Desert Trails

DESPITE THE DELPHIC PROCLAMATION by John Upton Terrell in the Salt Lake Tribune, by the autumn of 1935, four different theories about Everett’s fate were in currency. During the next seven decades, those four theories continued to hold sway, generating many an impassioned debate in bars and around campfires all over the West.

The possibility that Everett had been murdered could not be ruled out. Terrell’s vague formula fingering the killer as a “renegade bad man or Indian” was complemented by dark rumors circulating around Escalante. And though the residents of that insular town tried to keep the gossip away from the ears of outsiders, the gist of it leaked out. Everett could have been murdered by a local rancher. The motive might have been simple robbery, although even in Depression times the goods Everett carried with him were so meager they would not have been likely to tempt even the most hardened thief. But another scenario sprang from the fact that some of the locals were known to be cattle rustlers. If Everett had stumbled upon rustlers in the process of butchering a stolen cow, they might have killed him to forestall the discovery of their crime.

A second theory, the one to which Christopher, Stella, and Waldo clung, was that Everett was still alive, but had chosen to stay indefinitely in hiding. A romantic version of this scenario postulated that Everett had “gone native”—crossed the Colorado River into Navajo country, decided never to return to the hated cities, taken up a secret life among the Indians, and perhaps even married a Navajo girl.

A third theory was that Everett had chosen to end his life. Few beyond the circle of his family and best friends were aware of the despair and depression that lurked just beneath the surface of Everett’s exuberance, but a desert suicide was not an unprecedented phenomenon in the Southwest.

The last theory had Everett leaving his burros in Davis Gulch as he took off on a side jaunt, perhaps simply a day hike. He might have been caught in a snowstorm in some remote nook of the canyons and frozen to death. Or he might have drowned trying to swim the Colorado River. Or he might have fallen to his death from some cliff, his body coming to rest in a place almost impossible to find. As he had bragged in his letters home, he had taken many a wild chance as he climbed to inaccessible Anasazi ruins, and to Edward Gardner in May 1934, he had jauntily admitted, “One way and another, I have been flirting pretty heavily with Death, the old clown.”

Much as they wanted to believe their son was alive, Christopher and Stella were too realistic to rule out the alternative. Unquenchable hope fought in their hearts against grieving pessimism. On September 24, Christopher wrote to a friend, “If Everett is dead, he has truly lived,—and more than most people do in a century.” Five days later he wrote to Waldo in China: “He had a fine feeling for you. You were two brothers, I believe, who never had fights. I do not recall your quarreling when little.”

Two months earlier, at about the same time as the dental records proved that the burned corpse found near Gallup could not be Everett’s, a certain “Preacher Smith” claimed that Everett was living in Blanding, Utah. “Everett may have lost his sense of identity through some blow or fall and amnesia; or he may be ‘broke’ and too proud to communicate,” Christopher wrote in his diary on July 20, summarizing Preacher Smith’s claim. “I still think he is with the Navajos on the mountain side, and does not communicate lest he break the spell, arouse feeling of suspicion that he is tattling.” The alleged Blanding sighting was quickly proven to be erroneous.

In September, fresh off his search with Terrell on the Navajo reservation, Captain Neal Johnson visited the Ruesses in Los Angeles. Despite their loss of all confidence in the quirky gold miner’s reports of Everett’s alleged doings in the backcountry, Stella and Christopher treated the con man with unfailing hospitality. “He sleeps in Everett’s bed and I in your bed right now,” Christopher wrote Waldo.

Out of this visit arose the most far-fetched and, to the parents, disturbing of all Captain Johnson’s bizarre allegations. “Johnson says that his brother slept with Everett his last night in Escalante,” Christopher wrote in his diary on September 24—by “slept with,” Christopher meant merely “camped beside”—“and that Everett had nearly $1000 in bills—sounds fishy.” Even fishier was Johnson’s story about how Everett had come into such a fortune. Christopher summarized this yarn in a letter to Waldo:

No way of telling what money Everett had; Johnson full of fairy tales; had an idea Everett took a package of photo plates, really drugs, for drug smugglers from New Mexico to Bryce National Park, and was paid $1000 for that; this is absurd, for it took Everett weeks to go that distance and I think Johnson just told it to me to get me to bribe him to keep Everett from being prosecuted.

Absurd the tale may have been, but it only intensified a nagging malaise about the claim in Everett’s last letter home that he had “more money than I need” and his unprecedented act of sending ten dollars to his parents to spend on something special.

Waldo had already wondered on September 21, “Have you ever learned the exact source of Everett’s money—it seems to me he never did tell us just how or when he got it.” Christopher’s answer: “[I] believe Everett must have met some well-to-do people who paid generously for his pictures.”

Another of Everett’s odd comments haunted Christopher and Stella. Even though Everett had insisted that the correspondence between himself and his brother remain confidential—“Of course our letters should be strictly personal,” he had written in 1931—Waldo had shared the letters with his parents. On October 9, 1931, from the Grand Canyon, Everett had confided to his brother, “What I would have missed if I had ended everything last summer!”

Now, on November 24, 1935, in a letter to Waldo, Christopher voiced an excruciating surmise:

Tell me some thing about Everett. In one place … he says that if he had shuffled off his mortal coil a year previously as he discussed with you, he would be missing all the great experiences and beauty that at that moment he was recording. We have wondered whether he might have died by suicide. He could have tied stones or the like to his body and his goods and have sunk in the swift Colorado without trace at that point. But he was so cheerful in all his later letters that that seems unthinkable.

Waldo’s answer was not as reassuring as his parents had hoped:

From what he had said, I might believe that he would commit suicide in that he would drive himself on in a stoical manner not always being considerate of his bodily needs until he starved to death or from not caring for wounds properly but I doubt if he took life in such a way as to be willing to hang a rock around his neck and jump in the Colorado. I might think that he fell down some chasm but that is not certain because if that was so his belongings should be around somewhere at least. It certainly seems like someone might have “done him in.”

The alternating currents of hope and sorrow wormed their way into the parents’ dreams. On November 13, Christopher wrote in his diary, “Dreamed of Everett, saw his skeleton; Mother dreamed of him and saw him stalking into the kitchen the other day, tall, healthy, with sweater with Indian symbols on it, saying, Well, here I am!”

Onto the void left by a near-total absence of hard evidence about Everett’s fate, however, the parents could not help projecting the kinds of scenarios only wishfulness at its wildest could concoct. During his teenage years, Everett had occasionally expressed a desire to explore Mexico, Latin America, and South America. On October 30, 1935, Christopher wrote to Waldo:

I think he was influenced by the Odyssey reading; and thought of himself as a wanderer like Ulysses, else he would not have carved NEMO in two caves, revealing his thoughts. Many boys run away from home because misunderstood or mistreated at that time of life; others have just the wanderlust and can’t restrain themselves.… If he has gone this way, he may go to Mexico, then South America, then elsewhere. He may even get to China, working his way on a boat. In any case I think he will eventually communicate with us again.

Waldo, however, could not imagine his brother making his way to China to reunite with him; the previous March, he had doubted that Everett even knew he was headed off to that distant country. On Thanksgiving Day he wrote his parents, dismissing the China fantasy, and adding,

As many of his poems and writings lead one to think [that] might happen sometime, he has undoubtedly driven himself beyond his physical endurance and died, beautifully and alone in the desert. Whether he suffered or not at the time is a moot question but it was a beautiful death because he was living a life of beauty, a life of doing what he wanted to do.

Yet strangely, if perhaps inevitably, Waldo’s brave effort to imagine his brother meeting with “a beautiful death” brought out the most abject sense of unworthiness: “As I think about him I begin to realize what a poor excuse for a person I am. What a shallow empty life I am leading as compared to him.”

*   *   *

An unsolved mystery such as a young man’s disappearance in the desert attracts all kinds of cranks and self-styled experts. Everett’s vanishing did so in spades, not least because his parents vigorously pursued every possible lead, no matter how unlikely. From the distance of seven decades, it is hard to judge the sincerity of each of the strangers who made overtures to Stella and Christopher about their missing son. Few of these interlopers were outright charlatans like Captain Johnson, but few had the keen analytical talents of a good detective. Most lay somewhere along the slippery continuum between the plausible and the downright crazy. Taken all together, however, the hints and hopes these problem-solvers threw across the parents’ path created a gauntlet of heartbreak that would last for the rest of Christopher’s and Stella’s lives.

In September 1935, a man named Sparks, hailing from Wolf Hole, Arizona (by 1935 already a ghost town), “came to Escalante” (as Christopher wrote to Waldo), “inspired confidence, and said he would search for two months if someone would provide a horse or two and food supply.” It is unclear what Sparks actually accomplished, but by mid-October, Christopher had become convinced the man was a fraud. Sparks claimed to have undertaken a sixty-day solo search, but, wrote Christopher, “left his grubstake carelessly behind.”

A trader from Tuba City, Arizona, wrote to the parents on March 4, 1935, while Jennings Allen’s initial search party was still in the field, and averred that “a young man came through here driving two burros.… As far as I can remember it was around two months ago and I believe that he was headed for Kayenta, seventy-five miles north of here.” Two months prior to the trader’s writing would date the young man’s passage around the beginning of January 1935, or six weeks after Everett’s last contact with ranchers out on the Escalante Desert. It is hard to know what to make of the trader’s sighting. The young man may have been someone other than Everett, who coincidentally happened to have two burros of his own. Or the trader’s sense of time was badly off, for Everett had in fact passed close to Tuba City in October 1934, as he made his way from Flagstaff to southern Utah—five months before the trader’s letter, not two.

As the seasons passed, Christopher and Stella brooded daily about their lost son. On April 2, 1936, Christopher wrote to Waldo, still in China, “If Everett has disappeared and married an Indian, we would feel shock that he had cut himself off from the whites and perhaps cut his wife off from the Indians, and his children from both races.” The next day he lamented to his diary, “I think we all poorly understood Everett.”

The months stretched into years. For all their faith in reason, the parents sought the help of astrologers, fortune-tellers, and other “seers.” On June 18, 1937, an astrologer in Berkeley, California, wrote to Stella and Christopher:

You need not worry about him. He never suffered—not even at the time of his death, for he is dead, and I would judge he passed away soon after you last heard from him. Death undoubtedly occured [sic] through drowning. That was written in the stars at the time of his birth.

A handwriting analyst determined, “He has conflicts with regard to his mother-father attitudes having both marked unconscious mother and unconscious father attachments. These keep him in almost constant turmoil.” In October 1938, a woman in Moab, Utah, used a “cycle-graph” to discern Everett’s fate: “I claim that the boy was—or is—temporarily controlled by an entity which makes him do what he is now doing. When IT leaves he will be himself. And try to find his way back to civilization again.”

Perhaps the cruelest purported sighting came from a woman named Caradonna, who may have been a close friend of the family. In an undated letter, she wrote to Stella:

Just before we moved, in 1936, Everett came to visit us a couple of times. He acted differently and often spoke of going back to Mexico … [her ellipses] and at one thing he said to us I chided him and said … “Everett Ruess!” Then I noticed something strange about him … he asked us … “Is that who I am?”

I do know that when we asked him of his parents he always said “I HAVE NO FAMILY.”

The sybilline Caradonna closed her message of woe as follows:

Bless you … I do hope this helps ease your dear mind … and do give up now … Release your sweet loving mind from this double thinking … for really Stella, darling … wherever your boy is he is IN GODS LOVING CARE … and that’s all we need to know isn’t it?

In early 1938, buoyed by hints or clues now lost to the record, Christopher and Stella believed they were closing in on the whereabouts of their missing son, even though it had been more than three years since his disappearance. That February, Christopher sent off a flurry of more than thirty letters to bus depot agents, newspaper editors, and the like in many different towns near the Four Corners. The parents had become convinced that Everett was living somewhere in that region, but that he was not using his real name—whether because he had suffered amnesia or had deliberately chosen to conceal his identity, they could not be sure, although they leaned toward the latter explanation.

The plea that Christopher and Stella asked their recipients to pass along makes for poignant reading today. From a February 2 letter to the editor of the Herald Democrat in Durango, Colorado:

Now we are not interested in urging him to come home, unless he should so desire. We are not interested in telling the world he is found. We feel that he has a right to live his own life to his own ends in his own individual way. He is no doubt getting in his experiences more education for his future work. He may become a nature writer like Thoreau or Burroughs, illustrating his own writings.…

Tell him we often see him in our dreams, that he is in our words daily, that his watercolors are on the walls, that many of his friends write to us, but that if he wishes to reveal himself to us and not to them, it shall be as he desires.

Each of these letters begged Everett to consent to a brief, once-only meeting with his parents somewhere in Colorado or Utah. But nothing came of this campaign of last-ditch hope.

*   *   *

As early as August 1935, even before Terrell’s search, Christopher and Stella were already thinking about trying to publish “some kind of book of Everett’s letters and poems in memory of him.” For three years they struggled in vain to find a press interested in such a project. In 1937 they typed up a miscellany of passages from Everett’s letters, poems, and essays, titled it “Youth Is for Adventure,” and distributed it to friends.

With their homemade anthology, Stella and Christopher kept Everett’s words alive, even if the audience for them was small and local. Then, in September 1938, a writer named Hugh Lacy wrote an essay about Everett that appeared in Desert magazine, a widely read monthly out of Palm Desert, California. Lacy’s essay was titled “Say That I Kept My Dream …,” an allusion to the best stanza in Everett’s best poem, “Wilderness Song”:

Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;

That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;

Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases;

Lonely and wet and cold … but that I kept my dream.

Lacy opened his essay with a bold claim for Everett’s enduring legend: “Wherever poets, adventurers and wanderers of the Southwest gather, the story of Everett Ruess will be told. His name, like woodsmoke, conjures far horizons.”

The piece, which was accompanied by photos of Everett and reproductions of some of his paintings, garnered widespread attention. Lacy followed it in December 1939 with another essay for Desert, titled “What Became of Everett Ruess? …” Its opening was equally bold: “ ‘NEMO.’ After five years that cryptic clue seems to summarize the desert mystery of Everett Ruess, young Los Angeles artist-adventurer who disappeared at 20 in the wasteland of Southeast Utah.” Lacy skillfully summarized the phantom bits of evidence the various searches had come up with, thereby reviving the controversy over Everett’s ultimate fate.

Lacy’s essays also unleashed a spate of new “sightings.” The first—to which Lacy gave enough credence to urge its publication as a first-person account in the December 1939 issue of Desert—was by one Cora L. Keagle. In “Is Everett Ruess in Mexico?” Keagle recalled an April 1937 auto trip with her husband to Mexico City. On the way home, near Monterrey, the couple stopped to offer assistance to two young American men tinkering with a broken car. One of them insisted on showing the Keagles his “portfolio.” “I never let this out of sight,” he explained. “It’s the source of my living.” The artist went on to display the kinds of watercolor landscapes he said he traded for food and lodging. He “also said he had been living among the Indians in Arizona painting and writing.”

At the time, the Keagles thought little of the encounter. But when Cora read Lacy’s “Say That I Kept My Dream …,” she was instantly convinced that the youth they had met by the Mexican wayside was Everett. At once she rushed out to the garden where her husband was working and asked him if he remembered the face of the artist they had met near Monterrey. When he said he did, Cora opened the issue of Desert to a photograph of the lost wanderer. “That’s the very fellow,” said Mr. Keagle at once.

“We are convinced that we saw Everett Ruess,” Cora Keagle closed her piece. “And if it was Everett he was tanned, healthy and happy and several pounds heavier than when he disappeared.”

At the time, Christopher and Stella had no way of evaluating the Mexican story, but it did dovetail with their conviction that Everett might have headed south toward Latin America to explore new wildernesses.

Most false sightings, as FBI agents and police officers wearily conclude, are well-meaning, the by-products of the vagaries of memory and an all-too-human propensity to ignore discrepancies and seize upon coincidences. Yet some of the testimonies elicited by Lacy’s articles can be attributed only to something far more sinister than the desire to unravel a mystery. The authors of these all-knowing screeds seemed to derive a dark pleasure in the laying out of details that they must have known were acutely painful for Everett’s grieving parents.

On November 27, 1939, a man named Burton Bowen, a former Floridian now living in New York State, wrote to Christopher. With the dry dispassion of a self-appointed sleuth, Bowen wrote:

About May 1935 Everett Ruess registered under an assumed name at Disston Lodge, St. Petersburg, Florida, a federal transient camp, after walking from Lake City, Fla. with the dog Curly. He and the dog had hitch-hiked from Arizona taking several weeks as it was difficult to obtain a ride with the dog.

The inclusion of Curly in the story was meant by Bowen to be a brilliant piece of insider knowledge. But in its September 1938 issue, Desert had published a photo of Everett at home in the winter of 1931–32, playing in the front yard with the “rez dog” he had adopted. What Bowen had no way of knowing was that Curly had disappeared in May 1932 after Everett, in a fit of anger, beat his dog because Curly had eaten his owner’s supper.

Bowen offered to send the parents photographs of the boy and his dog, though he never followed through on this promise. In the same letter he recounted his initial conversation with Everett:

He told me how he had left the burros loose in the canyon.… He thought his parents might be looking for him but didn’t warm up to the suggestion to drop them a postcard. It appears that he wanted to be free to live the life of a hermit philosopher.…

He wanted no companion other than the dog.

He disappeared without saying anything.

One wonders why Christopher tolerated the chicanery of Bowen’s bogus revelations, corresponding with the man for another four years. Perhaps any contact with his lost son, however phantasmal, was better than the eternal silence from the desert.

Christopher and Stella had dwelt on the implied allusion to Odysseus represented by the NEMO inscriptions. By the late 1930s they had begun to speculate that Everett, still alive, was acting out his “Ulysses years.” Ulysses (or Odysseus), Christopher argued, had wandered for seven years before returning to his home in Ithaca, reclaiming his beloved Penelope, and slaying her suitors. So the parents would wait for seven years, until 1941, before giving up hope of Everett’s return. (Christopher’s calculation of seven years’ wandering is curious, for in Homer’s epic, it is clear that Odysseus is away from home for twenty years—ten of them fighting the Trojan War and ten returning to Ithaca.)

Indeed, however, in 1941, an apparent solution to the mystery dramatically surfaced, though it was hardly the denouement Christopher and Stella could have wished for. A Navajo “renegade” named Jack Crank was arrested near Monument Valley for murdering an elderly white man who had passed through the Oljato trading post northwest of the valley. According to one source, as reported by Bud Rusho in A Vagabond for Beauty, “Crank’s motives were that he needed the scalp of a ‘blood enemy’ for ceremonial use, and that he simply hated white men.” While in detention in a Phoenix jail, he bragged that he had murdered Everett Ruess.

Crank may have been mentally ill. Although the authorities cautioned the Ruesses that the Navajo’s testimony was shaky at best, and though the man was never prosecuted for Everett’s murder, Christopher and Stella clung for years to this possible solution of their son’s disappearance. In 1952, Crank was released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence. That August—nearly eighteen years after their last contact with Everett—Christopher wrote to a friend of their son’s who had briefly traveled with him in 1931: “[Crank] was a sort of outlaw among his people even. He was probably drunk when he did the deed.… For us, this seems to solve the riddle.”

