IFIRST CAME UNDER THE SPELL of Everett Ruess in the late 1980s, when I read Rusho’s A Vagabond for Beauty. The mystical passion of Everett’s response to the wilderness, blazoned again and again in the letters he had sent to friends and family, impressed but also disconcerted me. The oracular intensity of such pronouncements as “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear” or “Beauty isolated is terrible and unbearable, and the unclouded sight of her kills the beholder” seemed too dramatic to have issued from any experience on the trail. Like Wallace Stegner, I was bemused by “the extravagance of [Everett’s] beauty-worship.” But like Stegner, I also thought at once of the parallel of John Muir. What won me over to Everett was the simple realization that everything of his that I read had been written before the age of twenty-one.
The sense of doom that haunted other passages in the letters counterbalanced the ecstasy. In light of Everett’s disappearance, some of these declarations had an eerie power. The most resonant of them came in the postscript to the letter to Waldo in July 1932: “I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.”
About the blockprints reproduced in Rusho’s book, I had no reservations. The prints were strikingly simple and vivid, condensing the landscape into a few bold elements with a Japanese economy. By the age of twenty, it seemed to me, Everett was already an accomplished artist.
What I most admired about Everett Ruess, however, was his journeys themselves. Many of the places he had hiked to I knew from my own exploration of the Southwest, which had become—after two decades spent in rapt devotion to unclimbed peaks and routes in Alaska—my favorite wilderness. Yet Everett had crisscrossed Arizona, Utah, and the corners of Colorado and New Mexico when those regions were far less known and explored than they were by the 1990s. The four hundred miles in six weeks that Everett had covered on foot in 1934 far surpassed any continuous jaunt I had ever made, whether in Alaska or the Southwest. And Everett had performed so much of his traveling alone, with only pack animals for companions. I had done plenty of solo hiking and backpacking in the wilderness, always with an acute awareness that a simple misstep or fall could spell disaster. But my longest solitary outing had stretched across a paltry five days.
Finally, the mystery of Everett’s fate held me, like all other Ruess partisans, in thrall. In the twentieth century, among English-speaking explorers, only the disappearances of Amelia Earhart over the Pacific in 1937 and of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on Everest in 1924 seemed to me to outweigh as legends the vanishing of Everett Ruess. Was there a chance that his remains would someday be found, as Mallory’s were in 1999, seventy-five years after his death?
In 1998, on assignment for the premiere issue of National Geographic Adventure, I set out to see if there was anything new to be learned about Everett’s demise. Reading Vagabond, I pondered the four leading theories as to how he had met his end. The one most plausible to me (perhaps because I was a climber myself, and had often scared myself silly trying to get into inaccessible Anasazi ruins) was that Everett had fallen off a cliff, and that his bones lay wedged in some obscure cleft or had been scattered by predators.
I started my research in Escalante. I had hiked, backpacked, and llama-packed among the magnificent canyons of the Escalante River and its serpentine tributaries—Harris Wash, Little Death Hollow, Wolverine Creek, Dry Fork Coyote Gulch, and the like—both before and after the region’s inclusion in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. But I had always treated the town of Escalante as a mere motel stop. Now it seemed logical to look up Escalante’s old-timers and see if they would talk to me about the stranger who had passed through in November 1934.
This was not an easy task. The town had been founded in 1875 by Mormons from Panguitch, seventy miles to the west. In search of a milder climate, those pioneers had decided to investigate what was then called Potato Valley. Once there, they had laid out a grid of streets just south of an upper stretch of the Escalante River. The town occupies a blissful setting, surrounded by hills, open basins, and the stern escarpment of Kaiparowits Plateau. But life has always been hard in Escalante. By 1998 the settlement was still almost one hundred percent Mormon. Among the residents, the decades of wringing a living from its fields and pastures had bred a fierce distrust of outsiders.
The insularity of the town emerged in a historical irony I had come across in my reading. In 1875, Almon H. Thompson was in charge of a small team of government surveyors exploring this little-known part of Utah, at the behest of Thompson’s brother-in-law, John Wesley Powell, who six years earlier had led the first descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Thompson’s diary for August 5, 1875, notes,
Came from camp on Last Chance to camp on Pine Creek about a mile above its junction with the Escalante. Saw four Mormons from Panguitch who are talking about making a settlement here. Advised them to call the place Escalante.
