Wandering Soul

In 1934, At Age 20, Everett Ruess Disappeared In The Vast Canyonlands Of Arizona And Utah, But His Legend Lives On.
By Leo W. Banks

HE WAS LAST seen in November 1934 by a sheepherder near Davis Canyon, in southeastern Utah. But he cannot be proclaimed dead. Evidence of him keeps surfacing. He is a Western myth now, a Kerouac of the canyonlands, embodiment of the romantic ideal of finding beauty and freedom in nature.

Everett Ruess. Poet, painter, writer, naturalist, teenage intellectual. He was 17 when he first left home in Los Angeles to roam the red deserts of the Four Corners region with his burros and writing pad.

His description of the beauty he saw was lyrical lightning, and it probably struck him down. He sought more and more of it, in ever more dangerous places.

"In my wanderings this year," Ruess wrote in September 1934, "I have taken more chances and had more and wilder adventures than ever before. And what magnificent country I have seen--wild, tremendous wasteland stretches, lost mesas, blue mountains rearing upward from the vermilion sands of the desert...cloudbursts roaring down unnamed canyons."

One of his last letters contained this cryptic notation: "I have been flirting pretty heavily with death, the old clown."

Ruess kept a diary and wrote numerous letters to friends and family telling of his "serene and tempestuous days" scaling cliffs in Canyon de Chelly and walking 170 miles alone across the Painted Desert.

He befriended many of those he met. He spoke Navajo and once sang with a Navajo medicine man at the bedside of a sick girl. Hopis painted Ruess and allowed him to participate in their traditional Antelope Dance, a high honor.

For a time he worked with archaeologists from the University of California excavating ruins near Kayenta, Arizona. His daredevil ways terrified them.

"One time in camp he stood on the edge of a 400-foot cliff in a rainstorm and did a water-color sketch of a waterfall," archaeologist H.C. Lockett told Desert Magazine in 1939. "I remember this very clearly because I personally was scared to death just watching him perched on the edge of the cliff."

Ruess financed his wanderings by selling his blockprints and paintings. But he was unable to steady his feet for long.

"There is always an undercurrent of restlessness and wild longing," he once wrote. "The wind is in my hair, there's a fire in my heels, and I shall always be a rover, I know."

At age 20, he was gone. The question of what happened to him has produced innumerable theories, but no answers.

His mother, a noted Los Angeles art patron, and his father, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, concluded he was murdered for his outfit. They based their belief in part on the confession of an outlaw Navajo named Jack Crank.

But Crank couldn't be believed on anything, and it's more likely he was confessing to a different murder. No body was ever found, in spite of several intense searches.

MANY OF THOSE Ruess met on his wilderness sojourns, which began in the summer of 1931, were so taken with his earnestness and idealism that they contacted his parents in L.A., offering to help.

Reporters from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Utah covered the searches, and their dispatches inspired interest and leads from around the country.

In the first months after his disappearance, and in the coming years, Ruess would be "seen" in a lot of places. In a transient camp in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hitchhiking on a Mexican highway. Working as a miner in Moab, Utah.

In his 1942 book, Mormon Country, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wallace Stegner described a search by Neil Johnson, a California placer miner, and John Terrell, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune.

Johnson had read of Ruess' disappearance, and early in 1935 went to his parents' home in Los Angeles and knocked on the door offering to help.

But it was hard to get an Indian guide to sign on with the party. At a desert trading post, when Johnson and Terrell announced that the fellow they were hunting might be dead, the Indians scattered.

They feared they might succeed. What if we find him? What if we find his spirit? What then?

One expert tracker, a half-Ute, half-Navajo named Dougeye, agreed to lead the two white men as long as they left behind their camera. In Stegner's words, the guide wanted no part of "the winking-eye box."

In August of 1935, Dougeye led Johnson and Terrell over miles of wild country. They swam the Colorado and continued north into Davis Canyon.

Dougeye "spent two days circling like a baffled hound." His conclusion: "White boy went in, not come out."

Friends continued to send to Ruess' parents copies of Everett's letters, and photos, hoping they might contain clues. One picture, taken in June 1931, shows Randolph "Pat" Jenks trying to coax Ruess' donkey, Pegasus, onto the back of a pickup truck.

Jenks and Tad Nichols were driving from Cameron, Arizona, to Flagstaff on Highway 89, then unpaved, when they came upon Ruess on his burro. He was badly sunburned, half-starved, and dehydrated. They asked if he'd like a drink.

Thinking they'd asked him for water, the boy started to unleash one of his two canteens from the side of the burro. "He had only a small amount of water left, but was immediately willing to share it," said Nichols, a retired photographer living in Tucson.

Jenks and Nichols drove Ruess to Flagstaff. The young artist stayed at Jenks' ranch under the San Francisco Peaks for several weeks, painting the aspens. Then he was gone again, a shadow never still upon the land.

Jenks said Ruess had frequent premonitions about vanishing. Some believe he orchestrated his own disappearance. "I shall go on some last wilderness trip," he once wrote, "to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return. When I go I leave no trace." But the ground keeps coughing up evidence of him.

