GIBBS SMITH, THE PUBLISHER of so many books about Everett Ruess, may be right: it is not the mystery of Everett’s disappearance and final fate that makes him so interesting, but his achievements by the age of twenty. As a precocious artist, a writer of promise, a romantic visionary verging on the mystical, a bold and resourceful solo explorer of the wilderness, and in some sense the first true celebrator of the beauty of the Southwest for its own sake, Everett traces a unique and meteoric path across the American landscape. The cult that has accreted around him since he headed into Davis Gulch serves as the ultimate proof of how Everett’s wild quest captivates the minds and hearts of his legions of admirers.
Yet it is impossible to disentangle Everett’s vanishing from the legend that clings to him. By latest count, at least eighteen books have been published that claim to solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific. None of the theories, however, has come close to winning the day. Had Earhart crash-landed on Howland, been rescued by Japanese or American sailors, returned home to write a book about her adventure, flown for another decade or two before giving up the cockpit, and died peacefully in her bed at a respectable age, she would still be acclaimed as one of America’s pioneering aviators, but hardly as the mythic figure she has become. Earhart is fixed in the amber of time, forever androgynously beautiful as she looked at the age of thirty-nine, in fearless pursuit of her bravest challenge—to be the first woman to fly around the world. Everett, too, is fixed in that amber, as captured by Dorothea Lange’s splendid portraits of him at age nineteen.
In the aftermath of the AFDIL DNA result that disproved our identification of the skeleton on Comb Ridge, all of us involved in the discovery suffered a crushing sense of letdown and disappointment. And we all wondered if our desire to solve a long-standing mystery had run away with our better judgment. During our several visits to the crevice, as we kept finding beads and pendants and Liberty dime buttons, but no patently Anglo belongings, Vaughn Hadenfeldt and I had shared recurring doubts. “It sure does look like a Navajo grave,” Vaughn said more than once. Even after Van Gerven and Sandberg had so perfectly matched the facial features of the skull with the Lange photographs, I still expected Krauter and Marshall’s DNA test to disprove the identification. When their result seemed to clinch the case, I was as stunned—and of course exhilarated—as anyone.
Now, beneath the disappointment, and far deeper, those of us involved in the Comb Ridge find shared a profound sense of shame. In our zeal to solve the mystery, we had dug up a Native American, probably a Navajo. Any way you looked at it, that was a terrible desecration. Maldonado’s reburying the bones elsewhere on the reservation would never repair the harm we had done.
I felt bad, too, for Michèle and Brian Ruess and their siblings, Christella Campbell and Kevin Ruess. The roller-coaster of hope followed by disappointment on which I had bought them a year-and-a-half-long ride, in the process thrusting them into the public eye, now seemed a cruel tribulation, no matter how sincere my efforts may have been. And it meant that the eternal campaign to solve the mystery of Everett’s disappearance and fate had once more taken its toll on the family. Christopher and Stella had spent the rest of their lives trying to find out what had happened to Everett, as had Waldo after his parents’ deaths. Now the ordeal had revisited the third generation, Waldo’s children, like some inexorable Aeschylean curse.
The grave site and the skeleton on Comb Ridge nonetheless raised other dark questions. No one but Kevin Jones had disputed Van Gerven and Sandberg’s finding that the person interred in the crevice had been male, about twenty years old, and around five feet eight inches tall. And all of us who had seen the site, as well as Van Gerven and Sandberg when they examined the bones, agreed that the victim had suffered severe perimortem trauma. Whether or not he was a Navajo, the man may well have been murdered and buried in desperate haste. Here, perhaps, was evidence of a cold-case homicide every bit as vexing and intractable as the puzzle of Everett’s fate.
With the collapse of our discovery, the possible explanations for Everett’s demise reverted to something like the four hypotheses that had stayed current ever since 1935. These included the scenario that he was killed by rustlers who then dumped his body in the Colorado River. Despite the triumphant blog-posts of folks from Escalante, perhaps Keith Riddle and Joe Pollock were not off the hook after all.
In March 2010, a beguiling tribute to the power of Everett’s legend emerged. Back in 2004, Vaughn Hadenfeldt’s good friend Joe Pachak had been hiking in the narrow canyon beneath an Anasazi ruin called Eagle Nest. The site lies on Comb Ridge, less than a dozen miles north of the San Juan River. Vaughn, Greg Child, and I had been there a few years earlier, as we figured out a way to climb into the beautiful but vertiginous ruin, and mused over a rich petroglyph panel at the base of the cliff. But we missed what Pachak saw—dinosaur bones emerging from the Navajo sandstone of the cliff.
