Author sees self in book about Everett Ruess, mysterious wanderer who vanished in southern Utah

Published: Sunday, Sept. 25 2011 5:56 p.m. MDT

Book covers of Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Fradkin who was speaking about his latest book about the life of Everett Ruess, a young explorer and artist who disappeared in the canyons of Southern Utah in the 1930s at the Marriott Library and the University of Utah Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Who was Everett Ruess and what happened to him?

Author Philip L. Fradkin explores those questions in his new book, "Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death and Astonishing Afterlife."

In addition to talking about Ruess, Fradkin discussed his own life during the Books & Authors lecture Sunday at the University of Utah Marriott Library. A Pullitzer Prize winner in 1965 for his coverage of the Watts riots, he has written a dozen books about the American West.

In his latest work, he explores the life of Ruess, a teenage artist, writer and poet who wandered the High Sierras, California coast and the southwestern desert in the 1930s. He vanished in 1934 at age 20 in an area called Davis Gulch near Escalante in southern Utah.

"He didn't have enough time to become his own self, whatever that would have been," Fradkin said.

Instead of searching for the mythical Ruess, he said he tried to find the real one or as close as he could get.

"I don’t view him as a western (Henry David) Thoreau or a younger (John) Muir, as some do," he said "Everett described places beautifully, but he thought primarily about himself, which is understandable given his age."

Ruess left home at age 16. Fradkin described him as not different than many teenagers who experience loneliness and confusion.

"Everett had no social conscience. He was a teenager. He traveled the West on the monthly stipends his father sent him," Fradkin said.

As for one of the mysteries in the book, he said he has no idea what happened to Ruess.

Fradkin said there is a lot of personal investment in the book because he and Ruess have some things in common.

They both were raised in the Unitarian Church which encourages independent thinking, had progressive parents who believed in letting children find their own way and explored the West.

"The Ruess book took me back in some ways to my youth," he said. "He is a youth in a sense like we all were."

Born and educated in New Jersey, Fradkin headed West after a stint in the Army because of the "opportunity, excitement and dram of the landscapes out here." He covered the environment for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s, once being removed from the beat by his editors because "I liked the environment too much."

Fradkin started writing books about the environment and history instead, including topics such as water conservation, earthquakes and nuclear weapons. He said he has spent a great deal of his writing life in Utah.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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