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.