Presumably, Thompson told the Mormons all about the great Spanish friar, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who, with his fellow cleric Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, had accomplished an extraordinary six-month exploratory loop through the Southwest in 1776, starting and finishing in Santa Fe. Escalante’s journal from that trip remains one of the classic expedition narratives in western North America.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, the locals were pronouncing the town “ESK-a-LANT,” with the accent on the first and third syllables, the latter rhyming with “slant.” (So the townsfolk pronounce it today.) One day during that decade another government explorer came through Escalante. He asked the residents about the source of the town’s name, only to be told that it was an old Indian word whose meaning had been lost to memory.
In 1998, as I phoned up old-timers or knocked on their doors and told them I was interested in Everett Ruess, I got brushed off regularly. One man, greeting me on his front porch but declining to invite me inside his house, said, “I don’t know what you want, but you’re wastin’ your time and mine.”
I realized, of course, that the inhabitants of Escalante had been peppered with questions about Everett ever since 1935. And the persistent rumor that it might have been local men who murdered the young artist stuck in the collective Escalante craw. Rusho’s dogged interviews in 1982 and the more recent probes of filmmakers Diane Orr and Dianna Taylor had simply stirred up the old resentment of nosy outsiders.
Gradually, however, I gained entrée to the homes and thoughts of several locals who had spent time with Everett in November 1934. They included ninety-year-old Melvin Alvey and seventy-four-year-old Norm Christensen. Yet when these informants talked about the search launched by Jennings Allen’s party in March 1935, the story they told me could not be reconciled with Rusho’s account. According to them, it was not the searchers who found Everett’s burros in Davis Gulch, but Gail Bailey, weeks or even months before the search commenced.
Said Melvin Alvey, “Gail Bailey usually put his bucks down in Davis Gulch in the spring. He went in there to look, and saw the two burros. Brought ’em back to town. There was lots of excitement. Everybody wanted to go in there and look for [Everett].”
But Norm Christensen commented, “It was Gail Bailey that found his pack outfit. I believe Everett’s camping gear was there, too. I believe Gail Bailey took the stuff.”
Seventy-five-year-old DeLane Griffin was even more censorious: “I think Gail found Everett’s camp. He’d say he didn’t, ’cause whatever was there, he took. Didn’t want anybody to know he had the stuff. I’m sure whoever found the camp, found the journal.”
Other informants placed the timing of Bailey’s discovery not in the spring, but as early as November or December 1934. As I listened to these accounts, I puzzled over Rusho’s certainty that it was the March 1935 search party, of whom Gail Bailey was merely one member, that had discovered the burros. If Bailey had found the animals earlier and on his own, why didn’t that alarming discovery instantly trigger a search for Everett? But Rusho was sure that it took Christopher and Stella’s letter to the Escalante postmistress, Jennings Allen’s wife, to galvanize the ranchers into launching a search.
It didn’t take long for me to uncover the likely cause of the discrepancy between Rusho’s findings and my own. In 1982, when Rusho did his research, Gail Bailey was still alive. In fact, when Rusho interviewed him, Bailey related the burro discovery as part of the March search party’s team effort, though he admitted that it was he who led the pack animals out of Davis Gulch and back to Escalante. While Bailey was still living, the town’s distrust of outsiders apparently outweighed any regard for the truth. Rusho’s informants chose not to contradict their neighbor’s story, however suspect it was.
Escalante might present a united front to journalists such as Rusho and myself. But I had already come across hints of long-standing feuds and antagonisms among the residents. One old-timer told me that whether you grew up on the north or south side of Main Street dictated which other kids you played with, which in turn cemented lifelong alliances and grudges. It wasn’t quite the Crips and the Bloods, but the schism was apparently intense. This in a town of a mere eight hundred people!
Gail Bailey died in 1997. By the next year, when I interviewed the old-timers, they no longer felt the need to cover up the rancher’s prevarications—nor did they stint on judging his character. One local, Dan Pollock, told me, “Gail Bailey was a nasty little son of a bitch.” But DeLane Griffin, who was sure that Bailey had appropriated Everett’s belongings, told me, “Gail Bailey couldn’t have killed Everett. No way.”
