Cult and Conundrum

STEGNER WAS NOT AS IMPRESSED as others were by Everett’s artistic and literary talents. “He was not a good writer and he was only a mediocre painter,” he wrote, “but give him credit, he knew it, and he was learning. It didn’t matter greatly that he was not in command of his tools. He was only eighteen [actually sixteen] when he started traveling by horse and burro and on foot through the canyons and plateaus.”

Stegner fixed the vagabond in a tradition dating back to the Spanish conquistadors of “spiritual and artistic athletes who die young.” He elaborated, “Everett was one of those, a callow romantic, an adolescent aesthete, an atavistic wanderer of the wastelands, but one of the few who died—if he died—with the dream intact.”

At the outset of his chapter, Stegner delivered a memorable précis of Everett’s quest; it remains today the most oft-quoted summation of his accomplishment:

What Everett was after was beauty, and he conceived beauty in pretty romantic terms. We might be inclined to laugh at the extravagance of his beauty-worship if there was not something almost magnificent in his single-minded dedication to it. Esthetics as a parlor affectation is ludicrous and sometimes a little obscene; as a way of life it sometimes attains dignity. If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age.

The “Artist in Residence” chapter teeters throughout on the divide between mature condescension and sincere praise, but in the end, Stegner “gets” what Everett was about.

Deliberately he punished his body, strained his endurance, tested his capacity for strenuousness. He took out deliberately over trails that Indians and old timers warned him against. He tackled cliffs that more than once left him dangling halfway between talus and rim. With his burros he disappeared into the wild canyons and emerged weeks later, hundreds of miles away, with a new pack of sketches and paintings and a whole new section in his journal and a new batch of poems.

Whether or not the writing was very good, Stegner saw Everett’s performance in his letters to friends and family as “chanting his barbaric adolescent yawp into the teeth of the world.” (The allusion to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was apt.)

In Stegner’s view, the journeys themselves were Everett’s real work of art: “The peculiar thing about Everett Ruess was that he went out and did the things he dreamed about, not simply for a two weeks’ vacation in the civilized and trimmed wonderlands, but for months and years in the very midst of wonder.”

As he summarized what was known by 1942 about the Ruess saga, Stegner spun a clever riff on the NEMO inscriptions: “No one in the [search] party knew what Nemo meant. Was it an Indian word? The Navajo didn’t recognize it. Did it have some cryptic significance? Was it a message of some kind?” Then, after summarizing Christopher and Stella’s gloss on the name, Stegner mused,

The explanation that it meant “no one” was both useless and tantalizing. Trust a boy with his head full of poetry and his eye full of cyclopean scenery to carve that word on the sandstone. But did he carve it just because the cave he was in reminded him of the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey, or had he been reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea until he fancied himself the same sort of lone-wolf pioneer as Captain Nemo, or was this scrawl a cryptic notice to the world that he intended to disappear, to cast off his identity?

Despite his tendency to hold Everett at arm’s length, like some geological specimen, and despite the sophisticated irony that suffuses the chapter, by the end Stegner comes around to admiration, even to empathic identification:

So there we leave it. Many people in that country believe Everett Ruess to be still alive.… The Mormon boys with whom he hunted horses and went to the Ward House in Tropic and Escalante have a sneaking suspicion that he lives, wandering in a gorgeous errant way around the world, painting and writing poetry. Except for the painting and the poems, they can conceive that life, because it is close to their own adventurous dreams. Because they will never themselves go, they would much rather not have Everett Ruess dead. It is a nice thing to think about, that maybe tonight he is sitting under the shadow of some cliff watching the light race upward on the mountain slope facing him, trying to get it into water colors before the light leaves him entirely.

Stegner’s ending is as memorable and affirmative as the précis with which he opened:

It is just possible that the loss of identity is the price of immortality.

Because Everett Ruess is immortal, as all romantic and adventurous dreams are immortal. He is, and will be for a long time, Artist in Residence in the San Juan country.

*   *   *

Neither On Desert Trails nor Stegner’s encomium brought Everett true fame. The cult that would eventually solidify around his meteoric passage and mysterious vanishing would take decades to grow. Yet over the years, all kinds of bystanders took the Ruess puzzle passionately to heart, refusing to believe that what happened to Everett was a mystery that could never be solved. Some of these devotees were themselves savvy explorers of the Southwest. None of them was more dogged and resourceful than Harry Aleson.

Although he would become one of the leading river-running guides in the West, Aleson came to the country relatively late. Born in Iowa in 1899, he served in World War I, then kicked around the Midwest as he took a series of jobs ranging from fire lookout to oil company surveyor. In 1939, at the age of forty, Aleson rented a motorboat on Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River above Hoover Dam, and spent five days puttering around its bays and inlets. Smitten by the grandeur of the place, he moved to the Southwest, where his first home was a shack at the western end of the Grand Canyon.

By 1941, Aleson was leading tame commercial trips on Lake Mead. But the wilder water upstream captivated him, and he began making reconnaissances, often solo, through the rapids of the Colorado River and up the mouths of its many tributaries, including the Escalante. Aleson’s exploratory itch drove him away from his boat into the canyons and up onto the mesas that bordered the riverine systems. Routinely he would cache his craft on shore, set off on a grueling loop hike, and return hours or even days later to resume his river run.

On one such hike in 1946, Aleson headed up Davis Gulch from the Escalante. He climbed a hand-and-toe trail to a high alcove sheltering an Anasazi structure and discovered, purely by accident, Everett’s “NEMO 1934” inscription carved in the doorsill. The find galvanized his curiosity. By 1948 a reporter from the Deseret News could write of him, “Perhaps no man living has spent as much time in searching for traces of the lost young man as has Harry Aleson of Richfield, Utah.”

Aleson had ambitions as a writer, but one rejection after another by regional newspapers and magazines soured him on professional journalism. A pack rat by nature, he kept every scrap of paper that had anything to do with his career—the food and equipment lists he sent to his clients, the funky brochures he cranked out by mimeograph, even the rejection slips editors wounded him with. He bequeathed these massive piles of paper to the Utah State Historical Society in Salt Lake City, where they were archived after his death in 1972. Those boxes full of letters, first drafts, and random jottings amount to a treasure trove for scholars of the Southwest, for almost no self-taught sleuth ever probed so deeply into the arcane mysteries and controversies of the region.

