TWO MONTHS PASSED WITH NO WORD from Everett to his parents or his brother. The family, however, was not troubled, for in his Escalante letters, Everett had warned them, as he had written Waldo, that “It may be a month or two before I have a post office.”
As soon as she received the paintings Everett had mailed home with his November 11 letter, Stella had them matted and framed. For her, the act may have had a tinge of wishful magic about it—as if preparing the bedroom she and Christopher kept for their younger son (his artwork hanging on its walls, as Everett had hinted he would like) might hasten his return.
Meanwhile, Waldo had found new employment as a secretary for a religious mission. The posting would take him much farther from Los Angeles than his water company job in San Bernardino had, for the mission was based in China. On December 17 his parents parted with Waldo as he boarded a ship in the Los Angeles harbor. Stella, who kept a five-year diary, with space for only a few sentences each day, wrote, “[W]ent to see W. off, & then went to Krese home [friends of the family] & held candles in the window as the boat went out of the harbor. Good-bye for how long?”
From mid-November through January, Stella and Christopher wrote letters to Everett. They mailed them to Bryce Canyon National Park, probably because Everett had written warmly about his friendship with Maurice Cope, the park’s chief ranger, and they hoped that their son might resurface there.
By the end of January, however, still having received no answer from Everett, Christopher and Stella were growing worried. To be sure, during his previous journeys their footloose son had sometimes been out of touch for more than a month at a time. But not for two and a half months, and not in the dead of winter.
Sometime that winter, the letters that had fetched up at Bryce were forwarded to Marble Canyon, Arizona—the nearest post office to Lee’s Ferry, one of the possible destinations of his upcoming rambles that Everett had mentioned in his November 11 letter. The postmistress at Marble, Florence Lowry, waited for what she called “a reasonable time” for the letters to be picked up, then, in early February 1935, returned them to their senders. When Christopher and Stella received their own missives, still sealed in their envelopes, their faint malaise burst into full-blown alarm. They wrote at once to Lowry. She replied, “I am sorry I have not seen or heard of your son. I have made inquiry of everyone near here and havent found anyone who has seen him.” Lowry added, “The country north of here is very wild and arid and it was ill advised of anyone to start with out a guide but if your son was an experienced camper he will no doubt come through all right.”
At the same time as they wrote to Lowry, Everett’s parents sent off a query to the postmistress in Escalante. She turned this plea over to her husband, Jennings Allen, a local rancher and county commissioner. He wrote back to the Ruesses, offering to instigate a search, as he vowed, “We will search for him as though he were our son.”
Between February 11 and 25, Christopher and Stella wrote letters to the postmasters of every town in the Southwest that they knew their son had visited during his three seasons of vagabondage in the region. They also wrote to the sheriffs of every county Everett had passed through, to Anglo traders on the Navajo reservation, to Indian agents, forest rangers, and newspapers and radio stations. These anguished appeals typically began,
Can you help us?
Have you seen or heard of our son?
There followed a precise physical description of the missing twenty-year-old.
In these letters, Christopher and Stella tried to balance their fears with faith in their son’s wilderness skills:
Everett is not inexperienced as he has lived this way in the mountains for four seasons, but not during December and January. He may have travelled into great danger, and we hope you can … tell us how to find trace of him. Do you send out notices, or is there a plane that searches for lost people?
The responses from agents, sheriffs, traders, and the like were uniformly diligent and compassionate. But the sum total of their information about the vagabond’s whereabouts was zero. And so, Christopher and Stella’s alarm began to deepen with the edge of grief.
Maurice Cope sent a long letter from Bryce Canyon in which he summarized his discussions with Everett the previous November as to how he planned to pursue his journey beyond Escalante:
He had with him a gun, plenty of ammunition, a compass etc. We discussed the condition of Fifty Mile Mountain [Kaiparowits Plateau] during the winter months its height 7000 feet etc.…
When he left here, he did not intend going over the mountain, but keep under the mountain near the river where the elevation is only 3500 feet and there is never enough snow to bother.
Christopher and Stella wrote to Waldo in China. The letters took weeks to arrive, but Everett’s brother promptly answered each one. At first he strove for an upbeat outlook. On March 12, sixteen days before Everett’s twenty-first birthday, Waldo wrote,
First of all, I want to wish Everett a happy “Coming of Age.” This will probably arrive a few days after his birthday but the sentiments are there. I do hope that I will hear from him some time this year!
I wish I were there; I would certainly go out to try to find him. But since I have had no word from you and your letter is now 3 weeks old I presume everything is all right.
