The young boys of Escalante took an instant liking to the vagabond. During the next several days, they rode horseback with him along the nearby ridges, hunted for arrowheads, and shared his campfire dinner of venison and potatoes. On his last night in town, Ruess (pronounced roo-ess) treated a couple of the boys to the local movie theater. They watched Death Takes a Holiday.
Then Ruess rode alone out of town, headed southeast down the Hole in the Rock Trail toward the barren plateau the locals called the Desert. The day before, he had mailed a last letter to his brother in California. "It may be a month or two before I have a post office," he wrote, "for I am exploring southward to the Colorado [River], where no one lives."
Ruess was launched on the next leg of his quest for beauty and adventure. A week later, 50 miles out, he sat around a campfire with a couple of Escalante sheepherders.
And then, Everett Ruess disappeared from the face of the Earth.
It was a warm day in May 2008. Daisy Johnson had come from her home in Farmington, New Mexico, to Shiprock to visit her younger brother, Denny Bellson. And to tell him a story he had never heard before—a story about their grandfather, Aneth Nez, that took place back in the 1930s.
Fifty-six years old last May, Johnson was a troubled woman. A year before, she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent a round of chemotherapy that nauseated her and caused her hair to fall out, but the cancer had gone away. Now, just in the past few weeks, it had come back. This time Johnson, a traditional Navajo, went to a medicine man.
"He told me this all came about because of our grandpa," Johnson said to her brother. She knew in a heartbeat that the medicine man must be right. How else had he known about her grandfather?
Bellson lives on the Navajo Reservation, just off U.S. Highway 191, not far from where he and his sister had grown up, and where their grandfather, Aneth Nez, had lived. Last May he listened to his sister’s story in electrified silence.
"A long time ago," she said, "Grandpa was sitting up there on the rim of Comb Ridge [a sandstone uplift that crosses the Utah-Arizona border]. For several days he watched this guy—he was a real young Anglo dude—riding up and down the canyon below him. The guy had two mules, one that he rode and one that was packed with things dangling off the side. It was like he was looking for something."
One day, according to Johnson, Nez saw the young man down in the riverbed, only this time he was yelling and riding fast. Nez scanned the wash below and saw three Utes chasing the boy. "They caught up with him and hit him on the head and knocked him off his mule," she recounted. "They left him there and took off with the mules and whatever else the guy had."
As he watched the scene unfold, Nez stayed out of view. For centuries Utes living north of the San Juan River had been fierce enemies of the Navajo, whose homeland lay south of the river. As late as the 1930s, tensions between the groups occasionally broke out in violence. Nez’s perch was only a few miles from that ethnic frontier.