Bill, with whom John had an extremely close relationship, lost a leg as a teenager trying to hop a freight train. In 1973, Bill posted an enigmatic letter alluding vaguely to plans for an extended trip and then disappeared without a trace; to this day nobody knows what became of him. And after John learned to climb, eight of his intimates and climbing partners were killed in accidents or committed suicide. It’s not much of a stretch to posit that such a rash of misfortune dealt a serious blow to Waterman’s young psyche.
In March 1978, Waterman embarked on his most astonishing expedition, a solo ascent of Mt. Hunter’s southeast spur, an un-climbed route that had previously defeated three teams of elite mountaineers. Writing about the feat in Climbing magazine, the journalist Glenn Randall reported that Waterman described his companions on the climb as “the wind, the snow and death”:
Cornices as airy as meringue jutted over voids a mile deep. The vertical ice walls were as crumbly as a bucket of ice-cubes half-thawed, then refrozen. They led to ridges so narrow and so steep on both sides that straddling was the easiest solution. At times the pain and loneliness overwhelmed him and he broke down and cried.
After eighty-one days of exhausting, extremely hazardous climbing, Waterman reached the 14,573-foot summit of Hunter, which rises in the Alaska Range immediately south of Denali. Another nine weeks were required to make the only slightly less harrowing descent; in total Waterman spent 145 days alone on the mountain. When he got back to civilization, flat broke, he borrowed twenty dollars from Cliff Hudson, the bush pilot who’d flown him out of the mountains, and returned to Fairbanks, where the only work he could find was washing dishes.
Waterman was nevertheless hailed as a hero by the small fraternity of Fairbanks climbers. He gave a public slide show of the Hunter ascent that Brady calls “unforgettable. It was an incredible performance, completely uninhibited. He poured out all his thoughts and feelings, his fear of failure, his fear of death. It was like you were there with him.” In the months following the epic deed, though, Waterman discovered that instead of putting his demons to rest, success had merely agitated them.
Waterman’s mind began to unravel. “John was very self-critical, always analyzing himself,” Brady recalls. “And he’d always been kind of compulsive. He used to carry around a stack of clipboards and notepads. He’d take copious notes, creating a complete record of everything he did during the course of each day. I remember running into him once in downtown Fairbanks. As I walked up, he got out a clipboard, logged in the time he saw me and recorded what our conversation was about—which wasn’t much at all. His notes on our meeting were three or four pages down, behind all the other stuff he’d already scribbled that day. Somewhere he must have had piles and piles and piles of notes like that, which I’m sure would have made sense to no one except John.”
Soon thereafter Waterman ran for the local school board on a platform promoting unrestricted sex for students and the legalization of hallucinogenic drugs. He lost the election, to nobody’s surprise save his own, but immediately launched another political campaign, this time for the presidency of the United States. He ran under the banner of the Feed-the-Starving Party, the main priority of which was to ensure that nobody on the planet died of hunger.
To publicize his campaign, he laid plans to make a solo ascent of the south face of Denali, the mountain’s steepest aspect, in winter, with a minimum of food. He wanted to underscore the waste and immorality of the standard American diet. As part of his training regimen for the climb, he immersed himself in bathtubs filled with ice.
Waterman flew to the Kahiltna Glacier in December 1979 to begin the ascent but called it off after only fourteen days. “Take me home,” he reportedly told his bush pilot. “I don’t want to die.” Two months later, however, he prepared for a second attempt. But in Talkeetna, a village south of Denali that is the point of embarkation for most mountaineering expeditions into the Alaska Range, the cabin he was staying in caught fire and burned to rubble, incinerating both his equipment and the voluminous accumulation of notes, poetry, and personal journals that he regarded as his life’s work.
Waterman was completely unhelmed by the loss. A day after the fire he committed himself to the Anchorage Psychiatric Institute but left after two weeks, convinced there was a conspiracy afoot to put him away permanently. Then, in the winter of 1981, he launched yet another solo attempt on Denali.