Keeping his find close to the vest, Pachak turned the work over to a team of paleontologists from the University of Utah. It took them five years to excavate, preserve, and analyze the bones, but when they were finished, they realized they had the nearly complete skeleton of a hitherto unknown species of dinosaur. The herbivorous sauropod had weighed some two hundred pounds, was between ten and fifteen feet long, and could walk on its hind legs. It had flourished about 185 million years ago. The scientists speculated that the creature had been trapped in the sudden collapse of a sand dune, which hardened into cliff over the eons thereafter. They also speculated that the Anasazi who had built and lived in Eagle Nest must have been well aware of the strange bones, which, seven hundred years before Pachak’s discovery, had most likely been far more visible than they were in 2004. The fossilized animal may well have contributed to the spiritual numen of the eerie redoubt engineered in a natural cubbyhole 200 feet up the nearly vertical cliff.
With no pressure from Pachak, and certainly not from any of us involved with our own discovery on the Comb, the University of Utah team named the new species Seitaad ruessi. Seit’aad is the Diné name for a sand-desert monster in the creation myth that devoured its prey. Ruessi, obviously, was a tip of the paleontological cap to the lost vagabond. Whatever the truth of Everett’s demise, he is now linked eternally by scientific nomenclature to Comb Ridge.
* * *
When he had called me in September 2009 to tell me about the AFDIL result, Brian Ruess had confided that he believed that Aneth Nez’s strange tale about witnessing the murder of a young white man in Chinle Wash was in all likelihood a true story about Everett’s death—it was just, Brian mused, that Denny Bellson had found the wrong body. Ron Maldonado agreed.
It was not, of course, Aneth Nez who had found the wrong body in 1971. With his precise memory of the burial he had carried out in the 1930s, Aneth would not have made the same mistake that Denny did. Thus it is almost certain that a grave of an Anglo victim lies on the crest of the Comb, still undiscovered, perhaps not far from the one Denny located in May 2008.
In any event, the scuttlebutt around Bluff by November 2009 was that Denny was already poking around on Comb Ridge as he looked for other graves.
Brian Ruess’s hunch that Aneth’s story was actually about Everett hinges on the following reasoning. The story Aneth told Daisey Johnson in 1971 was too specific in its details and too unusual for him to have made up. And since no one in Aneth’s, Daisey’s, and Denny’s extended family had ever heard of Everett Ruess before 2008, there is no way any of them could have tailored a fabricated story to fit Everett’s disappearance. Moreover, there would have been no reason for Aneth to have concocted the tale, and no reason, if he had, to keep it a secret for more than three decades. The five-day Enemy Way ceremony Aneth had had performed for him in 1971, in hopes of curing his cancer, was a deeply serious business. It required a lock of hair from the body Aneth said he had buried in the crevice on Comb Ridge in the 1930s. And to be efficacious, that lock of hair had to belong to a white man, or at least to a non-Navajo.
If Aneth did in fact see a young white man murdered in Chinle Wash, but it was someone other than Everett, it seems strange that months of inquiry on my part about other Anglos going missing on the reservation in the 1930s produced not a hint of a story that dovetailed with Aneth’s account.
The NEMO inscription on the granary in Grand Gulch, discovered by Ken Sleight in the late 1960s and verified by Fred Blackburn in 2009, seems authentic, carved in the mud by Everett, not by some later copycat. And since that site lies midway between Davis Gulch and Chinle Wash, right on the most logical route between the two canyons, it remains a powerful argument for the scenario that sometime after November 1934, Everett made his way east from the Escalante toward Monument Valley or Canyon de Chelly—or Chinle Wash.
During the months I spent in 2008 and 2009 puzzling over Everett’s fate, three new pieces of evidence fell into my lap. The first came indirectly, via Fred Blackburn, who in November 2009 had received a visit from Eric Atene, a Navajo working for the Bureau of Land Management out of Moab. Formerly a guide, Atene had horse-packed supplies into a remote “base camp” for Jon Krakauer and me in 1994, as we launched a probe of a slot canyon in the wilderness northwest of Navajo Mountain that we thought might be unexplored. Hiking in with Atene to the site of our gear depot, I realized that few natives knew this backcountry labyrinth better than he did.
Fifteen years later, visiting Fred, Eric brought up Everett Ruess. “You know,” he said almost casually, “he had a name—Hosteen ______.” Fred failed to catch the Diné pronunciation of the name, but Eric glossed it for him: “The man who walks with burros.
“He came through here,” Eric added, indicating not Cortez, where he was visiting Fred, but the Navajo Mountain area. “Came across the [Colorado] river and down Navajo Canyon. He wouldn’t stay with the Navajos, but he had a tree he’d camp under. They’d see his tracks and know he was back.”
From the start of my inquiry, I had wondered what kinds of oral stories the Navajos might have preserved about Everett. But I also knew you didn’t just drop by an old-timer’s hogan and interview him. A well-guarded fragment of lore such as the one Eric was sharing with Fred had to be freely given, not asked for—and only after years of friendship and trust.
The second odd piece of evidence came shortly after my Adventure piece was published, when a stranger named Greg Funseth sent me a provocative e-mail. On my next visit to Salt Lake City, I had lunch with Funseth. A fifty-one-year-old computer software engineer, Greg was a rock climber, a desert hiker, and a passionate fan of Everett Ruess. Now he had a compelling story to tell me.