All this left me wondering just what had really happened, in terms of the discovery of the burros, and possibly of Everett’s camping gear, painting kit, and journal. Later I would hear the same persistent rumor that had reached the ears of Mark Taylor two years before me—that Everett’s belongings were still kept inside the house of a longtime Escalantan, and that others had seen the “stuff.” Whether or not the alleged thief was Gail Bailey, I could only guess. It was clear, however, that there was a limit to how deeply any outsider would ever be able to penetrate the workings of Escalante society.
* * *
After interviewing the old-timers who agreed to talk to me, I made a three-day backpacking trip into Davis Gulch. There was no hope of visiting the two NEMO inscriptions, which I knew the waters of Lake Powell had long since swallowed. After rim-walking for four miles and descending the livestock trail down which Everett had led his burros sixty-four years earlier, I set up camp beside a stately cottonwood. That night, a full moon rose over the canyon’s southeast rim. Frogs croaked noisily from the pool beneath a fern-hung seep.
During the next day and a half, I poked as far up- and downstream as I could. The narrow canyon seemed a sandstone paradise. In early May, the prickly pears were in bloom, bursting with waxy magenta flowers. Globe mallow and primrose sprouted from benches of fine sand. I could see at once why Everett had lingered here, the high rims of the gulch sheltering him from late autumn winds.
As I pushed upstream, every bend in the canyon revealed new wonders. In one alcove I found a masterly pictograph, one of the largest I had ever seen: six and a half feet tall, painted in red ocher, it limned what archaeologists surmise may be that mythical being, the thunderbird—an eagle-like creature that dispenses lightning and thunder. After widening into a green oasis, the gulch squeezed down to its headwaters slot, barely navigable by chimneying across stagnant pools of water.
Except for the stock trail and that headwaters slot, in the whole length of Davis Gulch, I could find only three routes out. These were “Moqui steps”—ladders of hand- and toeholds gouged by some Anasazi daredevil with a quartzite pounding stone. I switched to rock-climbing shoes and started up one of these trails. Sixty feet up, I lost my nerve: yet above me, the holds continued on a parabolic wall that grew steeper every step, then made a wild traverse left before topping out on a vertical headwall. I thought of Everett’s boast: “Many times … I trusted my life to crumbling sandstone and angles little short of the perpendicular.”
Davis Gulch taught me one thing, and only one thing, about Ruess’s fate. He had not fallen to his death in this canyon. The three sets of Moqui steps were, I believed, the only routes that even the boldest scrambler would have been tempted to climb. Had Everett died in a plunge from one of these lines, the searchers, even on horseback, would have found his bones in plain sight on the ground.
Before entering the gulch, I had imagined arcane side canyons where a body could stay lost. There were simply none in Davis, not even in the headwaters slot. As I hiked out on the third day, I was convinced for the first time that if Everett had died in Davis Gulch, it was not in a natural accident.
* * *
I shared some of my 1998 outings with Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a wilderness guide based in Bluff, Utah, who had become my regular hiking partner in the Southwest. Together we arranged a meeting with Ken Sleight, who greeted us at his Pack Creek Ranch, a sylvan refuge southeast of Moab. We knew that the old desert rat only grudgingly shared the secrets he had won from a lifetime of river-running and horse-packing. Somehow he warmed to us, and now he told us exactly where to find the granary in Grand Gulch where he had found the NEMO inscription in the late 1960s. (Earlier, Sleight had deflected Vaughn’s inquiry as to its location.) The inscription, Sleight insisted, was fairly legible when he had first seen it. On a subsequent visit he deduced that some overzealous eco-tourist had tried to rub it out, presumably as a graffito that marred the pristine beauty of the Gulch. Sleight also told us about the panel of “colored zigzags” painted on the rock wall just to the left of the granary.
“Do you think the inscription could have been made by a copycat?” I asked.
Sleight scratched his grizzled chin. “I think a copycat,” he answered, “would have put it where you could see it better.”
