The Tragedy of the Romantic


Everett Ruess was an explorer at heart and then by profession. In 1931, burning with ambition, he left for an epic adventure in his late teens, routing through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, fuelled with the words and wisdom of the romantics. In 1934, he went missing. His cause of death unknown but there are many speculations.

Christopher John McCandless, perhaps better known by Emile Hirsch’s portrayal of him in Into the Wild (2007), suffered a similar fate. After making it to his favoured destination, Alaska, to ‘live off the land for a while’ (as he put it), he stayed in an abandoned bus.

It’s believed McCandless met his fate after eating some poisonous berries/roots, which led to him dying of starvation. McCandless was inspired greatly by literature, in particular, Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. These writers and McCandless’ radical ideology sent him onto his journey. He followed his heart.

Although their lives can’t be condensed to a single paragraph each, their journeys were amazing. While they are tragedies of the new romantic, and while their endings are arguably at the cost of their own hand, their passion can’t be ignored. Perhaps it was a fire burning in the wrong direction, but a fire nonetheless, kindled with a love for the wild, for the unmarked path, for adventure.

I can’t say I possess the same bravery to chase the travelling experience in the way they did, not now. The idea of not returning home isn’t appetising, either, and highly likely what with my domestic mind. However, what they did was admirable. They did what they wanted, they took the risk. Their courage resonates in their writing. Both kept journals and both sent letters and they contain their thoughts and the details of the people they met. It’s an extraordinary read, to research their travels, and to hear it from the people they inspired is gripping.

Although it’s not cited from Ruess, I found a line attributed to him.

When I go, I leave no trace.

That stuck with me. While I wish I had the same inspiration they did, their lives and their adventures will more than suffice for now. Here’s the result.


When I go, I leave no trace.
Exploring foreign natural space.
Mountains high and tranquil dormant
Land, free for blinkered mind, expand
And march and
Climb and

Pages, books
And poets chapter
Maps. Coordinate the path
For brave footsteps ahead: erase
The past. Into the wild, don’t chase.
For when I go, I leave no trace.

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