Aleson’s fascination with Everett Ruess drew him into a correspondence with Stella and Christopher. In 1948 he offered to guide them into Davis Gulch. Christopher was too busy at work to go, but Stella gamely signed on for what Aleson made clear would be an arduous journey. By then she was sixty-eight years old.

Stella later wrote an account of that pilgrimage. Like her narrative of the June 1935 auto trip to the Southwest, it is oddly travelogue-ish, revealing little of the emotions the journey must have brought to the surface. Stella and a friend from Pasadena named Lou Fetzner drove to Richfield, where they met Aleson. After a whirlwind, several-day tour of scenic wonders, on April 15 the river guide, with his assistant, Sterling Larson, drove the women in a pickup truck sixty-six miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. The next day, leaving their vehicle, the foursome hiked for several hours across slickrock domes and sandy washes until they came to the hidden upper end of the old livestock trail into Davis Gulch. As Stella later wrote:

We got down into Davis Canyon to the willows & box elders before noon & then had sandwiches & juice in beer cans.

Then we started down grade to the canyon bed, struggling through young willows that were dense & scratchy. Finally we turned & came upon a circle of red mountains with a high window [i.e., arch], & below it were about 30 Indian pictographs—dancing man, lizard, etc. Harry’s name & some of the first searching party were written in the wall with charcoal, so Lou and I added ours.

From this rock art panel, Aleson then led the party to the hand-and-toe trail he had first climbed in 1946.

Finally we saw the Moqui house high up the canyon wall with an arched overhang. Lou & Sterling stayed below, because he had leather shoes. Harry climbed up first, then came back & said I could make it. He stayed below me & pointed out each crevice (Moqui toe-holds) where I could put one foot after the other while bracing my hands against the sharp slanting wall. By the time I reached the shelf, 15 feet wide perhaps, I felt pretty shaky, because I thought it would be much harder to get down. Here there were quite dim pictographs, & the one Moqui ruin without a roof.… Two steps lead up to the door sill where Nemo & 1934 are scratch [sic]. Harry & some one else added their dates.… I took 2 small pottery pieces, & Harry cached below several pieces from a good sized cooking bowl.

Strange it may have been, but characteristic of Stella, to describe her fear on the hand-and-toe trail, but not a word about her feelings on seeing her son’s cryptic inscription in such an inaccessible eyrie.

She managed to descend the “Moqui steps,” coached and spotted by Aleson and Larson. “The path back to our lunch spot,” Stella wrote, “seemed a long long way so we decided to sleep there instead of trying to get back to the cowboy cabin [on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail].” To the Deseret News reporter, Aleson later hailed Stella as the “bravest of courageous women.”

In camp, Stella wrote, “Harry and Sterling kept the fire going all night, & Harry talked about Everett until 11:30. He discounts every theory except that Everett fell from a cliff.”

During the following years, Aleson latched on to some startling clues about Everett’s fate. The scenario they outlined was so incendiary that Aleson never shared it with Stella and Christopher. He may have first committed it to print in November 1951, in a letter to Olive Burt, a friend and former client who worked for the Deseret News. In a postscript headed “NOT FOR PUBLICATION,” Aleson wrote,

During the past four to five years I have been hearing rumors on the disappearance of young Ruess. I have heard some very bold statements. Names have been named. Certain persons living in the area today are not only suspected, but practically accused of the murder of Ruess. With no substantial proof, of course nothing can be done. I have all the names.… For the present, I am waiting, hoping for a death-bed confession. For some years I have known the men most concerned or suspicioned. Have talked to them often … I have good reason to continue the suspicion.

It was not until 1953 that anyone in the family was made privy to the Escalante gossip about Everett’s possibly having been murdered by locals. On September 12 of that year, Randall Henderson, the editor and publisher of On Desert Trails, wrote not to Stella or Christopher, but to Waldo, who had returned to California from postings in El Salvador and Indonesia.

Two years ago, camping on the Kaiparowitz mesa overlooking the Escalante river basin I listened to the story of a couple of Mormon cowboys—a story that while not conclusive, was an acceptable solution of the mystery. They believe Everett was killed by a couple of cattle rustlers whose names they know. Their story was entirely plausible—and as far as I am concerned it is the solution to the mystery.

It is not clear whether Waldo shared Henderson’s revelation with his parents. By 1953, Everett had been missing for nineteen years. Not a month had gone by, however, without his parents brooding upon their younger son’s fate. And they still held on to a glimmer of hope that Everett might somehow be alive. In March 1948, having had to decline Aleson’s invitation to the trip into Davis Gulch, Christopher wrote to the river guide, summing up the possible scenarios. A number of backcountry veterans who had met Everett, including John Wetherill, thought that the most likely cause of death was a fall from a cliff in some obscure canyon. Wrote Christopher,

It may be that Everett met his end in such a fall, it may be he drowned crossing the Colorado (as Mr. Henderson of the Desert Magazine came to believe), it may be that he was killed by the Indians for his gear (unlikely), he may have fallen and suffered amnesia, forgetting his identity, or it may be he planned to disappear without a trace and lose himself among the natives and he may be in Central or South America or Mexico now. For all these theories there have been believers.

In March 1953, the Salt Lake City newspapers ran several articles about the recent finding of an old camp with a “year’s supply” of canned food lying about. The spot was about fifty miles south of the town of Tropic. The headlines toyed with the idea that this could have been Everett’s last camp: “Clue to Murder?” and “20-Year-Old Mystery Revived. Discovery of Old Hideout Gives Clue to Lost Artist.”

Aleson forwarded the clippings to Stella and Christopher, even while he doubted that the camp could have been Everett’s—“[H]e would not have stocked up on a ‘year’s supply of food.’ ” The authorities soon agreed. But in the exchange with Stella and Christopher, Aleson hinted obliquely at the secret he was keeping close to his vest: “Assuming that someday we do learn the facts of Everett’s disappearance, possibly through a death-bed confession,—to what extent would you, Christopher and Stella, want to know the details? For some years now, I’ve had the thought that we are going to learn.”

