Q&A: Finding Everett Ruess author David Roberts reflects on his unsolved mystery
David Roberts, author of Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer, researched the life, writings and artwork of the young adventurer who vanished somewhere in the American Southwest in the 1930s, and has written the first true biography of the young man. Roberts (and Reuss) made headlines in 2009 when DNA evidence appeared to confirm the discovery of Ruess' remains; subsequent tests disproving the claim have only added to the mystery. Roberts will be reading from his book and signing copies tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl Street ($5, includes a $5 bookstore coupon). We caught up with him for a quick chat about why the legend and legacy of Everett Ruess endures.
Westword: I remember reading about the whole DNA debacle and wondering if we were ever going to get to read your book after all that. What were the next steps for you in telling the story after the DNA test was proven to be a false-positive?
David Roberts: It was such a roller coaster. It just blew my mind that the DNA experts at CU had come up with perfect match in the first place. Against even my own doubts I thought, "My god, it really is Everett!" Then when the second test contradicted those results and we learned it wasn't Everett after all, it was just an incredible letdown. I thought, "Well, do I still have a book?" and went to have a heart-to-heart talk with my agent and publisher about it. But by that point I'd gotten so interested in Everett's life, and I realized that there was so much that Will Rusho had not covered in A Vagabond for Beauty, that I was able to convince the publishing house that instead of making the supposed discovery of his body the centerpiece of the book it could become a kind of last chapter about the mystery of the whole thing. This is really the first true biography of Everett and -- like his life -- it turns out not to have a tidy ending.
Well, you've got to remember he was only twenty when he vanished, and while his writing can seemed a bit over-dramatic at times, and young and idealistic and even grandiloquent, there's also a lot of power to it. The sheer celebration of the beauty of the wilderness comes across no matter how effusively he expresses it, and then there's also his block prints, which are quite accomplished works of art and serve as wonderful examples of his vision of the wilderness. We've used the block prints as chapter headers in my book. To me the most impressive thing about Everett is the journeys themselves. I mean, you think of this kid doing a ten-month journey, mostly solo, through an American Southwest that was far wilder and more dangerous in the 1930s than it is today, and without a lot of the equipment and technology that we'd take for granted on a trip like that today... I've hiked much of that same country, and it's still a lot of deep wilderness, and I'm impressed by his doing that for so long without losing heart or getting scared or getting terribly homesick or bagging it all and giving it up, especially since so much of it was solo. It takes a rather intriguing person to set out on such a journey in the first place.
Aron Ralston's Between A Rock and Hard Place was a bestseller, and 127 Hours was one of the biggest movies of the year last year. And then, of course, there were Christopher McCandless' Into the Wild misadventures. Since we've been so drawn to these kinds of stories about these guys going out there and living on the edge, with all its potential pitfalls, can you put Everett Reuss into some context for me?
Aron gave me a really nice back-cover blurb for the book, and I think he saw a direct parallel between Everett and himself. I think, unlike both Aron Ralston and Chris McCandless, Everett was willing to die. He kept saying, "I've flirted with death, the old clown... I've many times climbed on the very edge of falling to my death." There's this streak in his writing of anticipating an early death or a vanishing of some kind, this theme of, "I shall not return." And he never did return, in the end. He was willing to die for his pursuit of beauty, and though he may have been reckless -- in Vagabond for Beauty Clay Lockett describes him as standing on the very edge of a cliff as he paints in a rainstorm -- he wasn't unaware of the fact that he could very well die doing what he was doing. Aron, by contrast, was on a day trip and just made this silly little screwup, by his own admission, where he grabbed a chuckstone in the canyon and it pivoted under him. But, as anyone familiar with that story knows well, once the reality set in, his will to live and his refusal to die kicked into overdrive. Of course, if he'd just left a note about where he was, they might have gotten to him within 24 hours instead of him having to cut off his own arm to save himself! Chris McCandless never thought he was going to die, either: He made a basic error in not finding the wire bucket ferry across the river that could have saved him, but he certainly didn't set out for Alaska prepared to die. Whatever happened to Everett in the end, he was fully willing to countenance the possibility of dying while he was doing it. And that fact doesn't seem to have given him more than a moment's pause.