Now Sleight spun out his rambling meditation on what might have brought Everett to Grand Gulch. “He couldn’t cross the Colorado River with the burros,” he mused. “So he decided to take a side trip. I think he wanted to make a round trip back to Davis, but he underestimated the distances. He wanted to see Grand Gulch. John Wetherill would have told him all about it, the mummies they took out and all.
“I think Everett made it over to Grand Gulch,” Sleight went on, “but by then he was real tired and hungry, and he didn’t make it back. I’m not so sure about him drowning in the San Juan anymore. There’s lots of ways he could’ve died.
“I don’t know if he had it in him to really explore. I think he was playing Captain Nemo, going down with his ship.”
“What do think about Everett as a person?” I asked. “Do you admire him?”
Sleight paused before he spoke. “I see a young fellow, he says, ‘Dad, I gotta go find myself.’ Had to play out the whole thing. I did that myself with the river”—the Colorado, down which Sleight had made countless rafting trips—“left a wife and kids behind.” The man’s voice trailed off.
“But Everett did it,” Sleight resumed. “And because he did it, that puts him on the top rung. Like John Wesley Powell—he did it.”
A few days after meeting with Sleight, Vaughn and I hiked into Grand Gulch to look for the inscription on the granary. It was a beautiful late-spring day, with lazy cumulus clouds sailing across the azure sky. Everywhere white primrose, red penstemon, and scarlet paintbrush were bursting into bloom.
In less than two hours we reached the site. A tricky approach via benches upstream got us onto the ledge of the twin granaries, eighty feet above the canyon floor. Squashed beneath a massive gray brow of sandstone, the two little storehouses sat.
At the wall of the left-hand granary, where Sleight had told us to look, we stared and stared. I could not see the inscription at first, but Vaughn—an expert at reading historic signatures—found the four block capitals in the mud. After we swept the surface with raking headlamp light, I too could make out the NEMO. And in that moment, any vestige of the copycat explanation was put to rest. The shapes of the letters perfectly matched those of the NEMO inscriptions in Davis Gulch, of which no photos had been published before 1983—long after Sleight’s discovery.
Vaughn and I, however, could find no trace whatsoever of the watercolor zigzags on the cliff wall to the left of the granary. Whatever Sleight had seen there in the 1960s had vanished, perhaps washed away by the seepage of the decades.
From the granary, we headed upstream several miles to take a look at the Music Note panel, which Vaughn and I had each visited several times before. At the far bend of a seldom-hiked oxbow in the Gulch, on the left end of an enigmatic cavalcade of Anasazi pictographs, someone had etched, in what looked like India ink, a perfect treble clef followed by a pair of joined sixteenth-notes and two neat, separated eighth-notes. The most veteran Grand Gulch aficionados swore that the Music Note panel had been there when they first hiked the oxbow decades earlier. It was not a new inscription.
Over the years, Vaughn and I and our Cedar Mesa friends had speculated wildly about who might have inked those notes on the wall, and when. Now I suddenly wondered whether the artwork had sprung from the same hand as the NEMO downstream. I had also noticed that the notes seemed to replicate the chromatic descending tones of the canyon wren’s call—the most plaintive of all Southwestern birdsongs.
On the trail, of course, Everett had had music in his head all the time, singing and humming Beethoven and Dvořák and Tchaikovsky to the surrounding walls. He had played the piano and flute as a young man, and in Los Angeles and San Francisco he had been transported at live concerts. After hearing Sergei Rachmaninoff play in L.A. in 1932, he had written his brazen fan letter to the Russian pianist and composer.
Once more, Vaughn and I stared at the treble clef and the descending tones. Could these indeed be another kind of signature Everett had left behind—a pseudonym in music notes? There was no way of knowing, but as far as we could tell, Vaughn and I were the first ones ever to venture such a surmise.
* * *
At the Utah State Historical Society in Salt Lake City, I pored through the Harry Aleson papers. Among reams of letters, unpublished manuscripts, and scraps of guiding miscellany, I finally found the coded telegram Aleson had written to himself in December 1952, recording the claim that “Emeron” Alvey had killed Everett, and that Joe Pollock and Keith Riddle had dumped his body in the Colorado River. I also found the correspondence in which Aleson had confided his discovery to his crony Dock Marston and to Randall Henderson, publisher of On Desert Trails.