Christopher may have thought Aleson was hinting at Jack Crank, the possibly insane Navajo who had bragged about killing Everett, and who had been released from prison in 1952 after serving a ten-year sentence for his actual murder of an elderly Anglo near Oljato. Or he may have harked back to John Upton Terrell’s formula of a “renegade bad man or Indian.” He answered Aleson, “We would want to know everything, but we hate the idea of general publicity, though it might be desirable to influence others not to venture on the Indian lands without realizing what risks they take. An Indian drunk or sober … might well get the idea of vengeance on any white man.… Everett probably realized that he was taking his life in his hands.”

On April 14, 1954, after suffering complications from a pair of abdominal operations, Christopher died at the age of seventy-five. Five hundred “loving friends” (in Stella’s phrase) attended his memorial service. Despite the vicissitudes that had forced him to take one job after another just to keep his family afloat, the common thread of Christopher’s life’s work had been service to others in need. His forty-nine years of marriage to Stella had amounted to a seamless continuum of love and loyalty. And by 1954 he was extremely proud of Waldo, who had launched a successful career as an international diplomat and businessman.

The great hole in Christopher’s life, however, the dark sorrow that he took with him to his grave, was the loss of Everett, compounded by the impossibility of ever learning what had happened to his son after he had carved his NEMOs on the canyon walls of Davis Gulch.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, Harry Aleson was closing in on what he was sure was the answer. Yet he was loath to commit his knowledge to print. His closest confidant was another river guide and Southwest historian, Otis R. “Dock” Marston. (The Utah State Historical Society holds reams of fascinating correspondence between these two would-be writers and wilderness sleuths.) On December 14, 1952, Aleson wrote Marston “in strictest confidence,”

I heard firsthand on Pearl Harbor Day this year, some startling statements—from a man of that area, pretty much “in his cups.”

The boy was shot. Killer was named to me. Killer died seven years later. Two others threw the body in the Colorado R. Both are living. One served time in Utah Pen for rustling. I’ve been seeing and talking to him off and on for several years. For some weeks now, he has kept a room here [in Richfield, Utah]. Not more than 20 feet between our beds. Nothing re the murder could be proved in court.

While the parents, whom I know, are living, I’m inclined to say nothing—let the secret of the disappearance die with them.

What would you do with this knowledge.

On Marston’s advice, Aleson shared his revelations with Randall Henderson the next March, in yet another letter headed CONFIDENTIAL. As was his wont when dealing with top-secret material, Aleson reverted to a telegraphic prose, almost like a spy sending a coded message. The key sentences are doubly indented, each line a new paragraph:

This past winter I learned RE disappearance of ER.

Much of the details of the final hours.

The names of the men involved.

The way the murder was committed.

The disposal of the body in the river.

But, there is no evidence or proof to bring into court.

One of the men is dead.

One of the other two would have to testify against the other.

Perhaps a death-bed confession will come.

It may be that when Henderson wrote to Waldo six months later, sharing the cowboy gossip about rustlers he said he had heard on top of Kaiparowits Plateau, he was camouflaging the information Aleson had passed to him in March. Or it may be that in 1951, Henderson had indeed listened in on the cowboys telling a macabre story that dovetailed closely with what Aleson had wrung from his inebriated Richfield neighbor.

Aleson had vowed to Marston that he would indeed make a written record of everything he knew about Everett’s murder, but would somehow keep it “in confidence.” The piece of paper on which he did so may be the most bizarre document in all the annals of Everett Ruess’s life and death.

Aleson recorded his solution to the mystery in the form of a Western Union telegram from an anonymous soothsayer to Aleson himself. His almost boyish effort at codifying the message took the form of reversing people’s names and stringing words together without spaces. The homemade cryptogram is, however, easily deciphered. The first line dates it: “RECDNIGHTOF DECSIX 1952.” The second line records its arrival: “ATUTAHRICHFIELD BY ALESONHARRY.” The text spells out everything Aleson had learned from his informant:









Addlin (not Adalin) Lay, Hugh Bailey, Emmorn (not Emeron) Alvey, Keith Riddle, and Joe Pollock were all Escalante ranchers. Lay had been one of the two sheepherders with whom Everett had camped on the nights of November 19 and 20 at the head of Soda Gulch; he was indeed one of the last to see Everett (“ER”) alive. What he had to do with alleged murder, however, is completely unclear. The man “in his cups” was Hugh Bailey, for TOLDTOHLABY means “told to HLA—Harry L. Aleson—by.” And Bailey apparently fingered Emmorn Alvey, who had died in 1944, not in the winter of 1942–43, as Everett’s killer. His accomplices, Keith Riddle and Joe Pollock, Bailey asserted, had disposed of the body by throwing it into the Colorado River.

Aleson’s telegram languished for almost three decades, apparently unnoticed, in the archives of the USHS. No part of it was published anywhere until 1999, twenty-seven years after Aleson’s death. The original copy was still in the USHS files in that year. It has since vanished, apparently stolen by a Ruess aficionado.

As to whether Aleson had indeed unraveled the mystery of Everett’s fate, or at least come close to the solution—that remains in 2011 a vexed and perhaps insoluble question.

Aleson himself had later thoughts that complicated the question. To Dock Marston in 1956, four years after he had typed out his Western Union cryptogram, he wrote, “Yes, I have a few names of persons suspicioned of murdering Everett. I have two stories, from opposite factions, which attempt to cast blame on the other. The ruggedest of the stories was told to me while the narrator was fairly much ‘in his cups.’ I am not yet ready to give these names.”

Seven years later, in 1963, in a letter to another Ruess devotee, Aleson seemed to retreat further from his certainty of 1952:

I have only “hear-say” on cattle rustling in the thirties, when Everett dropped out of sight. There are rumors around Escalante town. No one dares speak up because of lack of proof. I do have the names of three men suspicioned of murdering Everett and accused of throwing his body into the Colorado River a short way upstream from Hole in the Rock. One of the three has been dead several years. Perhaps, one must await a deathbed confession—from one or the other of the two still living.

