine Press, Palm Desert, California, 1950.)
Resting in the town of Escalante before his final trek into the desert to fulfill this pledge, Everett let the children ride his burros. Before leaving town, never to be seen again, he wrote to his father and mother. These are his last preserved written words: ”So, tomorrow I take to the trail again, to the canyons south.”
Everett found the deserts of the Southwest by far a better school for the poet than UCLA, where his father was a professor: ”How could a lofty, unconquerable soul like mine remain imprisoned in that academic backwater?” Everett detested Los Angeles like Horace detested Rome. A teeming metropolis is no place to cultivate the serenity needed for spiritual flowering.
When he was absolutely alone in the wilderness, Everett exulted, writing to his family in Los Angeles: ”Here I wander in beauty and perfection. There one walks in the midst of ugliness and mistakes.” In the cramped environment of Europe, Arthur Rimbaud, who is reminiscent of Everett, did not have the awesome space of the Southwest wilderness to get lost in, so he shipped off to Ethiopia and became a renegade from civilization, where he, like Everett Ruess in ”Wilderness Song”, also ”swaggered and softly crept between the mountain peaks.”
Sitting in Monument Valley in midsummer under the shade of a gnarled juniper tree, with the nearest water many miles away, Everett wrote to ”X” in the last year of his life: ”As a child I used to dream of such a life as this.” In Le Poète de Sept Ans the child Rimbaud dreamt of ”le grand desert” which he too eventually found in Africa.
Everett Ruess was a blossoming ”total artist”, to use Kenneth Patchen's term – a gifted painter and printmaker at a precociously early age, who sang and wrote poetry naturally. He possessed the balance (deemed essential by Horace) between natural genius and artistic savoir-faire, trained at an early age by his mother, the gifted Los Angeles artist Stella Knight Ruess. His instincts led him to see music as a major force in poetry, whistling Frank’s Symphony on a Mountain Air in the High Sierras, or listening to the enchanting melodies of nature. He drew, painted and engraved linoleum blocks on his long treks.
Watercolor of the Grand Canyon
courtesy Waldo Ruess
linoleum print of the same motif
I once did some housepainting for his brother Waldo in Santa Barbara, who kindly showed me watercolor paintings Everett had done from the age of eleven until he left home. They reveal a budding mastery that was, alas, never able to blossom into full maturity. But his mind was strangely mature even in his teens. His withdrawal from the insanity intrinsic to southern California (Los Angeles is exceptionally insane) was uncompromising. Had he lived, he could have been remembered as a major twentieth-century American artist.
At seventeen, alone in the Grand Canyon, he wrote: ”The world does not want Art – only artists do.” Byron, Keats and Shelley also left society with the same uncompromising rejection of its false idols and unclean strivings. Although only a boy, Everett Ruess beheld our downfall with mature steadiness like that of Robinson Jeffers:
The world is hell bent for destruction, writhing from one snare into another, becoming more and more hopelessly involved in vicious, unbreakable circles, and gaining momentum on the wretched road to Ruin.
Her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged. [...] Behold, they are all vanity; and their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion [...] and they shall be driven into darkness.
Everett’s letters at times foresaw his death or disappearance, almost as if he were making plans for it. Three years before his disappearance he wrote: ”I shall go on one last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.” In 1934, his final year, he had written: ”When I go, I leave no trace.” Before setting out on his final trek Everett spoke to a librarian in the Los Angeles suburb Covina and said: ”And I don’t think you will ever see me again, for I intend to disappear.”
Trying to imagine the actual events of Everett’s last moments leaves me in a state of astonishment similar to what I experience with Bach in the Art of the Fugue, when the master abrubtly breaks off the fugue based on the notes B – A – C – H and dies. Reading Everett’s Wilderness Journal (shamelessly vandalized by his mother who eraced many lines), I discover several entries which may indicate that his disappearance into the wilderness had been planned all along. He may have seen himself as too different from the rest of humanity to exist among them: “I wish I had a companion, someone who was interested in me. I would like to be influenced, taken in hand by someone, but I don’t think there is anyone in the world who knows enough to be able to advise me. [...] So I am rather afraid of myself.”
