(Reading time: 5 minutes, 1000 words)
In 1934 Everett Ruess—a 20-year-old vagabond, misfit, poet and artist—wandered into the desert of Utah and disappeared forever. With his outfit strapped to two burros, he ventured into Escalante canyons to explore Indian ruins; he never ventured out. To this day, his remains have never been found.
Everett was no stranger to the wilderness. At the age of 17 he began trekking the mountains and deserts of Utah, California, Arizona, and New Mexico—alone. He made wood prints and watercolors of the landscapes he saw, which he sold and traded to support himself. He also steadily kept a journal. But the gem of Everett, the shining legacy of his short but deep life, is the soul he bled onto the letters he wrote home. They have been arranged into a collection called A Vagabond for Beauty.
Everett's letters reveal that he was a purist; but not in any conservative sense. He rejected the shallow thinking and behavior of those who subscribed to the common path—get a job, settle down, and trade hours of life for paychecks. No, Everett was a purist in the best sense: he saw life as an adventure, a tapestry to pore over; he followed beauty wherever it took him, meandering in crooked canyons and hollow washes; and he adhered to a core—his core—which guided his wandering way.
But Everett wasn't wandering aimlessly; he had a plan. In writing of his life's intentions, he expressed to his brother in 1931:
In that same letter, Everett spoke of "working hard with his art" and making a "damn vicious stab" at getting his paintings exhibited and sold. Should he fail, he'd give his pieces to friends and family. Then, as he put it, he'd "live intensely" in the city for a while, experiencing culture in all its forms before traveling to some obscure foreign country. Everett was determined to savor life by the drop, and in the beginning that meant for him eloping with mother nature.
Despite his solitudinous way, Everett saw art as reciprocal—as needing some subjective validation. "An artist can't paint for himself alone—he must find someone else who thinks his stuff is good," he wrote to a friend. Repeatedly he expressed this sentiment. Writing to the same friend in another letter, he reiterated his subjectivism:
Although Everett wanted his art to be appreciated, this didn't deter his self-exploration; he was committed to the lonely path. And though he frequently wrote friends and on occasion solicited their companionship, he seldom found responders. This seemed to bother him little. Everett valued a good friend, yes, but he also relished his own peculiarity.
But Everett made no indication that he felt lonely. He was content (as much as one can be) and he didn't lack social skills. He regularly befriended the outcast and the elite. Acknowledging his oddity, he wrote:
Everett Ruess wrote beautifully of art and authentic living. But perhaps most interesting is his repeated reference to disappearing. As if by some eerie prophetic foresight, he writes of becoming a ghost.
Initially, Everett's utterances seem romantic, as though simply expressing a deep longing for solace and beauty. But their increasing occurrence adds a provocative element to his writings and life. Writing first in 1931:
In 1932, writing of his lust—his need—for adventure:
Then, in 1933, his early plans to sell art and travel the world begin to obsolesce:
In 1934, the year of his disappearance:
And, as if predicting that the world should mourn him, Everett wrote:
Everett's disappearance was tragic, no doubt. But it's difficult not to memorialize, even romanticize him. For both his writings and mode of departure leave a signature on his life that stirs men and women and youth to sorrow, hope, and wonder. And isn't that the work of all great art, of all great living—to draw out the nostalgic and wonderful?
Whatever the case, Ruess' life and writings tug on something. They appeal to that sense which is most fine, that sense that gives us an inkling of what it means to live an honest life. And though his life demonstrates that the journey is intimately personal, his letters serve as a roadmap, as some guide for exploring the world and self, whether in cityscapes or human faces or desert panoramas.