*   *   *

After Christopher’s death, Waldo took up the ceaseless quest to figure out what might have happened to Everett. Together with Stella, he chased down every hint of a lead that might trace a path back to 1934 and Davis Gulch. And in the late 1950s, a pair of accidental finds gave Everett’s mother and brother surges of hope. In November or December 1956, some prospectors exploring far out on the Escalante Desert came across a skeleton on the west bank of the Colorado River, not far from the Hole-in-the-Rock. Harry Aleson got wind of the discovery and wrote about it to Stella. Without having seen the skeleton, he speculated, “At this time there is a fifty-fifty possibility that the remains of Everett have been found.” But an investigation led by the Garfield County sheriff ruled out such a match—on what grounds, the surviving record does not disclose.

In the summer of 1957 an archaeologist working as part of a massive survey of Anasazi ruins along the Colorado River, as teams tried to document those sites before Lake Powell would swallow them for good, came across an old camp near the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon. The scholar and his two assistants, both Escalante men, found an assemblage of utensils and cooking gear—spoon, fork, cup, pans, and a canteen—as well as a box of razor blades made by the Owl Drug Company, which was based in Los Angeles. An eastern tributary of the Colorado, Cottonwood flows directly opposite the Hole-in-the-Rock; the 1880 Mormon pioneers rode up its streambed after they had floated their wagons across the great river. Had Everett crossed the Colorado at Hole-in-the-Rock, he would have emerged at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon.

The same Garfield County sheriff ultimately shipped some of these belongings to Stella. She and Waldo perused them carefully, deciding in the end that they could not have been part of Everett’s gear. (On previous expeditions, Everett had never made any mention of shaving his beard, while at least twice he sought out barbers who gave him both a haircut and a professional shave.)

In a letter to the Garfield sheriff written in 1960, Waldo ran through the various theories about Everett’s demise. Stella, Waldo claimed, “prefers optimistically to think that he is alive but an amnesia victim.” Waldo himself inclined to the idea, shared by such experts as John Wetherill and Harry Goulding, who had founded Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley in 1921, that Everett had fallen to his death from some cliff. “[E]ven if he only broke an arm or a leg,” Waldo imagined, “in a remote canyon no one would have known of it and he could have starved to death and eventually been covered over by the shifting sands.”

But Waldo could not dismiss the alternate theory that rustlers around Escalante had murdered Everett. “I certainly wish someone could get to the bottom of all this,” he wrote to the sheriff. “If my brother met with foul play, by this time whoever did it must have suffered plenty from remorse, over the years; there would be no need or use of punishing them now, after all these years.”

Another river guide who become fascinated with the Ruess saga was Ken Sleight. A good friend of Harry Aleson, Sleight was also the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s rollicking novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Like Abbey, Sleight deplored the creation of Lake Powell—“Powell’s Puddle,” he nicknamed it. Both men later toyed with the fantasy of blowing up the dam at Page, Arizona, that had created the sprawling reservoir—the guerrilla strike that supplies the plot for Abbey’s novel, which in turn inspired the eco-radical group Earth First!

In 1964, Sleight guided Waldo down the Escalante River and into Davis Gulch, after convincing him that he needed to make the visit before the lower gulch (including the NEMO inscriptions) was drowned by Lake Powell. By the summer of 1963, Sleight wrote to Waldo, the reservoir was rising at the rate of one inch per hour. Another reason for the trip was that Sleight was convinced that Everett’s body might still be found in or near Davis Gulch. On June 6, 1963, he wrote to Waldo, “[L]et me say that I don’t think Everett left the Davis and Escalante drainages. I am sure in my mind that he lost his life in this region.… I do not believe there was foul play.”

Waldo never wrote about the 1964 trip, but it was clearly a powerful experience for him. Many years later he would say to others, “Ken Sleight told me I could count myself among the first 150 white-skins to go down the Escalante.” Somewhere near one of the NEMO inscriptions, Waldo found a prehistoric metate—a stone basin the Anasazi had used for grinding corn. He wanted to take it home as a keepsake of the journey, but the metate was too heavy to pack out. Sleight promised he would pick it up on a return journey, but may never have followed through on this vow.

Sometime in the late 1960s (in later years he could never recall the precise date), Sleight was leading a horse-packing trip down Grand Gulch, a sinuous fifty-five-mile-long northern tributary of the San Juan River that is loaded with Anasazi ruins and rock art. Over campfires in the Gulch, Sleight told his clients all about the mystery of Everett Ruess. One evening, shortly before dark, one of the clients scrambled up to a pair of granaries tucked under an overhang on a ledge some eighty feet above the canyon floor. He returned to report that he had found an inscription carved in the mud wall of one of the granaries, and that it looked like it read “NEMO.” Incredulous, Sleight made the climb himself and verified the find.

In 1998, Sleight recalled, “There was also a bunch of colored zigzags painted on the rock wall just left of the granary. Some kind of design or landscape. Looked like watercolor paints to me. I wanted to take a sample to see if it was watercolor, but I never got around to it.”

The NEMO was plainly legible, though no date was attached to it. It could, Sleight realized, have been a copycat inscription, carved by some later passerby in homage to the lost vagabond. What argued against that explanation, however, was that the shape of the capital letters seemed to match perfectly those of the two inscriptions in Davis Gulch, which Sleight had seen on several occasions. By the late 1960s, however, no photograph of the Davis Gulch NEMOs had ever been published. How could a copycat have gotten the orthography of a faked inscription exactly right?

But this new NEMO raised a host of complicated problems. So far as we know, Everett had never been in Grand Gulch, although he may have intended to make such a trip, for John Wetherill would have told him about the rich excavations he and his brothers had carried out there in the 1890s. But by the easiest hiking route, Grand Gulch lies at least forty miles east of Davis Gulch. If Everett indeed had carved the NEMO in the mud of the ancient storage bin, how had he gotten there without his burros? And when had he made the inscription? Since he had never signed himself NEMO before late 1934, the Grand Gulch visit must have come after he had camped in Davis Gulch in November.

Sleight puzzled over this conundrum for decades, in part because it contradicted his earlier conviction that Everett must have died in or near Davis Gulch. By the early 1980s, Sleight favored the theory that Everett had set out on an arduous hike, intending to visit Monument Valley, where he had spent time both in 1931 and earlier in 1934. He might have left his burros behind because of the difficulty of getting them to cross the Colorado River. In all likelihood, Sleight speculated, after exploring Grand Gulch, Everett had descended the canyon to its mouth, then drowned trying to swim the San Juan River, as he attempted to move from Cedar Mesa onto the Navajo Reservation. The crossing at the mouth of Grand Gulch is a notoriously treacherous one.

