email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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In 1942 author Wallace Stegner took the measure of Ruess, offering a final word on his enduring legacy: What Everett was after was beauty, and he conceived beauty in pretty romantic terms. We might be inclined to laugh at the extravagance of his beauty-worship if there was not something almost magnificent in his single-minded dedication to it. . . . If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age.

In May 2008 neither Daisy Johnson nor Denny Bellson had ever heard of Everett Ruess. After listening to his sister’s remarkable story about Aneth Nez, Bellson Googled “Missing persons + Arizona/Utah + 1930s.” It was only then that he came across the story of the romantic vagabond who had disappeared near Escalante in 1934. The similarities with Aneth Nez’s sinister tale were too striking to ignore.

A few days after his discovery Bellson took his friend Vaughn Hadenfeldt out to the gravesite. A wilderness guide based in Bluff, Utah, and my longtime hiking companion, Hadenfeldt knew the Ruess story backward and forward. The next day he called me. “It could be a Navajo crevice burial,” he reported. “But there’s something pretty weird about it.” (Hadenfeldt is well versed in the common Navajo practice of burying a body, along with certain precious possessions, in a natural fissure in the bedrock.) Then Hadenfeldt relayed the details of the Aneth Nez story, as Johnson had recounted it to Bellson.

By the time he had finished, the hook was set. I’d never met Bellson, but Hadenfeldt had spoken highly of his friend’s sagacity about local lore. I decided I ought to head out myself and see what was going on along Comb Ridge.

Before I could get to Utah, however, Bellson called the FBI in Monticello. If by some remote chance the grave was that of Everett Ruess—or of some other Anglo who had been killed by Utes—it was thus a crime scene. Fearful of sidestepping the law, Bellson felt it his duty to notify the authorities.

I called up special agent Rachel Boisselle, who worked in the Monticello office. Over the phone, she seemed friendly. She, too, had never heard of Everett Ruess, so I filled her in on the 75-year-old saga. Boisselle was planning to head out to the site with Bellson in a few days. But she was plainly skeptical. “Denny’s already dragged us out to another place down near Poncho House where he found bones coming out of the ground,” she told me. “When we got there, we could see right away that it was an Anasazi mother and child. We covered the bones back up.”

The Ruess story clearly intrigued Boisselle, however. “You can be sure we’ll treat this new burial with the utmost respect,” she told me just before we hung up. “We won’t disturb a thing.”

I phoned another friend, Greg Child, who lives in Castle Valley, Utah. In 2004 Child, Hadenfeldt, and I had hiked the full length of Comb Ridge. As we later realized, we had come within a hundred yards of the gravesite without having the faintest notion that there was anything interesting just above us, on the rim to our right.

Child drove down to Bluff and found Bellson, who took him out on the Comb. “At the grave, Denny didn’t touch a thing,” Child told me later. “And on the way out, he made me wash my hands in a spring. I had to wash them over and over again before Denny would let me get back in his truck.”

At the site Child spent an hour photographing the burial. Outside the crevice Bellson had found a wooden stirrup, tattered strips of leather, and the frame of a saddle with a rusted iron pommel. Just inside the crevice, lying on the ground, was a black leather belt decorated with metal studs. Curiously, the belt was buckled, so it lay in a closed but empty loop.

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  • I've read this several times. Kudos to the author who condensed a long and convoluted experience in…
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  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
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