As if climbing the peak alone in winter weren’t challenging enough, this time he decided to up the ante even further by beginning his ascent at sea level, which entailed walking 160 hard, circuitous miles from the shore of Cook Inlet just to reach the foot of the mountain. He started plodding north from tidewater in February, but his enthusiasm fizzled on the lower reaches of the Ruth Glacier, still thirty miles from the peak, so he aborted the attempt and retreated to Talkeetna. In March, however, he mustered his resolve once more and resumed his lonely trek. Before leaving town, he told the pilot Cliff Hudson, whom he regarded as a friend, “I won’t be seeing you again.”
It was an exceptionally cold March in the Alaska Range. Late in the month Mugs Stump crossed paths with Waterman on the upper Ruth Glacier. Stump, an alpinist of world renown who died on Denali in 1992, had just completed a difficult new route on a nearby peak, the Mooses Tooth. Shortly after his chance encounter with Waterman, Stump visited me in Seattle and remarked that “John didn’t seem like he was all there. He was acting spacey and talking some crazy shit. Supposedly he was doing this big winter ascent of Denali, but he had hardly any gear with him. He was wearing a cheap one-piece snowmobile suit and wasn’t even carrying a sleeping bag. All he had in the way of food was a bunch of flour, some sugar, and a big can of Crisco.” In his book Breaking Point, Glenn Randall writes:
For several weeks, Waterman lingered in the area of the Shel-don Mountain House, a small cabin perched on the side of the Ruth Glacier in the heart of the range. Kate Bull, a friend of Waterman’s who was climbing in the area at the time, reported that he was run down and less cautious than usual. He used the radio he had borrowed from Cliff [Hudson] to call him and have him fly in more supplies. Then he returned the radio he had borrowed.
“I won’t be needing this any more,” he said. The radio would have been his only means of calling for help.
Waterman was last placed on the Northwest Fork of the Ruth Glacier on April 1. His tracks led toward the east buttress of Denali, straight through a labyrinth of giant crevasses, evidence that he had made no apparent effort to circumvent obvious hazards. He was not seen again; it is assumed he broke through a thin snow bridge and plummeted to his death at the bottom of one of the deep fissures. The National Park Service searched Waterman’s intended route from the air for a week following his disappearance but found no sign of him. Some climbers later discovered a note atop a box of Waterman’s gear inside the Sheldon Mountain House. “3-13-81,” it read. “My last kiss 1:42 PM.”
Perhaps inevitably, parallels have been drawn between John Waterman and Chris McCandless. Comparisons have also been drawn between McCandless and Carl McCunn, an affable ab-sentminded Texan who moved to Fairbanks during the 1970s oil boom and found lucrative employment on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project. In early March 1981, as Waterman was making his final journey into the Alaska Range, McCunn hired a bush pilot to drop him at a remote lake near the Coleen River, about seventy-five miles northeast of Fort Yukon on the southern margin of the Brooks Range.
A thirty-five-year-old amateur photographer, McCunn told friends that the main reason for the trip was to shoot pictures of wildlife. He flew into the country with five hundred rolls of film, .22- and .30-.30-caliber rifles, a shotgun, and fourteen hundred pounds of provisions. His intention was to remain in the wilderness through August. Somehow, though, he neglected to arrange for the pilot to fly him back to civilization at summer’s end, and it cost McCunn his life.
This astounding oversight wasn’t a great surprise to Mark Stoppel, a young Fairbanks resident who had come to know McCunn well during the nine months they worked on the pipeline together, shortly before the lanky Texan departed for the Brooks Range.
“Carl was a friendly, extremely popular, down-home sort of guy,” Stoppel recalls. “And he seemed like a smart guy. But there was a side to him that was a little bit dreamy, a little bit out of touch with reality. He was flamboyant. He liked to party hard. He could be extremely responsible, but he had a tendency to wing it sometimes, to act impulsively, to get by on bravado and style. No, I guess it really doesn’t surprise me that Carl went out there and forgot to arrange to be picked up. But then I’m not easily shocked. I’ve had several friends who drowned or got murdered or died in weird accidents. In Alaska you get used to strange stuff happening.”