Other students of the Ruess enigma were at least as puzzled as Ken Sleight. Because the river guide was so possessive of his discovery that he did not readily disclose the location of the NEMO granary, others wondered whether Sleight had made up the whole story, or had scratched the copycat inscription himself. But to those who knew him well, such an act was unthinkable. It would be very unlikely that a man who had spent decades searching for any trace of Everett Ruess, and who had guided Waldo into Davis Gulch, would have tarnished the legend by fabricating false evidence.

*   *   *

Over the years, fans of Everett Ruess were moved to poetic evocations that tried to capture the essence of his spirit and his quest. One of the finest appreciations came from Hugh Lacy, whose articles in Desert magazine had first brought the vagabond’s story to a larger audience. In “Say That I Kept My Dream …” Lacy wrote,

He was one of earth’s oddlings—one of the wandering few who deny restraint and scorn inhibition. His life was a quest for the new and the fresh. Beauty was a dream. He pursued his dream into desert solitudes—there with the singing wind to chant his final song.

A newspaper journalist and friend of the family, Paul Wilhelm, wrote a ballad about Everett, which cleverly if sentimentally imagined his last days in Davis Gulch from the point of view of Cockleburrs and Chocolatero. It begins,

At winter dusk they stand and wait—

Two burros by a broken gate …

The poem traces Everett’s journeys through late summer and early autumn of 1934, and finally down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail.

But that was long before we knew

That he corralled the burros two,

Showed them the grass and water near

Enough to keep them for a year.

He’d be away, “O not as long

As you could bray,” he said, “your song …

Just round the bend, up scarped pine belt,

A cliff cave hangs, where Indians dwelt,

Now wait for me, I’ll not be long.”

He swung away and sang his song:

“Say that I starved, was lost

On some cold starlit trail agleam—

But that I kept my desert dream!”

And every winter dusk they wait—

Two burros by a broken gate,

For one who was their trail friend

But vanished round the canyon bend

When autumn snows swirled off plateaus

Where Escalante River flows.

The publication of On Desert Trails in 1940, and its reprinting in 1950, served handsomely to fulfill Christopher, Stella, and Waldo’s desire to keep Everett’s memory alive in word and woodcut. But by the 1950s, the family yearned for some additional monument—a fuller anthology of Everett’s work, perhaps, or even a biography. It was thus with high expectations that Waldo and Stella reacted to a letter written to Stella in April 1958 by a man named Larry Kellner.

A ranger at Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, and a friend of Clay Lockett (the leader of the 1934 excavation of Woodchuck Cave who had hired Everett as camp cook), Kellner also had high ambitions as a writer. As Waldo later summarized the letter’s contents, Kellner suggested that he would produce a screenplay about Everett for “a top rate TV program such as ‘Climax’ or ‘Playhouse 90.’ Says can construct a dialogue such as between E and others and between E & Indians by talking to Clay Lockett and to various Indians. Mentions a Navajo about 70 years old who lives on the edge of the Painted Desert and has been there all his life and should know E.” Kellner went on to declare a deep sense of identification with Stella’s lost son: “Everett’s feelings are parallel to mine about this vast country and the Indian people.”

Thus began a long correspondence among Stella, Waldo, and Kellner. In February 1959, Kellner apologized to Stella for a protracted silence, occasioned, he said, by attending college in Omaha and suffering from a recurring kidney ailment. Back as a ranger at Sunset Crater, just south of Wupatki, he was eager to get started on the screenplay. He asked, “I was wondering if you might have a spare picture of Everett that I might have, showing a close-up of him. Also, if possible, do you have one of him with his burros, or one similar?” Kellner wanted to show the photos to various Navajo and Hopi elders to see if they recognized Everett. The pictures, he promised, “will be returned to you as soon as possible.”

Kellner added an intriguing datum: “I have one Indian name by which he was known—Yabitoch.” Almost twenty-four years earlier, on March 14, 1935, Captain Neal Johnson had written Stella and Christopher, “Most of the Indians know of the Paint man whitch is Everett they say he is Yabitoch which means fun, good humor.” Although the parents later discounted virtually everything Johnson told them, this striking allusion to “Yabitoch” must have convinced Stella that Kellner was onto a new clue to Everett’s fate. Since Johnson’s letters had never been published, the Navajo appellation for the “Paint man,” it seemed, must have been genuine.

A trusting woman, Stella promptly mailed Kellner a batch of photos of Everett. Some of them were apparently the only prints from negatives that had long been lost. In May, Kellner wrote Stella again, saying that he needed to hold on to the photos a while longer, and asking if she minded if he made copies of them. Once more he tossed out provocative details from his research in the field.

I have a trader friend (now 47 years old and a white man) who, as a lad, helped on occasion at Gouldings Trading Post from about 1928 to 1934. I showed him the pictures of Everett, and asked if he knew the lad. The first picture he did not recognize Everett, but when I showed him one with Everett and the burros, he replied “Sure—this is Everett Ruess. We were both about the same age. We packed into Monument Valley once, and had a great time. Everett knew how to camp well, but the one thing I showed him was how to use a Dutch oven. Yes, I knew him well. We used to sit and talk by the hours.”

Kellner never disclosed the name of this trader friend. He added, “I am still of the opinion, however, that the key to the entire situation lies with the old Navajos whom I will contact, as well as some of the older Hopis.”

At some point in 1959 or 1960, Kellner briefly visited Stella and Waldo in Los Angeles. Many years later, Waldo would recall the “fine impression” the man had made.

Meanwhile, however, there was no further talk from Kellner about a screenplay for some television show. Instead, by April 1961 the man had decided to write a book about Everett. As Waldo paraphrased a Kellner letter, “Says wants to do E’s complete life, in one good-sized book. Can do more justice that way. Also, believes he would be able to get better TV and/or movie rights from this book.” Later in 1961, he wrote Stella to ask what percentage of the royalties she wanted.

