Desert disappearances


In mid-April, writer Laura Paskus told us of a dozen murdered women whose remains were found in the New Mexico desert. This week, the desert has given up additional bodies -- one an explorer who disappeared 75 years ago, the other a hiker missing only since November. 

Everett Ruess, artist, poet and aesthete, was 20 years old when he vanished on a solo mule trip through Utah in 1934. He left only his woodblock prints, letters to his family, and the word "Nemo" inscribed in various canyons. Theories abounded -- he'd run off with a Navajo girl, drowned crossing the Colorado River, been murdered by cattle rustlers. Finally, this week the mystery was solved when researchers revealed that human bones found by a Navajo man were a DNA match with Everett's living relatives. The Navajo had gone in search of the remains last year, after learning that his grandfather saw a young white man being killed in the '30s and buried the body.

The discovery puts decades of questions to rest for the Ruess family. And the discovery of a much more recently vanished wanderer -- Rose Backhaus -- has finally answered her family's questions. 

The 53-year-old Colorado woman had gone to southern Utah to hike in November. Her car was found at Goblin Valley State Park several days after she failed to return home, but searchers found few traces. This week, hikers stumbled across her body in a slot canyon. She'd apparently gotten lost, descended into a canyon, and was unable to climb out again.

To both Everett and Rose, the desert revealed itself "nakedly and cruelly," in Abbey's words. It's harsh out there in the sandstone cliffs of Utah, easy to make a misstep that costs your life. Many  will see Rose's fate as an argument for cellphones -- perhaps she could have gotten a signal in that lonely canyon, saved her life with 911. But, like Everett  (and unlike the women Laura writes about, who were victims), she confronted the land on its own terms. Both of them wandered the desert alone, without a safety net. And in my eyes, at least, there's bravery and a kind of honor in that choice.



Everett Ruess
Ian Bowen
Ian Bowen
May 02, 2009 04:43 PM
Wow... I can't believe that after all these years, Everett Ruess has been found. I wonder if his 1934 journal will ever turn up. Since first learning of him in Into the Wild, I've felt that I am very similar to Ruess; I may not have the same artistic or linguistic talent as he did, but my passion for the desert wilderness and practical worship of beauty, especially in the natural world, is the same. In a way the finding of his body is sad, because it puts an end to the myriad legends that have come about as a result of his disappearance. At the same time, though, it brings us proof that his death did not result from ineptitude, which I think may help keep his spirit alive.
Cell Phones
Charlie Dunsdon
Charlie Dunsdon
May 06, 2009 10:15 AM
Rose had a cell phone. That was part of the problem, when she called in for her messages on her way to Little Wild Horse Canyon, the signal bounced off a tower down by Mexican Hat. This led searchers to believe she was down that way and they wasted a week looking for her instead of where she was. But cell phones are useless in deep canyons.
Cell phones and lost hikers
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
May 06, 2009 10:37 AM
Thanks for the comment Charlie. My point was that hiking alone entails risks, and if you're going to do it (which I have, many times), do it with integrity and a clear understanding of potential consequences. Don't undertake a solo trip lightly and then count on a cell phone to bail you out.