Back in Escalante, without revealing the source of my suspicions, I started asking around. Norm Christensen remembered that Emmorn (not Emeron) Alvey had died in 1944. (Aleson’s coded telegram had him “DECEASEDWTR 194243.”) But to the suggestion that Alvey could have killed Everett, Christensen responded bluntly, “That’s an outright lie.” Another old-timer had the same view: “Somebody’s got their wires crossed. Emmorn didn’t even run cattle with Pollock and Riddle. And Emmorn wouldn’t have killed anybody.”
Still, the supposition that Everett might have been murdered by Escalante men—perhaps rustlers—could not be discounted. Yet how to plumb it? Several times, talking to residents, I felt that I had crept to the edge of some great secret that the town fiercely guarded. One man, Doyle Cottam, who had seen Everett come through Escalante in 1934, changed his mind overnight about talking to me. In the morning, in a hoarse, halting voice, he said, “Too many of the folks that might be incriminated, they still got kids and family around. It don’t do nobody any good. I just can’t help you.”
Thus I had given up hope of pursuing this tack when, as I was wrapping up my second interview with Norm Christensen, he dropped a bombshell at my feet. “So what do you think happened to Everett?” I asked. Oddly, to that point I had failed to put the question so directly.
Christensen’s dark eyes held mine, as his face clouded. “I know what happened to him,” he said quietly. “He was shot. The man who did it told me.”
I was stunned. In measured tones, Christensen went on to recall an afternoon, sometime around 1949 or 1950. Several young men had gathered in Christensen’s barn to drink. One of them was Keith Riddle, nine years Norm’s senior.
Riddle and Christensen sat on a plank in one corner of the barn, out of earshot of the others. Drink had loosened the older man’s tongue.
“We were talkin’ about old cowboy stuff,” Christensen recalled. “I said, ‘Keith, just between you and me, what do you think happened to Everett?’
“He looked at me and said, ‘I killed the son of a bitch, and if I had to do it over, I’d do it again.’
“I didn’t say another word. I figured I’d pushed it as hard as I could. Keith was a very strong-willed man. He’d fight you at the drop of a hat, and drop the hat himself. If he liked you, he’d do anything for you. If he didn’t, he’d have liked to knock you down and kick the guts out of you.”
I drew a long breath. “Could it just have been a drunken boast?”
“No,” said Christensen. “It wasn’t said in a bragging manner. I believe Keith told the truth.”
A flashbulb of corroboration was going off in my head. Rusho had claimed the last men to have seen Everett alive were the two sheepherders at Soda Gulch. But Melvin Alvey had insisted that after parting from Clayton Porter and Addlin Lay, Everett had met and camped overnight with two cattle ranchers, Keith Riddle and Joe Pollock.
I asked Christensen why he hadn’t gone to the authorities with Riddle’s confession. “There was nothing to be gained by telling on Keith,” he answered. “He’d served his country well in World War II. And he’d herded sheep and cattle all his life.”
In Panguitch, the county seat, I pored over old records. And in Escalante, the simple phrase “Some people think Keith Riddle killed Everett” now opened doors that had previously been shut to me.
Gradually I pieced together a sketch of Riddle’s life. Born in Escalante in 1915, one of eight siblings, Keith had seen his father desert the family, leaving his mother to care for her numerous offspring. “Lordy,” said Della Christianson, ninety years old in 1998, “I don’t know how that woman raised that bunch.”
Enter Joe Pollock, twenty years older than Keith. Pollock took the boy under his wing, teaching him to ride and rope and string fence. Pollock’s spread was way out down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, on the plateau southeast of Davis Gulch.
His harsh childhood took its toll on Riddle, and he later developed a drinking problem. “He was pretty handy on a horse and all,” remembered DeLane Griffin. “When he got out of the service, he drank, and he was meaner’n strychnine when he was drunk.”
Nearly everyone in Escalante agreed that Pollock and Riddle rustled. “Joe made a living stealing cattle,” said Della Christianson, who had also seen Everett come through town. “He’d go down in the Desert, run cows off a ledge or shoot ’em, then take the calves. And Joe taught Keith how to steal.”