In late August, as the days grew shorter and the air turned sharp and autumnal in the Brooks Range, McCunn began to worry when nobody arrived to fly him out. “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure,” he confessed to his diary, significant portions of which were published posthumously in a five-part story by Kris Capps in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “I’ll soon find out.”
Week by week he could feel the accelerating advance of winter. As his food supply grew meager, McCunn deeply regretted toss-
ing all but a dozen of his shotgun shells into the lake. “I keep thinking of all the shotgun shells I threw away about two months ago,” he wrote. “Had five boxes and when I kept seeing them sitting there I felt rather silly for having brought so many. (Felt like a war monger.) ... real bright. Who would have known I might need them just to keep from starving.”
Then, on a brisk September morning, deliverance seemed to be at hand. McCunn was stalking ducks with what remained of his ammunition when the stillness was rocked by the buzz of an airplane, which soon appeared overhead. The pilot, spotting the camp, circled twice at a low altitude for a closer look. McCunn waved wildly with a fluorescent-orange sleeping-bag cover. The aircraft was equipped with wheels rather than floats and thus couldn’t land, but McCunn was certain he’d been seen and had no doubt the pilot would summon a floatplane to return for him. He was so sure of this he recorded in the journal that “I stopped waving after the first pass. I then got busy packing things up and getting ready to break camp.”
But no airplane arrived that day, or the next day, or the next. Eventually, McCunn looked on the back of his hunting license and understood why. Printed on the little square of paper were drawings of emergency hand signals for communicating with aircraft from the ground. “I recall raising my right hand, shoulder high and shaking my fist on the plane’s second pass,” McCunn wrote. “It was a little cheer—like when your team scored a touchdown or something.” Unfortunately, as he learned too late, raising a single arm is the universally recognized signal for “all OK; assistance not necessary.” The signal for “SOS; send immediate help,” is two upraised arms.
“That’s probably why after they flew somewhat away they returned for one more pass and on that one I gave no signal at all (in fact I may have even turned my back to the plane as it passed),” McCunn mused philosophically. “They probably blew me off as a weirdo.”
By the end of September, snow was piling up on the tundra, and the lake had frozen over. As the provisions he’d brought ran out, McCunn made an effort to gather rose hips and snare rab-bits. At one point he managed to scavenge meat from a diseased caribou that had wandered into the lake and died. By October, however, he had metabolized most of his body fat and was having difficulty staying warm during the long, cold nights. “Certainly someone in town should have figured something must be wrong—me not being back by now,” he noted. But still no plane appeared.
“It would be just like Carl to assume that somebody would magically appear to save him,” says Stoppel. “He was a Teamster—he drove a truck—so he had plenty of downtime on the job, just sitting on his butt inside his rig, daydreaming, which is how he came up with the idea for the Brooks Range trip. It was a serious quest for him: He spent the better part of a year thinking about it, planning it, figuring it out, talking to me during our breaks about what gear to take. But for all the careful planning he did, he also indulged in some wild fantasies.
“For instance,” Stoppel continues, “Carl didn’t want to fly into the bush alone. His big dream, originally, was to go off and live in the woods with some beautiful woman. He was hot for at least a couple of different girls who worked with us, and he spent a lot of time and energy trying to talk Sue or Barbara or whoever into accompanying him—which in itself was pretty much pure fantasyland. There was no way it was going to happen. I mean, at the pipeline camp where we worked, Pump Station 7, there were probably forty guys for every woman. But Carl was a dreamin’ kind of dude, and right up until he flew into the Brooks Range, he kept hoping and hoping and hoping that one of these girls would change her mind and decide to go with him.”
