Jan Estep, "On Disappearing,” Quodlibetica, Constellation 04: Wilderness, September 2009.
“When I go I leave no trace.
The beauty of the country is becoming a part of me.”
—Everett Ruess (1914-1934)
“…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,
where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
—Federal Wilderness Act, 1964
I visited Davis Gulch, a high-desert canyon leading off the Escalante River in southeastern Utah. I went to disappear for a little while, but also to search for the last inscriptions of the artist/explorer Everett Ruess. Ruess traveled this same landscape with his pack animals 70 years earlier and I wanted to see the wilderness that compelled his solitary, ecstatic wanderings. The gulch lies in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a nearly two-million-acre area of public land, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Monument comprises a series of broad, tilted terraces, multi-colored cliffs, isolated mesas, and deep sandstone canyons. It was the last place in the Unites States to be mapped.
One access point to Davis Gulch is partway down Hole in the Rock Road, a graded dirt road that follows the early Mormon route from the town of Escalante to the Colorado River. At roughly the 50-mile point if you head out across the flat stone bench toward Davis Gulch you can pick up an old stock trail that leads down into the canyon. Dropping steeply to the sandy floor below I wondered how Ruess’s mules managed the slickrock descent. The area is fairly isolated, but the flooded northern end of the gulch means visitors recreating on Lake Powell come right up to the mouth of the canyon, breaking the silence and the illusion of wilderness with their houseboats and jetskis. Still, the beauty of the canyon is overwhelming and I felt I could understand what drew Ruess further and further away.
This area of the country became protected under the Wilderness Act in 1996; its remote location ensures the “opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation,” of a “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” which are also part of the Act’s definition of wilderness. Given the lack of shelter, water, and facilities, backcountry hikers out here have to be extremely self-reliant. A volunteer firefighter I know, who spent the summer undergoing wilderness emergency training, recently shared the definition of wilderness created by the Wilderness Medical Institute (WMI): three hours from definitive care. It’s their guideline to determine when backcountry emergency skills are to be used, that is, when people are far enough from regular medical help that a wilderness medical technician should intervene and give treatment. The WMI definition is a highly relativistic one. Depending on the kind of terrain and the means of transportation, a person could be hundreds of miles from care or, if only reachable on foot through rugged terrain, relatively close. Thus, the proximity to a connection with another person defines how far into the wilderness one is, not the nature of the landscape itself. The topography certainly effects how quickly one can be reached, but it is the potential for human infrastructure that makes the difference. The flexibility of the WMI guideline reflects the fact that historically we appear determined to penetrate even the most secluded regions, bringing the wild ever closer but also endangering it with our presence, and making it harder and harder to escape the overt signs of civilization.
Despite the encroaching technology the wide-open spaces of the American West retain a wild character. Especially the scorched desperate plains of the desert offer a solitude that is unmatched elsewhere. Traveling incognito, the usual claims on one’s time and energy fall away so that other experiences can be discovered.
This is exactly what Everett Ruess was searching for in the early 1930s. Born in California in 1914, Ruess was a young artist who loved to explore the vast topography of the American West. He sketched and painted landscapes, and wrote long letters to his family trying to describe the things he saw. In those letters he also wrote about his struggle with social and artistic expectations of him and his desire to be mobile and free. As an older teenager Ruess fluctuated between extended solo trips in Yosemite, Mesa Verde, and throughout the southwest, and more social periods in Los Angeles with his family, and San Francisco and Carmel, where he befriended Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and the painter Maynard Dixon. His writing reveals a deepening conflict between his longing to be out in the wild and his connection to his family and society. He was deeply sensitive to nature and had a profound emotional response to its beauty.
Increasingly convinced that a nomadic life far from any civilized arena was the only life he could lead, Ruess grew more and more independent. Outfitting himself with the gear necessary to be self-sufficient and horses and mules to carry the load, he took off for longer and longer periods of time. He was no introvert—his letters tell of the numbers of traders, Navajo, cowhands, and fellow travelers that he met, and he had his dog and pack animals for company—but most of his nights were spent walking or riding under lonely, starry skies. Ruess was particularly drawn to southeastern Utah with its slickrock canyons, intricate rock formations, and ancient Indian artifacts. In 1934, at age 20, he walked off into Utah’s Escalante region and was never seen again. His pack mules were found tied at the bottom of Davis Gulch. Throughout the slender canyon, searchers discovered Ruess’s bootprints. His adopted moniker NE MO (Latin for “no one”) was found carved into rock, but his body and camping gear were never found.
