What: Book signing for “Finding Everett Ruess” with David Roberts
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Boulder Book Store
Tickets: $5, includes $5 coupon for the book
More info: boulderbookstore.indiebound.com
Author and Boulder native David Roberts almost didn’t get to publish “Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer.”
DNA testing by CU researchers matched a found body to Ruess’ living relatives; these turned out to be a false positive.
“I almost lost the book,” Roberts said. “My proposal had been based on the conviction that we’d found Everett.”
Fortunately, Roberts said, his publisher was already convinced that the tale of the young adventurer and aesthete who disappeared into the desert in 1934 was compelling enough to publish.
Roberts will be at the Boulder Bookstore on Monday night (and the Tattered Cover in Denver Wednesday) to talk about the disappearance of and search for the legendary explorer, artist and writer.
Ruess was only 20 when he disappeared in the canyons of southern Utah. Despite his age, he was a fairly experienced backcountry traveler, having undertaken several extended sojourns into some of the wilds of the southwest during his late teens. But while he vanished mysteriously, Ruess had an ongoing following, thanks to interest in both his disappearance and in his letters, journals and artistic work. His writing reveals a young man’s rhapsodic experience of nature — compelling some to compare him to a nascent John Muir or Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Roberts — who has written more than 20 books on climbing and outdoor adventures — first learned about Ruess when he read “Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty” in the late 1980s.
The tome had already acquired a minor cult status, Roberts said, but it struck a personal note as well.
“I was quite fascinated by the kid himself, because I’d gotten into hiking around the canyons of the southwest myself…mainly looking for Anasazi art and ruins, which is what Everett was doing.”
Roberts didn’t write about Ruess until 1999.
“I had put it onto my backburner until I started writing for National Geographic Adventure, and when it launched in 1999, I ended up doing a major feature on Everett, and trying to see if any more research had been done,” Roberts said.
After interviewing people who had met Ruess and those who had searched for him, this kid who vanished became both more complicated and more interesting, Roberts said.
“Going to the town of Escalante, the last town before he vanished…the people who had seen him for his days in Escalante still had vivid memories of him,” Roberts said.
“People were struck by him.”
But the big jump in the cult of Ruess came from Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” which has a chapter about Ruess’ disappearance, and includes Krakauer’s journey to Ruess’ last known campsite.
“Jon’s my old climbing buddy and my student in college,” Roberts said. “And he was telling me about Chris McCandless, and I said, ‘He sounds an awful lot like Everett Ruess.’ And he said, ‘Who the hell is Everett Ruess?'”
In the foreword to “Finding Everett Ruess,” Krakauer writes, “A number of the parallels between Ruess and McCandless were extraordinary.”
But this new light on Ruess worried Roberts.
“Ever since Jon’s book, people have been making this fairly long backpack trip to the bus McCandless died in,” Roberts said.
“We worried, when we thought we’d discovered (Ruess’) body, that the gravesite would become a pilgrimage site, because it’s right in the middle of the Navajo Nation.”
Roberts was referring to a strange twist emerged in the Everett Ruess story in 2008. Between the unusual story of Navajo woman — passed down by her grandfather — and a skeleton found wedged in desert rock, Roberts and others thought they might have finally found Ruess’ body.
Ken Krauter, professor in CU’s department of molecular, cellular & developmental biology, was one of the researchers who tested the remains against Reuss’ living relatives. They thought they had a match.
“It turned out our technology was not appropriate for the task,” Krauter said.
“One of the features of the software is that it relies on high-quality DNA,” Krauter said. “We thought we had high enough quality DNA, but it turns out, if you don’t … it creates a system error.”
Roberts said after that, “I got a lot of hate mail.”
“I think part of the phenomenon is that a lot of people just don’t want Everett to be found,” Roberts said. “They’d rather he stayed lost and mysterious. And the idea that we found him was disappointing to people, even to the point of making them angry toward me.”
When asked whether he would continue to look for Ruess, Roberts replied: “I’m not going to go out on the Comb Ridge and look for graves. Nothing I could do would piss people off more.”
While the mystery of Ruess’ disappearance continues, Roberts hopes he has written the definitive biography.
“The kid was precocious. You can’t say he was a natural writer, but he was an ambitious writer, said Roberts. “He was so idealistic and so passionate, that I think anybody who loves the wilderness, and especially the southwest, they get the rapture he was writing with.
“Everett’s basically saying the glory of the southwest is its beauty for its own sake, and to walk through it is to make a transcendental pilgrimage. And this is very much in touch with today’s culture about wilderness.”