Through 1960 and 1961, sporadic letters from Kellner dropped more tantalizing tidbits from his research. A sample, again in Waldo’s paraphrase: “Says in Oct. he is going to stop at Polacca when he goes to Canyon de Chelly in search of things E left in cliff dwelling. Says 2 Hopis told him they think E wrote Nema, not Nemo, and Nema is a Hopi word meaning ‘I am going home.’ ”

Three years after first making contact with Stella, Kellner had still not returned the photos of Everett. Nor had the biographer made a second visit to the family. By now, reasonable skepticism ought to have set in. Something was clearly amiss with Larry Kellner, and in some ways he was beginning to resemble the second coming of Captain Neal Johnson. It was not cash that Kellner wanted, but, as it were, pieces of Everett himself.

Half a century later, it is hard to judge how sincere Kellner was, or just how much research he actually undertook. In July 1960 he wrote to Harry Aleson, describing an encounter with some Hopi firefighters with whom he had worked at Saguaro National Monument near Tucson.

They did not know Everett, although one of them vaguely recalled the young wanderer. I showed him pictures of Everett, but he could not readily recall him to[o] well. He did, however, tell me that there is a white man, about forty-five years old, living among the Hopis. He dresses like a Hopi, complete with long hair.

In 1960, if he were still living, Everett would have been forty-six years old. Kellner added that the firefighters “are going to try to uncover for me information on Everett from among the older Hopi people.”

Far from reigning in their collaboration with Kellner in 1961, however, Waldo (who was as trusting as his mother) and Stella kept sending the man original documents, including what Waldo later described as “many letters, papers, etc.” And somehow, in early 1961, they offered to lend Kellner one of Everett’s trail diaries. The part-time ranger wrote back on March 3, “As to Everett’s diary! Nothing would please me more than to read it, document it, and have it published.”

In the age before copy machines, Stella and Waldo could think of no alternative to sending Kellner the original diary. By August it was in his hands. The thank-you letter Kellner wrote to Stella on August 5 makes the modern partisan of Everett Ruess want to weep with frustration:

I received the diary you sent me about Everett’s Arizona travels. I have read and reread it many times—I never tire of it.… I will, with your permission, keep the diary for a while longer, until I have an opportunity to either copy it and extract from it what I need for the book. Then, with all my fervent prayers, I hope that I can then return it to you in person.

The reference to “Everett’s Arizona travels” makes it all but certain that the diary Kellner borrowed was the journal Everett kept during his spectacularly rich ten-month odyssey in the Southwest in 1931. That diary may still exist somewhere, but no disinterested student of the Ruess saga or member of his family has seen it in the last fifty years.

In 1961, Kellner began excusing his delays in getting on with the book project by complaining to Stella about an endless series of physical ailments and job crises that forestalled writing about Everett. In June, after an illness, Kellner claimed that a dentist in Globe, Arizona, had had to take out all his teeth. Later the same month he had to fight a forest fire “raging out of control” in the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona. By the next May, his recurring kidney ailment had forced him to quit his job as a ranger. He had planned, he said, to go into Davis Gulch with Ken Sleight, but had to cancel the trip. In January 1963 he was further distracted by his mother’s undergoing two lung surgeries and his father’s struggling with a “heart condition.”

In March 1963, Kellner brazenly asked Stella “if there are any more letters, diaries, photos, etc., which can be made available.” It was now five years since Kellner had first contacted her, and neither she nor Waldo had seen a word of the purported book about Everett. Yet Kellner claimed to have had an encouraging response from the venerable Philadelphia publisher J. B. Lippincott & Co. Ever trusting, Stella and Waldo sent Kellner yet more materials, including some letters that Everett had written to his best friend, Bill Jacobs.

By now, Kellner was writing to Waldo with the air of one accomplice in biography confiding in another. On May 24, 1963, he mused,

As for not finding a romance in Everett’s life, I think it is only more intriguing and interesting. I wanted to be sure before writing the book, however, so that it can be written as accurately as possible.… [T]he fact that there apparently is no love affair does not make the story more difficult by any means, Waldo. I think this is probably all the more the true Everett.

It was not until April 1963 that Waldo first voiced impatience about the return of the precious original materials he and Stella had lent the biographer. In Waldo’s résumé of the Kellner connection, he wrote, “I ask if he has extracted data from the diaries & other written material sent to him so that he can return it soon or now.” On May 15, Kellner wrote back, “I have not copied the diaries but only excerpts from them.” He asked if he could hang on to the materials “until such time as a publisher is lined up.”

Nine days later, Kellner wrote Waldo, “With each passing day, I am more confident in Lippincott.” But, “If that does not work out, I have now established contact with an agent in Beverly Hills and one in New York, and they will help fight the way to the publishing house.”

The Kellner charade lasted through September 1964. More personal crises—job changes, the continued ill health of his parents, and the like—forced Kellner (or so he claimed) to declare bankruptcy. In March 1964 he wrote to Waldo, insisting that he had submitted a finished book, not to Lippincott, but to a New York publisher, which rejected it. Kellner turned to the Sierra Club, whose large-format picture books about the Southwest (most notably, Eliot Porter and David Brower’s The Place No One Knew, about Glen Canyon on the Colorado River) were in the process of galvanizing an environmental movement nationwide. But Sierra Club Books, Kellner claimed, narrowly rejected the work.

On June 8, 1964, Kellner wrote Waldo again, giving him news of a family tragedy. Waldo recorded, “Sister ran into another car head-on and 4 of 8 occupants of other car were killed; sister critically injured but after 3 surgeries is making a comeback.… This hard on his parents—still alive.”

On September 6, Waldo received another letter, with the return address general delivery in Santa Fe. Kellner had changed jobs again: he was now working, he said, for the Institute of American Indian Arts. “He mentions ‘deaths in the family,’ ” Waldo noted, “(but parents still alive).”

Then Larry Kellner simply disappeared.

*   *   *

In the spring of 1964, Stella was eighty-four years old, Waldo fifty-four. During his twenties and thirties, as he crafted his career as an international diplomat, Waldo had spent more time abroad than in the United States, as he took positions in business and government in China, Japan, India, and Russia. He also traveled widely, making extended excursions to Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Norway, France, Burma, Cambodia, Mexico, Canada, and other countries (“100 foreign lands,” he would reckon in 1974). Waldo was also an accomplished polyglot, who became fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Russian, and French, and he could converse in yet other languages.

