Special Report

Man-Child in the Promised Land

Everett Ruess disappeared Utah's canyon country in 1934 -- and after 75 years the mystery of what happened to this 20-year-old romantic has apparently been solved.

By 5.22.09

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According to a May 1 story in the Denver Post, about a year ago a man in southern Utah at a place called Comb Ridge came upon a large crevice in a cliff that contained an old saddle and underneath that a pile of human bones. The man's name is Denny Bellson, and he had been searching for those bones. They had been put there in 1934 by Bellson's late grandfather, a Navajo named Aneth Nez. Through a friend Bellson contacted writer David Roberts (who had published a related article in National Geographic Traveler in 1999), and Roberts arranged for the bones to be sent to the University of Colorado-Boulder for DNA and other testing. The remains proved to be those of one Everett Ruess (pronounced "Roo-ess"), a young man who had disappeared in the canyon country at the age of 20, and who was the subject of Roberts's 1999 piece.

I've come across Ruess's name occasionally in my reading about the West. Until now, his 1934 disappearance had made for a cultish parlor game similar to the one that still speculates as to whether the outlaw Butch Cassidy survived the famous 1909 shootout in Bolivia and endured into old age. Likewise, Ruess's legend was one of the great mysteries of the desert Southwest. Wallace Stegner wrote about him in his book Mormon Country: "What Everett Ruess was after was beauty, and he conceived beauty in pretty romantic terms….If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age." In Desert Solitaire (published in 1968), Edward Abbey whimsically entertains the possibility that Ruess is still alive, a mad desert hermit subsisting on "prickly pear and wild onions."

Ruess was not a typical misanthropic desert rat. As Stegner states, he was a true romantic, and something of a nascent Renaissance Man, who at his death enjoyed a small reputation as an artist and writer. He excelled at linoleum and woodblock printmaking, was a good photographer, and was the precocious author of two posthumously published books, one entitled On Desert Trails, Hugh Lacy, Ed.(1940); the other Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, W.L. Rusho, Ed. (1983). These are a miscellany of Ruess's journals, letters, and poetry. And the young man was known to read voraciously in the classics.

Everett Ruess was born in Oakland, California in 1914, the second son of Christopher and Stella Ruess: his father a Unitarian minister; his mother a culture enthusiast, who -- among other intellectual pursuits -- edited and published a Ruess family literary magazine. The San Francisco Bay Area at the time was maturing culturally from its rough-and-tumble gold rush roots. The writers Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Jack London, Frank Norris and Ambrose Bierce had already made their marks. There were photographers such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Dorothea Lange, and the painter Maynard Dixon, and the teenage Ruess knew personally all of this latter group. Weston encouraged his interest in printmaking; Adams coached him in photography; Lange took some interesting photo portraits of Ruess; and Dixon gave him drawing and painting lessons.

Ruess was something of a "red diaper baby." His parents were -- for the time -- typically politically liberal, as were their friends and artistic acquaintances. Christopher Ruess's ecclesiastical duties caused the family to move frequently as he was transferred to different churches, and Everett and older brother Waldo attended schools in different parts of California and in Valparaiso, Indiana, where at age 12 Everett won a school essay prize. Back in California at 15, and while a student at Hollywood High School, Everett had a flirtation with the Los Angeles chapter of "The Young Communists League." But his creative impulses wouldn't be put at the service of radical politics.

At 16, in the summer of 1930, Ruess wandered the Sierra Nevada from Sequoia to Yosemite, as the earlier naturalist and writer John Muir had done. His mode of transportation were the backs of two burros: one that he rode with saddle and saddlebags; the other he led, and packed with food, blankets, and personal belongings such as a camera, art supplies, a few books and a journal. His resulting woodblock prints of mountain scenes began to attract attention. Ruess reminds us of the example of the prolific Western photographer William Henry Jackson, who photographed the Yellowstone region and the Colorado Rockies in the 1870s. Ruess -- like Jackson -- was developing the talent and know-how to pursue his artistic ambitions in howling wilderness amidst a myriad of adverse conditions, especially weather.