The word of Everett’s having gone missing leaked out to the press. A Los Angeles newspaper picked up the story as early as February 14. Reports of Everett’s disappearance eventually spread across the United States, via Associated Press and United Press dispatches.
On February 22, out of the blue, Stella received a telegram from someone signing himself Captain Neal Johnson:
WILL CONDUCT SEARCH YOUR REQUEST. KNOW INDIAN SCOUTS. KNOW REGION WELL. NO WATER EXCEPT SNOW. IF LOST CAN BE FOUND. SNOW MELT SOON. NO WATER, WILL PERISH. SEARCH MUST START IMMEDIATELY.… WILL CONDUCT SEARCH FOR EXPENSES FOR INDIAN SCOUTS ONLY.
Since all the letters from Indian traders and forest rangers had produced not a scrap of evidence as to Everett’s doings, Christopher and Stella grasped at Captain Johnson’s straw. On February 28 the man came to Los Angeles and spent the night at their home on North Kingsley Drive. Johnson claimed his knowledge of the country came from the many years he had prospected through the Southwest in search of gold. He attributed his title of captain to a stint flying planes for the Mexican government. The next day, Stella recorded in her diary, “Went to bank & took out $75.00 to give Capt. Johnson for Indian search.”
Meanwhile, starting on March 1, a search out of Escalante had been launched by Jennings Allen. After consulting with Addlin Lay and Clayton Porter, the two sheepherders who were the last men to see Everett the previous November, Allen set out with some dozen local men on horseback down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. They began their search where the old trail crossed the head of Soda Gulch, the site of the sheepherders’ November campsite.
In Soda Gulch the party found no sign of Everett’s passage, nor did they in Willow Gulch, three miles to the northwest. On March 6, however, the men rode down an old livestock trail that offered the only easy entry into Davis Gulch, yet another tributary of the Escalante, located two miles southeast of Soda Gulch. One of the searchers, Walter Allen, carved the date and his name in the sandstone cliff at the foot of the livestock trail (the inscription is still legible today). And here the party struck pay dirt.
Exactly what the searchers found in Davis Gulch that day, however, remains a matter of controversy. In the early 1980s, several of the searchers still alive reported that as soon as they had reached the floor of the narrow canyon, they came upon Everett’s two burros. A brushwork fence had been built to confine them in a huge natural corral consisting of the upper three miles of Davis Gulch. Some of the men said the burros were thin and emaciated, but others, including Jennings Allen, swore they were “fat and healthy.”
The searchers later testified that they found a bridle, a halter, and a rope draped on the brushwork fence. One of the men, Gail Bailey, herded the burros up the livestock trail and headed with them back to Escalante, while the others searched farther down-canyon.
In a natural alcove not far from the foot of the livestock trail, the searchers also found unmistakable signs of what they presumed was Everett’s last camp: footprints on the ground, empty cans that had held condensed milk, candy wrappers, Anasazi potsherds (gathered, presumably, by Everett), and the impression in the dirt of a bedroll.
The searchers were puzzled, however, to find no trace of the young man’s camping gear, cooking equipment, food, watercolor painting kit, or cash. Nor was there any sign of the journal he had kept throughout the first seven months of his 1934 expedition.
The searchers also claimed to have found Everett’s footprints “leading to the edge of a cliff”—though which cliff, they never clarified. On March 15, Jennings Allen wrote to Christopher and Stella, “We have searched the country good on this side of the Colorado River and haven’t been able to find any fresh sign of Everett.”
Maurice Cope, the Bryce Canyon head ranger, was deeply puzzled by the findings of the Allen party. On March 21, he wrote Christopher:
The fact that his burros were fenced in and his camp outfit is not to be found is evident [sic] that he has a permanent camp some where. The most reasonable thing for me to believe is, that he in some way crossed the river to the east side or attempted to cross.…
If he did not cross the river, I cannot understand why he left his burros.…
Near where his burros were found are deep canyons and in them are signs of cliff dwellings. There is always danger in attempting to climb up to them.…
I am very concerned and no doubt there is some need for alarm. If he established a camp some where with the intention of staying until spring every thing will be o. k.…
If any thing has happened it would no doubt be some kind of accident.
From far-distant China, Waldo was still trying to stay optimistic. On March 25 he wrote his parents, “And I hope he is found. He ought to get good publicity out of that & with his writing ability, capitalize on it and write magazine articles.”
In Los Angeles, however, Christopher and Stella were consumed with anguish. In her diary on March 2, Stella recorded, “About Everett on radio. Calls from Press.” And on March 8, “Radio said Everett may be hopelessly lost.”
The parents held out hope that someone might organize a search by airplane. In response to their appeals, on April 8 the acting U.S. Secretary of War promised an aerial search “when training flights are made over the area.” But Maurice Cope, who knew the intricacy of the Escalante wilderness firsthand, warned Christopher, “The National Park does not have an air plane. In fact an air plane in that part of the country would be of little value.” In the end, no attempt to canvass the Escalante country from the air was ever launched.
Throughout the next three months, Stella and Christopher received a steady stream of dispatches from Captain Neal Johnson, detailing the progress of his search with Indian scouts. The reports were handwritten in pencil, the grammar and spelling semi-literate. At the head of each letter, Johnson recorded the town from which he wrote, as he performed a virtuosic crisscrossing of the Southwest: Cortez, Colorado; Holbrook, Arizona; Blanding, Utah; Richfield, Marys Vale, Hanksville, and ultimately Salt Lake City, also in Utah.
From Cortez on March 14, Captain Johnson wrote:
Reached here this evening.… I stoped several times to communicate with diferent Indians of diferant trading posts alond up through New Mexico and Arizona also Colorado. There is several that knew of Everet. One Chief told me today. Picture man heap savy wild mountains O.K. never the less I was unable to get any information from them concerning him nothing more than heap O.K. Picture man. He make picture for Indians.
In the same letter, Johnson went on to assert:
I still do not believe that Everet is in danger unless he gets abandoned from more than any one [of the Indians] because they are loyal if they are your friend. Most of the Indians know of the Paint man whitch is Everett they say he is Yabitoch which means fun, good humor.…
In another letter, allegedly mailed from Blanding, Captain Johnson named his three Navajo scouts. They were Cidno or Cidney, Bully Chaho, and Buch Nash Chaho. “These Indians are not charging me anything Just expenses,” Johnson wrote. “They are friends of myne and they feel Owe It to me for if One or any Navajo is your friend he loves and worships you. I like them for their loyalty to me.” Another source of the scouts’ loyalty, Johnson let on, was that “I saved one of them from dying with pnemonia.”
On April 8, Johnson wrote, again from Blanding:
The latest Report is that it is of their opinion that your son is with two Indians Both Navajos. And that they have headed for the camp of Hostene Buchasia a Navajo Indian that lives near Navajo Mountain.… The two Indians and the white man seen to be verry clever in avoiding seeing, or litting any one see them. Hostene Buchasia is an old Indian and he knows most everything that is known about the Navajo tribe.…
I ask [one of my scouts] what percent of chances did Everett have of being alive. He held up his hands with only one finger turned down. 9 to 1.
From the start, Stella and Christopher had had their doubts about Captain Johnson. As early as March 4, shortly after Jennings Allen and his fellow Escalante ranchers had headed out the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail in search of Everett, Christopher and Stella had sent Johnson a telegram: “PLEASE LET ALLEN CONDUCT SEARCH INSTEAD RETURN BALANCE OUR MONEY.” Yet in the desperation of their hope that Everett was still alive, his parents clung to the strange and vivid rumors Johnson fed them. Through the end of May, they continued to send him further infusions of money and even some of Everett’s drawings and typed-out passages from his letters. In return, Johnson fawned:
I wish that I could write like Everett it is a Gods Gift what a delightful letter to write to a boy friend the wilderness the out of dorse is Everetts God his sole and heart is raped up in it.… I envy him I wish I could take his place and let him come home to you.
Among Captain Johnson’s schemes for contacting Everett was a plan to drop handbills from an airplane over every watering hole in the Southwest. “They will settle to the Earth,” Johnson predicted, “and Everett is bound to pick one up.” To this end, on April 19, he claimed he was heading for the dirt strip that served as the Moab, Utah, airport, where he hoped to rendezvous with copilots and a plane the Ruesses might hire. “Don’t forget to Instruct the pilots to bring an Extra Parachute,” he urged. “I do not like to fly without one over a rough country.” Three weeks later, writing from Richfield, Utah, Johnson claimed he had performed the flight out of Moab, to no avail because the country was indeed too rough to fly over low to the ground.
As the weeks sped by, one glitch after another kept thwarting Johnson’s best-laid plans. On April 29, after claiming to have met his scouts in Bluff, Utah, for an update, Johnson found Cidno, Bully Chaho, and Buch Nash Chaho in a despondent mood. They were “tired of being followed,” Johnson said, by other Navajos who were their enemies. Yet even so, the scouts delivered news that must have rent Christopher and Stella’s hearts. “I have some news for you,” Johnson warned. “I don’t know whether to consider It good or bad.” Despite the hostility of the other Navajos “following” them, the scouts “did obtain the Information that there is a white man with the two Indians. That he is well and dont want to be bothered.”
All spring, Captain Johnson had planned to head for Navajo Mountain himself to verify the substance of his scouts’ reports. But week by week, he found reasons to delay this mission. In early June he was ready to go, when he was suddenly stricken with appendicitis. In an apologetic letter to Christopher and Stella, he pleaded that he needed time to recover from the operation to remove his appendix before he could make the arduous trip to Navajo Mountain. He thanked the Ruesses for their latest enclosure, a stipend of fifteen dollars. He claimed that he was still convinced their son was alive.
“The money I spend on this of my own I will do of my own free will and of no obligation to you,” Johnson pledged. “I will settle or fix it some way with Everett when I locate him.”
In retrospect, it is obvious that Captain Johnson was a complete charlatan, a con man who sucked sizable sums of money—$350, all told—out of trusting parents made frantic by a personal tragedy. As Stella and Christopher would eventually learn, it is doubtful that Johnson performed any of the deeds he claimed to have set in motion, or even that his three Navajo scouts existed. Yet for months after the parents finally confronted Johnson with their suspicions of his duplicity, he continued to sputter protestations of innocence and sincerity.
Nor was Captain Johnson the last of the con men to see in the Ruesses’ plight an opportunity for personal gain. For years after Everett’s disappearance, a procession of sociopathic and/or delusional informants would surface, offering stunning revelations about Everett’s fate or his secret existence. And the tragedy of Christopher and Stella’s loss was exacerbated by the dogged hope that compelled them to follow each fugitive path to its bitter dead end.
* * *
Around March 21, a second search party set out from Escalante. Though its scope was limited, this team of ranchers on horseback made one important new discovery. “About the first of April,” a chief ranger for the National Park Service wrote the Ruesses, “footprints were seen between Davis Gulch and the Hole-in-the-Rock.” From the top of the livestock trail leading down into Davis Gulch, an overland hike of some nine miles would take a traveler to the V-notch gap in the cliff above the Colorado River, where the Mormon pioneers in January 1880 had started lowering their wagons down the precipitous nine-hundred-foot chute to the river’s edge.
Navajos were known to keep a canoe cached at the Hole-in-the-Rock crossing, to facilitate their trading missions from the reservation to Escalante. If the footprints were Everett’s, he might have left his burros in the Davis Gulch “corral” as he headed on foot for the cleft in the plateau. As the NPS ranger speculated, “It is more probable that [Everett] has ferried his camp across the river and taken his burros back to Davis Gulch where there was water and grass.”
This hypothesis, however, ran head-on into a cardinal objection. As the leader of yet a third search party wrote to the Ruesses in June,
The consensus of opinion seems to be that Everett did not cross the Colorado River onto the Navajo Mountain. There was a man camped at the Hole in the Rock from about December 6 until sometime in April who seems positive that had anyone come to that place he would have seen them. In viewing this country you would agree that it is unlikely anyone could cross the river at that point without being seen by a party camped there.
By 2009, no one in Escalante recalled the identity of this mysterious winter camper, or the purpose of his mission. But a probable answer lies carved in the rock. Along the upper third of both walls bordering the Hole-in-the-Rock cleft, passersby have carved their names, initials, and dates for more than a century. A handful of the hundreds of inscriptions derive from the original pioneers in 1880. Among these “Kilroy was here” notations, faded but still largely legible, one reads:
Nudged by a transcription of this graffito, local writer Jerry Roundy (a distant relative of Quinn), the author of an excellent town history called “Advised Them to Call the Place Escalante,” supplied some context: “Quinn would have been herding sheep. He wasn’t the owner—he would have been working for somebody else. Sometimes they had a sheep wagon, and they’d stay out there all winter.
“If Quinn saw Everett, I never heard him say so.”
Dissatisfied by the necessary superficiality of the first two searches (the ranchers, after all, were taking unpaid leave from their onerous cattle- and sheep-raising chores to ride down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail and look for clues), Ray Carr, the secretary of the Associated Civic Clubs of Southern Utah, organized a third search. It was launched in late May. Pushing down Davis Gulch farther than either of the previous parties had, this team made a pair of discoveries that has haunted Everett Ruess devotees ever since. Hurrying back to Escalante, Carr telegraphed the Ruesses on June 5, “DOES WORD NEMO HAVE ANY SIGNIFICANCE TO YOU FOUND CARVED IN CAVE.”
In a follow-up letter, Carr elaborated:
In one place in the lower part of the Davis Gulch an area which had not been covered before tracks made by a size 9 shoe were found leading from Escalante Creek up the Gulch to an old moquie indian [Anasazi] dwelling where the searchers found an old indian pot and other things neatly piled up by the moquie house entrance. Cattle and sheep men in this vicinity are certain that no one other than Everett was in this vicinity last year. On one of the steps leading to the entrance was found the inscription “NEMO 1934.”
