No One Knows

Was 20-year-old Everett Ruess a suicide, murder victim, or something else?

    Photo: Keith Carter

"WHEN THE TIME COMES to die," wrote 18-year-old Everett Ruess in a letter in 1932, "I'll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is." No one could have predicted it would happen so soon. In November 1934, just shy of his 21st birthday, Ruess left home and never came back. It was the end of a long, strange journey he'd begun four years earlier.

In 1930 Ruess, a dough-faced boy from Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a painter, set off alone into the Sierras with a set of watercolors, a camera, and a journal. A peripatetic loner, he ranged through the Sierras and later the Four Corners region, sending home paintings and ecstatic letters describing the natural world—an ebullience that contradicted his darker musings. Ruess's story bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Chris McCandless, the 24-year-old wanderer who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. (Jon Krakauer devotes a large section to Ruess's story in Into the Wild.) Like McCandless, Ruess was charismatic and self-confident but also exhibited extreme mood swings. He dodged practical concerns—money, work, or parental expectations—that interfered with his free-spirited ramblings. Each year Ruess pushed deeper into the wilderness. When he hit Utah's rugged Escalante country in November 1934, the letters home stopped. Three months later, his burros, a bridle and halter, and candy wrappers were found in Davis Gulch, an offshoot of Escalante Canyon. Searchers followed Ruess's footprints out of the gorge, but the tracks disappeared at the base of the Kaiparowits Plateau. The only other clue was the word NEMO—Latin for "no one"—scratched into a rock and an old native dwelling in Davis Gulch.

Neither Ruess's body nor any conclusive evidence of his fate has been found, spawning endless speculation. It has been suggested that he was murdered by a Navajo named Jack Crank, who supposedly hated whites. Others are convinced that he was killed by cattle rustlers. Then there's the possibility he committed suicide, and left the NEMO carving as his farewell note. In 1999, the excavation of a mound thought to be Ruess's grave, near Hole-in-the-Rock, Utah, was discovered to be nothing but a pile of dirt.

W. L. Rusho, author of Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, doubts Ruess made it out of Escalante alive, and guesses that the lad fell while climbing or got himself trapped in a side canyon. "It's very doubtful at this time that anyone could find Ruess's remains," says Rusho. "I think Everett's fate will always be a mystery."

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