Kerouac of the Canyonlands

After 75 years, the mystery of legendary young nature writer Everett Ruess has likely been solved

It's remarkable that after 75 years, the disappearance of Everett Ruess has likely been solved.

Many assumed he'd spend eternity being what he was in life, a lost boy, who spent his too-few years searching the Southwest's wildest places, writing stirring prose about what he saw and becoming, in the decades after his disappearance, a legend.

Amazon lists 15 books either by or about Everett. Two movies have been made, and admirers can buy Everett Ruess T-shirts, mugs, collector postcards, even refrigerator magnets. Next month, art-lovers will flock to Utah for the Escalante Canyons Arts Festival and Everett Ruess Days.

Many will be young people. For years, they've delighted in trading theories on what might've happened to their hero, this gentle rebel poet who preferred "the saddle to the streetcar, the star-sprinkled sky to a roof."

Now that we know, his story becomes even more remarkable. We have the word of an eyewitness, told through his descendants, that Everett was murdered in southern Utah in 1934, his skull bashed in with a rock.

So the question arises: Where does that leave the myth? What happens to the romantic ideal by which Everett lived, this notion that it's possible to find beauty and freedom in nature? It should be gone, exploded. The manner of his death should resoundingly disprove the premise of his life.

It won't, though, any more than the myth of Billy the Kid, to whom Everett has been compared, will ever die. But at some point, reality has to intrude.

In Everett's story, reality appears thanks to the selfless actions of that eyewitness, Aneth Nez, who buried Everett's body in a rock crevice, and in the actions of Nez's grandchildren, Daisy Johnson and Denny Bellson. They played key roles in resolving the mystery and beginning the process of eventually bringing Everett's remains home.

This Navajo family took great risks in involving themselves with a corpse, a strong cultural taboo. They didn't do it for the recognition that would come in solving a cherished mystery of the bilagáana, Navajo for white man. They acted out of simple decency.

"When I first heard the story of the white man buried in the rocks, I'd never heard the name Everett Ruess," says Denny Bellson. "But I knew this guy buried there, whoever he was, had a family somewhere, and that family probably was looking for him. All I wanted to do was find out who he was so they wouldn't have to wonder anymore."

I profiled Everett in these pages 12 years ago, calling him a Kerouac of the canyonlands. (See "Wandering Soul," May 8, 1997.) His mission, the dream that consumed him, was to explore places beyond the reach of civilization, and he began that undertaking when he left his California home in 1931, at age 17.

Traveling with two burros, usually a dog, his painting supplies and a writing journal, he devoted most of his energies to the forbidding deserts and then-unknown canyons of the Southwest, calling his days away from the city "the happiest of my life."

In 1931, he wrote: "Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. ... 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."

He walked mile after punishing mile across Arizona's Painted Desert, and scaled cliffs in the Navajo canyons of de Chelly and del Muerto. At the Grand Canyon, he walked with his burro, Pericles, down to the Colorado River, "traveling by starlight."

Everett stayed with Navajo and Hopi families for weeks at a time, writing and working on his paintings and block prints, then moving on to some new and increasingly dangerous adventure.

He talked in his letters of the chances he took, in daredevil climbs to Indian cliff houses and watching "cloudbursts roaring down unnamed canyons." In one of his last dispatches, he wrote: "I've been flirting pretty heavily with death, the old clown."

Everett was last seen by a sheepherder near Escalante, Utah, at the edge of the Dixie National Forest, on Nov. 19, 1934. Four months later, his burros were found southeast of Escalante in Davis Gulch, and in a nearby cave, where the wanderer made his last camp, searchers found his footprints and discarded food cans.

The most haunting clues, though, were two wall etchings found not far from his burros. They read: "Nemo, 1934." Nemo, Latin for "no one," is a reference to the enigmatic and unforgettable Captain Nemo, the hero in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a book Everett admired.

But Everett himself, this boy who dreamed such powerful dreams, who once traded prints with Ansel Adams and had his picture taken by famed photographer Dorothea Lange, had vanished. He was 20.

Manhunts began in the months after his disappearance and continued informally for decades. They all failed, and this opened the door to every kind of speculation. According to one story, Everett had moved east and was living with derelicts in a transient camp in Jacksonville, Fla., under the alias Everett Runyan.

Another had him settling down on the Big Rez with a Navajo woman, having "gone native." A third came from an incarcerated Navajo named Jack Crank, who stood up to declare, "I murdered Everett Ruess." But he was an unreliable character, and his claim was commonly dismissed, although Everett's parents clung to it.

