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Writer's Mystery Endures, Long After He Vanished

Originally published on July 31, 2011 4:14 pm

Everett Ruess could have been one of this country's greatest wilderness writers, a poet and author on a par with John Muir or Edward Abbey.

But we'll never know for sure, because Ruess disappeared without a trace in November 1934. With two burros trailing behind him, he left the remote southern Utah town of Escalante, heading down the desolate Hole-in-the-Rock Trail towards the Colorado River in search of his favorite things: beauty and solitude.

About a week down the trail, Ruess ran into two sheepherders and camped with them for a couple of nights.

And then, author David Roberts tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, Ruess rode off into a nearby canyon and vanished from the face of the Earth.

Roberts is the author of the new book Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer.

He says Ruess was only 20 when he disappeared, but he had spent the last five years of his life making grueling journeys across California and the Southwest.

"He had already produced an amazingly precocious body of artwork," Roberts says. "He did watercolors and block prints which are quite accomplished for a teenager, and he wrote passionate poems, diaries and letters to his parents and friends."

Ruess' parents preserved all of their son's work, and once it became clear he wasn't coming back, they began to think about publishing it.

"They were determined to guarantee him some kind of posthumous fame," Roberts says, though that fame remained elusive until author Jon Krakauer devoted a chapter to Ruess in his book Into the Wild, about Christopher McCandless, another young, ill-fated explorer.

The mystery of Everett Ruess only deepened in the decades after his death. Hucksters preyed on his family, Roberts says, inventing spurious sightings and asking for money to conduct searches that probably never happened.

And then, in 2008, Roberts got a phone call from a friend, a wilderness guide, who told him there was a possibility that Ruess' body had been found.

"I thought, at first, there's no way it's possible," Roberts says. "But more and more, my friend ... said, you gotta come out here and look at it."

A young Navajo man had come forward with an amazing story: his grandfather, Aneth Nez, had witnessed men from the Ute tribe kill a young white traveler, sometime in the 1930s. Nez had retrieved the body, buried it in secret, and kept quiet about it for decades. Could this be Ruess?

"I was skeptical until the DNA came back with a perfect match the first time through," Roberts says. "And we announced it to the world."

But that announcement turned out to be premature. Further testing showed that the bones were not those of Ruess.

"It was truly devastating, not just to me but to everybody involved," Roberts says. "And beyond devastating, we felt a deep sense of shame, because it turned out we had dug up a Native American and not Everett, and that's a serious desecration."

The mystery bones were reburied in an undisclosed location, never to be disturbed again. But Roberts says he believes Nez probably did witness the murder of Ruess, and searchers simply found the wrong body. In which case, Ruess is still out there somewhere, buried in the wilderness he loved and died for.

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GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Our book today is about a mystery that's never been solved: the case of explorer Everett Ruess. Ruess could have been one of this country's greatest wilderness writers, a poet and author on a par with John Muir or Edward Abbey. But we'll never know for sure because Ruess disappeared without a trace, in November 1934.

He was only 20 years old when he led his two burros out of the remote southern Utah town of Escalante, down a desolate trail towards the Colorado River - and was never seen again.

DAVID ROBERTS: Even though he was only 20 years old when he vanished, he had already produced an amazingly precocious body of writing and artwork. He did watercolors and block-print engravings, which are quite accomplished for a teenager. And he wrote passionate poems, diaries and letters to his parents and friends.

RAZ: That's David Roberts. He's the author of a new book called "Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer." Now, most people had never heard of Ruess until author Jon Krakauer devoted a chapter to him in his book "Into the Wild." That book is about Christopher McCandless, another young explorer who met a similar fate.

In the case of Everett Ruess, David Roberts says his parents wanted their youngest son to achieve fame after his death, so they kept all of his artwork, diaries and letters.

ROBERTS: Once they were resigned to the idea that he may not - might never be found and in fact, that we might never know what happened to him, they were determined to guarantee him some kind of posthumous fame.

RAZ: He wrote in his letters of his - this almost mystical love of nature and also, his desire for solitude - and also his struggle with solitude when he was out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, this is the 1930s. Southern Utah at that time, this was frontier country.