Since his disappearance Ruess’s story has become a legend, the tale of the lone wanderer, captivated by natural beauty and a vagabond dream that leads to his ultimate peril. His writing indulges in the romantic image of the solitary figure escaping to the wilderness, as he waxes rhapsodic about the sights he sees. To a contemporary eye his words seem naive, and overly hyperbolic, but the strength of his convictions—that natural, wild beauty is transformational—fuels the story. Last spring the legend lost some of its mystery as a body presumed to be Ruess was found buried in a rock crevice 60 miles east of Davis Gulch. The details of this discovery exploded the myth of the young man lost in the wild.
Perhaps it was easier in 1934 to believe we could leave our inherited social environment given enough physical distance. The Escalante region was even more isolated than it is today; a person could walk off into the desert and not see anyone else for a long time. There were few means to get word back and forth between travelers and those they left behind, and Ruess had warned his parents that they would not hear from him for a while. In fact, a search party was not sent out until four months after he disappeared. Today it is hard to imagine a place where one can go and not be reachable quickly, by helicopter, boat, car, or even by cell or satellite phones. GPS locator units and avalanche beacons can track hikers into the deepest canyons and remotest locations. And the network of roads and trails has grown since the early 1900s, opening up access to formerly inaccessible tracts of unadulterated land. Already developing during Ruess’s time, the National Park Service was designed in part to help people visit the wild’s natural beauty, along with its mission to preserve those resources. Add to this a competing desire to drill for natural gas and oil, to excavate for mineral deposits, to graze protected lands, to log old growth forests, plus real-estate ventures that build and sell vacation homes higher and higher up the mountains, encroaching on once-pristine environments, and it becomes clear that culturally, politically many people have a hard time respecting the value of leaving these places alone. Ruess at least wanted to leave no trace.
After my Utah trip I was telling an artist friend of mine that I dream some day of relocating out there, but fear leaving behind all the opportunities and support that an art community in an urban city provides. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, he nodded his head and told me, “I’ve always wanted Bruce Nauman’s career.” I understood what he meant immediately. I’ve often thought the Nauman model seemed the perfect solution for my predicament: put in your time in various art capitals in the States making yourself known, garner international attention early and sustain it, segue to a robust national presence in the art world, and sell enough work so you don’t have to worry about money, all so that you can live and work on an isolated ranch in the wilds of New Mexico and still have a vital art career. Of course, the realist in me recognizes that few artists reach the status Nauman enjoys, that fame is a fleeting, fickle goal to aspire to; besides, many of us don’t make objects with commercial value to support that lifestyle. However, it presents one model for how to be connected and far away at the same time.
It’s this wanting to be present and recognized but also wanting at times to disappear that compete with one another. The crux of the matter is that most people want to disappear at their own discretion, returning when they choose to an environment where they have a small niche already carved out. Ruess’s supportive family provided such a niche, yet the lure of the wild was too great. The young explorer wrote in his journal, “He who has looked long on naked beauty may never return to the world, and though he should try, he will find its occupation empty and vain, and human intercourse purposeless and futile. Alone and lost, he must die on the altar of beauty.” For Ruess the search for beauty in his desert wonderland became the be-all, end-all, as he declared himself content to be subsumed by those experiences. But for practical and philosophical reasons his particular faith is difficult to sustain. I for one don’t relish the thought of fading away simply because everyone else has forgotten me, out of sight, out of mind, or because like Ruess I’ve fallen into some deep, dark crevasse and lost my way back. As Nauman wrote in Consummate Mask of Rock (1975), “PEOPLE DIE OF EXPOSURE.” But if they aren’t careful, they can also die from hiding.
The recent discovery of Ruess’s body was fueled by a Navajo family secret finally come to light. A relative had witnessed three Ute teenagers killing a young Anglo man out in the desert all those years ago. According to the story, the teenagers chased and assaulted the lone rider, then took off with his belongings, leaving the body out in the open. Not wanting to cause tensions with the Utes or the Feds, the young Navajo witness climbed down into the wash, dragged the body up the rocky ridge, and buried it in a crevice. This is where FBI agents and local hiking guides found the body last spring. The forensic evidence seems conclusive that the remains are those of Ruess though there continue to be skeptics calling for additional confirmation. The finding is a sad addition to Ruess’s biography. While there is nothing particularly noble about getting lost in the desert and starving or dehydrating to death, at least you could believe that Ruess died doing what he loved, foolish perhaps but overcome by the beauty that surrounded him. The brutal, bloody end that Ruess actually met—dying at the hands of other men—counters this more idealistic image. Technically the young explorer may have been in the wilderness, and far from definitive care; however, the means of his death were not natural, but social through and through.
Copyright Jan Estep 2009
Sections of this essay first appeared in an earlier version published in New Art Examiner, Sept./Oct. 2001, pp. 30-31.