If you know and love the Red Rock Canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona, you're like me in always remembering that one of its unsung heroes is 21 year old Everett Ruess, lost on a quest for beauty and adventure since November 11, 1934.
Walking south out of Escalante, Utah, Ruess wandered down the Hole in the Rock Trail towards what is today's Lake Powell. And was never heard from again.
Until noted author David Roberts, writing in National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, revealed a brand new tale on an old mystery.
In November 1934, Ruess sent a last letter from Escalante, Utah to his brother Waldo in California. It read. "It may be a month or two before I have a post office, for I am exploring southward to the Colorado, where no one lives."
Four months later a search party was mounted after Ruess' parents received their letters they had sent Ruess. All were unclaimed. The 1935 Searchers found a brush corral with two burros, a bridle, halter and rope. It was presumed that Ruess walked south down Davis Gulch. Oddly, the searchers didn't find his painter's tools or his journal that he kept religiously.
Over the past 70 years, hundreds of Ruess devotees have tried to find Everett's remains, his memory, his essence, tramping across the red rock wilderness, touching beauty and the adventure that Ruess' life symbolized to many. Songs have been written, Ruess featured strongly in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. Every September, there's an Escalante, Utah Arts festival which features as its logo Ruess' wood block engraving of himself with two burros. The documentary film "Lost Forever" assumes that Ruess will never be found.
While other desert fugitives, like The Big Bend's Burro Lady and Thong Man, have come and gone, Ruess lives on in many people's day dreams. Like Arthur Rimbaud, the French surrealist boy-poet whose Season in Hell is on the list for any passionate wanderer, Ruess' posthumous On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess has become a major book in the quest for beauty.
Although decades and worlds apart, Everett Ruess and Arthur Rimbaud resonate with us because they were so young when they did their best work. Both were poets who became seers or seekers by undergoing an inordinately intense existence.
Before they were both 21, they each wrote some of the finest poetry and prose of their time. Ruess in the Utah desert of the Dine. Rimbaud in the avant garde, Libertine Paris of the early 1870's.
Rimbaud wrote his best known works, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat while still in his late teens, similar to Everett Ruess' meticulously kept notebooks filled with letters to his parents and brother and watercolors of the canyons he traveled through.
Victor Hugo described Rimbaud as "an infant Shakespeare". His words still resound from the pages of a poem like A Song from the Highest Tower,
"O my eternal soul
Hold fast to desire
In spite of the night
And the day on Fire."
Ruess is a seeker of beauty in the West. But part of him reminds me of Rimbaud. He even changed his name to the French "Lan Rameau" for part of his short life. His other nom de plume was NEMO, in a tribute to Jules Verne or to the Latin translation, "no man."
In Everett Ruess Wilderness Journals published in 1990, we find
"Say that I starved, that I was lost and weary.
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun.
Footsore, thirsty sick with strange diseases;
Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept the dream."
Unlike Ruess, Rimbaud managed to live through a haze of hashish and absinthe until the ripe old age of 37, but like the Vagabond for Beauty, Rimbaud remained a prolific letter-writer all his life. Rimbaud as a restless soul, travelled and wrote extensively on three continents before his premature death from cancer less than a month after his 37th birthday.
What both searched for was beauty. Both thought of beauty in ideally romantic terms. Both were obsessed with the single-mindedness of the pursuit.
Which brings us around to those who follow Everett Ruess today.
Just this past year, explorers and Dine found a European body. And it's been found not far from Utah's sandstone spine, the Comb Ridge.
Ruess once wrote, "And when it comes time to die, I'll find the wildest loneliest, most desolate spot there is."
It could be that he did. The original witness to this desert mayhem is an elderly Navajo man who as his grandson tells the story was sitting on Utah's Comb Ridge looking down into the depths of Chinle Wash. Splendidly isolated country back then and it still is today. What the elderly Navajo man saw is the beginning of the full circle of the Everett Ruess mystery.
The old Navajo witnessed a young man with two burros ride up and down the wash and then get attacked by Ute Indians. Knocking him off his mule and taking his mules and pack, the Utes rode off leaving him in the Wash to die.
The young man was buried in a crevice in Comb Ridge, only to be found in 2008 by Denny Bellson, the elderly Navajo's grandson. The news of a European skeleton and skull traveled like a dust-devil throughout the small group of Ruess seekers who continue to be fascinated by the body on Navajo lands.
Many think it might be Ruess.
Certainly, David Roberts and the National Geographic Adventure team do.
Others like reporter, Paul Foy, question how Ruess could have crossed the Colorado
River with two fully-laden burros.
DNA samples have been sent to Ruess' nephews and nieces. And with the help of forensic anthropologists at University of Colorado, many feel the mystery has been resolved.
Or maybe the mystery remains if you're like me and don't want Nemo found. Lan Rameau will always continue to be part of the beauty of the desert Southwest. His soul, story and passion will inspire, color and enchant wanderers yet to come.
Whether he found the beauty he was looking for is undisputed. What his last thoughts were as he walked into the desert, we can glimpse. Ruess was living the Navajo Beauty chant, " In Beauty I walk, with beauty before me. In Beauty I walk with beauty behind me. In beauty I walk. It is done."
The Vagabond for Beauty has spoken from the wilderness. "When I go, I leave no trace." Except maybe he did.