It was November 1934 when 20-year-old Everett Ruess arrived in the remote Utah township of Escalante with his two burros. The settlement had been founded by Mormons in 1876 and it was a place where the arrival of a stranger was a rare event. Everett appeared relaxed and exchanged small talk with the townsfolk.
Ruess pitched camp under some old cottonwood trees across the Escalante River which ran just to the north of the town. The youngsters of the town were happy to make the most of a friendly stranger in their midst, and Ruess took them riding. On his last night there, he even treated two of them to a movie in the town’s theater.
So who was this strange young man who had apparently arrived in the town from nowhere? Everett Ruess was born in March 1914 in Oakland, California, to Christopher and Stella. He was their second child and a younger brother to Waldo, who was born in 1909. Stella was an artist and poet, while Christopher worked as a probation officer.
The Ruess household was one that revered art and literature. Everett’s father encouraged his son to read challenging books and to study the great philosophers. His mother, meanwhile, taught him how to make block prints. Everett also developed an interest in photography and wrote poetry.
Ruess showed his appetite for adventure as early as 1930, when he was still only 16. In the summer of that year, the young man hitchhiked through California to the city of Carmel. And the following year, after graduating from Hollywood High School, he set off on his first real expedition.
Accompanied by a burro he’d purchased from a Navajo, Ruess embarked on a ten-month journey. It was to be an epic trip, taking in a range of iconic locations in the southwest including the Grand Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly and the rugged terrain of the Zion National Park. This was an extremely ambitious trek for one so young, and it pointed to the adventure that Ruess would crave in the years to come.
While researching an article about Ruess, published in National Geographic Adventure in spring 1999, writer David Roberts visited Escalante. During his time there, Roberts met 74-year-old Norm Christensen who had been one of the children charmed by the wandering vagabond Ruess. At the time, Christensen was just ten years old.
“Everett showed us how the Indians could make fire using sticks,” Christensen told Roberts. “We hiked the hills, showed him the Indian writings. He didn’t brag on himself. Wasn’t a show-off. Just a hell of a nice, ordinary guy. He said he’d come out to look the country over and make his paintings.”
“In these boxes loaded into pack bags on his burros, he carried a lot of ‘spotted dog’ – rice and raisins, with condensed milk,” Christensen continued. “We gave him a bunch of potatoes. Offered him bottled fruit, but he just didn’t have room for it. I still remember him waving as he passed on down the river.”
And that memory of Christensen’s, of seeing Ruess leaving Escalante with his two burros, means that the ten-year-old boy was one of the last to see him alive. Ruess set off into the Utah desert, heading southeast along the Hole in the Rock Trail, a historic route that had been marked out by the 19th-century Mormon settlers.
Another man that Roberts spoke to in Escalante in the 1990s was Melvin Alvey, who was 91 at the time the writer met him. Alvey, too, had conversed with Ruess during his time in the town. “We talked quite a bit about the country,” Alvey remembered. “He had these two little burros… I don’t think either one had 50 pounds [loaded] on ’em. I looked at those two little burros, goin’ out in November. He never even had a tent. Didn’t have a good camp stove.”
Roberts recorded more of Alvey’s memories. “He said he was goin’ to go down in the desert and stay six weeks,” the old man recalled. “Claimed he was goin’ down to be an artist and write stories. He had so little; he didn’t have enough for one week, let alone six. I said, ‘It looks like you’re travelin’ pretty light.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I don’t need much.’” Alvey clearly though that Ruess was ill-equipped to survive the rigors of a Utah desert winter.
Despite Alvey’s misgivings, though, Ruess was certainly still alive a week later, having trekked some 50 miles through the desert from Escalante. We know that he met two shepherds en route and that the three men spent time together around a campfire. Ruess may also have met some cattle herdsmen soon afterwards. But then he simply vanished.
However, no alarm was raised for some three months, not that this was particularly strange. Everett had written a letter dated November 11, 1934, to his brother Waldo. In it he wrote, “As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think… It may be a month or two before I have a post office, for I am exploring southward to the Colorado [River], where no one lives.” So it’s unlikely Waldo or his parents were unduly perturbed by a period of silence from Everett.
Three months later, letters that Ruess’ parents had sent their son were returned unopened from Marble Canyon, Arizona, where Ruess had expected to re-emerge into civilization. By now concerned about their son’s whereabouts, Ruess’ mom and dad contacted the Escalante postmistress. And in March 1935 a search party set out from Escalante.
Eventually, the same two shepherds who’d seen Ruess the previous November came across an old campsite. It was located in Davis Gulch, a steep-sided canyon that led down to the Escalante River. The two burros were there, confined in an improvised corral and severely malnourished. The men also found some of Ruess’ kit, but notable by their absence were his painting set, diary and camping gear.
And no trace could be found of the adventurer himself either. In his article for National Geographic Adventurer, Roberts speculated that there were four possible answers to the mystery of Ruess’ disappearance. The explorer could have died accidentally, for example by falling off a cliff; he may have committed suicide; he could have been murdered; or he might have disappeared to join a Navajo band. This last theory Roberts thought entirely implausible.
But there were rumors that Ruess might have been murdered by the two cattlemen, the last two people to see the explorer alive, as far as we know. Norm Christensen, the Escalante old-timer, told Roberts that he could solve the riddle. “I know what happened to him,” Christensen said. “He was shot. The man who did it told me.” Christensen claimed that one of the cattlemen, Keith Riddle, had confessed to the killing. But Riddle had died in 1984 and no compelling evidence has been found to pin the crime on him. Indeed, we don’t even know for sure that Ruess was murdered.
Then in 2008, 74 years after Ruess had disappeared, there came a new and extraordinary development in the story. A man called Denny Bellson found the skeletal remains of a body at Comb Ridge, some 60 miles from Ruess’ last camp. Bellson had acted on a tip-off from a Navajo called Aneth Nez who claimed to have witnessed Ruess’ murder. DNA was extracted from the bones and compared to that of Ruess’ nephews and nieces. It was a match.
The press reported that Ruess’ body had been found. The mystery of his death wasn’t solved, but the finding of the remains was a huge breakthrough. But cruelly, the apparently crucial development was anything but. It turned out that the testing procedure had been botched, and a second test carried out in 2009 showed definitively that the remains could not belong to Ruess. In fact, they belonged to a Native American. So an answer to the Everett Ruess puzzle remains as tantalizingly distant as ever it was.