Carr’s party also found another inscription downstream from the livestock trail, near the base of an ancient Fremont pictograph panel. Drawn with charcoal in small, black characters, it too read:
The discovery set off bells in the parents’ heads. Upon receiving Carr’s telegram, Stella immediately wired back:
EVERETT READ IN DESERT GREEK POEM ODYSSEY, TRANSLATED BY LAWRENCE OF ARABIAN DESERT. HERE ODYSSEUS GREEK WORD FOR NOBODY, “NEMO” BEING LATIN WORD FOR NOBODY. ODYSSEUS TRAPPED BY MAN-EATING GIANT IN CAVE, SAVES LIFE BY TRICK OF CALLING HIMSELF NEMO. EVERETT DISLIKES WRITING HIS OWN NAME IN PUBLIC PLACES.
It was true that Everett had never been known to carve or scrawl his name on the walls of canyons he traveled through. But in 1931 he had twice assumed pseudonyms, calling and signing himself first Lan Rameau, then Evert Rulan, before reverting to his given appellation. The taking on of aliases went deeper than mere adolescent wordplay; it had everything to do with a discomfort with his own identity.
None of Everett’s 1934 letters had been signed “NEMO.” If he had decided to take on yet a third pseudonym, he must have done so only in late autumn, perhaps while he camped alone in Davis Gulch.
In Book Nine of the Odyssey, the hero and his men are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant, who casually dashes out the brains of two of the sailors and eats their bodies raw. To save himself and his remaining men, Odysseus gets the monster drunk on good wine from his ship; in gratitude the Cyclops promises the hero a “guest-gift,” and asks him his name.
In T. E. Lawrence’s translation, Odysseus answers, “My name is No-man: so they have always called me, my mother and my father and all my friends.” Polyphemus proffers a cruel guest-gift: “I will eat No-man finally, after all his friends. The others first—that shall be your benefit.”
While the Cyclops is drunk, Odysseus sharpens a stake of olive wood in the fire and thrusts it into Polyphemus’s eye. Blinded, in pain and rage, the monster calls out to his fellow giants to help him finish off the humans. “What so ails you, Polyphemus,” they answer, “that you roar across the heavenly night and keep us from sleep?”
“My friends,” Polyphemus answers, “No-man is killing me by sleight.”
His fellow Cyclopes only laugh: “If you are alone and no one assaults you,” they jibe, “but your pain is some unavoidable malady from Zeus, why then, make appeal to your father King Poseidon.” Soon after, Odysseus’s men escape the cave by hanging on to the underbellies of the giant’s sheep and riding the animals past the furious fumblings of the Cyclops’s hands.
To be sure, Homer never uses the word “Nemo” (he wrote, of course, in Greek, not Latin). But Everett would have linked the Latin name with the famous passage from the Odyssey, just as his mother did.
Later, Christopher realized that NEMO also echoes Captain Nemo, the misanthropic antihero of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a well-thumbed copy of which Everett had read more than once. In the novel, after hunting what they thought was a giant sea monster all over the oceans of the world, the protagonist, the learned Professor Aronnax, and his two companions are taken captive on the captain’s mysterious submarine. There is a vivid moment when the three men first meet their jailer. In all likelihood, Everett felt a deep identification with Captain Nemo’s proclamation: “I’m not what you would call a civilized man! I’ve broken with all of society for reasons which I alone can appreciate. I therefore don’t obey its rules.”
Two other echoes may help explain Everett’s choice of a last pseudonym. In June 1934 he had traversed No Mans Mesa, one of the most remote places on the Navajo Reservation, almost losing his burro Leopard in the process. From a camp just west of the mesa, he had written his declaration to Bill Jacobs, “The perfection of this place is one reason why I distrust ever returning to the cities. Here I wander in beauty and perfection. There one walks in the midst of ugliness and mistakes.” And at the end of his letter to Waldo from Escalante, Everett had signed off, “It may be a month or two before I have a post office, for I am exploring southward to the Colorado, where no one lives.” (“Nemo” is usually translated as “no one” or “nobody,” not the more specific “no man.”)
By now, both NEMO inscriptions in Davis Gulch lie under water, drowned after 1957 by the rising waters of Lake Powell following the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. But nobody seriously doubts that the two signatures were Everett’s work. The single Latin name and the date stand, forever enigmatic and portentous, as Everett’s last words to the world.
* * *
Agonizing in Los Angeles over their missing son, Christopher and Stella Ruess felt the need to act. On June 21, 1935, they set out on a trip by automobile to northern Arizona and southern Utah. They brought with them a number of Everett’s paintings. Their aim was not to try to find the lost youth on their own so much as to visit the places that he had cared about so passionately, and to meet some of the people who had crossed Everett’s path.
Navigating the Southwest from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon, from Kayenta, Arizona, to Panguitch, Utah, Christopher and Stella conferred with all kinds of men and women with whom Everett had shared his thoughts and plans during the seven months before he disappeared. Stella kept a diary separate from her five-year journal during this trip, and years later wrote a short essay summarizing the pilgrimage. The diary is oddly travelogue-ish, dutifully recording scenery, miles traversed, places camped, meals eaten. But here and there a mother’s grief breaks through, as in an entry about a natural formation in Zion National Park that her son had passed by: “We climbed up a steep trail to Weeping Rock & it made me weep thinking of Everett.”
The parents’ first stop was not Escalante, but Kayenta, where Everett had begun his 1934 expedition. There they met John and Louisa Wetherill and their son, Ben, who had been with Everett on the Rainbow Bridge-Monument Valley excavation of Woodchuck Cave. On June 24, Stella wrote, “Visited Wetherills, who discredited N. Johnson, explained Indian situation & said Everett was very happy last Sept.” (This entry casts further doubt on Clay Lockett’s testimony that John Wetherill “had little respect for Everett.”)
The veteran trader and guide recounted how he and Everett had pored over maps the previous summer, plotting a course for his upcoming months of travel. It was Wetherill’s firm belief that after visiting the Escalante region, Everett hoped to cross the Colorado and explore Wilson Mesa. Had he done so, he might well have followed the faint trail blazed by the Mormon pioneers in 1880. And so far, none of the searchers had looked for the missing young man on Wilson Mesa—then as now, one of the more inaccessible regions in all the Southwest.
The next day Stella and Christopher drove to the Navajo Mountain trading post. Along the way they met Edward Nequatewa, a Hopi man who had become an ethnologist. “Long talk,” Stella noted dryly. The gist of what Nequatewa had to say is preserved in a letter he later wrote to the parents:
What Navajos that I had talked with, from the Navajo Mountain, said that they had never seen Everett or any white man around there at that time nor there was never any searching party came around there, otherwise the Navajos would be talking about it. They also said that if Everett has met his foul play in that region it won’t be by an Indian. If this Johnson really had sent these Indians out on searching party, he certainly would have some reports from them.
From Navajo Mountain, Stella and Christopher drove west through the Kaibab Forest to Zion National Park, then northeast toward Escalante. Along the way, a number of people who had met Everett the previous autumn offered suggestions as to where he might be found. One of them was George Shakespeare, who lived in Tropic, the little town where Everett had lingered for several days before pushing on to Escalante. About Shakespeare, Stella recorded, “Spent considerable time with E., & would like to go searching. Thinks E. may be with Navajos.” Joe Lee, the proprietor of The Gap, a trading post south of Lee’s Ferry, had another hunch: “Thought E. would go across Hall’s Crossing [on the Colorado River, almost a hundred miles to the north] on a raft, maybe drowned.” Bryce Canyon chief ranger Maurice Cope was even more definite: “Set up tent & called on Mr. Cope. E. told him he would stay with the Navajos until July. Navajos do not use burros very often.”
Though Stella’s diary only laconically records the speculations about Everett’s itinerary, one can imagine the mixture of anguish and hope each glimmering insight must have sent coursing through the parents’ veins. In and around Escalante, they met most of the members of the first two search parties. Jennings Allen, head of the March 1935 team, drove Christopher and Stella forty-two miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock road, which was as far as he could coax his car—“so that,” Stella later wrote, “we realized how difficult was Everett’s burro-riding toward Davis Canyon, southeast. We wished that we had wings to fly.”
Except for the two-day stopover at the Grand Canyon by Stella in 1923, the journey was the parents’ first encounter with the desert Southwest. They were awed by the landscape, but its beauty brought pain:
From the [Navajo] bridge, we thrilled at the deep gorge of the Colorado. We thought we recognized the very view Everett painted, and which we called “On and On and On” as printed on a folder with his “Wilderness Song”.…
We saw many sheltered spots where Everett probably slept, and the impressive Amphitheatre of great rocks with a drapery of green foliage and a natural pulpit in a pool of water. We felt sure that Everett had declaimed some well-loved lines to the surrounding vermilion cliffs.
In Escalante the parents got an earful of appraisals of Captain Neal Johnson. The brunt of the testimony was that the gold miner was a thoroughgoing fraud and scoundrel. As Christopher later wrote Waldo, “I can’t make him out. He may never have sent any Indians at all—a peculiar character. We are financing him no further.”
Johnson got wind of the Escalante scuttlebutt. On June 1, from Hanksville, Utah, he wrote Everett’s father, summoning up all the indignation he could muster:
I cannot hardly believe you said it. The report was that you said you considered what money you had sent me was a loss that you considered I had used It for my own use.… I do not need that kind of money. Blood money. If Everet was Dead whitch I believe he is not he would haunt me. If he was alive he would haunt me.
Although by temperament inclined to think the best of everyone, Christopher responded bluntly: “Can you blame us for being entirely on the fence as to whether you were half right and half wrong or all wrong? Some suggested that you had not hired or sent out any Indians at all.” And yet, despite his resolve to cut off financing Johnson altogether, in the same letter Christopher offered to pay him twenty-five dollars if he would go to Navajo Mountain and come back with a short note from Everett. The captain seized on that shred of encouragement and continued to pursue his bizarre “search” through the summer of 1935.
On July 3, Christopher and Stella arrived back in Los Angeles. About a week later, officers found a badly burned corpse in the desert near Gallup, New Mexico. Speculation on whether this might be Everett flared high enough to reach the newspapers. The Gallup chief of police corresponded with Christopher and Stella, asking if any dental records of their son existed. The parents appealed to the College of Dentistry at the University of Southern California, where in December 1932 and January 1933 Everett had had work done on his teeth. On July 16, 1935, the college mailed to Christopher three pages of skimpy and somewhat ambiguous records. They indicated two inlays and one gold foil. Christopher also knew that Everett was missing a tooth from his upper right jaw.
On August 1, the Gallup chief of police wrote back, saying that his men had found “no missing teeth roots” and no metal whatsoever among the ashes of the dead man’s skull. On this basis, it was concluded that the corpse in the desert could not be Everett’s.
Unwilling to let Christopher’s frank accusations sabotage his campaign of feinting and dodging, Captain Neal Johnson wrote from Salt Lake City on August 12:
I am leaving here in the morning for Navajo Mountain. Where I will stay until Everett is found.… Mr. Ruess I hate to say this but there is a boy living with a bunch of Navajos in the vicinity of Navajo Mountain. He has had a tribal wedding. I am most sure this is Everett.
This time, for once, the con man would make good on a promise, at least in terms of actually setting out into the field on the Navajo reservation. The search that unfolded in August 1935 was not, however, of Johnson’s creation, but rather that of a far more famous sleuth who aimed at a far more high-profile resolution of the mystery. By the end of the month, the most ambitious search yet prosecuted for Everett Ruess would announce to the world what its author regarded as the definitive answer to the puzzle of the young wanderer’s disappearance—an answer that nonetheless left the essential mystery untouched.
* * *
John Upton Terrell was a prolific popular Western historian and reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. Before his death in 1988, he would write some forty books, including Search for the Seven Cities, Apache Chronicle, and biographies of John Wesley Powell, Zebulon Pike, and Cabeza de Vaca, the lost conquistador who accidentally made the European discovery of the Southwest. Terrell was a flamboyant, even sensationalistic writer in the vein of Zane Grey. By 1935 he was widely credited with discovering the horn-rimmed spectacles that helped solve the Leopold-Loeb murder case, but there is no independent evidence that he had anything to do with solving the “Crime of the Century.”
Terrell agreed to undertake the search on assignment for the Tribune. The results of the inquiry, in dispatches written by Terrell, were published on the pages of four successive issues of the newspaper between August 25 and 28. The first dispatch, printed at the top of the front page of the Sunday morning edition on August 25, under the headline “S.L. Tribune Expedition into Desert Finds Clues to Fate of Young Artist,” opened with a bold proclamation of the team’s unshakable conclusion:
Everett Ruess, 21-year-old missing Los Angeles artist, probably met death at the hands of a renegade bad man or Indian in a lonely canyon near the southern end of the untracked Escalante desert.
This is the united belief of the best Indian and white trackers, traders and wilderness residents of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Their conclusion is based on several “trails” of evidence, which to the men trained in the ways of remote lands, are almost irrefutable. But also these expressions of opinion have come following an extensive and intensive search by an expedition sent out by The Salt Lake Tribune, and which has practically exhausted other possibilities.
To buttress its claims, the Tribune published a map of the terrain traversed by the searchers. It covers an impressive swath of country stretching from Blanding, Utah, to Tuba City, Arizona. From the Navajo Mountain trading post, Terrell’s company (including Indian guides) worked its way northwest by pack train through some of the most rugged and seldom-visited canyonlands anywhere in the Southwest, finally crossing the San Juan and Colorado Rivers to arrive at Davis Gulch.