Unlike Everett, Waldo was never shy with women. He had had a series of girlfriends both at home and abroad, but did not marry until he was forty-eight years old. Vacationing on the island of Mallorca in February 1957, Waldo came upon a Spanish woman making her way carefully down a sea cliff toward the beach. Waldo gave her a helping hand. Conchita was a surgical nurse at a local hospital. It was classical love at first sight. Waldo and Conchita were married on Columbus Day, 1957. For a short while they lived in the Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera, before the couple came to the United States, settling down close to Stella in Los Angeles. By 1964, Waldo and Conchita had three children, two daughters and a son.

On Mother’s Day, May 10, 1964, Stella was resting in a hospital bed installed in her home, as she recuperated from a stroke. Waldo was off in the Escalante country with Ken Sleight, looking for traces of Everett. As he wrote to Harry Aleson a month later:

Conchita had given Mother a good bkfst, which she enjoyed, and then the children came in and sang, “Happy Mother’s Day to you, dear Grandma,” she the while waving her arms as if conducting a choir. Then she dropped her arms and slowly faded away. Thus her passing was as sweet and poetic as the manner in which she lived.

Six weeks after Stella died, Waldo, Conchita, and the children moved to Santa Barbara, where Waldo would live for the rest of his life. That summer, his grief about his mother’s death was compounded by the growing suspicion that Larry Kellner would never produce the book about Everett he had promised for half a decade. After September 1964, when Kellner stopped answering Waldo’s letters, the sense of having been robbed of Everett’s irreplaceable manuscripts burgeoned in Waldo (temperamentally the least angry of men) to a quiet but constant outrage.

Waldo would spend the next eighteen years trying to hunt down the shadowy Kellner. It would not be until November 1973—nine years after the man had dropped out of sight—that Waldo was able to obtain an address for him, a post office box in Tucson that the superintendent of Saguaro National Monument had supplied.

On February 9, 1974, Waldo wrote a forceful letter to Kellner. It read in part,

Larry, could you please return to me the correspondence and diaries, etc., re Everett which we had loaned to you? This is part of my remembrance of my brother,—part of my heritage. Our children are growing and they want to read and know more about him. If it is a matter of the cost of sending them, even though we are a family of six [a fourth child had been born in 1965] living on less than $12,000 a year, I will find a way to reimburse you.

Kellner never replied. The Tucson post office box may have been a defunct or bogus address, or perhaps Kellner was simply ignoring Waldo’s pleas. Waldo redoubled his efforts to track down the fugitive biographer. But it would take another eight years before he again made contact with Kellner.

The breakthrough came in May 1982, after Waldo had enlisted a friend named Tom Wright, who lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, to aid in the search. Wright managed to get a phone number in Globe, Arizona, and left a message asking Kellner to call him back. As Wright wrote to Waldo,

Fortunately, when he called me back … he called collect, so the number he called from was listed on my phone bill. I called that number back today—I was afraid it might be a pay phone in a drugstore or a gas station, but it turned out to be his mother’s home. She told me that Larry has been out of town for several weeks, trying to find a job.… She says he writes or calls at least once a week with a temporary address as he goes from town to town, and she promised to give him the message to contact me just as soon as possible.

By now, in his desperation, Waldo was prepared to try to buy back Everett’s original work from Kellner. Wright was sanguine about the propect of this coming to pass: “It shouldn’t be too hard to talk a man who is unemployed and prone to bad luck into accepting $200 for a bundle of old papers.” The publisher Gibbs Smith had recently commissioned the book that would become Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, and Waldo was anxious to make all of his brother’s letters and diaries available to the author, Bud Rusho.

In May, Waldo finally received his first letter from Kellner in almost eighteen years. Hand-written all in capitals, it listed general delivery in Globe as a return address. The short note is a masterpiece of feigned innocence.

Dear Waldo:

A friend of yours, Tom Wright of Phoenix, made contact with me last week and asked me to get in touch with you. He briefed me on the upcoming expanded book on Everett.

My father passed away in December after a long illness and my mother was hospitalized in March. If I do not reply to your letter immediately, please understand.

I am interested in your endeavor and will be awaiting your letter.

Hope this finds you all well.



On May 21, Kellner sent Waldo a longer, typed letter in response to one from Waldo that he finally acknowledged he had received. But the claims in this new letter were mind-boggling. Kellner insisted that he had never met Waldo or Stella. He also maintained that he had never received any of Everett’s original writings or artwork from Waldo or his mother, either in person or by mail. He claimed instead that Stella had written him lamenting the loss of some of Everett’s manuscripts “after your mothers move to your home.”

What Kellner would admit to possessing was material “from people who knew Everett, or in some way were involved in the search for him, or who later became deeply interested in his story, such as Randall Henderson, Harry Aleson, etc. In addition, I [have] information from Indians, government people, traders, etc., who passed over to me what they knew.”

Kellner was indeed interested in selling Waldo his files: “At this time, Waldo, I would be willing to consider a cash offer for all of the material I have, with acknowledgment in any publication, movie, and/or TV programming. I have a wealth of material, and still have contacts with people, which I am confident has not been disclosed.”

All of these obfuscations were couched in the friendliest of blandishments elsewhere in the letter: “[I]t was good hearing from you again”; “I very much appreciate your interest in Everetts life—it was an exception, especially during those times”; “[C]onvey my best to Conchita and the family. I look forward to one day meeting all of you.”

Waldo wrote back and offered Kellner $200 for his material, in hopes of making the papers available to Bud Rusho. In his answering letter, Kellner fawned once more: “Believe me, Waldo, I commend you highly for this undertaking. It is a fine tribute to Everett, and the entire story needs to be told.” But then he wrote,

The majority of the material I have is in the form of letters and interviews with people who knew Everett, and spans about a 20-year period on my behalf. Considering the $200 offer, this would amount to $10.00 a year, or less than $1.00 a month. I feel, personally, that the offer is not realistic, not only from the stand point of my continued efforts, but also for the safe-guarding of the material I have.

Yet, like a fisherman playing a hooked trout, Kellner added, “However, this is not closing the door, Waldo. It is my opinion, and that of other authors and historians, that this material would greatly expound [sic] on Everett’s life.”