He was not suicidal, but he was not attached to life. Alone in California’s High Sierras in 1933 (aside from occasional meetings with hikers, ranchers and rangers), he led his burros into the most isolated regions along the John Muir Trail, revelling in his solitude. “I lifted up my voice in triumphant rejoicing, making the canyon echo with my song.” “I think I have seen too much and known too much – so much that it has put me in a dream from which I cannot awaken and be like other people.” “More and more I feel that I don’t belong in the world.” “It is too much work for me to get along with other people.” “Life does not grip me very powerfully in the present, but I hope it will again.” “My interest in life is waning.” The following year, Everett disappeared from the face of the earth.
In 1940 Christopher Ruess, Everett’s father, wrote to the editors of Desert Magazine concerning the word ”Nemo” that Everett carved in a cave and on the doorstep of a Moqui house (he had taken a Navajo ”wife” and lived among them). It could refer to Captain Nemo who deserted civilization in his submarine, for Everett’s copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was ”well-worn.” Nemo could also refer to Odysseus - ”no one ” - which is ”nemo” in Latin. When the blinded cyclops Polyphemus is mockingly asked by the Greeks who have escaped his cave what is the matter, he howled in pain: "Odysseus ('no one') has put out my eye!” And they taunted him: "Why rave about something no one has done?” It is No One whose name is ”writ in water” (Keats) and who fulfilled his ”pledge to the wind” by disappearing into it. One can live a full, rich, happy and satisfying life even having only twenty years in which to live it. Christopher Ruess believed and others believe that Everett was murdered. This contradicts the many passages in Everett's writings that say he was meticulously planning his disappearance. He wrote in one of his last letters that he had "been flirting pretty heavily with death, the old clown." Whatever mysterious fate claimed Everett Ruess, whether a Navajo curse, a murderous renegade or his own planning, he retains the hard-won bliss of living on, of speaking for himself in the present tense of everlasting life:
(excerpt from The Whetting Stone)
March 25, 2011
The everyday chicanery that drove Everett to abandon human society with finality continues decades after his disappearance. Headlines in the National Geographic unequivocally declared that the mystery had been solved and Everett’s remains had been found in 2008. Fortunately, it was not to be a reprise of Buddha’s supposed finger bone becoming the demented focus of necrophiliac fanatics. Via a botched DNA test, wishful thinking and lurid sensationalism turned a Native American skeleton found buried in the desert into Everett’s. The Ruess family, persuaded by scientists that the bones were Everett’s, were ready to cremate them and spread them where Everett’s brother Waldo’s ashes had been spread in 2007. But to be absolutely certain, they ordered a second more reliable DNA test in 2009 and discovered that they had been shamefully misled by the scientists. The family returned the remains to the Navajo Nation and they were reburied in a secret location. (Unfortunately, scientists have spread vandalized photos of Everett's smiling face on the internet with the jawbone of the dead Native American superimposed over his jaw as ”proof” that they had solved the mystery. Again science disgraces itself.)
The clarity of this young man's thoughts astonishes me to this day. Without any contact with Chinese culture, Everett Ruess knew the sublime essence wu wei – acting without striving, living and creating from within the harmonies of the Way (Tao). Those of us who grew up in southern California and maintain contact with the truths of the Way can only join in Everett's lament over the contemptible nightmare constructed on our paradise like a cheap movie set. Those of us who admire Everett Ruess, who share his abhorrence of being forced daily to participate in the monkey-business of homo sapiens, but who lack his courage and wisdom to successfully defy it, reluctantly live on as inmates in the polite concentration camp called “society”. Oh, how often I have pondered packing my burros, and with no adieu to humanity slipping quietly off into the wilderness – into Nothingness – leaving not one bone cell or DNA molecule for scientific ghouls to analyze – leaving not one microscopic trace of my physical existence as a final statement that yes, you can maintain your integrity against all odds in the civilization of cheap thrills.
Photo gallery of poets
cited in The Whetting Stone