One of the great mysteries of the Four Corners and the Southwest has been the 1934 disappearance of young artist Everett Ruess. He left the Utah village of Escalante alone, descended Davis Gulch where his two burros were found, and vanished. Now, 80 years later, we have a better understanding of what may have happened to him.
The Ruess saga has inspired books, songs, plays and celebrations. A botched scientific analysis of DNA embarrassed researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, demonstrated errors in studying skeletal remains and brought down National Geographic Adventure magazine, which ceased publication. In the intense pursuit of Ruess’ remains, editors overlooked caution in not checking facts, scientists ignored margins of error, and a questionable oral history and confession of a dying man resulted in the unearthing of an historic Navajo burial on Comb Ridge near Bluff, Utah. The remains were supposed to be those of the 20-year-old artist.
The 2009 outlines of the sensational discovery did not make sense.
In 1934, Ruess’ burros were found 60 miles away, yet writer David Roberts claimed Ruess’ remains were discovered near Comb Ridge and Chinle Wash based on a Navajo story that Ruess had been murdered by three Utes riding horseback on the Navajo Reservation.
At the time, I wrote in The Durango Herald, “A 75-year-old mystery has now been solved – or has it? Did Everett Ruess visit a Navajo girlfriend? How did he cross the Colorado River during high water? Why were his remains found 60 miles east of where he was last seen? New questions arise as old ones are laid to rest. One question is about Ruess’ assailants. Would three Ute Indians have been riding horseback deep on the Navajo Reservation in 1934? Dr. Robert McPherson, Utah State University at Blanding historian and an expert on southeastern Utah, has recorded numerous local oral histories. He says, ‘I’ve heard nothing about the murder.’”
Major newspapers covered the story. National Geographic sponsored a press conference. The DNA from the skull seemed to match Ruess’ family’s DNA.
But a Bureau of Land Management staffer in Monticello, Utah, intrigued by the discovery, tracked down Ruess’ dental records, which verified dental work with gold fillings that the skull did not have. From the beginning of the media frenzy in 2009, the Utah state archaeologist claimed that the teeth in the uncovered skull showed wear patterns indicative of a Native American diet. No matter. There had been a rush to judgment, a rush to publish and a deep desire to have the mystery solved.
I’ve looked for Everett Ruess, too. I’ve explored Davis Gulch off the Escalante arm of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Much of it is now buried under the receding waters of Lake Powell. I have field-tested echoes and watched as stars pinwheeled slowly above the dark silhouette of the canyon’s steep walls. I’ve listened to summer storms rumble down the gulch, and I’ve seen lightning flashes pierce the blackness. I’ve hiked and camped in the sinuous sandstone canyons, soaked up the silence and pondered the many nights Ruess slept alone, tired, hungry, isolated, yet captivated by the desert Southwest.
He wrote marginal, gushing, adolescent poetry, did better with his water colors and excelled as an artist creating difficult block prints. A young man from Los Angeles, Ruess traveled in the depths of the Great Depression, showing up uninvited at meal times. He routinely appropriated unused Navajo hogans. He visited remote ranches and often overstayed his welcome, yet people liked him, remembered him and admired his pluck and perseverance because he followed his dreams.
Now, two books help us to understand the troubled 20-year-old, and one of the books offers the best evidence yet for why his remains were never found. Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife (2011) by Philip Fradkin can be a difficult read at times, yet we learn new details. Ruess was a pothunter, carried a gun and often traded his art for cash or food. In his last chapter “Resurrection, 2009,” Fradkin summarizes the recent Ruess debacle over the unearthed remains.
Fradkin explains that just when the Ruess family members thought the mystery was solved and they were preparing to cremate the remains and place the ashes in the Pacific Ocean as is their family custom, they tried one more DNA match after contacting the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. Descendant Brian Ruess wrote: “The AFDIL’s studies determined that (the) remains were not those of Everett Ruess.” Case closed. So what really happened?
The book that in my estimation finally unravels the secret of Everett’s death is Flagstaff writer Scott Thybony’s The Disappearances: A Story of Exploration, Murder, and Mystery in the American West (2016). Ruess claimed, “I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness ... I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.” Now, we know he did.
At Fort Lewis College, I teach a popular class about American wilderness. In the class, we talk about personal responsibility and survival, about being prepared, about going out and coming back. Wilderness has shaped our American character, and wilderness shapes us, too.
For over half a century, Ruess has been deeply tied to wilderness issues in the American Southwest. He became a symbol for wilderness for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In his last letter, written Nov. 11, 1934, from the Escalante Rim to his brother, Waldo, Ruess wrote, “As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway.”
So what happened to him? Good writers track down stories. Thybony had heard that in the 1970s, human bones turned up in Davis Gulch, where a Californian exploring for American Indian ruins “saw bones wedged within a crack. He scaled in with a rope and saw indications of a broken hip and fractured collar bone. Leaving most of the remains in place, he took a few of the bones for identification.” The tourist gave the bones to a National Park Service ranger, who deposited them with his supervisor at the Lake Powell marina at Wahweap “and at that point they disappeared.”
Thybony re-read the visitor’s notes and set out to find the crack. He did. He also found a perfect hideaway in the sandstone, a beautiful, remote campsite in a miniature alcove where “an ancient juniper had been dragged in for firewood, and a small ring of stones had been placed against the far wall.” He found a flat stone set on rocks like a small table and “by the cliffside opening, a row of stones had been laid out for leveling the sandy floor wide enough for a single bedroll. The site contained no evidence of prehistoric use, not even a potsherd or chert flake.”
Nearby was the unweathered inscription NEMO 1934. A few of those cryptic inscriptions have been found and photographed in various locations. Scholars today and previous searchers attribute the markings to Everett Ruess.
Did Scott Thybony find the last campsite of Everett Ruess? Did the young artist slip on a sandstone ledge, take a fatal fall and die wedged in a sandstone crack? I think so.
But if the mystery is solved, his legacy will endure. Everett Ruess will always be a symbol of wilderness and solo journeys across the desert Southwest.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at email@example.com.