April 21, 2009
I didn’t get the memo! How else can I explain the fact that Everett Ruess came to Park City and hung out on Park Avenue for about a month and I didn’t have a clue? Of course it wasn’t Everett himself, but examples of his artistic sensibility. For almost 75 years now, that’s about as close as one gets to the real deal.
I can’t really explain the collective obsession over the 20-year old vagabond and the mythology surrounding him. A sense of leaving it all behind and wandering in the wilderness might be part of it, especially his years poking around our rapturous red-rock country.
The mystery surrounding his disappearance from the Escalante canyons in November of 1934 has provoked a bit of bizarre behavior on my part over the years. Not the least of which is the visiting and revisiting of the various sites in his legendary creation myth, including those of a more urban nature.
Like the house on Polk Street in San Francisco where he moved in with painter Maynard Dixon and his wife, the famed photographer Dorothea Lange. Or Edward Weston’s studio in Carmel where the brash youngster burst in on the celebrated shutterbug uninvited while he performed his darkroom voodoo.
His coming together with photographer Ansel Adams took place in a very small window during that summer of 1933 when Adams operated a studio gallery in San Francisco down on Geary Street. It didn’t take me much more than a couple of days to locate and begin haunting that premises.
There were also obsessive trips to the Sierras, especially Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, Morro Bay, Tomales Bay and Point Reyes, and wherever else I could chase down an Everett Ruess rumor.
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It’s like stalking, only after the fact. Like tracking down his aura with only legend to go on. "All right, Everett, we know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up and, if you don’t mind, filled with your watercolor brushes, sketch book, and journals."
The fortunate thing is that about the same time I discovered that a traveling exhibit featuring a selection of his block prints had inhabited space at the Park City Library from mid-January to mid-February, I learned they were spending the month of April at the Wasatch County Library over here in Heber.
If it weren’t for the fact that he cut his block prints from linoleum by using sketches of the scene for reference after he returned home from his various jaunts, one could surmise they performed a similar function to postcards. But alas, they became nothing more than art. Highly collectible art, as it were.
The first time I spent any time with the prints, they were displayed upstairs at the Masonic Temple down in Salt Lake as part of a Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance fundraiser. There was a screening of the then new Diane Orr docudrama film about Everett called "Lost Forever," and, for good measure, they also had Ed Abbey’s old pickup parked in the front yard.
A couple of friends informed me that Larry McGowan, the same dude who ran the Buffalo Grill and Crazy Horse Saloon on Park City’s Main Street back during those wild and zany 1970s, had a complete set on the wall of his restaurant, Flannigan’s, down in Springdale. So, of course, I had to follow up on that. They’ve also shown up semi-regularly at Ken Sanders Rare Books.
And now there is this new traveling exhibit over at the Heber library. Some of these prints are visually precise, as if taken from a photo. Others are much more "modern" with impressionistic takes on the landscape.
Now, if he had come out of Davis Gulch back in 1934 with his journals and sketchbook intact, we would probably have block prints of the Escalante Canyons to go with the rest. But no such luck. He left his burros, Cockleburrs and Chocolate, in a makeshift corral and up and went missing. Nearly 20 years back, Everett’s aura and I shared a glass of adolescent Scotch whisky in that very same corral.
Had he not disappeared, there would be no myth to attract us to his — or for that matter, our — magnificent obsessions. Our red-rock country is covered with shadows of his footprints and they continually draw us back to Keet Seel, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon del Muerto (where his beloved horse Jonathan up and died). And, of course, Davis Gulch, ground zero for all Everett mythology.
As mentioned, the prints will be on display at the Wasatch County Library until April 30. Then they move over to Trailside Elementary School in Park City until the end of May. The exhibit also includes a fine portrait of young Everett taken by Dorothea Lange and a couple of examples of the linoleum blocks themselves.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.