November 4, 2011
The artist and adventurer Everett Ruess was 20 years old when he vanished into wild and lonely Davis Gulch, a drainage of the Escalante River in southern Utah. He’d been tramping alone for 8 months across some of the roughest, most isolated country in the nation with burros to carry his gear and the odd volume of Emerson. Occasionally he stopped in settlements like dusty little Escalante to pick up mail from his parents. Two sheep herders reported meeting him on the slick rock tableland outside town on Nov. 21, 1934. Then nothing.
The woodblock prints and writing he left behind, collected in W.L. Rusho‘s 1983 Edward Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty, still captivate wilderness lovers. But it’s the mystery of his disappearance that has made him a cult hero among backpackers, climbers, canyoneers and other desert rats. Did he fall from a cliff while looking for arrowheads? Could he have committed suicide or been murdered by cattle rustlers? Or, drawn as he was to the blank spaces on the map, did he engineer his own disappearance, intentionally leaving family, friends and civilization behind?
His strange story—part cautionary tale, part siren song—has been told many times by Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and other writers. Jon Krakauer found similarities between Ruess and Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. This year a new book, Finding Everett Ruess, by David Roberts, adds another chapter to the Ruess riddle.
The book landed at the top of my reading list not because I’m a fan; to my mind Ruess’s evocations of the desert Southwest lack cultural and historical perspective. But I have been to Davis Gulch, now part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and there’s nothing lacking about that. Hiking in from its confluence with the Escalante was an unforgettable experience, not to be repeated anytime soon because access is dictated by the water level on Lake Powell, which has risen since then, backing up into tributaries like Davis Gulch.
But a drought that peaked in 2005 made it possible for my brother John, backcountry ranger Bill Wolverton and me to explore the gulch, starting in flats of quick sand at its mouth. Farther up the canyon we saw 75 foot high La Gorce Arch and squeezed through a subway where the canyon walls narrow before leaving Davis by the livestock trail at its head, presumably the route Ruess took down.
Roberts went the same way to research a 1999 article for National Geographic Adventure that revisited the mystery, uncovering new hints about the possible murder of Ruess by Escalante locals.
But 10 years later the writer heard of a skeleton buried in a crack along Comb Ridge some 50 miles east of Davis Gulch in the Navajo Reservation. Tests on a DNA sample suggested that the remains were those of Everett Ruess, causing Roberts and fellow investigators to re-imagine the wanderer’s last steps, hypothesizing that he must have left Davis Gulch, crossed the Colorado River to die in the isolated northern part of the Navajo Reservation. But the findings, published in National Geographic Adventure, had to be retracted when a state-of-the-art U.S. military lab determined that the Comb Ridge bones were not those of Everett Ruess.
Roberts tells the whole story of the misidentification of the Comb Ridge remains, an interesting twist in the Everett Ruess saga. But in the end we’re left no wiser, still hearing only faint whispers of the vagabond of Ruess’ poem “Wilderness Song:”