The Deep Peace of the Wild
Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 07:19 PM EDT
There isnâ€™t an indigenous American sadhu tradition, ascetic wanderers on the (south Asia) Indian model. But we do have, thanks to our vast open spaces, celebrated individual instances of semi-ascetic wanderers in the American West and Alaska. Jon Krakauerâ€™s Into the Wild documented the life and death of Chris McCandless, for one, and discussed another, the poet and artist Everett Ruess (1914â€“1934), whose disappearance at the age of twenty added to his romantic mien the appeal of a good mystery. Others in this category include, prototypically, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Henry Thoreau, although Thoreau was a wimp compared to, say, Daniel Suelo â€” who combines Indian sadhu experience with southern Utah sliprock country, like Ruess â€” or the Peace Pilgrims (I & II). But itâ€™s a category that has broad appeal, I think, and the most moving part to me of Krakauerâ€™s book was the self-reflection (I canâ€™t remember now if it was at the beginning or the end, but it involved a story about risky solo climbing in southern Alaska) piece in which Krakauer, like me, admitted to feeling some of what McCandless was after.
So: Everett Ruess. He grew up in southern California and started taking long trips by himself from the age of sixteen in California and the desert southwest. He knew Ansel Adams, Dorthea Lange, and Edward Weston and wrote, painted, photographed, and made block prints, mostly of the natural world.
David Roberts has an excellent story about the search for Ruess, who was last seen alive in Escalante, Utah in the autumn of 1934, walking out of town with two little burros and a weekâ€™s worth of food, headed for the Hole in the Rock trail. His family expected him back in two monthsâ€™ time and when he didnâ€™t return, they started searching. They found his camp the next spring in Davis Gulch, a tributary of the Escalante River near the present-day Lake Powell. His two burros were still in their pen but there was no sign of Ruess. Roberts believed (in his 1999 article) that Ruess was killed by cattle rustlers and buried in a rough grave near his camp.
But recently, in 2008, an archeologist working on a Navajo reservation excavated a grave, located 77 miles east of Ruessâ€™s last camp, with remains that matched Ruessâ€™s. Subsequent DNA testing with surviving family members suggested a genetic match, as well. The site was excavated based on an account of an elderly Navajo who recalled his grandfatherâ€™s story of witnessing the murder of a young white man in 1934. Roberts, the author of the previous story, revisits the case in a subsequent article, in which he concludes that the earlier accounts must be wrong â€” the burros werenâ€™t really there â€” and that this is indeed Ruessâ€™s last resting place.
But the story doesnâ€™t end there: the AP and the New York Times report that the Utah state archeologist has raised doubts about the findings, particularly a mis-match between the remains and Ruessâ€™s known dental records.
So Everett, like so many others, may still be out there.
This article originally appeared on CQ2.