The 'Walden' Effect: Tracing the Myth of the Man Alone in the Wilderness

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From Jesus to Thoreau to Chris McCandless, culture is full of stories about men who take solitary sojourns in nature. Why do we find them so fascinating?

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In 1930 Everett Ruess left his Los Angeles home and began a series of solitary wanderings through the Southwest. Just 16 and still in high school, accompanied mostly by burros, once by horses, and briefly by a dog he named Curly, Everett hiked throughout the mesas and canyons, a landscape he sketched, painted, and described in awestruck tones in letters and diaries. Over the next three years Everett, an aspiring artist and poet, set off on several months-long rambles, often going weeks without speaking with another human being (though always keeping in touch with parents and friends back home through letters he mailed from remote trading posts, where he bought food and supplies). And then, during a 1934 trek, he simply vanished. Whether he committed suicide, died in an accidental fall, or was murdered by Native Americans or the local Mormon settlers has never been determined.

In the years since, Everett has been taken up as a kind of patron saint of various lovers of the southwest, from backpackers to New Agers to environmentalists. In a new book, veteran journalist David Roberts (who has written about Ruess for National Geographic Adventure magazine and elsewhere) seeks to replace hagiography with explanation; more than anything, he hopes to help solve what he calls "a riddle that has no parallel in the history of the American West."

Finding Everett Ruess: The Remarkable and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer (Broadway, 379 pages, $25) is, weirdly, just one of three books about Ruess to come out in the past year. Last September saw the first paperback edition of The Mystery of Everett Ruess, edited by W. L. Rusho (the hardcover came out in 2002), and in late August Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife, by Philip L. Fradkin will be published. The Roberts book features a foreward by Jon Krakauer, whose Into the Wild launched both his career and the cult following of Chris McCandless, another solitary young man who died alone in the wilderness.

Like McCandless, Ruess played around with pseudonyms and wrote at great length about his discomfort with urban life and modern civilization. Both inspire great admiration, among both kindred spirits (like Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm and inspired the James Franco movie) and armchair explorers. I don't get them at all. While the mysterious nature of Ruess's disappearance (and assumed death) yields a great detective story as told by Roberts, the rest of it—especially the apparently huge population who not only admire but envy Ruess and McCandless their lonely, dangerous, and ultimately deadly vision quests—just seems crazy to me.

I don't think I'm alone. A highly unscientific inquiry (status update on my Facebook page) yielded a near-absolute split among my friends between those who think it sounds wonderful to be travel solo through an unpeopled landscape (mostly men) and those who think it sounds boring, uncomfortable, terrifying, or just plain dumb (mostly women). Could this be about gender? There is, after all, a long history of solitude as a test or marker of true manhood—before Everett Ruess there was Thoreau at Walden (so what if he was less than a mile from his mother's house, to which he reportedly sent his laundry regularly), mountain men both real and imagined (Grizzly Adams, anyone?), and of course, Jesus' 40-day sojourn in the wilderness.

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While the ranks of explorers includes some amazing women, real exploration typically involves great crews of people, from guides to porters to hunters to the dudes back in the city with the money. The male solo explorer isn't trying to discover anything except himself. And while I am a big fan of self-discovery, it just doesn't make sense to me to pursue it outside the ordinary avenues of therapy, art classes, and late-night drunken conversations with dear friends.

For the menfolk, though, apparently journeys into the center of their souls are best undertaken more or less alone (hence the man cave, invented, I guess, for those who don't wish to live in an actual cave like Ruess, but still want to carve out a space free from the incessant, harping demands of civilization, offspring, and spouses—but with a 72-inch TV and pool table). Women, especially those of us with husbands and kids, probably crave time alone more than any other demographic sector, but we seem to define "alone" differently—in my case, it means "without my husband and kids," not "in a place unsullied by other human beings."

This isn't to say that only men revere Ruess. Plenty of women love his sweet, boy-band innocence, his unspoiled nearly-virginal face. And fans of both genders admire his woodblock prints (which actually are pretty gorgeous) and his heartfelt, nature-worshipping poetry (which isn't).

The last stanza of his most well-known poem goes like this:

Say that I starved, that I was lost and weary;
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;
Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases;
Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!

Self-dramatizing, self-important, self-pitying—it reads like a Hallmark card written by Kipling. This isn't to say that Ruess wasn't at times lost and weary, burned and sun-blinded, but he chose his suffering. Writing as he tramped through some of the poorest, Godforsaken settlements during the Depression, Ruess more or less ignored the privations of the local ranchers and Indian population, choosing instead to focus all of his sympathy on a more deserving subject: himself.

Ruess wrote not just poetry but hundreds of letters, some of them lyrical and ecstatic enough to end up on coffee mugs and wall hangings. Roberts argues that, with more time, Ruess might have joined John Muir among the masters of American nature writing. But it's hard to escape the feeling that his early death (and youthful beauty) account for much of the fervor fans feel for him. However ridiculous or reckless his treks seem to some of us, it's hard not to feel for a boy who might have grown out of his man cave, if he'd had the chance.

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Kate Tuttle is a freelance writer and the author of the Boston Globe's Short Takes column.

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