November 4, 2011
The artist and adventurer Everett Ruess was 20 years old when he vanished into wild and lonely Davis Gulch, a drainage of the Escalante River in southern Utah. He’d been tramping alone for 8 months across some of the roughest, most isolated country in the nation with burros to carry his gear and the odd volume of Emerson. Occasionally he stopped in settlements like dusty little Escalante to pick up mail from his parents. Two sheep herders reported meeting him on the slick rock tableland outside town on Nov. 21, 1934. Then nothing.
The woodblock prints and writing he left behind, collected in W.L. Rusho‘s 1983 Edward Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty, still captivate wilderness lovers. But it’s the mystery of his disappearance that has made him a cult hero among backpackers, climbers, canyoneers and other desert rats. Did he fall from a cliff while looking for arrowheads? Could he have committed suicide or been murdered by cattle rustlers? Or, drawn as he was to the blank spaces on the map, did he engineer his own disappearance, intentionally leaving family, friends and civilization behind?
His strange story—part cautionary tale, part siren song—has been told many times by Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and other writers. Jon Krakauer found similarities between Ruess and Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. This year a new book, Finding Everett Ruess, by David Roberts, adds another chapter to the Ruess riddle.
The book landed at the top of my reading list not because I’m a fan; to my mind Ruess’s evocations of the desert Southwest lack cultural and historical perspective. But I have been to Davis Gulch, now part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and there’s nothing lacking about that. Hiking in from its confluence with the Escalante was an unforgettable experience, not to be repeated anytime soon because access is dictated by the water level on Lake Powell, which has risen since then, backing up into tributaries like Davis Gulch.
But a drought that peaked in 2005 made it possible for my brother John, backcountry ranger Bill Wolverton and me to explore the gulch, starting in flats of quick sand at its mouth. Farther up the canyon we saw 75 foot high La Gorce Arch and squeezed through a subway where the canyon walls narrow before leaving Davis by the livestock trail at its head, presumably the route Ruess took down.
Roberts went the same way to research a 1999 article for National Geographic Adventure that revisited the mystery, uncovering new hints about the possible murder of Ruess by Escalante locals.
But 10 years later the writer heard of a skeleton buried in a crack along Comb Ridge some 50 miles east of Davis Gulch in the Navajo Reservation. Tests on a DNA sample suggested that the remains were those of Everett Ruess, causing Roberts and fellow investigators to re-imagine the wanderer’s last steps, hypothesizing that he must have left Davis Gulch, crossed the Colorado River to die in the isolated northern part of the Navajo Reservation. But the findings, published in National Geographic Adventure, had to be retracted when a state-of-the-art U.S. military lab determined that the Comb Ridge bones were not those of Everett Ruess.
Roberts tells the whole story of the misidentification of the Comb Ridge remains, an interesting twist in the Everett Ruess saga. But in the end we’re left no wiser, still hearing only faint whispers of the vagabond of Ruess’ poem “Wilderness Song:”
November 1, 2011
Reading murder mysteries used to be one of my guiltiest pleasures, pure entertainment for the couch potato. But then I discovered a multitude of crime novels set in Italy and realized they could be useful to the traveler. While on the trail of bad guys, mystery writers recount history and politics in an amusing way, set the mood of a place and sometimes even offer specific tips for tourists willing to track them down.
Take Rat King, Cosi Fan Tutti and nine other mysteries by the late Michael Dibdin, set all over Italy, featuring the suave, sharp, but emotionally adolescent investigator Aurelio Zen, recently played by Rufus Sewell in a BBC Masterpiece Theater. One of the books takes Zen out to lunch at a little pork restaurant near his office on Rome’s Viminale Hill. As it turns out, Er Buchetto (which means pork in an old Roman dialect) is still there, a cubbyhole dispensing slices of succulent roast pork from a carcass by the front door, served on wax paper, by weight. Accompanied by crusty rolls and excellent jug wine, it’s as cheap and tasty a meal as you’re likely to find around the historic center.
The mysteries of Donna Leon, an American academic who lives in Venice, feature Commissioner Guido Brunetti, a plain, old-fashioned good guy who helps his kids with their homework and goes home for lunch when the crime scene in La Serenissima allows. Every time I go to Venice I end up in some lonely cul-de-sac by a canal that I recognize from a Leon mystery. She’s on her 21st, Beastly Things, now.
Western Sicily is the territory of Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, so richly-rendered in 16 books (and an Italian TV series based on them) that tourism has spiked in Port Empedocle, the model for the mysteries’ fictitious town of Vigata near the island’s southwest coast. Camilleri’s gumshoe Salvo Montalbano has a taste for blondes and Sicilian food; ordering the local specialties he eats in the books won’t leave any gourmand disappointed.
Finally, there’s a mystery set in Tuscany by the late Sir John Mortimer who gave us the inimitable Rumpole of the Bailey. Summer’s Lease, published in 1988, is about an English woman who drags her family to a rented villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany (so popular with people from the U.K. that it’s nicknamed Chiantishire) where she noses into the absent owner’s secrets.
The book, made into a BBC Masterpiece Theater feature in 1991 starring Sir John Gielgud, is a little piece of fluff. But the story begins with a terrific piece of travel advice in the form of an itinerary:
The work of Piero della Francesca can be followed from the frescoes in Arezzo to the pregnant Madonna in the small chapel at Monterchi. Enthusiasts can take the trail to Sansepolcro and on, across the Mountains of the Moon, to see the sublime Flagellation in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world.
Based on nothing more than that, I followed the trail last spring and ended up grateful to Mortimer for leading me to its enchantments, especially Piero’s riveting Resurrection in the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro.