Fifty-four years ago, Everett Ruess took a solitary sojourn into the deserts of southern Utah. He vanished without a trace.
Did cattle rustlers kill him? Did he fall off a cliff? Did he drown trying to cross the Colorado? Did he really die, or did he disappear of his own volition? No one knows for sure.On Nov. 19, 1934, the 20-year-old Ruess - a poet and artist with an obsessive fascination with Anasazi ruins - loaded his burros and set out across the Escalante Desert. It was the last anyone saw of him.
Or at least the last anyone will admit.
According to folks who knew Ruess, the young man frequently wandered the desert without saying where he was going or when he'd be back. On this occasion, many folks suspected he was headed for the Navajo Reservation. It seems there was a young woman there he was interested in.
Ruess never arrived at the Navajo Reservation. He never returned to Escalante.
That spring, a search party led by Capt. P.M. Shurtz of Escalante set out to find the missing man. They followed Ruess' trail down the Escalante drainage to Davis Gulch, a picturesque canyon just above the Colorado River.
There, they found Ruess' burros feeding in the valley. They found Ruess' encampment. They found many of his supplies. Searchers combed the area for weeks looking for Ruess, but the only clues they found were etched inside an Anasazi cliff dwelling high on a canyon wall in Davis Gulch: "Nemo - 1934."
Experts searched the cliff walls for additional evidence. Further up the side of the cliff, they found more foot prints. But no Ruess.
Ruess' disappearance sparked statewide interest. Utahns from around the state joined southern Utahns in the search. Ruess, a Californian who had adopted southern Utah, had in turn become adopted by southern Utahns.
As one newspaper related at the time, "It seemed to them (in southern Utah) that they had suffered a personal loss. Civic and service clubs, forest rangers, cowboys, sheepherders and Indians spent months searching for him."
The theories as to what happened to Everett Ruess vary widely and wildly. It was rumored that Ruess had grown weary of his growing artistic fame and manufactured his disappearance to live in peace and quiet somewhere else.
Others assumed the young man, who had a reputation for taking risks, slipped while hiking into Indian cliff dwellings, falling to his death in some narrow, inaccessible canyon.
"If Everett has chosen to conceal his identity and live alone - as many rumors hint, then we are glad that he is doing what he wants to do," his mother told a reporter in 1952. "If he is dead, we are glad he did the things he loved to do during the short years he enjoyed life."
But the mystery of Everett Ruess' disappearance may not be as simple as some first thought. Two men, who in subsequent years have searched separately for Everett Ruess' body, now have different ideas as to what happened.
Ruess' brother Waldo is convinced Ruess met a violent death at Davis Gulch. At the top of the Kaiparowits Plateau just above Davis Gulch, searchers found an abandoned encampment of two cattle rustlers.
"There are Moqui steps leading up the canyon wall to the top of the plateau," he said. "If he was exploring Indian ruins, which he probably was, he would have found the steps. It would be natural curiosity to climb up."
When he did, he would have stumbled on the cattle rustlers. Surprised, the rustlers may have thought him to be the sheriff coming to arrest them. Everett was killed before he could explain, Waldo believes.
The rustler theory has a lot of believers. It seems folks in nearby Escalante have always known there were two rustlers on the Kaiparowits, and the identity of the outlaws has never been a secret. Waldo had the chance later to interview one of the men as he lay on his sick bed.
Said Waldo, "I walked in, and before I could tell him who I was or why I was there, he said, `I wasn't the one who killed your brother.' " The man didn't want to talk further about it, but Waldo interpreted the man's comments to mean that it was the other outlaw who was responsible for Everett's death.
Ken Sleight, an outfitter who has ridden the deserts of southern Utah his whole life, doesn't buy the idea of foul play. He's spent many months tracking Ruess and searching for clues.
He says there is evidence Ruess made it across the Colorado River and left his mark on Indian ruins in the Grand Gulch area. During one foray into Grand Gulch, Sleight discovered a brilliantly painted water color on a cliff wall. He also discovered the word "Nemo" carved into the doorway of an Indian ruin.
Sleight believes that Ruess may have left his burros to winter in Davis Gulch and then crossed the Colorado River on the ice on his way to the Navajo Reservation. Carrying on his back what he needed to subsist, he wandered across the Cedar Mesa and discovered the Indian ruins of Grand Gulch.
He finally reached the San Juan River, but when he tried to cross, the ice broke. "He could have drowned or he could have died of hypothermia," he said. "It's possible he never made it back across the Colorado."
Sleight admits his "evidence" has never been verified. When Sleight returned to the Indian ruin several years ago, someone had rubbed out the "Nemo" from the ruin door. He wants to find the water color painting again to document it.
"I believe there is considerable evidence he was in Grand Gulch," Sleight said. "He just never made it back across the river (either the San Juan or the Colorado)."
If Ruess fell into the swift waters of either the San Juan or the Colorado, his body would have been carried miles away from where he went in. That would explain the mystery of why his body has never been found.
Still, every few years hikers discover bleached human bones in the southern Utah deserts. Each time, the discovery resurrects the legend of Everett Ruess. Each time, the bones are analyzed and proved not to be those of Ruess.
Perhaps it's best that Everett's bones never be found, most in southern Utah believe. Some mysteries make better legends if left unsolved.