Ruess first visited the Southwest in 1931, immediately upon high school graduation, and spent much of the remaining three years of his life wandering the remote Four Corners (Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado) region, with occasional trips home to California. In the 1930s the Colorado Plateau was one of the great blank spaces on the map with very few roads. Ruess's epic journeys with those burros have their biblical aspects. Weeks and months of endless trudging through the desert landscapes: Zion Canyon, Rainbow Bridge, Grand Canyon, Navajo Mountain, the San Juan River, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly. He read Rabelais, Thomas Mann, and The Arabian Nights by the campfire. And he sketched and wrote. Much of his journal is found in the two books noted above, but his letters show a superior vividness. Ruess was an enthusiastic scribbler of correspondence mailed during his periodic sojourns from hamlets such as Kayenta, Arizona and Escalante, Utah:

In my wanderings this year I have taken more chances and had more wild adventures than ever before. And what a magnificent country I have seen -- wild, tremendous wasteland stretches, lost mesas, blue mountains rearing upward from the vermillion sands of the desert, canyons five feet wide at the bottom and hundreds of feet deep, cloudbursts roaring down unnamed canyons, and hundreds of houses of the cliff dwellers, abandoned a thousand years ago.

Ruess could be reckless and accident prone. In his final letter, written to his brother Waldo Ruess, he states:

I have had a few narrow escapes from rattlers and crumbling cliffs. The last misadventure occurred when Chocolatero [his burro] stirred up some wild bees. A few more stings might have been too much for me. I was three or four days getting my eyes open and recovering the use of my hands.

At an earlier date and to a friend named Bill Jacobs:

For six days I've been suffering from the semi-annual poison ivy case -- my sufferings are far from over. For two days I couldn't tell whether I was dead or alive. I writhed and twisted in the heat, with swarms of ants and flies crawling over me, while the poison oozed and crusted on my face and arms and back. I ate nothing -- there was nothing to do but suffer philosophically….I get it every time, but I refuse to be driven out of the woods.

This last is interesting. Poison ivy is common in the lush river and creek bottoms of the Southwest, but Ruess would have to have been extremely careless to get it.

Everett Ruess's last trip has for 75 years been shrouded in mystery, but since the discovery of his remains more facts are coming to light.

In November 1934, Ruess turned up in the Mormon ranch village of Escalante, Utah, and devoted a few days to preparing (procuring supplies, etc.) for another long trek into adjoining remote country. On November 11 he mailed that last letter to Waldo. It has a chillingly prophetic tinge to it: "I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star spangled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities."

Within days Ruess left Escalante with his burros packed with the usual provender and poetry. He proceeded along the rough "Hole-in-the-Rock" Trail, which after 60 hard miles leads to the Colorado River in the vicinity of Glen Canyon (now submerged under Lake Powell). About 50 miles out he met two friendly sheepherders and camped with them for a couple of days. It was long assumed that these two nameless men were the last to see Ruess alive.

For three quarters of a century the Western parlor game noted above has it that Ruess died the result of a mishap. He was an enthusiastic cliff climber, so one theory was that he died in a fall. Others speculate a drowning in the Colorado River or a rattlesnake bite. There was also the improbable theory that he crossed the Colorado and entered the Navajo Reservation, where he married a native woman and fathered children. A story like this always spawns rumors and tales of odd sightings.

But the discovery of the impromptu grave and resulting DNA evidence point to the fact that Ruess was murdered, and three anonymous Ute Indians were the killers. A large rock striking the young artist's head was probably the death blow. Enter our friend Aneth Nez, who observed the murder from a distance at place called Chinle Wash. After witnessing the Utes chase Ruess down the wash and quickly dispatching him, stealing his burros and belongings, and waiting for them to leave, Aneth Nez approached the site. Ruess was dead. The young Navajo, probably perplexed as to what to do, eventually elected to simply bury him. The ground in the wash was rocky so it would have been difficult to dig a hole. So Aneth Nez packed the body onto his horse and led it up to Comb Ridge, where he found the deep crevice. After putting Ruess in the crude crypt, he added his saddle because it was covered with blood. When it comes to death, the Navajos are a superstitious lot.

The Navajos and the Utes are traditional enemies, and to some extent remain so in modern reservation times. So Aneth Nez kept quiet for years. Denny Bellson eventually found the remains based on a second hand story that came down from the old man to other family members. Aneth Nez died around 1980.

In March 1935, at the instigation of Christopher and Stella Ruess, an official search was conducted to try to find their missing son. The search party began in the area where the two sheepherders had last seen Ruess, and in nearby Davis Gulch they found the two burros grazing contentedly in a crude corral. There was no sign of Ruess's personal belongings. The search party also found two instances of graffito scratched into sandstone (and both long submerged by Lake Powell now). Both read "Nemo 1934." Captain Nemo is a character from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, an adventure novel that was Everett Ruess's favorite childhood reading. And the Latin translation of "Nemo" is "No one."

"When I go, I leave no trace," Everett Ruess once wrote. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.