The Ghost of Everett Ruess

As has become tradition, I awoke before 4 AM and headed for the mountains in search of solitude that only a sunrise hike can offer.  I arrived happily caffeinated and ready to plunge into a sea of trails crisscrossing Mt. Greylock, a purple monster that lords over the small Massachusetts burg of Williamstown.

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I was granted the solitude I sought, encountering zero people for the first five or six miles.  Once again, I found myself in love with the challenge and silence of the mountains.  I came across several large animal droppings.  The first was a large pile of pellets indicating a large deer or moose.  Innocuous enough, I thought.  A mile further down the trail, a more human-shaped turd appeared.  From what I’d read, this indicated a big cat or coyote had been here.

For several miles, each rustling twig, each broken branch raised my blood pressure.  I clutched a rock and scanned the dense foliage.  What was supposed to be a loving nature walk, briefly morphed into the mental exercise of destroying a rabid mountain lion.

After a few miles of haunted stillness, I crossed a road.  This overt sign of society reminded me that humans are more menacing than all the cats and bears within the quiet forest.  When I reached the other side of the road, I came across a chilling sign.

A 31-year-old man had gone missing, leaving only a note saying that he wished to disappear “forever into the wilderness and to remain out of contact with humanity.”  The sign proceeded to detail his extensive mental issues and spelled out strategies if you encountered the man.

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My heart hurt, knowing that this man had been afflicted with a familiar heartbreak and love of nature.

“When I go, I leave no trace.”- Everett Ruess

People disappear into the wilderness each year, but none in as dramatic fashion as Everett Ruess.  Everett was an artist and poet, a manic-depressive capable of the highest highs and lowest lows.  He was a male with a gift for the aesthetic and the written word.  Unsurprisingly, he struggled to find a niche within the industrial 1930s.

Out in the wild and free of judgment and oppressing convention, he roamed and wrote a series of beautiful letters and poems.

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He boldly declared love for the lonely canyons and dancing tumbleweed of the Southwest.  He dreamt lucid dreams.  His poems were treacherous and vivid.  Everett was unafraid of the travails of love.  But if you listen closely, you can hear heartbroken murmurs, quiet as a rustle of leaves.

He was in love with the land.  But, like any love, his love required great sacrifice.  His sacrifices ultimately led to irrevocable estrangement with society.  His letters and poems became dark and he intimated that he might never wish to return.  Of course, this was before large-scale depressive medication and hyper-fast telecommunication, so his internal wounds were left to fester.

“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…”- Everett Ruess

Then, 80 years ago, Everett disappeared without a trace into the vast desert of Utah.  Some conjecture that he was killed by bandits or Indians, some are convinced of suicide, and others suggest he took refuge with a wandering Indian tribe.

“In my mind I conjured up a thousand forgotten cities, left behind by the years; sheer grey mountains; mile upon mile of bare, unfriendly desert; cold lakes unrippled by any breeze, with depths unfathomable; jungles filled with deadly snakes, immense butterflies, brilliant colors, fever, and death.  I swam in the blue seas, and in coral-tinted waters.  Through insufferable heat and incessant flooding downpours I plodded forward….These are the things I saw and the experiences I lived through that night long past.  Now it is night again–the night before I go.” – Everett Ruess- I Go To Make My Destiny, 1932

What’s not debated is that Everett was a disturbed, yet brilliant young man.  A headstrong vagabond, he wished to discover a philosophy that would liberate him from the stifling confines of an industrial society that, in his mind, had lost its soul, its direction.

Everett was lost in that philosophical pursuit.  His inexplicable disappearance leaves many questions.

Did Everett reach the union with nature he aspired to?  Did he find everlasting happiness on the banks of an undying desert stream?  Did he find love in the breathtaking space and emptiness of the desert?

His quest was seemingly logical.  Unable to find perfection in a complex, chaotic urban ecosystem, he sought perfection in an unspoiled land.  Everett was betting that complete contentment was there for the taking.  However, history has repeatedly found us incapable of finding contentment.

Artists, poets, and musicians like Everett are saints destined to die at the altar of an elusive understanding of our volatile human souls.

“Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;

    That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;

Footsore, thirty, sick with strange diseases;

    Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!” – Everett Ruess “Wilderness Song”

What should we really fear?

I wonder what our chief fear should be when we’re all alone and the wind whistles through the trees atop a mountain.  Should our primary fear be savage predators or the seductive beauty of nature we seek?

Are jaw-dropping mountaintop views, the murmur of a rushing creek, and the still of a desert morning temptations too great for some?  Or is temptation being used too pejoratively?  Perhaps it’s a noble pursuit to become one with the land that birthed you.