In 2001 he had made a solo backpacking trip into Davis Gulch, partly to commune with the spirit of Everett, but partly in hopes of discovering something new about the way the vagabond had met his end. For two days Greg explored every inch of the gulch, which he had to himself in early June. “I’m in one of the most inhospitable, remote places in the U.S.,” he wrote in his diary. “I love this place!” At times he would stop and shout to the surrounding walls, “Are you here, Everett?”
On the third day, Greg found an obscure and difficult route out of the gulch on the opposite side from the old livestock trail by which he had entered. It was, apparently, an Anasazi hand-and-toe trail that I had missed in 1998. Then Greg wandered aimlessly across the slickrock plateau that stretched beyond. Beneath a short sandstone cliff, he stopped for lunch. It was only after an hour at this site that he stood up, glanced at the cliff behind him—and froze in astonishment. There, neatly etched on the ruddy stone, he saw
For various reasons, Greg told no one except his wife about the discovery for the next eight years. Nor did he return to Davis Gulch. I felt extraordinarily privileged that he had chosen to share his find with me.
In October 2009, Greg met writer Scott Thybony and me on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, near the head of Davis Gulch. It was a serene autumnal day as we set off across the billowing domes and sandy hollows of the mazelike plateau that stretched ahead of us. An easy place to get lost, if you didn’t keep track of your bearings.
Greg led us unerringly to the wall with the inscription. As soon as I saw it, I knew that it was Everett who had carved it. The orthography—the down-slanting E, the short-cropped M, the oval O—exactly matched the Davis Gulch inscriptions that had been found by the searchers in 1935. And if I thought the Grand Gulch granary lay in an obscure place—well, this nondescript wall in the middle of nowhere was beyond obscure.
In all likelihood, Greg had been the first person ever to discover this NEMO. And Thybony and I were probably the second and third people to see it. A dazzling find in its own right, it also could be marshaled to support the idea that sometime in late 1934, Everett had left Davis Gulch to head east toward the Colorado River, perhaps crossing it at the Hole-in-the-Rock gash in the towering cliffs.
The third tantalizing clue came from Thybony, who was working on a book part of which told the story of another young desert explorer named Dan Thrapp. After working for a year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Thrapp set off on a mission to explore the desert, even though it was his first trip ever to the Southwest. Setting off from Green River, Utah, in November 1934, he told friends he expected to be gone for three weeks. Instead, he was on his own for three months. A search was launched for Thrapp during the same months that the searches for Everett were under way; several newspapers ran stories about both lost wanderers in the same issue.
When Thrapp resurfaced in Bluff in the spring of 1935, he wondered crankily what all the fuss was about. He had gotten along fine by himself, pairing up with a series of strangers, some of them known outlaws. Thrapp would go on to craft a distinguished career as a Southwest historian, one of the leading experts on Apaches.
Now Thybony told me that on the Emigrant Trail (the continuation of the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail east of the Colorado River, the route by which the Mormon pioneers had reached the San Juan in 1880), somewhere just east of Grand Gulch, sometime in February 1935, Thrapp and his companions had lost the trail in a snowstorm. They had ridden in a circle to re-find the route, and as soon as they did, they discovered the fresh tracks of a man and two pack animals—tracks that had not been there an hour earlier. But Thrapp’s party never made contact with this stranger.
Now Scott and I both wondered: Had Dan Thrapp come within minutes of running into Everett Ruess, as Ruess headed east beyond Grand Gulch? A few weeks after Scott first told me this haunting anecdote, I was prowling around the Clay Hills Divide, looking for anything that could be linked to Everett. That low pass on the Emigrant Trail is a half-day’s journey on foot west of Grand Gulch. Instead of traces of Everett, however, I discovered a different inscription on the mud wall of an Anasazi structure inside a cozy alcove:
Scott had not found the inscription himself, nor was he aware of Thrapp ever having left his “Kilroy was here” anywhere else on his marathon journey. After making his own visit to the ruin, Scott wryly e-mailed me, “Thanks for passing on that find. I owe you a NEMO.”
There is no proof, of course, that the fresh prints in the snowstorm on the Emigrant Trail had been left by Everett and his burros. But the possibility is tantalizing, and if it happens to be true, Thrapp’s inscription on the wall of the Anasazi structure would give the last possible date for Ruess’s wanderings in the winter of 1934–35.
All this, of course, may be mere wishful thinking. There is a chance that Aneth Nez saw Everett murdered, and that the poet-artist’s body still lies out there somewhere, on Comb Ridge or in Chinle Wash. But there is an equal chance that Aneth’s story was about someone else. The mystery of the vagabond who vanished near Davis Gulch in November 1934 endures.
As Brian Ruess told me, “Everett just doesn’t want to be found.”