Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Vagrant Life: Getting Lost in Escalante Canyon with Everett Ruess

A good friend and I ventured into the exciting world of Coyote Gulch, one of the most beautiful and enchanting backcountry trails in the entire west. This was my sixth trip, but accompanying a good friend is like hiking a trail again for the first time. Some two miles up the Escalante River from our descent into the canyon, not far from the Burr Trail, we encountered a group of college kids, who we learned were hiking there as part of a class. I recognized the leader/instructor as Steve Peterson, husband of artist Kathleen Peterson, and apparently a master at encouraging his top students to be involved with nature. We asked what their plan was, to which Steve answered, “Well, we’re going to hike a while longer, stop for some lunch, and read a little Edward Albee.” “What a wonderful idea,” I thought. I never had that opportunity in college. This group was going to enjoy a stunning hike, down a PB and J, and then go blow up a dam. I also asked the group to let us know if they bumped into Everett Ruess. Ha! I could tell that at least some of these students didn’t know who I was talking about, but Steve winked as he assured me that they were going to discuss Ruess.

Not unlike those students, in 1934 twenty year-old Everett Ruess, an independent spirit with a penchant for experiencing the beauties of nature alone, embarked with his two burros on a trip into an Escalante canyon. Then he vanished forever. Young Ruess had accomplished much in his two decades, including associating with such legends as depression-era visual chronicler Maynard Dixon, his sometimes wife, photographer Dorothea Lang, and her renowned colleague, Ansel Adams. Ruess’ writings, poetry, and manifold block prints attest to the creative promise that was cut short when he disappeared into that canyon and entered the annals of western legend.

Wallace Stegner included a chapter about Ruess in his book, Mormon Country. Bud Rusho’s A Vagabond for Beauty is a charming book written from Ruess letters in the Marriott Library collection. Gibbs-Smith published On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, which fills in a lot of blanks in his chronology. For those who haven’t seen enough of Ruess material, I was surprised to learn that the U’s Marriott Library has 78 boxes of primary documents, journals, paintings, original blocks and prints, and other evocative materials.

In the early 1930s, Ruess traveled via burro or horse into the backcountry of the Four Corners area and in 1930 and 1933, he spent his summers in Yosemite, Sequoia, and the High Sierra Mountains, sketching, painting, and writing. Attesting to Ruess’ artistic aptitude are multiple examples of block and lino prints that he created while on the go. By selling and trading these prints, he was able to support himself and feed the burros once in awhile. The Utah Arts Council owns a couple of these original block prints, but far more examples can be viewed by clicking on everettruess.net, the website maintained by Steve Jerman, a Ruess aficionado. Jerman is licensed by the Ruess estate to reproduce and sell these images in the form of posters, mugs, and t-shirts. By accessing this site, one can understand the travels of Ruess in the west by viewing the many images he created — Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and Mesa Verde. Ruess also included his likenesses of a fishing shack at Tomales Bay, and some sea cliffs at Marin, California. Like George M. Ottinger chronicling his 1861 trek along the Mormon trail in vivid oil paints, and Maynard Dixon recording the downtrodden in various depression-era locations in his muddy, flat paints, likewise Ruess did so with his block prints.

I am anxiously waiting for the opening of two Ruess events. On March 14th, watch for the world premiere of Debora Threedy’s play, The End of the Horizon, which will detail the “near-mythic” Ruess in what is called “a searing drama about the Ruess family and the power of the unknown.” A week later on the 21st, from 6 to 9 PM the March Gallery Stroll, the Rose Wagner will hold a reception for its exhibit, in conjunction with the Utah Arts Council, of 25 block prints from the last five years of Ruess’ life.

Not being a student of poetry, I nevertheless find that I have been touched by much of Ruess’ verse. As he endured the lonely life of a wanderer, he once penned, “…an undercurrent of restlessness and wild longing. I too, long for that inner stillness, but I have yet more of the wild songs of youth to sing.” And in an essay at age 18, Ruess outlined his hope and dream: “On a night long ago while I tossed restlessly upon my bed, an idea crystallized with 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.”

During the course of my thesis work on Henri Moser, I studied one of his red rock paintings, “Edwin Bridge,” an award-winning large painting in the State Fine Art Collection. Moser depicts a man with a burro hiking the natural bridge and speculation is that Moser had either met Ruess or was well aware of his mysterious disappearance and thus included him in his painting.

So what did become of Everett Ruess? All we know is that he walked into Davis Gulch, a side canyon of the Escalante River and fashioned a makeshift horse corral at his camp and never came out again. His burros were discovered, grazing and content. Search parties spread out over miles of primitive terrain, but there was no sign of Ruess—dead or alive. The speculation? Some say he died in a flash flood (I’ve been in one at Coyote Gulch and it is not pretty). Anyone who has ever peered over the cliffs of Hell’s Backbone knows that falling to one’s death is a possibility from any of the numerous cliffs and ledges. There has been a suggestion of murder. Others believe he simply ferried across the Colorado River, married a Navajo woman, and lived out his days with the tribe.

Like the Three Nephites of the Book of Mormon, who requested permission to remain on earth and be spared death so that they could minister to its inhabitants, perhaps Everett Ruess remains with us. It certainly does give backpacking in the Escalante region an added dimension and source for lore. Ruess’ last letter to his brother included a haunting but beautiful passage: “I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”

Block Prints by Everett Ruess will be at the Rose Wagner Art Gallery in partnership w/ Utah Arts Council’s Traveling Exhibition Program and Salt Lake County. Opening reception: March 21 Gallery Stroll. Exhibit hours are weekdays 9am-5pm and before/after performances, March 14-30. The End of the Horizon will be at PlanB Theatre March 14-30.

Tom Alder, a Salt Lake City native, left a 30-year mortgage banking career in 2009 to open Alderwood Fine Art, specializing in early Utah art. He held an MA in Art History, taught at the University of Utah, and served on various boards in the cultural community. He died in 2018.

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