Letting Go of Heroes

by Lane Wallace on July 10, 2009

There’s a fascinating controversy going on over at National Geographic Adventure magazine, related to a story they ran a couple of months ago about Everett Ruess—who was something of a wilderness-adventure equivalent of Amelia Earhart. Ruess was a 20-year-old wanderer, dreamer and poet who left conventional civilization to find beauty and solitude in the wilderness of the American Southwest … and in 1934, disappeared without a trace.

Over the years, Ruess, and the mystery of his disappearance, has developed a cult following very much like the one that is still hunting down hypothetical alternate endings for Amelia Earhart. He’s also become something of a folk hero. Seven books and two documentaries have been devoted to his story and the mystery of his disappearance, and there’s even an annual arts festival named for him in Escalante, Utah. For many people, he’s become an iconic, almost mythical, hero—the young man who eschewed the trappings of manufactured comfort for something more pure, more adventurous, and more true. And whose escape was so successful that we’ve never been able to find him.

This past year, however, a story emerged from a Navajo family near Escalante … a story of how their grandfather witnessed the murder of  a young “Anglo” man on a burro by Utes in 1934, and then hastily buried the man’s body, lest it be found and the murder blamed on Navajos in the area. The gravesite was located, reconstruction of the bones gave additional detail indicating the skeleton was, in fact, a Caucasian man, about 20 years old, and about 5′8″—the same size as Ruess. Further DNA tests were performed that showed an appropriate level of match with Ruess’s nephews and nieces (less perfect than a closer relative could have provided, but still 1/4 match, as should have been the case).

There were still questions about the story that remained unanswered, but from all the evidence, it seemed very clear that the 75-year-old mystery had been solved. Everett Ruess had been found. Case closed.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Utah’s state archeologist, who hasn’t actually seen any of the artifacts, has publicly cast doubt on those findings. And both the Ruess family, who do not doubt the findings, and David Roberts, the National Geographic writer and editor who researched the story for 10 years and wrote the piece concluding that Ruess had been found, have been inundated with angry emails and letters from people absolutely certain that Roberts and the Ruess family are, collectively, perpetrating a hoax. Ruess has not been found. Cannot have been found. The DNA is wrong. (Full disclosure: David Roberts is a friend of mine. But he’s also a journalist and writer who possesses, in my opinion, the highest level of professionalism and integrity.)

In part to quell the critics, the family is having additional DNA tests performed. But what fascinates me is the strength of popular resistance to the idea that the folk hero Ruess might have died an everyday victim’s death, almost as soon as he set off into the wilderness. “We all want our heroes to succeed,” Ruess’ nephew Brian said by way of explanation for the uproar, in a recent New York Times article on the controversy.

Ruess had become larger than life, in many people’s eyes; a hero in the fairytale sense of the word. Undiscovered, he could have been, like many children’s fantasies of absent parents, a king, a prince, and a wildly successful adventurer. The tragic movie “Radio Flyer” comes to mind. In that movie, a brother invents a heartbreaking fantasy about his little brother, convincing himself that his younger sibling wasn’t killed by an abusive step-parent, as was actually the case, but lived to escape and become an adventuring distant airline pilot. The older brother, played by Tom Hanks, would likely have had a complete breakdown if confronted with the young skeleton of his brother not far from the family’s home. The Hanks character’s need for denial was the most heart-wrenching aspect of the entire movie, one that only sunk in after the credits rolled and the truth became clear.

Despite all the teams who’ve gone in search of them, perhaps many of those who have invested their own dreams of success and escape into figures like Amelia Earhart and Everett Ruess really don’t want them found. Why? Because the dreams are so much better than any real story, and represent the happiness of possibility, instead of the very real risk of failure that any heroic or adventurous quest entails.

But that, to me, is why Everett Ruess represents a true epic hero, even or especially given his probable demise. He risked his life, and apparently gave up his life, in pursuit of a passion and a dream. That the risks overwhelmed him early on does not diminish what he attempted, or even represents. To know that risks exist … which Ruess apparently did … and set out anyway is a tremendously brave thing to do. One doesn’t have to reach the castle and defeat the Death Star in order for the quest to have been a heroic one. To die for a dream is the ultimate romantic sacrifice. Even if the death itself is not romantic.

We have a bad habit of glorifying everyday humans into something that serves our own needs far more than it represents the truth of who and what they were. And we do so not only at our own peril, but often at a cost to those we glorify. To many of his followers, the finding of Everett Ruess is a terrible let-down. To his family, it’s a gratifying, if difficult, answer that allows them a chance to grieve, and a healing sense of closure.

Hero tales and mystery stories are wonderful and tantalizing canvases, especially if they’re sketchy enough that we can imagine the missing details however we like. And we may find ourselves a bit disappointed if the picture turns out to be other than what we imagined or wished. But we do the adventurers and explorers of the world a grave disservice if we can’t adjust our sights to respect and remember them for the human truth of who they were, and how their journey ended. Even if it ended too soon.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Linda Breitag 08.17.09 at 9:58 am

This is a really lovely piece. Thank you.

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