*   *   *

With Lacy’s articles, the cult of Everett Ruess was born. As Randall Henderson, editor of the monthly, wrote in 1940, “Readers of the Desert Magazine—literally hundreds of them—wrote letters to the publishing office. They wanted to know more about Everett Ruess. Some of them volunteered to renew the search for him.”

Under Henderson’s stewardship, the miscellany the parents had envisioned finally saw light in book form, as On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, published in 1940 by Desert Magazine Press. A slender, large-format volume, the book reproduced some of Everett’s paintings and woodcuts, interspersed with choice passages from his writings. For the first time, readers beyond the circle of friends and family were exposed to Everett’s aphoristic utterances. Proclamations such as “Once more I am roaring drunk with the lust of life and adventure and unbearable beauty” and “I am overwhelmed by the appalling strangeness and intricacy of the curiously tangled knot of life” and “I have left no strange or delightful thing undone that I wanted to do” began to acquire a canonic resonance.

In the foreword to On Desert Trails, Henderson articulated for the first time the siren appeal of the vagabond’s vision:

[This book] is offered, not merely as entertainment, but as an intimate picture of a very intelligent young man who sought in his own way to find the solution to some of the most difficult of the problems which confront all human beings in this highly complex age. We cannot all be wanderers, nor writers nor painters. But from the philosophy of Everett Ruess we may all draw something that will contribute to our understanding of the basic values of the universe in which we live.

A lofty claim, perhaps, for the productions of an artist and writer who had not yet reached his twenty-first birthday. But the book struck a nerve with readers, quickly becoming a minor classic. Republished in different formats in 1950 and again in 2000, it is still in print.

Christopher and Stella did everything they could to make the book a success. They bought scores of copies and sent them to friends, as well as to strangers who might be influential advocates for their son’s legacy. They pressed a copy on Orville Prescott, head book reviewer for the New York Times, who sent back a polite thank-you note, but warned that he couldn’t promise to review the book. (The Times never did.)

For the rest of his life, Christopher kept a kind of log book in which he typed out transcriptions of letters he and Stella had received from readers of On Desert Trails. Some of the encomiums predated the book, for both Stella and Christopher had sent copies of “Youth Is for Adventure” to all kinds of people who had either known Everett or might become interested in him posthumously. In 1938, Edward Weston, whose door Everett had first knocked on in 1930, at the age of sixteen, sent a heartfelt note:

Your remembrance reached me in Santa Fe. I don’t forget Everett—it was kind of you to include me as one of his friends. The way of his going, I feel, is the way I would like to depart—close to the soil. But he was so young—

The year before, Hamlin Garland, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of many books of Western history and fiction, wrote to Christopher and Stella: “Your son was a most unusual spirit. I have never known a youth of like endowment and predilection. He is a most interesting character. If he should ever come out of hiding he will bring a noble book in his knapsack!” (Garland may have met Everett, as this note seems to imply, for he had moved to Hollywood in 1929.)

Others made their first acquaintance with Everett in the pages of On Desert Trails. Some were profoundly moved. In 1940, Edward Howard Griggs, author of such educational and inspirational tomes as Moral Leaders and The Soul of Democracy, praised Everett’s writing to the skies in a note to Stella and Christopher: “It is unique in American, indeed, in all literature, carrying as it does, Henry D. Thoreau and John Muir to the nth power. Walt Whitman would have said Everett’s joyous, free life was his great, rhythmically cadenced poem.”

It was only a matter of time before the saga of Everett Ruess caught the attention of a major American writer. Such a collision of sensibilities came in 1942, when Wallace Stegner published Mormon Country. In that beguiling meditation on the Southwest, Stegner devoted a whole chapter, titled “Artist in Residence,” to the Ruess saga. Those pages contain the first nuanced, judicious appraisal of Everett, not only as an artist and writer but as a wilderness visionary. Stegner’s chapter remains one of the best things ever written about the lost wanderer.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!