Similarly, Stoppel explains, “Carl was the sort of guy who would have unrealistic expectations that someone would eventually figure out he was in trouble and cover for him. Even as he was on the verge of starving, he probably still imagined that Big Sue was going to fly in at the last minute with a planeload of food and have this wild romance with him. But his fantasy world was so far off the scale that nobody was able to connect with it. Carl just got hungrier and hungrier. By the time he finally understood that nobody was going to come rescue him, he’d shriveled up to the point where it was too late for him to do anything about it.”
As McCunn’s food supply dwindled to almost nothing, he wrote in his journal, “I’m getting more than worried. To be honest, I’m starting to be a bit scared.” The thermometer dipped to minus five degrees Fahrenheit. Painful, pus-filled frostbite blisters formed on his fingers and toes.
In November he finished the last of his rations. He felt weak and dizzy; chills racked his gaunt frame. The diary recorded, “Hands and nose continue to get worse as do feet. Nose tip very swollen, blistered, and scabbed... This is sure a slow and agonizing way to die.” McCunn considered leaving the security of his camp and setting out on foot for Fort Yukon but concluded he wasn’t strong enough, that he would succumb to exhaustion and the cold long before he got there.
“The part of the interior where Carl went is a remote, very blank part of Alaska,” says Stoppel. “It gets colder than hell there in the winter. Some people in his situation could have figured out a way to walk out or maybe winter over, but to do that, you’d have to be extremely resourceful. You’d really need to have your shit together. You’d have to be a tiger, a killer, a fuckin’ animal. And Carl was too laid back. He was a party boy.”
“I can’t go on like this, I’m afraid,” McCunn wrote sometime in late November near the end of his journal, which by now filled one hundred sheets of blue-lined loose-leaf notebook paper. “Dear God in Heaven, please forgive me my weakness and my sins. Please look over my family.” And then he reclined in his wall tent, placed the muzzle of the .30-.30 against his head, and jerked his thumb down on the trigger. Two months later, on February 2, 1982, Alaska State Troopers came across his camp, looked inside the tent, and discovered the emaciated corpse frozen hard as stone.
There are similarities among Rosellini, Waterman, McCunn, and McCandless. Like Rosellini and Waterman, McCandless was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature. Like Waterman and McCunn, he displayed a staggering paucity of common sense. But unlike Waterman, McCandless wasn’t mentally ill. And unlike McCunn, he didn’t go into the bush assuming someone would automatically appear to save his bacon before he came to grief.
McCandless didn’t conform particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype. Although he was rash, untutored in the ways of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn’t incompetent—he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.
Some insight into the tragedy of Chris McCandless can be gained by studying predecessors cut from the same exotic cloth. And in order to do that, one must look beyond Alaska, to the bald-rock canyons of southern Utah. There, in 1934, a peculiar twenty-year-old boy walked into the desert and never came out. His name was Everett Ruess.
[See Map Page 86]
As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities. Do you blame me then for staying here, where I feel that I belong and am one with the world around me? It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty....
Even from your scant description, I know that I could not bear the routine and humdrum of the life that you are forced to lead. I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.
THE LAST LETTER EVER RECEIVED FROM EVERETT RUESS, TO HIS BROTHER, WALDO, DATED NOVEMBER 11, 1934
What Everett Ruess was after was beauty, and he conceived beauty in pretty romantic terms. We might be inclined to laugh at the extravagance of his beauty-worship if there were not something almost magnificent in his single-minded dedication to it. Esthetics as a parlor affectation is ludicrous and sometimes a little obscene; as a way of life it sometimes attains dignity. If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age.
wallace stegner, mormon country
Davis Creek is only a trickle during most of the year and sometimes not even that. Originating at the foot of a high rock battlement known as Fiftymile Point, the stream flows just four miles across the pink sandstone slabs of southern Utah before surrendering its modest waters to Lake Powell, the giant reservoir that stretches one hundred ninety miles above Glen Canyon Dam. Davis Gulch is a small watershed by any measure, but a lovely one, and travelers through this dry, hard country have for centuries relied on the oasis that exists at the bottom of the slotlike defile. Eerie nine-hundred-year-old petroglyphs and pictographs decorate its sheer walls. Crumbling stone dwellings of the long-vanished Kayenta Anasazi, the creators of this rock art, nestle in protective nooks. Ancient Anasazi potsherds mingle in the sand with rusty tin cans discarded by turn-of-the-century stockmen, who grazed and watered their animals in the canyon.