In the early 1940s, Northern Arizona trading-post operator Toney Richardson said he heard of rumors of a white man, possibly Everett, found "sleeping" in the sand in southern Utah. In this wild account, Navajo medicine men were cutting off pieces of the scalp for their summer squaw dances, then re-burying it to "kill its spirit."

Everett himself seemed to play along as more clues surfaced. In 1961, archaeologists working at Glen Canyon Dam, on the Arizona-Utah border, unearthed what appeared to be Everett's canteen and razor blades, from Los Angeles' Owl Drug Company. The blades were Everett's brand, and they'd been burned, as though someone were disposing of evidence.

When well-known Grand Canyon river man Emery Kolb died in 1976, and a fractured skull was found in his boat, many asked: Is it Everett? The artifact was sent to Tucson to the University of Arizona's human-identification lab, where forensic anthropologist Walter Birkby said the cause of death was definitely murder. But the skull belonged to a victim much taller than 6 feet, while Everett was about 5 foot 7.

On it went. Each new theory and news account contributed to Everett's burgeoning myth, which had powerful proponents. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wallace Stegner, in his 1942 book Mormon Country, compared Everett to naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir. In his romantic and single-minded pursuit of beauty, Everett was an "adolescent esthete" who could easily be dismissed. But Stegner cautioned, "If we laugh at Everett Ruess, we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age."

Other writers would follow, cementing Everett's place as a Western icon. N. Scott Momaday, another Pulitzer winner, likened him to Billy the Kid—in his engaging personality, his death at a young age, his personification of critical attitudes about the Wild West. Writing in American West magazine in 1987, Momaday said Everett and Billy were lonely, heroic figures who died confronting their destiny, and in doing so, they became one with the Western wilderness.

But constructing a myth isn't finding the truth. Where was Everett? What happened to him?

The answer began to unfold in 1971, when Aneth Nez, then 72 and ill with cancer, went to see his medicine man and revealed a secret he'd kept for 37 years.

In November 1934, Nez stood on a sandstone escarpment called Comb Ridge, just southwest of his home near Bluff, Utah. Below him in Chinle Wash, he saw a young man with reddish hair riding a burro, pulling another burro behind him. The man was screaming and riding hard to outrun three pursuing Ute Indians.

But it was no use. The Utes pulled him down from behind and bashed in his skull with a rock, probably to steal his burros and belongings.

This is what Nez said he saw. After the killers left, Nez rode his horse into Chinle Wash, most likely hoisted the body over his saddle, rode to a rock crevice and placed it inside, a common method of burial for Navajos in that country.

But in doing so, Nez had violated a strict Navajo taboo, says grandson Denny Bellson in an interview with the Tucson Weekly. "It's against our religion to pick up a body or touch a dead person in any way," says the 43-year-old handyman who lives 14 miles outside Bluff. "But grandfather had a good heart. After witnessing this murder, he had to do something. He couldn't leave that man there."

Everett's blood stained Nez and his saddle. Nez pulled the contaminated saddle off his horse and dropped it where he stood. "I don't know what grandfather did with the horse," says Bellson. "He probably rode it back to the wash later and killed it."

When Denny's sister, Daisy, learned of this in 1971, she was 19. She overheard Nez and her grandmother arguing, the latter haranguing Nez for messing with the body.

Daisy told the Navajo Times that Nez simply wanted to give the man a decent burial. "I put him away before the coyotes could get to him," he explained.

When Daisy asked her grandparents what they were talking about, she heard for the first time the story of the murder Nez had witnessed.

Then Nez enlisted Daisy's help in carrying out the suggested cure: Nez had contracted cancer, said the medicine man, from handling the body and being splashed with its blood. He advised Nez to retrieve a lock of the dead man's hair for use in a curing ceremony. Eventually, with Daisy's help, this was done.

Although ill and unable to talk with the Weekly, Daisy spoke with National Geographic Adventure for its April/May 2009 issue. She said the ceremony involved the medicine man dusting the hair with ashes "so it will never bother the patient again." After five days, Daisy told Adventure, the medicine man shot the lock of hair with a gun to destroy it completely.

Aneth lived another 10 years, dying in 1981.

Unlike her grandfather, Daisy didn't keep the story secret. She told numerous people, even calling the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. She hoped to interest producers in investigating the incident and possibly identifying the white man. At the time, she'd never heard the name Everett Ruess.

