Monday, April 27, 2009

Ruess and Rimbaud. Vagabonds for Beauty.

If you know and love the Red Rock Canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona, you're like me in always remembering that one of its unsung heroes is 21 year old Everett Ruess, lost on a quest for beauty and adventure since November 11, 1934.   
Walking south out of Escalante, Utah, Ruess wandered down the Hole in the Rock Trail towards what is today's Lake Powell.  And was never heard from again.  
Until noted author David Roberts, writing in National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, revealed a brand new tale on an old mystery. 
  In November 1934, Ruess sent a last letter from Escalante, Utah to his brother Waldo in California. It read. "It may be a month or two before I have a post office, for I am exploring southward to the Colorado, where no one lives."
Four months later a search party was mounted after Ruess' parents received their letters they had sent Ruess. All were unclaimed.  The 1935 Searchers found a brush corral with two burros, a bridle, halter and rope. It was presumed that Ruess walked south down Davis Gulch.  Oddly, the searchers didn't find his painter's tools or his journal that he kept religiously. 
Over the past 70 years, hundreds of Ruess devotees have tried to find Everett's remains, his memory, his essence, tramping across the red rock wilderness, touching beauty and the adventure that Ruess' life symbolized to many. Songs have been written, Ruess featured strongly in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.  Every September, there's an Escalante, Utah Arts festival which features as its logo Ruess' wood block engraving of himself with two burros.  The documentary film "Lost Forever" assumes that Ruess will never be found. 
While other desert fugitives, like The Big Bend's Burro Lady and Thong Man, have come and gone, Ruess lives on in many people's day dreams.  Like Arthur Rimbaud, the French surrealist boy-poet whose Season in Hell is on the list for any passionate wanderer, Ruess'  posthumous On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess has become a major book in the quest for beauty.
Although decades and worlds apart, Everett Ruess and Arthur Rimbaud resonate with us because they were so young when they did their best work. Both were poets who became seers or seekers by undergoing an inordinately intense existence.
Before they were both 21, they each wrote some of the finest poetry and prose of their time.  Ruess in the Utah desert of the Dine.  Rimbaud in the avant garde, Libertine Paris of the early 1870's.  
Rimbaud wrote his best known works, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat while still in his late teens, similar to Everett Ruess' meticulously kept notebooks filled with letters to his parents and brother and watercolors of the canyons he traveled through.  
Victor Hugo described Rimbaud as "an infant Shakespeare".  His words still resound from the pages of a poem like A Song from the Highest Tower, 
"O my eternal soul
Hold fast to desire
In spite of the night
And the day on Fire."
Ruess is a seeker of beauty in the West.  But part of him reminds me of Rimbaud. He even changed his name to the French "Lan Rameau" for part of his short life. His other nom de plume was NEMO, in a tribute to Jules Verne or to the Latin translation, "no man." 
In Everett Ruess Wilderness Journals published in 1990, we find
"Say that I starved, that I was lost and weary.
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun.
Footsore, thirsty sick with strange diseases; 
Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept the dream."
Unlike Ruess, Rimbaud managed to live through a haze of hashish and absinthe until the ripe old age of 37, but like the Vagabond for Beauty, Rimbaud remained a prolific letter-writer all his life. Rimbaud as a restless soul, travelled and wrote extensively on three continents before his premature death from cancer less than a month after his 37th birthday. 
What both searched for was beauty. Both thought of beauty in ideally romantic terms. Both were obsessed with the single-mindedness of the pursuit. 
Which brings us around to those who follow Everett Ruess today. 
Just this past year, explorers and Dine found a European body. And it's been found not far from Utah's sandstone spine, the Comb Ridge.  
Ruess once wrote, "And when it comes time to die, I'll find the wildest loneliest, most desolate spot there is."  
It could be that he did. The original witness to this desert mayhem is an elderly Navajo man who as his grandson tells the story was sitting on Utah's Comb Ridge looking down into the depths of Chinle Wash.  Splendidly isolated country back then and it still is today. What the elderly Navajo man saw is the beginning of the full circle of the Everett Ruess mystery.  
The old Navajo witnessed a young man with two burros ride up and down the wash and then get attacked by Ute Indians.  Knocking him off his mule and taking his mules and pack, the Utes rode off leaving him in the Wash to die. 
The young man was buried in a crevice in Comb Ridge, only to be found in 2008 by Denny Bellson, the elderly Navajo's grandson.  The news of a European skeleton and skull traveled like a dust-devil throughout the small group of Ruess seekers who continue to be fascinated by the body on Navajo lands. 
Many think it might be Ruess. 
Certainly, David Roberts and the National Geographic Adventure team do. 
Others like reporter, Paul Foy, question how Ruess could have crossed the Colorado 
River with two fully-laden burros. 
DNA samples have been sent to Ruess' nephews and nieces. And with the help of forensic anthropologists at University of Colorado, many feel the mystery has been resolved. 
Or maybe the mystery remains if you're like me and don't want Nemo found. Lan Rameau will always continue to be part of the beauty of the desert Southwest. His soul, story and passion will inspire, color and enchant wanderers yet to come. 
Whether he found the beauty he was looking for is undisputed. What his last thoughts were as he walked into the desert, we can glimpse.  Ruess was living the Navajo Beauty chant, " In Beauty I walk, with beauty before me. In Beauty I walk with beauty behind me. In beauty I walk. It is done."  
The Vagabond for Beauty has spoken from the wilderness. "When I go, I leave no trace."  Except maybe he did. 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Death Valley Daze