ROBERTS: It was beyond frontier; it was real wilderness. I argue that as precocious and interesting as the writing and the artwork is, the greatest achievement was the journeys themselves, which in 1931 - when he was 17 years old, he did a 10-month, nonstop crisscrossing of the Southwest when in 1931, it was really - except for the Navajo presence on the reservation - was pretty much total wilderness. And he's doing most of this solo, with a couple of pack animals. Extraordinary. I mean, people don't do that today, let alone back in the '30s.

RAZ: He was an artist, and you write about how he would go to the doorsteps of famous artists that he admired - Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange - and just, they basically become friends with him.

ROBERTS: Yes. He's an odd combination of a very shy kid and a very pushy, gregarious kid. At the age 16, he just goes up in Carmel, California, and knocks on Edward Weston's door and introduces himself. Well, most famous photographers would have kicked him out. Instead, Weston was somehow taken with this kid, and told him he could sleep in the garage and hike around with his sons, Weston's sons. Same way, he met Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams.

But on the other hand, he never really found the right partner to travel with. He finally says that the only two things that he cares about are solitude and beauty. And it's the beauty that's the ultimate driving force. He was, some argue, the very first person to celebrate the beauty of the American Southwest strictly for its own sake.

RAZ: One of the poems that he became best known for - of course, posthumously - is a poem called "Wilderness Song," and you publish it in your book. Can you just read a bit of that poem for us?

ROBERTS: I'll read the last stanza. It's kind of apologia for what he was doing. And it's a little bit intense, but it's a good - almost epitaph. Quote: 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.

RAZ: Yeah. And, of course, it was these kinds of poems that kind of added to his legend. Tell me about what happened in 1934. He tells his family, I'm going to go out for a long stretch of time, and I want to explore this area in southern Utah.

ROBERTS: 1934 was the last of his five voyages; was the most ambitious, and the one in which he plunged deepest into the wilderness. Every other year, he'd sort of come home. By November, he was always back in L.A. This time in November, he's decided to just keep going. So he heads down to southwestern Utah to the really remote town of Escalante - a Mormon town then, very seldom passed through by strangers. And he spends a few days in town. And what's extraordinary, when I did research there, is how many of the old-timers remembered those six or seven or eight days that Everett had spent there in November '34.

And then with - they all thought - way too little food and way too little camping gear, he just heads out down the Hole in the Rock Trail, which is really desolate, empty; meets a couple of sheep herders; spends two nights with them; asks directions for side canyons; goes into Davis Gulch; and is never seen again - alive or dead.

RAZ: The story of Everett Ruess really came back in 2008. You received a phone call from a friend of yours, a wilderness guide, who said: We may have found his remains. What did you think when you heard that?

ROBERTS: I thought, at first, there's no way it's possible. But more and more, my friend Von(ph) said, you got to come out here and look at it.

RAZ: It turns out that a friend of his - it was a grandson of a Navaho Indian, who apparently witnessed Everett Ruess' murder in 1934, had buried the body. That was a story that was told. So you were thinking at the time, my God, we found him; we got him.

ROBERTS: I was skeptical until the DNA came back with a perfect match first time through. And we announced it to the world - a little bit prematurely, perhaps.

RAZ: Prematurely because subsequent tests showed that indeed, it was not Everett Ruess.

ROBERTS: Exactly.

RAZ: It must have been quite devastating for you after having that false positive.

ROBERTS: It was truly devastating not just to me, but to everybody involved - some eight or 10 people. And beyond devastating, it was - we felt a deep sense of shame because it turned out that we had dug up a Native American, not Everett. And that's a serious desecration. And we keep wondering if our zeal to solve the mystery overcame our sense of prudence and caution.

RAZ: His last letter to his brother Waldo - it was written in November 1934 - it almost seems prophetic. Can you read a bit of that letter that he wrote to his brother?

ROBERTS: Yes. It's the last - one of the last two letters that he wrote to anyone that have survived. He also wrote his parents. He ends the letter: As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness. Rather, I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.

RAZ: Some of the last recorded words of Everett Ruess read by David Roberts. He's the author of "Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer." David Roberts, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you. This was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.