Her calls to Mysteries were fruitless, yielding only recordings telling her all circuits were busy. "All these years, I've been telling people, 'There's a man out there that needs to go home,'" Daisy told the Navajo Times on April 30 of this year.

Finally, Daisy told the story to Denny. "It was May 14, 2008," he says, the date rolling off his tongue as if it were his birthday. He couldn't shrug it off as others had. It gnawed at him that a man, any man—he, too, had never heard of Everett—could be left dead in the desert with his family unaware of his whereabouts.

Denny made it his mission to learn the identity of the youngster his grandfather had watched die. "It was something I felt I had to do," says Denny.

Even though he began his search with only two clues—the color of the man's hair and the fact that he was traveling alone with two burros—the story came together quickly.

After talking with locals around Bluff and doing an online search, Denny learned the story of Everett Ruess, and it seemed to match his grandfather's recollections. He went hiking on Comb Ridge and, before long, found the grave.

Near the crevice, he found a saddle frame, likely the bloodied one his grandfather had discarded. But the site unnerved Denny, especially the pungent smell, which he believes came from the body fat draining down into the soil. He got out of there as fast as he could and rushed home to call Daisy, telling her: "I think I found that Ruess guy."

After much research by writer David Roberts, and by archaeologists, DNA experts and forensic scientists, Geographic Adventure agreed he had. In April, the magazine held a press conference to announce that one of "the greatest mysteries in the annals of adventure had been solved."

When Utah's state archaeologist later questioned the magazine's conclusion, the Ruess family ordered a second round of tests, according to Brian Ruess, Everett's nephew; the family now eagerly awaits those results.

But Brian, a 44-year-old software salesman in Oregon, says they're almost certain they've found Everett. "We did the tests to eliminate any doubt at all," he says.

Finding out what most likely happened brought out a curious emotion that says much about the power of our myths. Instead of satisfaction that answers had finally been found, many reacted with disappointment, as if the truth were a distraction.

Not surprisingly, the Ruess family didn't share that reaction. They expressed gratitude to Aneth Nez for making it possible for Everett to finally have a proper burial.

Denny encountered the same phenomenon when he tried to tell people he'd found the grave. Initially, no one would listen—in part, because Everett's grave was the third one he'd found. The first two were judged to be ancient Navajo burials.

Those who wished the mystery to persist fall into two camps, says Brian Ruess. One camp finds it romantic that Everett succeeded in his vision of living life to the fullest, away from civilization. "But there is also a second camp of profiteers who make money off Everett," says Brian. "And unfortunately, Everett is worth more as a mystery than he is found."

The comparison to Billy the Kid rises again. When talk surfaced three years ago of digging up bodies to determine, through DNA testing, if the Billy the Kid buried in Lincoln County, N.M., was the real Billy, the uproar shook the modern West. The loudest cries came from Lincoln County's leaders, who, according to their critics, feared the truth might kill tourism, the county's biggest moneymaker.

The truth is exactly as history tells us: The Kid really is buried in Lincoln County, and all those claiming to have been him are imposters. But rather than diminish Billy's myth, the controversy only enhanced it by providing new questions to fight over.

Everett's story and myth do that, too. Did he disappear intentionally? Was he sick?

Utah writer W.L. Rusho, author of the book Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, says Everett might've been ill physically and mentally. "In his letters, he mentioned being sick with pernicious anemia, and I think he was manic depressive," says Rusho. "You can read it in his letters. He talks about how happy he is, and in the next line, he's talking about his sadness."

As for his disappearance, Rusho believes it was planned. In Everett's letters, he made several references to vanishing, including one penned just before setting out on his last desert trek: "I don't think you'll ever see me again, for I intend to disappear. When I go, I go without a trail."

He certainly did that, leaving his burros in Davis Gulch, leaving searchers to believe that was his last stop. Somehow, though, Everett got hold of two more burros, crossed the Colorado River and trekked 90 hard miles east to his death beneath Comb Ridge. "It took a lot of preparation to pull that off, and that was uncharacteristic of Everett," says Rusho. "He wanted to do it. The implication in his letters was he loved the wilderness so much, he wanted to become part of it. I'm sure he did this intentionally not to be found. Maybe he even had the idea he was going to die. I don't know."

Brian Ruess disputes the intentional-disappearance idea, saying Everett enjoyed a healthy relationship with his family, as evidenced by the many letters he wrote them. He also says the manic-depressive theory idea stems from a misreading of Everett's nature.