I always liked Death Valley Days.  My father used to listen to it on radio before it ever came on TV.  I thought the 20 Mule Team Borax ads were great even though I didn't know what the laundry additive Borateem actually did.  Mostly though I liked seeing the land that was Death Valley and the plots of authentic stories of the American West.  The Old Ranger, Stanley Andrews was one of my early 60's TV favorites. You had to love his authentic, gruff personality; too bad he got replaced by Ronnie Reagan in 1965. That year also saw the writing become flimsier and not as authentic as the original episodes, of which there were 558, maybe the most successful syndicated Western on TV.  Other hosts included Australian actor Robert Taylor and Dale Robertson along with narration by none other than Country fiddler Merle Haggard.  Perhaps the most haunting part of DV Days was the memorable theme music and of course the scenery in the lowest and hottest place in the Lower 48.  I thought about all this as I climbed the Stovepipe Wells Sand dunes, used as a location Star Wars for the tiny jawas on the planet Tattoine. I also wondered if we'd see any sidewinders, always my favorite snake ever since Walt Disney's Death Valley desert movies.  No sidewinders but plenty of kit fox, coyote, kangaroo rat and chuckwalla lizard tracks.   Mostly, I thought about Peter O'Toole pointing towards "Aqaba," as he pushed through the desert trying to beat Anthony Quayle and the British regiment to the port city on the Gulf of Aqaba.   The lowest place in the lower Forty Eight at 282 feet below sea level, with a two mile vertical rise to Telescope Peak towering over the Badlands Salt Flats at 11,049.   Records told the tale of summer scorchers when the temperatures were 120 F plus while on top of Telescope Peak it was 50 or 60 degrees cooler.  Talk about extremes. Extremes are the appeal of Death Valley. That and millions of wildflowers, jumbles of green, orange and gold rocks, snowy summits over the valley and evening silence under moonrise. With the addition of 1.3 million acres in 1994, DV became the biggest national park in the lower Forty Eight.  
Ten years ago we drove through the newly added portion on the road from Big Pine, California into the northwest portion of Death Valley,  following a paved road that turned to cracked tarmac, gravel, washed out gullies and finally a barely driveable track with huge holes that a car could easily disappear in. By the time we got to Crankshaft junction, we'd passed the Eureka Dunes and the 4 WD road to The Racetrack and Grandstand, where rocks skid across the desert playa at random.  Six hours later, we rolled into the Grapevine Hills near Scotty's Castle, only to drive through a barricade with a sign facing the opposite direction.  We turned to look at it as we hit the main Death Valley Road. The sign said
 "Road closed."
 Then there's the hike up Ubehebe Crater and Little Hebe Crater, a volcanic explosion that occurred only 2000 years ago, but today is covered with black cinders and ashes which become home to thousands of Golden Poppies in the spring.  The explosion crater is half a mile wide and 700 feet deep.  There was a Land Rover with French plates in the parking lot when we returned from hiking. Their map emblazoned on the side of the Land indicated that they had driven around the world and were on their last leg before returning to France.  Their motto, "Jamais sans mon Land."  It seemed to fit. We hoped that they would drive it on the 27 mile tortuous excuse for a road to The Racetrack, knowing that all the drivers who had done the trip had taken two extra tires in case their originals were chewed to shreds. 
Wildflowers in the desert never fail to impress. Beavertail cactus with raspberry blossoms, Panamint daisies, Death Valley sunflowers, evening primrose, Death Valley milkvetch, Joshua trees, Spanish daggers, even the creosote bushes burst into yellow. 
The extremes also include the endangered Pup Fish.  There are only a few thousand left, relics of the Ice Age when the climate was wetter. Now found in Devil's Hole, a 500 foot deep cave where divers were going under to complete the second of three Pup Fish counts. We watched in awe as twelve biologists slipped into the 94 F degree water to disappear in the hole and count this 2.7 cm fish.  Salt Creek Pup Fish are more visible from a boardwalk through the Pickleweed in the salt pan. 
You think about a lot of thing while you're wandering the dunes in the desert sun, besides water, I couldn't quit humming Townes Van Zandt's Pancho & Lefty and the old Tehachapi to Tonopah lines of Commander Cody's Weed, Whites and Wine. I suppose because both towns are near and the lyrics work with all the mountains and gulches named for death and the Devil.  The Funeral Mountains, The Devil's Golf Course, The Devil's Cornfield, Coffin Peak, and the most ironic Dante's View ----of Purgatory or Paradise? 

