I sit here, nice and warm in my house on this frigid winter evening, surrounded by all the conveniences that modern life (well, and my budget) can provide, and think about those who have chosen to live closer to the edge.
Yesterday I finished reading Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer by David Roberts. I chose this book as being one of the only remotely interesting titles available for loan on my Kindle via Library on the Go, and it turned out to be a very good choice indeed, keeping me glued to the page (errr, screen) all day yesterday.
Ruess was a twenty-year old creative misfit who was drawn to the remote wilderness of the American southwest, where he roamed around Navajo reservations, cattle ranches, and relatively unexplored gulches and gullies for several years, until he disappeared in 1934. He left behind a voluminous correspondence with friends and family, a couple of journals, and his sketches and paintings. Though theories abound, to this day, no one knows for certain what happened to him.
Ruess was a frustrating study of opposites: a rugged loner who frequently wrote home to request money and supplies; an artist and writer who preferred his solitary rambles to formal study or life in a city where he could have pursued his art; a person both fascinated by the native Americans he met, and harshly judgmental of them; someone who craved a soul mate, and yet didn't even seem able to form close bonds with his animals (actually, I cringed at the way he treated animals at times).
Who was Everett Ruess? Unlike many (he apparently has quite a following), I was not particularly moved by the quotes from his letters and journals. Despite a certain exuberance and honesty, his work seems callow and self-important, not surprising for someone who disappeared at age twenty. Likewise, his personality often seemed tainted with the arrogance of youth--his expectation that his parents, though struggling to make ends meet during the Depression, had nothing better to do than to send him books, money and his favorite foods; his thoughtless disregard of Native American customs, etc. The risks he took make it no surprise that his travels ended prematurely.
But I can't hold these against him. He was just so young. If I think back to myself at the age he was when he wandered (between sixteen and twenty), I can find a lot that is cringe-worthy there as well. I would really hate for my opinions and writings at age twenty to be my defining moments, and I think that given time and experience, Ruess would have developed into a remarkable talent.
As it is, I was moved by the descriptions of his responses to classical music, and his feeling of being a "freak" who did not fit in except for in the wilderness. His sense of internal discord was such that he adopted a series of "bush names": Lan Rameau, Evert Rulan, and most enigmatic of all, the word "Nemo" that he inscribed several times on the rocks just before he disappeared.
His journals and letters hint at mood swings and an uncertainty of self to the extent that some have tried to make a case, decades after the fact, that he must have been bipolar and/or homosexual; but to me, none of the quotes in the book seemed indicative of either. He was moody and vulnerable to impressions, alternating between self-castigation and a soaring grandiosity. He was still a work in progress. Isn't that just another way of saying he was highly emotional, sensitive, and above all, young?
What is most appealing about him was his deep connection to the landscapes of the Southwest, and the way he felt at home out in the wilderness as he never could in a city. In his writings and prints and drawings, he articulated that the best he could. And he had enough courage to pursue his conviction, despite parental pressure, a society at odds with his vision, and even bouts of ill health. For that, I envy him. Right now, as a middle-aged woman who has always dreamed of that freedom and never had the courage to pursue it, I admire what he did, even if he never returned.
Of course, there have always been wanderers and explorers and misfits, and quite a lot of them have lived to tell the tale after the fact. (Wild by Cheryl Strayed is an account of a wilderness ramble by someone who did live to be older and wiser.) Indeed, this little niche of literature -- travel/adventure/recklessness -- is one of my favorites.
It's a different kind of exploring, but God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant is another travel account which I have recently enjoyed.
The prologue begins with one of the episodes described on the back of the book, with "cocaine-fueled Mexican hillbillies hunt[ing] him through the woods all night, bent on killing him for sport."
The next couple of chapters revealed how he came to be in a position to place himself in that sort of danger. Recently divorced, easily bored, and dissatisfied with "normal" life -- expressing, for example, a distaste for shopping and television -- the author found himself fascinated by the mystique of the mountains. The fact that people warned him that such a trip was so dangerous that he would be crazy to undertake it didn't faze him a bit.
For one thing, people had been warning him about various ventures for ages. For example, his penchant for hitch-hiking or picking up hitch-hikers:
Americans kept telling me I was crazy, that I didn't understand their countrymen, that psychopaths would feast on my liver and use my scrotum for a tobacco pouch, but nothing bad happened. I grew bolder and more curious and started venturing into poor black neighborhoods and poor white trailer parks, biker bars, cowboy bars, American Indian bars full of alcoholics, and I was robbed once and beaten up twice, but not badly. I kept going back to the places that people warned me against because there were wilder times and better storytellers there, and because I wanted to know what it was like to live in a culture so different from my own and see the world from such a different point of view.Joe Brown, an Arizona writer who had extensively traveled and lived in the area, also cautioned Grant against the trip, but finally told him that if he was set on it, to learn Spanish and learn to ride a horse. After some lessons in each, Grant took off for Mexico.
Most of the book supports his prior experience that the world really isn't all that bad. He hangs out with some Mormons, ranchers and even goes on a hunt for long-buried gold. The people he meets seem to be genuinely kind, or at worst just normal people, no better or worse than the rest of us. He even goes hiking to the base of a canyon alone, and mentions (all too briefly!) that the birding would be great there, although the glorious Imperial Woodpecker (an even larger version of the "Lord God Bird" ivory billed) has gone extinct.
But here is where Grant and I differ. Unlike Ruess' soaring epiphanies in the face of nature, Grant seems to indulge over-much in what the French might call nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud), or the predilection for getting sh!t-faced with the bad element in the towns he visited. Hey, I like a nice, cold Mexican beer as much as the next person, but nothing on God's green earth would induce me to get drunk and snort cocaine with corrupt policemen, or get totally wasted with complete strangers during a drunken festival, or any of the other complete lapses of judgment that the author engages in.
Some negative reviews I skimmed on Amazon pointed out that he went looking for criminals and lawlessness, so of course that's what he found. I think there is some truth to that criticism. For example, if I had been on a similar journey, I would have sought out ornithologists, botanists, ecotourism guides, etc., and probably had a much different experience than Grant's. Not more honest or realistic, of course, but different. And one of the "gringos" that he noticed sitting peacefully in an Internet cafe, oblivious to the drug activity all around the town, would be yet another perspective. Put everyone's perspective together and you might start to get at the truth.
Which means to say, that although I don't doubt the honesty of any of his experiences, I wouldn't consider them typical, necessarily. I have never been to Mexico, let alone the Sierra Madre, although I have always wanted to visit, and this book did not make me change my mind a bit. I would happily go to the worst place he visited, even after reading this... for one thing, between his booziness and extrovert personality, Grant seemed completely disconnected from his intuition. The hunted by hillbillies scene, for example, could easily have been avoided if he'd paid attention to his internal warning system and turned around at once. (He did say that something seemed wrong about the situation...and yet he stuck around!!)
These two books, and the two adventures they describe, are quite different on the face of it. But on another level, they are both tales of living one's life as one wishes, in defiance of convention and, perhaps, even common sense. There are worse things in life than taking risks. One of those things would be to never risk anything at all.
The journey I would take, if I were brave enough, wouldn't be exactly like either Ruess' or Grant's...but in the meantime, while I work up my courage, I very much enjoyed traveling vicariously with both of them.