HIS TWO MULES were found in Davis Canyon, near Escalante, Utah, in 1935, and in a nearby cave, where Ruess made his last camp, searchers found his size nine shoe prints and an inscription, carved with a knife.

It read, "Nemo, 1934." The same inscription was found a mile away above the door of an abandoned Indian ruin. It was a name Ruess liked and carved in several places. But why?

Nemo is Latin for "no one," a fact Stegner called "both useless and tantalizing." Maybe it was a reference to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and its famed Captain Nemo, an adventurer with a distaste for civilization.

Could Ruess have intended the inscription as a clue? Look for me at No Man's Mesa, near Navajo Mountain. Or did he believe that only by disappearing could he live the life he wanted: I am "Nemo." I am no one.

In the summer of 1941, two Paiute Indians told Toney Richardson, a trading post owner at Tonalea, Arizona, that a white man had been found "sleeping" in the sand across the Colorado River in Utah.

At the same time, Richardson said wild rumors flooded the Navajo reservation about medicine men holding squaw dances using the scalp of a white man. A tiny piece of it was sliced off for each dance, and afterward it was buried to kill its spirit.

The scalp was said to be from the "sleeping" man, who was blonde. Ruess was light-complected, but not quite blonde. Could it have been him? The identity of the dead man was never determined.

Nichols, 84, doesn't buy the murder theory. "I don't believe he was killed by Indians," he says. "He got along well with them. Maybe they didn't like him poking into caves, and through their ceremonial material, but I don't think they were responsible."

He believes Ruess probably died in a flash flood or fell off a cliff. But Jenks, also a Tucsonan, disagrees.

"I think it was murder and the body thrown into the Colorado River," says Jenks, a rancher and former head of ornithology at Flagstaff's Museum of Northern Arizona. "I think it was a group of Paiute indians going up to Escalante for winter supplies and Everett was coming down. I think they killed him."

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Jenks, Ruess' older brother, Waldo, and others installed a plaque of remembrance on the wall of Davis Canyon. "Everett wrote some of the most marvelous prose I've ever read," says Jenks. "He was my close friend. I still miss him very much."

But he has never been really been gone. Nearly 30 years after Ruess was last seen, archaeologists digging at what is now Arizona's Lake Powell found his canteen and other gear, including a box of razor blades from the Owl Drug Company of Los Angeles. They were Everett's brand.

In 1976, when Colorado River boatman Emory Kolb died, friends searching his belongings found a human skeleton inside a skiff in his garage. The skull had a hole behind the right ear, and rattling around inside it was a .32-caliber slug.

Some speculated it was Ruess. Coconino County sent the remains to the UA's human identification lab. Forensic Anthropologist Walter Birkby, now retired, said the cause of death was almost certainly murder. But the bones fit a man well over six feet. Everett was about 5-foot-8.

In 1983, another Nemo inscription turned up on a canyon wall along the San Juan River, and Navajo medicine men continue to have visions of Ruess.

But no dream or artifact looms as large as his words. They moved too many people, forever setting loose his spirit.

"I have not tired of the wilderness," he wrote in November 1934, in his final letter to Waldo.

"Rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult trail leading into the unknown to the paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities."

UA Professor N. Scott Momaday, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, believes the myth that has grown up around Ruess compares with that of Billy the Kid.

"Everett Ruess, like Billy the Kid, perpetuates the myth of the dying cowboy," Momaday wrote in American West magazine in 1987, "that lonely heroic figure who bravely confronts his destiny because he must."

Stegner described Ruess as an artistic athlete, a callow romantic, an atavistic wanderer of the wastelands. "But one who died--if he died--with the dream intact."

"We might be inclined to laugh at the extravagance of his beauty-worship," Stegner continued, "if there were not something almost magnificent in his single-minded dedication.... If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age."

BUT WHY TODAY, 63 years after his disappearance, is he still written about? Why is a Utah group making a movie of his life? Why is he a legend?

"I think it's because Everett's desire to escape civilization and experience raw nature is still very powerful today, especially among the young," says W.L. Rusho of Sandy, Utah, author of Vagabond for Beauty, a 1983 book about Ruess.

"They feel empathy for what he felt. I'll be in a bike shop and a young fellow there will recognize my name and want to talk about him. They all know who Everett is."

In a 1931 letter to Bill Jacobs of Hollywood, Ruess wrote:

"Music has been in my heart all the time, and poetry in my thoughts. Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the wind, the slow sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

"I have seemed to be at one with the world. I have rejoiced to set out, to be going somewhere, and I have felt a still sublimity, looking into the coals of my campfires, and seeing far beyond them. I have been very happy in my work, and I have exulted in my play. I have really lived."

The more fanatical of his followers believe Everett Ruess is still living. He would have turned 83 in March. He can be easily identified by his trademark Navajo bracelet, "whose three turquoises gleam in the firelight." TW

City Week
Back Page
Search Archives

Tucson Weekly's New User Page
Tucson Weekly Staff Page
Tucson Weekly Archives

 Page Back  Last Week  Current Week  Next Week  Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth