email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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Ten years ago, on assignment for the premiere issue of ADVENTURE I spent months pursuing my own search for clues to the Everett Ruess mystery. At one point, I thought I had solved the puzzle, even discovering a mound of earth that I thought might have been the Ruess grave. But with time and distance, I had to concede, as W. L. Rusho had in 1983, that Ruess’s fate remained unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable.

For the burial site on Comb Ridge to be that of Everett Ruess, a couple of logical problems would have to be resolved. The most troublesome has to do with the burros themselves. As Rusho reported, the searchers in March 1935 claimed to have found Ruess’s pack animals in Davis Gulch. Why would the Utes have stolen the two burros in Chinle Wash, only to ditch them 60 miles away in a side canyon near the Escalante River?

If the animals found in Davis Gulch were not Ruess’s, however, that problem vanishes. Indeed, in 1999, I had unearthed some odd contradictions that made Rusho’s whole story about the burros unreliable. According to the historian, after the search team recovered the pack animals, one man, Gail Bailey, had led them back to Escalante and pastured them on a nearby mountain. But when I talked to old-timers in Escalante 16 years after Rusho had done his research, I was told again and again that Bailey had found the burros on his own, before the search had even been organized. Bailey, who died in 1997, had evidently lied to Rusho. No one I talked to could verify that anyone except Gail Bailey had ever seen the burros, and so no one could be certain that those pack animals (if they existed) had belonged to Ruess.

This helps resolve the second puzzle: the fact that Ruess would have had to cover more than 60 miles as the crow flies between Davis Gulch and Comb Ridge, maybe 90 miles as a hiker might wend his way. In four years of exploring the Southwest, Ruess had never been known to stray far from his pack animals. But if he took his burros with him, there’s nothing improbable about that final trip eastward. The young man had once ventured 400 miles by burro in just six weeks.

A string of graffiti left by Ruess may furnish a startling corroboration of that last journey. Like Chris McCandless, who in his final years gave himself the alias Alexander Supertramp, Ruess toyed with pseudonyms. For a while in 1931, he signed his letters “Lan Rameau,” while he transferred the name “Everett” to one of his burros. Later that year, he became “Evert Rulan.” Downstream from the burro corral in Davis Gulch, the searchers in 1935 found two inscriptions, one on the sill of an Anasazi granary, the other below a pictograph panel. They read: NEMO 1934.

Ruess’s father interpreted the alias as a joint allusion to Odysseus’s ruse of calling himself Nemo (Latin for “no man”) when trapped in the Cyclops’s cave, and to Captain Nemo of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of Ruess’s favorite books. (The inscriptions are gone today, lost beneath the waters of Lake Powell.)

More than three decades later, horse packer Ken Sleight, who was fascinated by the Ruess mystery, discovered another NEMO inscription carved in the mud wall of an Anasazi granary in Grand Gulch, 45 miles east of Davis Gulch. As far as anyone knew, Ruess had never explored Grand Gulch.

Hadenfeldt and I hiked into the granary to look at the inscription ourselves in 1999. By then it had faded almost to illegibility, but Hadenfeldt, an expert in reading historic signatures, saw the four block capitals in the mud. The splayed out “N” and the shallow-troughed “M” were identical to those in the photos from Davis Gulch—which were first published a decade after Sleight’s discovery. Sleight’s NEMO was clearly no copycat graffito.

Since Ruess had only started signing himself NEMO in late 1934, did the Grand Gulch inscription prove that he had wandered there after carving his name in Davis Gulch? And if so, was he on the way to his demise in Chinle Wash? A comment in Ruess’s last letter to his parents, written on November 11, 1934, dovetails strikingly with this itinerary: “I am going south toward the [Colorado] river now, through some rather wild country. I am not sure yet whether I will go across Smokey Mountain to Lee’s Ferry and south, or whether I will try and cross the river above the San Juan. The water is very low this year.” Either route would have launched Ruess straight on the trail to Grand Gulch and Chinle Wash.

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