In Panguitch I found documents from 1922 and 1930 bringing Joe Pollock to trial for rustling, but both times he was acquitted. Though I failed to find any record of the case, everybody in Escalante remembered that Pollock had finally been convicted around 1938, and served time in prison. Della Christianson recalled the sting that trapped the cowboy. “The Cattlemen’s Association took a calf, cut a slit in its hide, and sewed a silver dollar into it. They found the calf with Joe Pollock’s brand on it. The sheriff produced the silver dollar.” Gail Bailey, coincidentally, was the president of the Cattlemen’s Association.
According to Della Christianson, “Keith became a recluse later in life. If you came to his home, he’d go in the bedroom and hide.”
At the time Everett disappeared, Keith Riddle was nineteen years old, Joe Pollock thirty-nine. Riddle died in 1984, at the age of sixty-eight; Pollock twenty years earlier, at the same age. The recurrent scenario that bits of Escalante gossip outlined was that Everett had stumbled upon some rustlers far out on the Escalante Desert. As I had earlier learned, to put a scare into the likes of Pollock and Riddle, the Cattlemen’s Association had circulated the false rumor that a government agent was coming to Escalante to investigate. Caught red-handed slaughtering a cow, completely unaware of the advent of a twenty-year-old artist in the country, the rustlers assumed Everett was that government agent. One or both of them had killed the young man to cover up their crime.
I could not dismiss the possibility that Riddle’s “confession” was after all a drunken boast, or even that Norm Christensen had made up the story. In Fredonia, Arizona, I managed to track down Loy Riddle, one of Keith’s sons. Born in 1950, Loy could have known about the Ruess matter only from tales his father had told him more than twenty years after the fact. Loy, of course, had heard the rumors implicating his father. Over the phone, he told me, “On my father’s deathbed, I said, ‘Dad, if you killed the little guy, let me know where he’s at, ’cause there’s still a $10,000 reward out on him. Tell me and I’ll collect.’ Dad said, ‘Hell, I never even met the guy.’ ” Loy believed that it was Gail Bailey who had fingered his father and Joe Pollock.
Another persistent motif in the gossip of the old-timers nagged at me. From four different sources I had heard the imputation, always repeated in the exact same phrase, that Everett’s killers “had throwed his body in the river.” Clearly the river implied was the Colorado, as its tributary, the Escalante, dwindles to a trickle in November. As Norm Christensen said to me, “There’s so many places out there to dispose of a body—tie a couple of rocks on him, throw him in the river. After three-four months of catfish and carp feedin’ on him, there wouldn’t be much left.”
Had Everett run into Keith Riddle and Joe Pollock out on their winter range, he must have left Davis Gulch on a hike to the southeast. Perhaps he had climbed the single line of Moqui steps that attacked that side of the canyon, though I had blanched at the thought as I had stood at the foot of that hand-and-toe trail. But the Pollock range embraced a large quadrangle bordered by the Hole-in-the-Rock, Kaiparowits Plateau, Davis Gulch, and the Escalante River. Where in that featureless badlands might the fateful encounter have taken place?
Melvin Alvey had given me another fugitive clue. He said that a long-dead rancher who had participated in the 1935 search had told him that somebody had found unexplained footprints in the mud at Jackass Bar, on the Colorado. But where was Jackass Bar, and how did you get there? There was no such name on the 1987 USGS topo map, for the sandbar had long since been flooded under the waters of Lake Powell.
No one in Escalante seemed to remember where Jackass Bar was. More than forty years before, they had turned their backs on the farthest reaches of the Escalante Desert. Joe Pollock’s range languished unused, its topography forgotten. As DeLane Griffin told me, “All the guys who knew that country’re in the cemetery today.”
But McKay Bailey, Gail’s son, had a vague memory of Jackass Bar. “Joe Pollock used to put cows down on the bar,” he drawled. “Probably Joe built the stock trail down to it. It’s right there, right below this old spring—Joe Perdence’s seep, named for an old Spanish guy, lived out that way a long time.” Bailey took my map and drew a crooked line on it.
