The wandering ways of a young artist and writer who mysteriously disappeared in 1934 into southern Utah’s rugged canyon country.
Everett Ruess was twenty years old when he vanished into the canyons of southern Utah, never to be seen again. Born in Los Angeles to bohemian parents, Ruess developed early as a writer and artist. Supported by his family, Ruess left home to wander the American West, to gain experience on the road and feed his creativity.
Ruess took his first solo roadtrip at sixteen, hitchhiking to northern California where he camped by the ocean, then to Yosemite, before returning to Los Angeles to finish high school. Then he took off again – this time to Monument Valley in southern Utah. Over the next few years, Ruess traveled alone, using packhorses and burros, and traded his art to help pay his way. He traveled through Zion Canyon and northern Arizona, back to the Sierra Nevadas, and around the Superstition Mountains. He even lived in San Francisco, where he spent time with now-famous artists Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Maynard Dixon. Although he went home occasionally, Ruess loved the wilderness and returned again and again to the desert southwest.
Ruess was last seen in November 1934 in Escalante, Utah, before heading into nearby canyons. Some believe he was murdered by rustlers, or committed suicide, or died of dehydration. Others maintain that he went to live on the Navajo Reservation or in Mexico.
In the last letter sent to his brother, dated just before his disappearance, Ruess wrote: “I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the street car and the star sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities…”
The fate of Everett Ruess remains a riddle, but his writing and artwork – these remnants of his journeys – now provide inspiration to thousands.
Megan van Frank for Utah Humanities © 2014
Image: "Monument Valley" blockprint by Everett Ruess. Image reproduction by Steven Jerman at https://everettruess.net/blockprints/
Each year, the town of Escalante, Utah hosts the Everett Ruess Days festival, where musicians, poets, writers, and artists join to celebrate Ruess’s work see http://escalantecanyonsartfestival.org/; David Roberts, Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer (New York: Broadway Books, 2011); W. L. Rusho, ed., Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1998); Gary James Bergera, ed., On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2000); and W. L. Rusho, ed., Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2002); Everett Ruess entry in the online Utah History Encyclopedia, accessed at http://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/; Tom Alder, “The Vagrant Life: Getting Lost in Escalante Canyon with Everett Ruess,” 15 Bytes: Artists of Utah E-Zine, March 2008, accessed at http://www.artistsofutah.org/15bytes/08mar/page5.html.
The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org