Photos- Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library University of Utah
No one knew for sure who the skeleton was or how long it had been there. The dirt-encrusted bones seemed to have been hastily buried in the rock crevice along Comb Ridge, a gnarled 120-mile-long uprise of ancient rock near the Utah/Arizona border. Colorful shell beads lay around the corpse, and the tattered frame of a saddle rested not far outside the shallow fissure. On that cold day in the desert last January 2009, this pile of bones was just one of perhaps dozens of human remains (many of which were traditionally buried natives) scattered throughout the desolate landscape.
But in the days that followed, each rib, vertebrae, tooth, and skull fragment was delicately removed, wrapped, and driven 475 miles from nearby Bluff, Utah, to a lab in Boulder, Colorado. Spurred on by a series of encouraging clues, a writer, a Navajo carpenter, a wilderness guide, and a handful of scientists had a hunch—that these might be the remains of folk legend Everett Ruess.
In November of 1934, Ruess, a 20-year-old wanderer, writer, and artist from California, rode a burro out of Escalante, Utah and into the red rock void, never to be heard from again. Nearly 76 years later, his mysterious disappearance remains one of the most enduring folk legends of the American West.
His cult status has grown exponentially over the years, resulting in numerous books, two documentary films, and an annual arts festival in Escalante, Utah. In the book Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer devoted an entire chapter to the saga of Ruess and established multiple parallels between he and Chris McCandless, who gave up the confines of modern society and headed into the Alaskan wilderness, only to be found dead by a moose hunter months later.
Ruess, however, was never found, and rumors have stacked up over the years concerning what happened to him—some say he intentionally vanished from society, others believe he tried to cross the Colorado River and drowned—but last spring, it appeared that one of them was actually true.
Born in 1914 in Oakland, California, Ruess was the younger of two boys in a tight-knit family whose frequent moves and passion for literature and the arts encouraged both his creative and nomadic tendencies. Aside from a few brief instances dabbling with school and city life, Ruess spent the majority of his short life tramping around the country’s wildest regions, from the High Sierras to the vast desert Southwest.
Like many of the folkloric wanderers before and after him, Ruess was a loner by nature and kept eloquently detailed journals of his travels. In addition to his numerous letters and romantic prose, Ruess created numerous woodcuts and watercolor paintings that depicted the desert landscapes he frequented. In his biography Everett Ruess: A Vagabond For Beauty, W.L. Rusho wrote that Ruess “could sense beauty so acutely that it bordered on pain.”
Last seen by a group of sheepherders who shared their camp with him close to 50 miles outside of Escalante, Ruess forged into the desert wilderness and was never seen again.
Several months passed before a package of returned letters prompted his parents to organize a search party. The searchers reportedly found two burros and miscellaneous camping gear in Davis Gulch, although some have contended the fact that they actually belonged to Ruess. Downstream, they also found the inscription NEMO 1934, presumably a reference to Jules Vernes’ Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of Ruess’ favorite books. Ruess had been known to use pseudonyms in his writings and letters, previously adopting the names Lan Rameau and Evert Rulan, so it’s not far-fetched to assume the inscription was his handy work.
Over the years, countless people have combed the vast expanse between Escalante and Bluff in search of further clues, but most bore little to no concrete evidence; that is until two years ago.
Vaughn Hadenfeldt, the owner of Far Out Expeditions in Bluff, Utah, recounts the day Denny Bellson, a local Navajo man, came into his office and “basically announced he had found Everett Ruess,” he says.
David Roberts, a contributing editor of National Geographic Adventure, detailed Bellson’s story in the April/May2009 issue of the magazine.
In the article, Roberts told the haunting story of Daisy Johnson and her brother Bellson, whose grandfather, Aneth Nez, had told Johnson he witnessed three Ute Indians chase down and murder a young white man in Chinle Wash in the 1930s. According to Johnson, Nez brought the young man’s body out of the wash and buried him in a rock crevice on Comb Ridge.
Roberts reported that in 1971, after Nez was diagnosed with cancer, he visited a medicine man who told him his illness was a result of interfering with the body nearly forty years prior. Johnson drove Nez back to Comb Ridge to retrieve a lock of hair from the corpse, and Nez later miraculously recovered after a medicine man administered a curing ceremony.
Johnson herself came down with cancer several years ago, and after chemotherapy failed to keep it in remission, she too visited a Navajo medicine man, who told her the cancer arose because of her grandfather. Johnson told her brother the story, and after several weeks of searching, Bellson discovered the haphazard gravesite.
Bellson and Johnson had never heard of Everett Ruess, but after Googling “Missing persons + Arizona/Utah + 1930s,” they discovered the tale and recognized the parallels in the two stories.
Hadenfeldt contacted Roberts, a friend of his, and persuaded him to come out to Bluff. “I don’t think in the beginning that any of us were convinced,” Hadenfeldt says.
Roberts had previously investigated the mystery and made plans to go to Comb Ridge. But Bellson had notified the FBI of the grave, and before Roberts could make it to the site, “the FBI team came in and trashed it completely,” he wrote.