"He was a sensitive, impressionable 18- to 20-year-old artist who was deeply moved by nature and able to express what he felt in ways others are not," says Brian. "Everett's ability to write and paint comes with a certain sensibility, which some might interpret as being bipolar. But I don't believe he was."

My own view, based on research for the story 12 years ago and fresh interviews for this one, is that Everett was gentle, trusting, innocent, big-hearted and impossible to dislike. Tucsonan Pat Jenks met him in 1931 on Northern Arizona's then-unpaved Highway 89 outside of Flagstaff. After talking for a short while, Pat invited the young wanderer to his ranch below the San Francisco Peaks.

In a later letter to Jenks, Everett described those idyllic days: "There I seemed to feel the true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, lying in the long cool grass or on a flat-topped rock, looking up at the exquisitely curved, cleanly smooth aspen limbs, watching the slow clouds go by."

In 1997, when I visited Jenks at his home east of the UA, he rummaged through his files to retrieve for me Everett's original letters and talked delightedly about their time together. "We were both about 18 and hadn't reached much manhood yet," remembered Jenks, who, now 97, still lives in the same house. "We were boys, more or less, and he was different from any person I'd ever meet. He couldn't stand modern civilization, and he wrote some of the most marvelous prose I've ever read."

Here, Jenks stopped and stared off with distant eyes and said, "I still think about him every day."

He repeated that sentiment in a recent phone conversation. Jenks and others helped me understand Everett's unusual ability to make friends, to keep friends and to inspire with his words—and those are true gifts. Many also credit him with being among the first to see the intrinsic value of the canyonlands, beyond what could be extracted from them for industry and profit.

But I also think about Everett's brother, Waldo. I interviewed him in 1997, too, and recall the anguish in his voice as he talked about how the years had piled up with no good evidence of what happened to his little brother.

The responsibility for that rests with Everett. He cannot, of course, be held responsible for his own murder. But if he plotted his disappearance—his own words are hard to dispute—it was an act of singular self-indulgence, as were the mounting risks he took. He was unconcerned about the impact his actions might have on those who cared as deeply for him as he did for his grand purpose.

His parents, distraught, unable to let go, prevailed upon California-based Desert magazine and other media to cover the story, believing the exposure might yield valuable clues. But ultimately, his mom, Stella Knight Ruess, a noted California art patron, and his father, Christopher, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Divinity School, died not knowing what happened to their boy.

Brian Ruess says his grandparents and dad never expressed any discontent with Everett's choices, and, in fact, encouraged him. But they also never stopped thinking about Everett, grieving over his absence, even funding searches to find him. Waldo died in 2007 at age 98, nine months before Denny found the grave.

I still remember Waldo telling me, "Everett was quoted saying he lived life to the fullest and left nothing undone. How many people can say that?"

I'm sure Waldo believed that. But I'm sure the loss hurt deeply, too.

I keep thinking back to that phrase I used 12 years ago—Kerouac of the canyonlands. My reference to the celebrated writer seems even more apt now, although in a way I never intended back then. If you read Jack Kerouac's most famous book, On the Road, as a young man, you can't help but be carried away by its wild energy, the frenetic pulse of it. But read it again past middle age, and it comes across as booze-drenched nonsense, a cry against conformity that sounds shrill and manufactured.

Everett's story compares in one important way: It, too, is for the young. His goal of finding beauty and freedom in nature is too romantic a brew, too hopelessly adolescent to withstand withering reality. Nature, after all, includes human beings, and Everett's much-touted luck ended when he ran into the wrong ones.

The Ruess family plans to spread his remains in the ocean off Santa Barbara.

Reality has been harsh for the Nez family, too. Denny suspects Daisy's involvement with Everett, in helping her grandfather acquire a lock of his hair for the curing ceremony, contributed to her current illness.

She is now suffering from cancer herself and is, according to Denny, in her last days. He worries that down the road, his visits to Everett's grave might cause him sickness, too. "But I was careful not to touch anything, so I might be all right," he says.

Even so, he has no regrets, believing that after so many years of being missing, Everett was ready to be found.

After locating the grave, Denny went to his mom's house, jumped on a Bobcat grader and went to work smoothing her access road. As he labored, the day fell away, the gathering darkness mixing with the magical colors of the canyonlands to create an unusually beautiful sunset. Denny stopped to watch, and reflecting back on that moment, he says, "I think it was Everett. He was telling me how glad he was to be found."

Maybe Everett has matured, too.

Comments (5)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly