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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Big Bend Part 2- A Dark, Starry Night

We arrived around 3 pm.  My older brother walked to the Park Ranger office to secure a park permit.

Shortly thereafter, I wandered in and stared at an ominous life-sized mountain lion replica.  I read the facts: 139 sightings this year.  I moved over to the book section where my paranoia feasted on a book entitled “Death in Big Bend.”  I read an unfortunate excerpt of a man who caught a mountain lion stalking his campsite.  The man threw rocks in the cat’s direction and shouted profanities.  Why they felt the need to inform us of the man’s profane language was beyond me.  As if rugged pumas have tender sensibilities easily offended by coarse language.

Long story short, the man survived only to strand himself on a lonely icy peak with no way down the following year.  Yes, Big Bend is perilous.  Thirst, mountain lions, and bears are just a sample of the fates that may befall a man.

We drove a few water jugs and some food to a stash point that we aimed to reach the following night.  The stash point was just a bear box atop a canyon gazing over an ocean of desert terrain.

We hit the trail at four pm, well aware that daylight was fast evaporating.  Our joking references to savage puma attacks did not seem as funny when a glance at the map revealed that we would be searching for a safe plot of land in complete darkness, guided only by headlamps and whatever crude judgment we had acquired over a handful of other wilderness hikes.

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Darkness fast approaching

Around six pm we were enshrouded by black and more stars than I cared to count.  Darkness is a different entity here.  The closest full-sized town is at least one hundred miles and Ft. Stockton barely qualifies as a human inhabitation.

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And….curtains

We lurched forward through a canyon bestriding a dry creek bed.  The moon lit the canyon just enough for us to realize that our surroundings looked nearly identical to the big cat exhibits at the zoo.  Giant rocks, light shrubbery, and taller trees dotted the bowl-like enclosure we stubbornly trekked.

Another check of the map revealed that we would need to settle for the first flat spot we found or risk several miles through a shoddily marked desert trail starting at the basin below.  We flailed around the brush until we found an even piece of ground.  We pitched our tent and tied our food to trees some 400 meters away so as to avoid collateral damage from opportunistic creatures.

I hardly slept.  Each rustle, each broken twig, awakened me.  All throughout, my little brother slumbered away.  After what seemed like days, morning light arrived.  We survived and, just as importantly, our food and water stood intact.