For most of its short length, Davis Gulch exists as a deep, twisting gash in the slickrock, narrow enough in places to spit across, lined by overhanging sandstone walls that bar access to the canyon floor. There is a hidden route into the gulch at its lower end, however. Just upstream from where Davis Creek flows into Lake Powell, a natural ramp zigzags down from the canyons west rim. Not far above the creek bottom the ramp ends, and a crude staircase appears, chiseled into the soft sandstone by Mormon cattlemen nearly a century ago.
The country surrounding Davis Gulch is a desiccated expanse of bald rock and brick-red sand. Vegetation is lean. Shade from the withering sun is virtually nonexistent. To descend into the confines of the canyon, however, is to arrive in another world. Cottonwoods lean gracefully over drifts of flowering prickly pear. Tall grasses sway in the breeze. The ephemeral bloom of a sego lily peeks from the toe of a ninety-foot stone arch, and canyon wrens call back and forth in plaintive tones from a thatch of scrub oak. High above the creek a spring seeps from the cliff face, irrigating a growth of moss and maidenhair fern that hangs from the rock in lush green mats.
Six decades ago in this enchanting hideaway, less than a mile downstream from where the Mormon steps meet the floor of the gulch, twenty-year-old Everett Ruess carved his nom de plume into the canyon wall below a panel of Anasazi pictographs, and he did so again in the doorway of a small masonry structure built by the Anasazi for storing grain. “NEMO 1934,” he scrawled, no doubt moved by the same impulse that compelled Chris McCandless to inscribe “Alexander Supertramp/May 1992” on the wall of the Sushana bus—an impulse not so different, perhaps, from that which inspired the Anasazi to embellish the rock with their own now-indecipherable symbols. In any case, shortly after Ruess carved his mark into the sandstone, he departed Davis Gulch and mysteriously disappeared, apparently by design. An extensive search shed no light on his whereabouts. He was simply gone, swallowed whole by the desert. Sixty years later we still know next to nothing about what became of him.
Everett was born in Oakland, California, in 1914, the younger of two sons raised by Christopher and Stella Ruess. Christopher, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, was a poet, a philosopher, and a Unitarian minister, although he earned his keep as a bureaucrat in the California penal system. Stella was a headstrong woman with bohemian tastes and driving artistic ambitions, for both herself and her kin; she self-published a literary journal, the Ruess Quartette, the cover of which was emblazoned with the family maxim: “Glorify the hour.” A tight-knit bunch, the Ruesses were also a nomadic family, moving from Oakland to Fresno to Los Angeles to Boston to Brooklyn to New Jersey to Indiana before finally settling in southern California when Everett was fourteen.
In Los Angeles, Everett attended the Otis Art School and Hollywood High. As a sixteen-year-old he embarked on his first long solo trip, spending the summer of 1930 hitchhiking and trekking through Yosemite and Big Sur, ultimately winding up in Carmel. Two days after arriving in the latter community, he brazenly knocked on the door of Edward Weston, who was sufficiently charmed by the overwrought young man to humor him. Over the next two months the eminent photographer encouraged the boy’s uneven but promising efforts at painting and block printing, and permitted Ruess to hang around his studio with his own sons, Neil and Cole.
