Autumn was fast falling into winter when a young itinerant artist ambled out of the tiny Utah town of Escalante with his two burros, Cockleburrs and Chocolatero. One week and 50 miles later, the man spent two days sharing a camp with a pair of sheepherders he met along Utah's infamous Hole in the Rock Trail.
Taking his leave the morning of Nov. 21, 1934, 20-year-old Everett Ruess subsequently vanished into thin air.
On April 30, 2009, the National Geographic Society, along with writer David Roberts and others, held a national teleconference boldly announcing that Everett's remains had been found. One of the greatest mysteries of Southwestern legend had at long last been solved.
Or had it? Five months later, the whole thing fell apart as it was determined that the remains found jammed into a lonely sandstone crevice on Comb Ridge on the Navajo Nation were not those of the lost explorer, but evidently those of a Native American instead.
Roberts—a climber, mountaineer and author of several adventure books—has written a new biography of Ruess called Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer. His involvement began with an article written for the premiere issue of National Geographic Adventure in 1999. Roberts was intrigued by the story of the sensitive young artist and writer who had turned his back on society and wandered off into one of the most beautiful but also rugged and remote places in North America. The assignment allowed Roberts to dig further into the story to see if there was anything new to be learned.
Hard-core desert rats are familiar with the story of Ruess and his disappearance, which has also been described in detail by the Tucson Weekly's Leo W. Banks (on May 8, 1997, and Aug. 13, 2009).
Everett Ruess was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1914. His parents were highly educated bohemian-types. The family was close, loving and supportive—perhaps too much so. Roberts suggests that it may have been a sort of "intrusive intimacy" that caused Everett to leave home in 1930 and embark at age 16 on the first of what would be a series of solo wilderness exploration treks across the Southwest.
When it became obvious Everett had gone missing in the canyonlands of Southern Utah, search parties were sent out, and the story was big news in early 1935. It was reported that his burros and tack were found in a place called Davis Gulch. His food, camping gear and art supplies were missing. Mysteriously, a pair of inscriptions reading "NEMO 1934" were also found nearby. Other similar markings have reportedly come to light since. The thinking is that Everett may have left these, cryptically referring to the captain in Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. "Nemo" in Latin means "no one" or "nobody."
His parents refused to give up hope that their son was still alive, leaving no stone unturned in their search. But the boy was gone. Rumors flew that he had been murdered and tossed in the Colorado River, that he had disappeared and joined the Navajo, that he had left the country, or that he had fallen from a cliff.
Ever since Everett's disappearance, what could best be described as a strange cult has steadily grown up around the story. So when it was announced his remains had reportedly been found, all hell broke loose—and Roberts was up to his armpits in it. What was most tragic was how the hopes of the Ruess family were falsely raised.
Finding Everett Ruess is, like the story and legend of Everett himself, a somewhat confused mixed bag. It's a good story that brings together a lot of important information. But there are many unanswered questions any good journalist would have asked—and Roberts didn't. His "Note on Sources" is lame and does not replace what should have been a standard bibliography. Few of those involved with the fiasco surrounding the false discovery of the remains emerge with clean hands. The book appears to be, in part, an attempt to rehabilitate Roberts' reputation following the fiasco.
That said, it's certainly an important addition to the Ruess literature—but it is by no means the final word. Perhaps that task will fall to the just-released Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife, by respected writer Philip Fradkin.