Pulling an Everett Ruess

  • Jane Koerner


After six months without a job, I wonder how I will support myself. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, mummified inside a contorted blanket, my dog hunched over my right hip in the posture of a turkey vulture. In the dark it's hard to tell if he's watching over me or waiting for me to expire.

The truth is, I have more alternatives than most Americans my age. I've got enough camping gear to equip a Himalayan expedition, some savings, and a Honda that gets 35 miles to the gallon. And I have a descendant of wolves for company; as long as he's around, I don't mind sleeping out under the stars alone even during this time of year.

I could pull an Everett Ruess if I wanted, and disappear in southern Utah, sending out cryptic messages once in awhile to reassure my friends without providing too many clues. If both polar ice caps melt in my lifetime, I do not want to be rescued.

"I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult trail leading into the unknown to the paved highway," wrote Ruess to his brother in Los Angeles, shortly before his disappearance in the fall of 1934.

Young, restless and idealistic, Ruess traveled alone and on foot. In one of his last letters to his brother, he marveled, "In my wanderings this year, I have taken more chances and had more and wilder adventures than ever before. And what magnificent country I have seen -- wild, tremendous wasteland stretches, lost mesas, blue mountains rearing upward from the vermillion sands of the desert ... cloudbursts roaring down unnamed canyons."

He was last seen alive in Davis Canyon, near the confluence of the Escalante and Colorado rivers.

Vertigo always pulls me back from the edge of a tempting precipice, and I know better than to camp in a wash during thunderstorm season. The deer flies in June will drive me crazy, but I can zip them out of my tent. Winter is more worrisome. South-facing alcoves capture solar energy in the daytime, but the nights are long and cold. If I adjust to the climate and absence of human company, I will shed my white skin in the spring and camouflage myself in a coat of wind-swept sand and let the sun engrave me in whorls of ancient wisdom.

In time, I imagine that my circadian rhythm will align with the avian sonar system, and I will rise in concert with the descending notes of a canyon wren. I will heat my oatmeal beneath the fan of flapping raven wings and learn to tolerate deranged hair and self-inflicted skunk odor. I will acquire a taste for chokeberry tea, rodent jerky and abandoned coyote kill, defend my freeze-dried vegetables from thieves by storing my cache in a pit dug with a Vibram-soled heel.

When the greening of the cottonwoods signals the onset of summer and the urgency of returning to the canyon rim, I will obey the command and emerge. The civilization I left behind may have recovered its senses by then, and people my age will be able to make a living wage without compromising all of their principles.

The good thing about turning 60 is that I have enough life experience to resist despair. And if the recovery fails to materialize, I know I can bide my time in canyon country. I can restore my faith at the Sistine Chapel of rock art overlooking Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. There, the shrouded "Great Ghost" hovers over an assemblage of deities dwarfing the human figures.

According to a Ute elder, pictographs like this are sacred, and in the olden days, before his religion was outlawed and his people forcibly marched onto reservations, a boy would be taken to a particularly potent site and left there for three days and nights, until an animal came to him in a dream. An eagle signified courage and wisdom. A buffalo transmitted great strength; a hummingbird, humility. A visit from a coyote was a gift for the whole tribe to celebrate -- Coyote could predict life and death.

With no tutors to guide me, I may have to sit at the feet of Great Ghost for a fortnight or more, drinking in the silence as I listen for the flutter of wings.

Jane Koerner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). After living on a succession of friends' couches, she has landed in Fairplay, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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