Everett Ruess: Lost and found in the Desert Southwest

Exploring the Southwest on foot and with burros in the early 1930s, 20-year-old vagabond artist Everett Ruess wrote, “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.

Although he disappeared in fall of 1934, Ruess’ remains have only recently been identified. David Roberts, in a story in National Geographic Adventure, confirmed that skeletal remains found last year near Chinle Wash and Comb Ridge on the Navajo Reservation in southeast Utah are those of Everett Ruess.

Why does it matter? I teach about Everett Ruess at Fort Lewis College in popular wilderness courses, where men and women his age have been caught up in the Ruess legend from comments about him written by John Nichols, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey and Jon Krakauer.
W. L. Rusho’s Ruess biography titled, “A Vagabond for Beauty,” appeals to students, as does the documentary/drama film “Lost Forever: Everett Ruess,” produced by Diane Orr.

College students find his story captivating. In our wilderness 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.

Ruess’ wanderings and abrupt disappearance have attracted searchers and researchers for 75 years.

In his last letter, written Nov. 11, 1934, from the Escalante Rim to his brother Waldo, Ruess said,
“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.”

In 1935, volunteers repeatedly searched Davis Gulch, where Ruess was last seen. Dr. Robert Lister conducted salvage archaeological work in 1957, before Lake Powell flooded Glen Canyon.

One day eating lunch in Cottonwood Canyon, Lister’s wife, Florence, remembers, “The survey crew found a smashed tin plate and cup, a tube of mentholatum that said Owl Drug Co.—Los Angeles, and dried up tubes of paint pigment,” which could have belonged to Ruess. Then the trail went cold.

Fifty years later, Navajo carpenter Denny Belson learned from his cancer-stricken sister, Daisy Johnson in Farmington, N.M., a story told her by their grandfather Aneth Nez. He said he had witnessed the murder of a young white man by three Ute Indians. Out of fear, Nez said he hid the body along the Comb Ridge crest in a traditional Navajo rock crevice burial, keeping the story secret for three decades.

When he became sick, Nez went to a medicine man, who said that to perform a healing ceremony he needed a lock of hair from the dead man, which Nez acquired. After the ceremony, Aneth Nez recovered and survived 10 more years. His daughter told the story to her brother who, in May 2008, went in search of the remains.

A 75-year-old mystery has now been solved. Or has it? Why were Everett Ruess’ remains found 60 miles east of where he was last seen? Would three Ute Indians have been riding horseback on the Navajo Reservation in 1934?

Dr. Robert McPherson, College of Eastern Utah historian and an expert on southeast Utah, has recorded numerous local oral histories. He says, “I’ve heard nothing about the murder.” But he also said, “Chinle Wash and Comb Wash were well-traveled thoroughfares in the old days and so it is entirely possible that Navajos, Utes, and Ruess could all have been using it to travel either north or south.”

One possibility is that Navajos killed Everett Ruess and Aneth Nez hid the body to protect someone, then blamed the death on Utes.

Riley Mitchell, chief of Interpretation at Capitol Reef National Park, has searched years for Ruess.

To her, Ruess represents “that longing for our desire to connect with nature, to get away from cities, to touch the Earth again.” But she wonders why Aneth Nez would have moved a white man’s body killed by Utes. “For a traditional Navajo to touch a dead body is a considerable risk,” she said.

And then there’s the question of why Ruess’ remains were found 60 miles east of where he wrote that he was going. I have a possible answer. 

Some of the last photos of Everett were taken in summer 1934 by members of the Rainbow Bridge Monument Valley Expedition (1933-1938). Ruess worked odd jobs for food, so perhaps he decided to go east instead for some good meals and companionship, instead of south. Ruess may not have realized that because expedition members worked at Eastern universities, they only did field work in the summer.

We’ll probably never learn what Everett Ruess was doing near Bluff and Comb Ridge in the fall 1934.

Will his bones now rest in peace? Perhaps. Will he lose his power as a symbol of Southwestern wilderness? I think not. America needs and loves its wilderness heroes and, as a young romantic artist, Ruess will always represent solo hiking lonely trails and the passion of following a dream.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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