Monday, March 30, 2009

KOKE FM DJ's Playlists

Legendary Austin Radio Station KOKE FM had a diverse set of dj's from 1975 until its demise in August 1977.  Kicking off the 6 AM to 10 slot was Marty Manning. Ole Blue Eyes, Joe Gracey followed from 10 to 2PM. The hot tomato, little Kandy Kicker slid into the control room chair for afternoon drive. Steve Jaxon,  continued revving the energy from 5 to 9. Skip Ducharme came roaring in at 9 PM and Dr. Dinger, The Good Doctor handled the turntables from midnight til 6AM.  Weekends saw two of the most eclectic dj's Austin had ever heard on the airwaves, Nick "The Perfesser", Spitzer and Joe Nick Patoski, writing then for Rolling Stone and Pickin Up the Tempo.  We're taking the time to lay out their favorite KOKE FM sets in these upcoming blogs.  Here's the Good Doctor's  1) Dylan If Dogs Run Free  2) John Lee Hooker Lights Out 3) Bob Marley Rebel Music 4) Little Feat  Rock & Roll Doctor 5) Memphis Minnie Me & My Chauffeur Blues 6) Bonnie Raitt's Sweet & Shiny Eyes  7) Sir Douglas Quintet She's About a Mover  8) Captain Beefheart Electricity  9) Alvin Crow Nyquil Blues 10) Peter Tosh Steppin Razor  11) Sonny Terry and Brownie Mc Gee Whoopin & Wailin. 
The Good Doctor is editing an audio version of his KOKE FM all time favorite set. Watch and listen for it next week.  Meantime, Send Ole Blue Eyes a cerveza or two. Kandy

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Negro Bill Canyon

Deep in the heart of red rock country Negro Bill Canyon runs up the Navajo Sandstone. A spectacular canyon with more desert varnish than an artist could paint, Negro Bill is named for mulatto rancher, herder and settler, William Granstaff. Hiking up canyon, we followed a clear stream crossing the water five or six times until we came to the junction of Negro Bill and Morning Glory Bridge box canyon. Up over the sandstone and into the box we move ending up face to face with the 6th biggest natural bridge in the U.S. High above, climbers are rappelling down the 250 foot precipice from Porcupine Rim mountain bike trail. We're in shadow looking up through the slim bit of blue sky through the bridge. Everett Ruess could have wandered through here in 1932. Edward Abbey did in 1965. It's a sanctuary on weekdays, but lots of hikers on spring weekends. 

Four Corners Locations and KOKE FM

Bienvenidos. Welcome. Y'all come visit.