No bones about it: two books on the disappearing Everett Ruess

  • Everett Ruess on the trail, with his dog, Curly, atop the burro.

    Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
  • A thoughtful Everett as a young teenager.

    Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer
David Roberts
416 pages, hardcover: $25.
Broadway, 2011.

Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife
Philip L. Fradkin
296 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of California Press, 2011.

There's nothing like an unsolved disappearance to create an enduring cult hero. Maybe that's why Amelia Earhart and Grand Canyon honeymooners Bessie and Glen Hyde refuse to stay buried in the annals of lost adventurers. The same is true of artist and wilderness explorer Everett Ruess, whose 1934 vanishing has proven to be such a compelling enigma that books are still being written about it, three-quarters of a century later.

Everett Ruess was only 16 when he left his family to explore the Southwest. He traveled alone by horse and burro for four years, chronicling his experiences in journals and letters and trading his watercolor paintings for supplies. Ruess was attractive and charismatic, deeply devoted to nature and wildly adventurous. Then he disappeared. Forever. And no one knows exactly why -- or how.

In Finding Everett Ruess, author David Roberts sets out on the Ruess trail and -- quite literally -- unearths a startling find: bones stuffed hastily into a crevice grave near southeast Utah's Comb Ridge. An eyewitness account of a white man's murder and burial had been passed down through a local Navajo family, and when Roberts heard about it in 2009, he wondered if it could solve the Everett Ruess mystery.

A grandson of the original witness led Roberts and a few others to the site, where they photographed the skeleton and became accomplices in the frenzy that followed. Ruess' surviving family members submitted saliva samples for a DNA test. One group of researchers confirmed that the bones belonged to Everett Ruess. Mystery solved! But then those findings were challenged, and the family arranged for a second test. This time, the results proved that the skeleton belonged not to Ruess but to a Native American man. Mystery ... unsolved.

Roberts narrates the events in gripping detail and elucidates the science behind how investigators figure out whose bones belong to whom. Ultimately, however, he regrets his role in what happened. Beneath the disappointment, "and far deeper," Roberts says, "those of us involved in the Comb Ridge find shared a profound sense of shame." The discovery fueled a bitter controversy, not to mention the fact that it involved the "terrible desecration" of digging up a dead man's bones.

Finding Everett Ruess stands out for other reasons besides the fact that its author has a first-hand perspective on the happenings at Comb Ridge. Roberts is a master storyteller, and a lot of his book focuses on the life of Everett Ruess -- a life that many admire today for its unswerving commitment to find beauty in the natural world. Other authors have used this trait as the theme of their books, most notably W.L. Rusho, who titled his collection of the young artist's letters and diary entries Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty.

Roberts recreates some intensely beautiful moments himself. Following Ruess' trail, he finds "a sandstone paradise" in Davis Gulch, where "prickly pears were in bloom, bursting with waxy magenta flowers." Roberts sets up camp by a "stately cottonwood" and listens to frogs croaking "from a pool beneath a fern-hung seep."

A second book on Ruess released in August, Philip L. Fradkin's Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife, focuses on how the story of Ruess is "the story of all of us and our loneliness and confusion during the teenage years -- only writ larger, as Everett went to extremes." Fradkin explores the circumstances surrounding the young man's disappearance, and he also delves into his subject's psyche as few other writers have done.

Fradkin takes a chronological approach, inserting Ruess' own words into his text in italics. The result is an often-staccato narration of events with little pause for reflection on their significance. However, his biography of the Ruess family is worthwhile, offering insight into the tragedy that all parents who lose a child must endure. Its portrait of Ruess' "freethinking and venturesome" upbringing helps explain why he started roaming before he even graduated from high school.

Together, Roberts and Fradkin give us a broader, clearer picture of Everett Ruess and his deep connection to the cliffs and canyons he roamed. In an HCN interview in 2009, Fradkin said that Ruess' death made him "a figure of mystery and myth." These two books help demystify that figure by giving us insight into the life underlying the legend. Still, the mystery of Ruess endures, and his ghost continues to haunt red-rock country.

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