On August 24, 1982, Tom Wright managed to meet Kellner in person in Tucson. The next day he summarized this “very good visit” in a letter to Waldo. Kellner must have turned on the charm, for Wright concluded, “I think he is fair and honest and will make a real attempt to cooperate.” But what Kellner told Wright did not exactly match what he had written to Waldo. As Wright reported:

Concerning Everett’s letters, photos, diaries, etc., Larry says he has a mixture of originals and typewritten copies.… [H]e says that everything that came from your family was either a copy or an original of which you kept a copy. He says that the material is either labelled with words to the effect of “duplicate—you may keep this” or that the letters accompanying the material when it was sent to him said the same thing.

Now, however, Kellner told Wright that he was willing to “make his collection of Everett’s material available to Peregrine Smith” (Gibbs Smith’s imprint), but not “the research he’s done over the years or his own writing about Everett’s life.” Even though Wright never saw a single page of Kellner’s putative research or writing, the former park ranger somehow won Wright’s sympathy: “He is, understandably, reluctant to give away or even sell the results of a 25-year involvement in Everett’s story.”

In exasperation, Waldo turned over the negotiations to Gibbs Smith. The next April, Waldo wrote to an acquaintance, “Gibbs offered Kellner $500 or $1000 for all of his E papers and data collected since the early 1960s or so, I believe, but I guess he wanted more than that.”

In the end, Bud Rusho wrote A Vagabond for Beauty without the benefit of a single glance at the Kellner collection. Five more years passed. On November 16, 1987, after visiting Kellner in Globe, Tom Wright wrote Waldo with the news he dreaded to hear:

He told me … that he had sold all his material on Everett. It was sold through a dealer in Santa Fe to a private collector, “an author,” living in Richfield, Utah, for $3000. I told Larry that, in the interest of keeping track of the material for the benefit of future historians, I’d be very interested in having the name and address of this “author.” Larry replied that he couldn’t remember the man’s name but that he could get it for me.… That was on August 6th, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Twenty-nine years after he had first contacted Stella, Larry Kellner was still holding to his story. But the Richfield “author” did not exist. Kellner had, however, sold the collection to a Santa Fe book dealer.

In 1988, the final chapter of this dismal saga was written. On September 14 of that year, Waldo wrote a last letter to Kellner:

I had heard that a half year ago or maybe a year ago you sold all the things re Everett to someone and have wondered about this because it seems to me my Mother and I sent you so many Everett things which you promised to guard with your life and return to us,—original letters, diaries, etc. Can you comment on this?

Did you give up on publishing a book about E?

Kellner never responded.

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe dealer had contacted Ken Sanders, founder and owner of a legendary used bookstore in Salt Lake City, and one of the most ardent guardians of the Ruess flame. In 1984 and again in 1985, Sanders had published an “Everett Ruess Calendar,” the squares for various days adorned with pithy quotes from Everett’s letters and diaries. (March 15: “I go to make my destiny.” March 23: “Beauty has always been my god.”)

The Santa Fe dealer asked Sanders if he was interested in buying the Kellner collection. In 2009, Sanders recalled the tumult of emotions the offer stirred up. “The Santa Fe guy wanted big money. I called Ken Sleight and asked, ‘What should I do?’ He said, ‘Ken, you have to buy this collection. Otherwise it will disappear forever.’ So I made an offer to the Santa Fe dealer, and he took it. He overnighted the stuff in a big silver box. It was full of Kellner’s quest to track down Everett. Letters to all kinds of people, even J. Edgar Hoover. Correspondence with the Ruesses. It was obsessive.”

Waldo got wind of Sanders’s purchase. On February 10, 1988, he wrote to the Salt Lake City bookstore owner. After detailing all the materials he and Stella had shipped to Kellner in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Waldo pleaded, “So, Ken, it certainly seems to me you should return any photos and original papers you bought from Kellner, as being stolen property he sent you.”

But Sanders wrote back, “I sincerely doubt that there are any letters I have that you don’t already have. They are all copies.… The only original correspondence is that which Kelner [sic] sent off to various people and agencies trying to find out information on Everett.” As for diaries, according to Sanders, the only thing in the collection was a copy—not the original—of an apparently youthful journal in Everett’s hand.

If this is true, there may be two possible explanations. One is that Kellner sold off the original letters and diaries piecemeal over the years. The other is that he kept them separate from the collection that he sold to the Santa Fe dealer, and that they remained in his possession after 1987. It is not possible that Waldo’s memory of having sent precious originals to Kellner almost thirty years earlier was faulty, for Kellner’s own letters express fulsome gratitude for the “loan” of those documents.

In 2009, Ken Sanders told this writer what happened next. “In a moment of weakness, during a period of poverty, I sold the Kellner materials to a certain individual from Indiana. He considers himself the caretaker of the collection. He thinks it should eventually be donated to a museum or library in Indiana [where Everett lived for several years as an adolescent]. He’s another Everett Ruess fanatic.”

Sanders would not reveal the private collector’s name or address. He promised to forward a letter I wrote to the man, beseeching him to donate or sell the Kellner collection to the University of Utah, so that it could be united with the Ruess Family Papers archived there and accessible to the public. I never got a response.

In 2004, however, at the age of ninety-five, Waldo attended the first Everett Ruess Days festival in Escalante, a celebration that would become an annual event. With him were his wife, Conchita, and three of their adult children. There the family met the Indiana collector—whose name, unfortunately, none of the Ruesses can remember. The man greeted Waldo warmly and posed for some photographs with him. According to Waldo’s daughter Michèle Ruess, “He came across to me as awkward and shy. He felt he had obtained the papers in an honest manner. He learned from us that they included stolen property, but he didn’t feel any compulsion whatsoever to right the wrong. Apparently he had paid dearly for them. After meeting him I felt that future endeavors to have our property returned to us would be futile.”

Waldo’s son Brian Ruess adds, “At one point, he indicated a willingness to donate the papers to the University of Utah. But he had some kind of plan to use the materials first—for a book, or a movie, or both. He coyly refused to give our family any access to the materials until after he had finished his project.”

Seven years later, the Kellner papers remain in the hands of the Indiana collector. What lost letters, diaries, and artwork of Everett’s may be among them, only he, Ken Sanders, and perhaps a handful of other people know.

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