Roberts contacted Ron Maldonado, the supervisory archaeologist in the Cultural Resource Compliance Section of the Navajo Nation. Maldonado excavated two teeth, which were sent to Family Tree DNA in Texas for analysis. In September 0f 2008, Roberts received word that results were inconclusive, but the subject was “’European in origin and not Native American.’”
“Had we not gotten what we thought was a very positive DNA analysis, we wouldn’t have been out there,” Hadenfeldt says. “There were always these little things that would come up, but there were also always ways to explain it or ways around it. We kept getting led into the idea that this was Everett Ruess.”
Encouraged by the test results, Roberts enlisted the help of Dennis Van Gerven, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado, who helped Maldonado excavate the full remains.
Back in Colorado, Van Gerven and his assistant used fragments of the skull to create a facial reconstruction, which they then superimposed over a portrait of Ruess with Adobe Photoshop. They combined that comparison with the approximate height and age of the skeleton to achieve what seemed like a highly probable match. According to the story, Van Gerven told Roberts that, “‘the odds are astronomically small that this could be a coincidence. I’d take it to court. This is Everett Ruess.’”
Kenneth Krauter, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at CU-Boulder and research assistant Helen Marshall handled the DNA testing. The team compared bone fragment DNA from a femur bone with DNA taken from Ruess’ living descendents, and found results conclusive enough to declare a match.
It seemed as if the mystery had finally been solved, Ruess’ family given closure, and one of the Southwest’s greatest mysteries finally put to bed.
But not everyone was so convinced.
In a joint statement released in June 2009, Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones and forensic anthropologist Derinna Kopp questioned the initial DNA results and urged the family of Ruess to pursue a second round of testing.
Jones says he expressed concern even before the story in National Geographic Adventure came out.
“I think he rushed to publish [the article], and probably if it had been in the hands of a scientist, it would have never gotten that far.”
In the statement, Jones pointed out inconsistencies with the skeleton’s teeth, which were rounded down (likely from a diet of stone-ground grains), had untreated cavities, and featured shoveled incisors, all traits more characteristic of a Native American than a young Anglo male. Jones was also critical of the handling of the bones and the subsequent testing.
“I think it was unfortunately handled in a clumsy way,” he says. “There were a few people in there, pawing around a bit before they ever got the tribal archaeologist down there,” which compromised certain details of the site.
“[The facial reconstructions] looked like they were actually very badly done, and we knew that the DNA work had been done in a laboratory that was not experienced in doing DNA on ancient or degraded bone. They’re a great DNA lab, but they’re doing DNA from mouth swabs or modern DNA, and there are very substantial differences in how you go about it.”
In October, at the behest of Ruess’ descendents Brian and Michelle, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Maryland performed a new round of tests, and concluded that the skeleton was, in fact, a Navajo man, and not the remains of Everett Ruess.
Krauter and his team attempted to replicate their original results with no success, and the problem was later attributed to a glitch in the DNA computer software. This also disproved the results from the lab in Texas, which credited the mistake to contaminated DNA.
According to the Navajo Times, the remains had been returned to Maldonado and the Navajo Nation, who hadn’t disclosed what they planned to do with them.
“It was devastating to know that all this effort and work that all these people put it ended up for naught,” Hadenfeldt says. “But the worst part is that we excavated some person who was obviously placed there for eternity, and needs to be placed back now.”
He also alluded to the idea that Ruess’ body could still be near the Comb Ridge burial site, although he doesn’t think anyone will revisit the area to search for clues. Several historians have noted that the supposed gravesite is nowhere near where Ruess was last seen, but a second NEMO signature found in Grand Gulch in the ‘90s matches the one found 45 miles away in Davis Gulch in 1935. This places Everett, who had never mentioned exploring the Grand Gulch area, within a reasonable distance of Comb Ridge.
“I’m still convinced that there’s some Anglo person that [Aneth Nez] witnessed the killing of who’s buried out there, says Hadenfeldt. “I don’t have much doubt that that part of the story is true.”
According to Hadenfeldt, a follow up article was supposed to run in National Geographic Adventure, but the magazine folded in December. David Roberts is currently writing a book detailing the investigation and his research, as well as supposed new information that hasn’t been printed.
Perhaps Ruess’ disappearance was intentional and he lived out his days under an assumed identity. Maybe he fell off a cliff in a careless moment or was drowned in the Colorado on his way to the Navajo Reservation.
But maybe it’s just as well that the mystery has resumed its unsolved status. In a way, Ruess’ uncertain fate helps to preserve the rich and enchanting lure of the Southwest and his representation of the undeniable wanderlust and yearning for adventure that we all feel. And with all the recent controversy, an entirely new generation has been drawn into this enduring saga.
Whether or not he meant to disappear, Ruess’ passion for the natural world and desire to live out his life amidst it was unwavering. “I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness,” Ruess wrote to his brother Waldo in 1932. “I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.”
Once again, it seems as if he was right.