of Everett Ruess
"Say that I kept my dream."
Wherever poets, adventurers and wanderers of the Southwest gather, the story of Everett Ruess will be told. His name, like woodsmoke, conjures far horizons.
Everett left Escalante, Utah, on November 12, 1934, to write, paint and explore among a group of ancient Indian cliff dwellings. His last letter to his parents in Los Angeles explained that he would be unable to communicate for ten weeks. Alone with his paints, books, and two burros, he disappeared into what is probably the most uninhabited, unvisited section of the United States.
He never came back.
A sheepherder reported seeing him on November 19, (1934,) near where Escalante creek flows into the Colorado.
At first alarm of his prolonged absence, volunteers organized searching parties, combed the hills and canyons for days. Signal fires were built, guns fired. Indians and scouts sought water holes for signs of his passing.
In Davis canyon Everett's two burros were located, contentedly grazing as if he had just left them shortly to return.
Then, one after another, the searching parties returned without Everett. True to his camping creed "When I go, I leave no trace," he vanished into thin air.
The desert claimed Everett Ruess, writer, adventurer, and artist, the desert's trails were his roads to romance. His paintings captured the black-shadowed desolation of cliff dwellings. His poetry told of wind and cliff ledge. He sang of the wasteland's moods. Everett belonged to the desert. And in the end, it claimed him.
He was one of the earth's oddlings—one of the wandering few who deny restraint and scorn inhibition. His life was a quest for the new and fresh. Beauty was a dream. He pursued his dreams into desert solitudes—there with the singing wind to chant his final song.
Everett's quest began early—and ended early. As a child he turned from toys, to explore color and rhyme. Woodcarving, clay modeling and sketching occupied his formative years in New York and near Chicago. From this early background grew his versatility in the arts—media through which he later interpreted the multihued desert.
At twelve, Everett found his element—writing. He wrote inquiring essays, haunting verse; he began a literary diary. The diary matured into travel-worn, adventure-laden tomes. Wind and rain added marks to the penciled pages, scrawled by the light of many campfires.
At fifteen, Everett was a member of Mrs. Snow Longley Housh's 1929 creative poetry class at Los Angeles High School. An earlier spur to verse writing occurred with his winning Mrs. Margarette Ball Dickson's book, "Tumbleweeds," as an award for his Indian poem, "The Relic," written while a student at Valparaiso High School, [Valparaiso] Indiana. The silence of wilderness nights during his desert vagabondage was broken by his chant of remembered songs—poems that (in his diaries) he stated lifted his spirits and renewed his courage.
Even in the early years the wild called Everett. The ocean's restlessness matched his own; mountains lured him; the desert fascinated him. His poems were of space, wind, sand and sage.
And then at eighteen his hope-dream of distance crystallized. He wrote his last boyish essay, In par —
"One night, long ago while I tossed restlessly upon my bed, an idea crystallized within me . . . My brain was busied with tense imaginings . . In my mind I had conjured up a thousand forgotten cities, left behind by the years; sheer grey mountains; mile upon mile of bare, unfriendly desert; cold lakes . . . jungles filled with deadly snakes, immense butterflies, brilliant colors, fever and death. I swam in coral-tinted waters. Through insufferable heat and incessant downpours I plodded forward.
"On bleak, windswept coasts . . . I pitched my camps. On the banks of the sluggish Amazon I built my fires . . . I tramped alone through wilderness . . . On storm-lashed islands I stood, surveying far-off peaks. Then I camped beneath them in shadowed valleys, watching the sunset . . . These are the things I saw and the experiences I lived through that night long past. Now it is the night before I go. Once more I think of that which lies ahead.
"Bitter pain is in store for me, but I shall bear it. Beauty beyond all power to convey shall be mine . . . Death may await me . . . Not through cynicism and ennui will I be easy prey. And regardless if all that may befall, let me not be found to lack an understanding of the inscrutable humor of it all."
That was Everett's farewell to boyhood and home.
He journeyed by horse and burro in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado during 1931, '32 and '34. Through the summers of '30 and '33 he trekked the length and breadth of Sequoia and Yosemite Parks and the High Sierra. As he wandered he sang and remembered themes from the great operas and symphonies. He read, wrote and painted and thought, and was formulating a philosophy to meet the exigencies of his artist-vagabond existence.
Everett's last letter to his brother, Waldo, said " . . . as to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon. I have not tired of the wilderness . . . I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult leading into the unknown . . . It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty . . . This had been a full, rich year. I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I wanted to do."
In Arizona he rode broncos, branded calves and explored cliff dwellings, where, as he wrote, "The dim and silent centuries invade." In 1934 he worked with the University of California archaeologists excavating near Kayenta. He was the only white man to be painted that year by the Hopis for their traditional Antelope Dance. He spoke Navajo and sang Indian songs. Once with a painted brave he chanted prayer-songs at the bedside of a sick Indian girl.
As he traveled he sold and traded blockprints and watercolors. He endured stoically—like a good Indian—the hardships of his lonely life.
Among the earth's wastelands he found nepenthe for what he terms "an undercurrent of restlessness and wild longing." He often said ,"I too, long for that inner stillness, but I have yet more of the wild songs of youth to sing."
Alone in an immensity of drifting sand and finger-like peaks, Everett forgot the passage of time. He forgot that civilization awaited his return. Everett forgot all but the mystery-laden voice of the wind, promising to reveal to him the secrecies of distance. Here was the beauty he sought. He absorbed the mauve and pastel splendor, climbed cliffs, explored, forgetting to return . . .
So far as is known, Everett did not live to see his 21st birthday, March 28, 1935. Numerous theories fail to explain his disappearance. Only the wind to which he was pledged (at 15 he wrote the poem "I have given the Wind My Pledge,") knows the answer to the riddle.
Strangely prophetic, these lines from his "Wilderness Song:
"Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary:
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;
Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases;
Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!"
A small insurance policy on Everett's life has been turned into an annuity. Each year, while his parents live, boys and girls of the southwestern states that Everett traversed will be invited to compete for honors in the arts he loved. So in his silence he will live on cratively.
His parent's express the hope that ore mothers and fathers establish living memorials to sons and daughters whose life songs break after a stanza.
And so to Everett. He kept his dream!
1940 By Hugh Lacy from "On Desert Trails"