Posted: 5/1/2009 4:16:46 PM EDT
[Last Edit: 5/1/2009 4:17:25 PM EDT by larkinmusic]
Wanderer's last trail found after 75 years
Everett Ruess vanished in Utah's wilds in 1934, relatives tried to
retrace his steps. But a few overheard words are what have now led to
Posted: 05/01/2009 12:30:00 AM MDT
Updated: 05/01/2009 08:46:05 AM MDT
the man's eyes wandered across the red-rock country of southeastern
Utah, he first saw a weather-beaten saddle jammed in a canyon wall
crevice and then, behind it, bleached bones sticking out from the earth
— the keys to unlocking one of the West's enduring mysteries.
That discovery, made more than a year ago, came full circle
Thursday with the announcement that the bones belong to Everett Ruess,
a poet and painter, writer and thinker who vanished near the Four
Corners area in 1934.
For 75 years, the answer to his disappearance at age 20 had been the stuff of speculation.
It might never have been solved but for a Navajo medicine man's
admonition, a grandfather's story of long-ago death, a curious writer
forensic-science work conducted at the University of Colorado.
Maybe, some posited, he had slipped while climbing a canyon or met
his end at the fangs of a rattlesnake. Maybe he'd been murdered.
Ruess died, not long after he was last seen, in a remote wash miles from anywhere.
"The family is deeply, deeply appreciative of everything that
came together to solve the mystery," his niece, Michele Ruess, said
Thursday during a conference call announcing that work by CU
anthropologists and DNA experts had identified the remains as those of
the wandering intellectual.
Tale of Ute chase, clubbing
Born in Oakland, Ruess was just a boy when he began writing, and
by the time he was 16 he was exploring the West, on a horse or a burro
or on foot. He trekked through the Sequoia and Yosemite parks. He
crisscrossed the canyon country of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New
He painted. He made woodcuts of the beautifully stark images
of the landscapes he visited. And he wrote of his own restlessness and
He scrawled "Nemo" on rocks, maybe because it was Latin for
"no one," or maybe because it was the name of the main character in one
of his favorite books, "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
On Nov. 11, 1934, Ruess wrote a letter to his older brother, Waldo.
"As to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon," it said, in part.
The next day, Ruess set out from Escalante, Utah, with his two
burros, heading off on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. A week later, a
sheepherder talked to him close to where the Escalante River emptied
into the Colorado.
He was never seen again.
Daisy Johnson was a young woman in 1971 when she walked in on a conversation between her grandparents.
"Grandmother was getting after him, saying, 'You should have
never, ever messed with that body,' " Johnson said. " 'You should have
left him down there.' "
Daisy asked her grandfather, Aneth Nez, what they were talking
about, and he told her the story of sitting on desolate Comb Ridge, of
sometimes seeing a young white man riding a burro in the canyon below
He told her about the day he saw three Ute Indians chase down
that young man, club him and leave him for dead, and how he later
sneaked into the wash, where he picked up the bloodied body and carried
it up the canyon, then buried it in a crevice.
Now her grandfather was sick. A medicine man blamed his cancer
on what he had done with that corpse, and said he needed to return to
it and take a lock of hair that could be used in a ceremony to cure
Nez had Johnson drive him out to Comb Ridge, and then set out
on foot into the desert while she waited. Two hours later, he returned
with a lock of hair. He lived another 10 years.
Bones, family's DNA a match
Uncle Everett was always a part of Michele Ruess' life.
Paintings and prints hung on the walls. Books bulged with his writings.
On a rock slab, her grandmother painted one of her uncle's favorite
sayings: "What time is it? Time to live."
And her father, Waldo, spent his life trying to uncover the
mystery of his brother's death. He went to Utah in 1964 to see whether
any human remains had been found during work to build a dam, creating
Lake Powell. He wrote to magazines imploring people with information to
Waldo Ruess died in 2007, still wondering what happened. He was 98.
In the spring of 2008, Daisy Johnson told her grandfather's
story at a family gathering. Her brother, Denny Bellson, had never
heard it before.
Bellson searched the Internet for disappearances in the Four
Corners area and found stories about Ruess. He got a map of the Comb
Ridge area and had his sister show him where she had taken their
On May 25, 2008, Bellson drove to Comb Ridge. He parked and
descended into Chinle Wash. In a slot in the chalky red rock, he saw
the remains of a saddle. Bellson moved closer. There, behind the
saddle, were bones.
"I looked around and I knew it was him," Bellson said.
Bellson took a friend to the site. That friend knew the Ruess
story, and he knew David Roberts, a contributing editor at National
Geographic Adventure magazine. Roberts had researched the Ruess mystery
extensively in 1999 for a story.
Roberts approached CU anthropology professor Dennis Van
Gerven, asking whether he would examine a jawbone discovered on Navajo
"I was actually not interested, but David persisted," Van Gerven said.
Van Gerven and doctoral student Paul Sandberg carefully exhumed
the remains and determined they were those of a man between 19 and 22
who was roughly 5-feet 8-inches tall. All of that matched up with
They photographed facial bones and superimposed them over pictures of Ruess. They matched .
Next, they turned to Ken Krauter, a CU biology professor, who
directed the process of extracting DNA from a leg bone unearthed from
the grave. They compared that to DNA obtained from Waldo Ruess' four
children, and it matched exactly as one would expect between an uncle
and his nieces and nephews. Krauter called it "an irrefutable case."
The scientific work and Nez's story answer many questions about Ruess. But they don't complete the tale.
There is no proof of how — or when — Ruess died, or how he ended
up 60 miles from the place he was last seen. And there is no way to
know who might have killed him.
Still, the discovery of his remains brought a measure of peace to his surviving family members.
"Even though it's very sad to imagine the manner in which he
died, we're happy to know how it happened and where he's been resting
all these years," Michele Ruess said, "and that there was such a man as
Aneth Nez who cared for a fellow human being."
Her uncle's remains will be cremated, she said, and scattered
in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, Calif. It's the same place
where the ashes of Waldo and other family members have been scattered
through the years.
It's the place where Everett Ruess will be one with the earth forever.
I thought this was an amazing story.
Good story, thanks.