At the end of the summer, Everett returned home only long enough to earn a high school diploma, which he received in January 1931. Less than a month later he was on the road again, tramping alone through the canyon lands of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, then a region nearly as sparsely populated and wrapped in mystique as Alaska is today. Except for a short, unhappy stint at UCLA (he dropped out after a single semester, to his father’s lasting dismay), two extended visits with his parents, and a winter in San Francisco (where he insinuated himself into the company of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and the painter Maynard Dixon), Ruess would spend the remainder of his meteoric life on the move, living out of a backpack on very little money, sleeping in the dirt, cheerfully going hungry for days at a time.
Ruess was, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “a callow romantic, an adolescent esthete, an atavistic wanderer of the wastelands”:
At eighteen, in a dream, he saw himself plodding through jungles, chinning up the ledges of cliffs, wandering through the romantic waste places of the world. No man with any of the juices of boyhood in him has forgotten those dreams. The peculiar thing about Everett Ruess was that he went out and did the things he dreamed about, not simply for a two-weeks’ vacation in the civilized and trimmed wonderlands, but for months and years in the very midst of wonder...
Deliberately he punished his body, strained his endurance, tested his capacity for strenuousness. He took out deliberately over trails that Indians and old timers warned him against. He tackled cliffs that more than once left him dangling halfway between talus and rim... From his camps by the water pockets or the canyons or high on the timbered ridges of Navajo Mountain he wrote long, lush, enthusiastic letters to his family and friends, damning the stereotypes of civilization, chanting his barbaric adolescent yawp into the teeth of the world.
Ruess churned out many such letters, which bore the postmarks of the remote settlements through which he passed: Kayenta, Chinle, Lukachukai; Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde; Escalante, Rainbow Bridge, Canyon de Chelly. Reading this correspondence (collected in W. L. Rusho’s meticulously researched biography, Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty), one is struck by Ruess’s craving for connection with the natural world and by his almost incendiary passion for the country through which he walked. “I had some terrific experiences in the wilderness since I wrote you last—overpowering, overwhelming,” he gushed to his friend Cornel Tengel. “But then I am always being overwhelmed. I require it to sustain life.”
Everett Ruess’s correspondence reveals uncanny parallels between Ruess and Chris McCandless. Here are excerpts from three of Ruess’s letters:
I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness. God, how the trail lures me. You cannot comprehend its resistless fascination for me. After all the lone trail is the best.... I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.
The beauty of this country is becoming part of me. I feel more detached from life and somehow gentler.... I have some good friends here, but no one who really understands why I am here or what I do. I don’t know of anyone, though, who would have more than a partial understanding; I have gone too far alone.
I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly.
In my wanderings this year I have taken more chances and had more wild adventures than ever before. And what magnificent country I have seen—wild, tremendous wasteland stretches, lost mesas, blue mountains rearing upward from the vermilion sands of the desert, canyons five feet wide at the bottom and hundreds of feet deep, cloudbursts roaring down unnamed canyons, and hundreds of houses of the cliff dwellers, abandoned a thousand years ago.
A half century later McCandless sounds eerily like Ruess when he declares in a postcard to Wayne Westerberg that “I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up.” And echoes of Ruess can be heard, as well, in McCandless’s last letter to Ronald Franz (see pages 56-58).
Ruess was just as romantic as McCandless, if not more so, and equally heedless of personal safety. Clayborn Lockett, an archaeologist who briefly employed Ruess as a cook while excavating an Anasazi cliff dwelling in 1934, told Rusho that “he was appalled by the seemingly reckless manner in which Everett moved around dangerous cliffs.”
Indeed, Ruess himself boasts in one of his letters, “Hundreds of times I have trusted my life to crumbling sandstone and nearly vertical edges in the search for water or cliff dwellings. Twice I was nearly gored to death by a wild bull. But always, so far, I’ve escaped unscathed and gone forth to other adventures.” And in his final letter Ruess nonchalantly confesses to his brother:
/ have had a few narrow escapes from rattlers and crumbling cliffs. The last misadventure occurred when Chocolatero [his burro] stirred up some wild bees. A few more stings might have been too much for me. I was three or four days getting my eyes open and recovering the use of my hands.