Everett Ruess: Two New Biographies

Article excerpt

The story of Everett Ruess - the young explorer of the American West who vanished in the 1930s - remains an unsolved mystery to this day.

Long before there was Christopher McCandless (the young solitude- seeker immortalized in Jon Krakauer's book "Into The Wild" and Sean Penn's movie of the same name), America already had a prototype in Everett Ruess.

Ruess vanished in 1934 when he was 20, and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance have been the subject of speculation ever since.

Did he have an accident while traversing the canyons of Utah's Escalante River with his mules? Was he murdered? Or did he ingeniously fake getting lost in order to eccentrically pursue ultimate freedom?

Ruess is, for a number of reasons, an archetypal folk hero, especially among the daydreaming outdoor set of the 21st century who fantasize of going off the grid to escape the pressures of contemporary life.

The fact that Ruess has never been found - in spite of a forensic debate that flared as late as 2009 - has only heightened his mystical stature. Indeed, to have successfully transcended the physical world and achieved a grander profile in the human imagination is a feat worthy of saints.

Ruess is on our minds again this summer, thanks to not one, but two new biographies. The first is Philip L. Fradkin's Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife (University of California Press, 332 pp.) The second is David Roberts' Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer (Broadway, 394 pp.)

Ruess was the son of nomadic parents who settled in Los Angeles and he grew up with artistic passions and a relentless sense of wanderlust. As a teenager during the Depression, he drifted solo north to San Francisco and the Sierra mountains and back to the deserts of the Southwest - along the way meeting people like famed photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Weston, and painter Maynard Dixon.

During his brief existence, he displayed a charming precocity, showing sensitivity as a writer, poet, photographer and free- spirited thinker.

At one point, he wrote in a confident, self-assertive letter to his brother, that he could never remain captive to a city. "Even from your scant description, I know that I could not bear the routine and humdrum of the life that you are forced to lead," he wrote. "I don't think could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax. …