Read at a distance of seventy-five years from their publication, Terrell’s dispatches brim with an omniscient arrogance that poorly conceals the scarcity of real evidence the expedition was able to unearth. In 1935, however, the dispatches could well have seemed to give a definitive answer of sorts.
Terrell’s ace accomplice was not Captain Johnson (who is all but invisible in the published reports), but one Dougeye, a “famed Navajo trailer.” (Dougi, as the name is normally spelled, was actually a Paiute.) Even though more than eight months had passed since the last Escalante men had seen Everett in November 1934, Dougeye claimed (or Terrell claimed for him) that he could tell by tracks still printed in the dried mud on “the only possible trail” that no more than six men on horseback had crossed the San Juan and Colorado into Navajo country during that time. And all six, Dougeye was sure, were Indians. One was Dougeye himself, who the previous autumn had come to trade in Escalante, where he said he had met and spoken to Everett.
Terrell put Dougeye to work on the old footprints in Davis Gulch. The tracker’s verdict: “White boy come in, not go out.”
To dismiss the romantic idea that Everett might be living peacefully among the Navajos, having turned his back on white civilization, Terrell trotted out his own ethnographic maxims, such as, “A Navajo Indian cannot keep a secret. He reveals all such things to traders and agents.”
The mystical climax of Terrell’s search came in a hogan near Kayenta, Arizona, where the reporter’s guides led him to the camp of a Navajo medicine man. “I have forgotten the Indian’s name,” Terrell wrote. “It was, for me, unpronounceable. He was, however, Natani, which means ‘wise man’ or sometimes ‘head man.’ ” The old man’s wife was a renowned seer.
After the requisite sharing of cigarettes and gossip about the latest Indian policies of “Washingdon” (as Navajos referred to the federal government), “Natani” suddenly asked, “Why have you waited so long to look for your friend?” And for the first time, the medicine man’s wife spoke, almost inaudibly: “Far north.”
As Terrell’s party watched spellbound in the rainy night, Natani began to chant, while his wife covered her face, then started to sculpt a mound from the sand on the ground. Twice she destroyed and rebuilt the topographic model, which Terrell’s guides recognized as Navajo Mountain. Eventually she used a finger to draw a pair of crooked lines enfolding the peak, signifying the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.
The chant ended abruptly. Natani’s wife sat with her head fallen, breathing deeply, as if she were very tired. The rain stopped.…
Natani spoke: “Go to the forks of the rivers.”
Guide: “He lives there?”
Natani: “He was there. Close by he made a camp. You will find the fire.”
Guide: “Have you seen him?” (He meant in a vision.)
Natani: “He has gone away from there.”
Guide: “He’s dead.”
Natani: “He has gone away and does not mean to come back.”
Pressed by Terrell’s Navajo guide and translator, Natani made a last effort to “see” Everett. At last he spoke:
There is a shadow. Only some of his outfit was moved away. There is more some place. I see him talking with two friends. They are Navajos. Young men like himself. They sing and eat together. Then there is a shadow. He has gone away. The Navajos have left the place. They are no longer with him. She says they may have traveled together. He (Ruess) has given himself to our gods. He has taken us in his arms and wished to come among us.
The vision of Natani and his wife directed Terrell to Navajo Mountain, where he recruited Dougeye, then visited the junction of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. The tracker scrutinized the river-banks, then spoke, “White boy not camp here.”
Onward to Davis Gulch, and thence to further consultations with Indians and Anglo cattlemen. The cloak-and-dagger melodrama of Terrell’s dispatches obscures the fact that the search, for all its “extensive and intensive” apparatus, was little more than a flamboyant wild goose chase. Terrell’s conclusion, moreover, was not so much a QED as a grasping at the kind of straw that might sell newspapers. The closing passage of the last dispatch, for all its air of certainty, seems to acknowledge silently that Terrell’s party could not identify Everett’s alleged killer, or even come up with a convincing motive for such a crime.
This is the result: Everett Ruess was murdered in the vicinity of Davis canyon. His valuable outfit was stolen. He never reached the Colorado river.
“But some day,” we said, “pieces of his outfit will turn up.”
Then we would take the trail again.
The gripping accounts in the Salt Lake Tribune made a big splash. A Utah Department of Justice agent prepared to make a case before federal authorities to launch a manhunt for Everett’s killer(s). The state governor promised to open an official investigation.
To their credit, however, Christopher, Stella, and Waldo refused to swallow Terrell’s detective work whole. As of September 1935, they still held on to the hope that Everett was alive.