I had thought I had wrapped up my research at the beginning of June. Like Bud Rusho, I would not solve the mystery of Everett’s demise. But now, in early July, I was seized with a feverish obsession at least to retrace what might have been the vagabond’s last trail.
The temperature was in the high nineties when I got out of my rental four-by-four, not far from the top of the Hole-in-the-Rock cleft, and started rim-walking northeast. McKay Bailey’s line on the map was evidently off by a mile or two, for when I came to the place where he thought Joe Pollock’s livestock trail headed down to the river, I stood on the edge of a sheer cliff.
I pushed on through a maze of sandstone billows, ridges, and cirques, backing off dead-end chutes, as I threaded a route that few, I guessed, had ever walked. I never did find Joe Perdence’s seep. But after a couple of hours, growing dizzy in the brutal, windless heat, I found the first cairn, a two-foot pillar of stacked rocks. A hundred yards beyond it I found another, then another. With mounting excitement I traced the old livestock trail, marveling at the route-finding skill of its architect, as it took the only line among the slickrock domes and prows that livestock could negotiate. Just above Lake Powell I found the broad steps, hacked with axes out of the bedrock, coated with the brown patina of the decades, of a classic Western stock trail.
Standing on the lake shore, I stared into the opaque water, trying to see down to Jackass Bar, drowned under two hundred feet of reservoir and silt. By the time I started back, the temperature was over 100 degrees, and I was down to one quart of water.
On the rim again, I took a slightly different route back to my vehicle, following cairns I had missed on the way out. As I passed behind a small butte, I saw two logs lying on the ground, bleached white by the sun, but showing plainly the cuts of the ax-blows that had hewn them to size. Beyond the logs, I spotted a rusted can. It had a pair of tiny holes gouged in the lid, beside two PUNCH HERE legends embossed in the metal.
Clearly the place had been an overnight camp, the can tossed aside by its long-ago visitors, the logs never burned in the fire. (I took the can with me, then returned it to the site months later. To my wonderment, an expert in such matters confidently dated the can to 1935, plus or minus a year or two.)
All the way down the livestock trail, I had pictured the killers hauling Everett’s inert body on horseback before they dumped it in the river. Could this have been the same men’s camp, coming or going? On the verge of heading on toward my car, I noticed a strange pile of rocks not far from the discarded logs. The more I stared at it, the more I was convinced that the mound was man-made. Two feet high, six feet across, the pile was plainly old, for a gnarled sagebrush grew out of it. It looked like the kind of pile of flat rocks you might build to cover something.
A wild surmise seized my thoughts. I saw Everett, having escaped Davis Gulch to explore the plateau to the southeast, stumbling into his fatal encounter with the rustlers. I pictured them loading his body on horseback to carry it to the Colorado. Then, weary with their bloody toil, or caught short by the early night of late November, they stopped here to camp.
It seemed improbable that the mound before me could be Everett’s grave: surely if his killers had decided to hide his body, they would not have interred it smack on the trail. But what if the mound hid some of his belongings, paraphernalia the criminals did not want to trust to the river? What if the 1934 diary lay buried here?
The skeptic in me demurred. The mound could be merely the grave of some old cowboy’s dead dog; it could be flat rocks piled up to smother an old campfire; it could even be an odd but natural scattering of stones. And yet …
There was only one way to find out. I knelt beside the pile and seized the topmost stone. But just as I started to dig through the dirt below, an old instinct stopped me. What first gave me pause was the
ethic I had learned in Anasazi sites: never disturb a ruin. The Antiquities Act, moreover, protected not only seven-hundred-year-old dwellings but a sixty-three-year-old grave, or even a historic cache.
Yet as I stood over the mound and wiped my hands on my shorts, as if to rub away the itch that had tempted me to dig, I realized it wasn’t the pile of rocks that I most wanted to leave undisturbed—it was the mystery of Everett Ruess. And I felt an odd elation, for no one else had ever had the chance to stand here, stare at the mound, and wonder What if?
I drank the last of my water, hoisted my pack, and started on. Turning for a last look at the old campsite, I was struck by a tantalizing thought. If that mound was Everett’s grave, then, as he had predicted to Waldo, he had indeed found the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot in which to die.