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Know the West

Everett Ruess redux


A new documentary on Everett Ruess is out, the latest manifestation of an ongoing cultural obsession with the young artist who vanished in the desert Southwest nearly 80 years ago.

Filmmaker Corey Robinson's "Nemo 1934: Searching for Everett Ruess" is a 38-minute documentary that "tells the story of the life and afterlife of everyone's favorite missing desert vagabond."

Robinson's documentary, created at Syracuse University, offers historic footage and photos, interviews with Ruess experts and desert rats, and perhaps most compellingly, features Ruess's own words, in the form of excerpts from his journal read aloud. There's nothing startling or new in Robinson's retelling of the story, but it's a nicely-done and engaging summary of a fascinating tale.

The bare bones of Ruess's story are familiar to many. The son of Christopher and Stella Ruess, Everett was born in L.A. in 1914 and began writing, sketching and sculpting at an early age. In and after high school, he began hitchhiking up the California coast and and met painter Maynard Dixon and photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Western and Dorothea Lange. Then he was drawn east to the redrock canyons of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, traveling mostly on foot with a burro. He traded his prints and paintings for food, and kept a journal full of lyrical (even angsty and romantic) observations about nature, art and his distaste for conventional society. In the fall of 1934, he vanished in the canyon country near Escalante, Utah; his burros were found later, but no other traces save for cryptic inscriptions reading "Nemo 1934" (he sometimes called himself "Nemo", Latin for "no man").

Speculation about his fate was rampant – he fell off a cliff, drowned in a flood, married a Navajo woman, was murdered by cattle rustlers.  In 2009, author David Roberts found bones near southeast Utah's Comb Ridge and connected them with a local Navajo grandfather's account of a white man's murder and burial. DNA testing originally confirmed that the remains were Ruess's, but shortly after they were discovered to be Native American instead.

Dozens of books and movies over the decades look to solve the mystery of his disappearance or pay homage to the young artist and his work: Wallace Stegner's 1942 classic Mormon CountryFinding Everett Ruess by David Roberts and W.L. Rusho's collection of letters and diary entries, Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty; "Everett Ruess: Wilderness Song" by Utah filmmaker Lindsay Jaeger, Diane Orr's "Lost Forever: Everett Ruess" and Dyanna Taylor's "Vanished."

The Salt Lake Tribune reviewed a 2008 play about Ruess by Utah playwright Debora Threedy, "The End of the Horizon":

Whatever happened, this is what we know: Ruess has been transformed into a cultural icon because he got - and stayed - lost.

"He's become an archetypal figure of canyonland country," says bookseller Ken Sanders, who has been obsessed with the Ruess story for more than 30 years. "He walked off from Escalante into the howling wilderness, and that strikes a chord with every generation." Sanders quotes the ending of a 1983 sonnet Edward Abbey wrote to Ruess: That blessing which you hunted, hunted too. What you were seeking, this is what found you.

Ruess disappeared in what's now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Perhaps the most intriguing recent clue comes from New Mexico writer Chuck Greaves. Greaves found a pair of human skulls in a Utah canyon in 1994, and launched into an investigation that ultimately led to his 2012 novel Hard Twisted, a true-life story about James Clinton Palmer, a 36-year-old Texas psychopath and drifter, and the teenage girl, Lottie Garrett, he kidnapped in Oklahoma after killing her father. Palmer and Garrett fled to Utah, where he got a job tending sheep; he then murdered two men in a dispute over grazing. Greaves postulates that Ruess wandered into John's Canyon, where Palmer was hiding out after the killings.

On the same day – March 7, 1935 – that the San Juan Record first reported the John’s Canyon killings in a banner headline proclaiming DOUBLE MURDER SHOCKS COUNTY, it also reported, in the adjoining column on page one, the disappearance of a young, unnamed artist who had last been seen in November of 1934 near the Escalante River, where “[p]lanes were used to try and locate the artist’s camp and succeeded in finding what they thought to be the pack burrow [sic] which he used.  No camp or other sign of the lost man have yet been found.”

Perhaps Greaves is right, and Palmer killed Everett. The main hitch with that theory seems to be that Davis Gulch, where Ruess's burros were found, and John's Canyon, where Greaves thinks he might have been killed by Palmer, are at least 30 miles apart. Would he have really left his burros and walked that far? It seems unlikely that we'll ever learn the fate of Ruess, but in the end, it doesn't even matter; how he lived means much more than how he died.

At the end of Robinson's film, Brooke Williams of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance sums it up: "We're reinterpreting his life and the symbol he is, we're giving it new meaning in every generation, and I think that's important."

Jodi Peterson is High Country News' managing editor.

Photo courtesy Flickr user fermicat.