But how dangerous is this idea?  How demented and disenchanting is this proposition?

The temptation is to give yourself to the trees, the air and the twigs.  The risk is tireless devotion to a cold, beautiful, and distant lover.  A risk that most only recognize in the seedy corners of bars or in the lust of youth.

Perhaps nature, beautiful and eternally young, lurks.  Perhaps nature waits for us to hurdle ourselves into its mysteries.  Perhaps it lies waiting for us to offer ourselves as martyrs against the injustices people have enacted on the massive organic edifice on which we sit.  Perhaps it relishes us prematurely leaving a world of understandable, loving fellow humans only to be crushed by its uncaring jaws.

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Truth is that everyone who runs from this cold world is bound to collide with the conclusion that the sweeping plains of the West or the shady, dense forests of New England are just as cold and heartless as the world they seem to spurn.

Wilderness is stubborn.  Wilderness will breathe and persist long after our feeble attempts to understand or capture it have ceased.

Our only hope is to find joy in our humanity and our shared misunderstanding of all that is greater than us.

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You Must Go Through Winter to Understand

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The mornings begin to dip below freezing.  Street traffic slows.  Doors open and close.  The wind is faint, unwilling to wake.

I’m compelled to sit.  Desperation takes hold.  Accompanied only by the dim light of a cheap lamp and scattered photographs of places, people I used to know.

The trees are dull, the sky is low.  I’m so damn numb.  My hands are cracked, my inspiration is sapped.  Damn this winter, damn this town.

Outside, the snow falls in a steady, icy spray.  A bird alights onto my window sill, peers inside and flutters away.

Squeezing, strangling.  Winter grips trees, captures squirrels, and shoos birds away one by one until all that’s left are solitary pigeons.

Hardly awake, the masses slog through a rite of passage.  This frozen, lifeless land speaks no joys, only sorrow fills the cold, lifeless air.

Why would anyone stay?

And then it hits me.

You must go through winter to understand.

White noise falling all around,

Soft flakes of time coming down,

Falling, sticking, staying, leaving,

Clouds moving, weaving,

Meaning only found in their coming and going,

The dirty, frozen pond,

Nothing flowing,

The dirty, frozen city,

No one coming, no one going,

You must go through winter to understand,

Whispers of snow out your window,

Snow flakes piling high,

The drudgery of bundling up,

The aimless trudge,

The slippery sludge,

The stench of an overused coat,

A damp front porch,

The flicker of a dying torch,

You must go through winter to understand,

Clenched jaws,

Frozen eyes burning, twitching,

The numbing sensation of gloves,

The heater’s caress,

The unwillingness to undress,

Memories of sunlight, friends, family,

Good times come and gone,

You must go through winter to understand,

The convergence of days,

Time slipping away,

Stripped, bare trees,

The fear that time itself will freeze,

The quiet,

The restless slumber,

You must go through winter to understand,

The still of dawn,

The winds of change long gone,

An old folk song,

The need for others,

Missing my brothers,

You must go through winter to understand,

The thirst for sun,

The urge to run,

The need for mountains,

The thirst for flowing fountains,

You must go through winter to understand,

The mirage of white sand,

Tunnel visions of spring,

Wondering what that might bring,

You must go through winter to understand,

The slow melt,

The loneliness I once felt,

You must go through winter to understand,

Life first-hand.

Blue Sky, Hard Road

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Since I learned to drive,

I loved to watch the land fly by,

Learned to drive from Dad,

Jerking forward, halting abruptly,

Someday I would drive,

Drive as far as wheels could fly.

 

 

The vast Pacific,

The vast moment,

Beautiful, elusive horizon,

Destiny before my eyes.

 

 

Leaving quiet desperation,

A secure path,

An unexamined life.

 

 

I casually waved,

Like I was nothing,

 

 

I cried,

Cried at years wasted,

Years wasted on a life not my own,

Tears over road-weary words,

Words of demons, nightmares,

Words of chasing dreams,

And the life I chose.

 

 

Sunlight gleamed off the windshield,

Blue sky, hard road

Blue sky, hard road.

 

 

Crumbling Hartford,

What will winter be like?

Factories gone,

Dusty buildings, soot and blight.

 

 

Friends, family a phone call away,

No Sunday Cowboys games,

No comfort, no familiarity remains.

 

 

Hartford,

Just as cold,

Just as dreary,

In bed, aching lonely.

 

 

So I climbed a mountain,

Wrote until my voice was bold,

Walked until my feet grew cold,

Drove until my story told

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