David Roberts discusses his book Finding Everett Ruess, the enduring mystery of the explorer's death, and why Jon Krakauer nearly quit before writing Into the Wild. To listen to the extended interview click here, or subscribe to our iTunes podcasts.
In 1934, 20-year-old Everett Ruess disappeared in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah. Why are we still discussing him?
Ruess was a precocious teenage artist soloing for 10 months straight in the desert southwest. I’ve been to the more remote canyons and plateaus he visited and can appreciate just how out there he was in the 30s. Then there was the mystery of his death.
His last known campsite is in Davis Gulch, 50 miles out in the desert from Escalante. Really remote. Five months went by and there’s no word from him. The parents got their letters sent back from the postmistress, beginning a lifelong search for their lost son. Today there are four theories: he decided to go native and live a secret life on the Navajo Res or in Mexico, had an accident and fell off a cliff or drowned in the Colorado or froze to death in a winter storm, committed suicide, or was murdered. I think this last option is the most likely.
Who would have killed him?
Anglo Mormon rustlers from in and around Escalante who had once been caught and sent to prison. In 1934, everyone was so poor that rustling was really a crime. If Everett had stumbled upon a couple rustlers butchering a cow, they may have killed him just to prevent the discovery of their crime.
In 2009, you mistakenly claimed to have found Everett’s remains. What happened?
A friend called and told a story about a Navajo sitting atop Comb Ridge in the 30s and watching this white kid with two pack animals going up and down Chimney Wash—an extremely rare occurrence for the Depression-era. The man's grandson heard this story and went out and found a hastily-disposed-of pile of bones. We had DNA tests done and they came back a perfect match. Then we made the mistake of announcing it to the world.
What went wrong?
It wasn’t bad science. It was a glitch in the software that gave a weirdly perfect false result. But for six months, we announced to the world we had found Everett. Doubters persuaded the family to take a second test, which resulted in a disproof. The scientists compared notes and agreed it was not a match. Emotionally, it was a horrible rollercoaster. Plus it meant we’d probably dug up a Native American, which is awful. I got a lot of shit from the bloggers.
In the book's intro, Jon Krakauer mentions the parallels between Ruess and Chris McCandless. Will this be as big a hit as Into the Wild?
The great irony is that I’m the one who convinced Jon to be a writer. I had been his teacher. He thought it was a pointless job and was about to go back to pounding nails and then came Into the Wild.
Is he paying you royalties?
I’m doing okay.