April 28, 2009
There’s big buzz about! Investigators from "CSI-Comb Ridge" have positively identified remains discovered in a crevice gravesite near the town of Bluff in southeastern Utah as those of long-missing artistic vagabond Everett Ruess. Although the complete DNA evidence won’t be released until tomorrow, the forensic anthropologists examining the remains say the match is anatomically perfect.
As I mentioned in this space last week, there’s no accounting for the collective obsessions of Ruess fanatics. We’ve memorized all facets of Everett’s mythology and are able to recite them ad nauseam. For instance, a recent check of the archives shows no fewer than 32 allusions to the legendary wanderer during the life of this column.
With this latest discovery, the world as we "Ruess-ites" know it has changed forever. The gospel over those years had it that he disappeared from Davis Gulch down in the Escalante some time after he was last seen thereabouts in November of 1934. He left his two burros in a makeshift corral and just vanished. For the past 75 years, no news has been good news. We have been allowed to rhapsodize in probability.
That brings us to last Tuesday when the April/May 2009 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine hit the stands with an investigative-feature article by David Roberts entitled "Finding Everett Ruess." The piece included a quite vivid account from an apparent eyewitness to the murder of Ruess by "three Utes" in a wash below Comb Ridge.
The story, told to Navajo Daisy Johnson by her grandfather, Aneth Nez, and later recounted to her brother, Denny Bellson, last May, led to National Geographic’s involvement and, subsequently, the discovery and exhumation of the gravesite itself.
The incident took place during the 1930s when Nez, from his perch up on Comb Ridge, "watched this guy he was a real young Anglo dude riding up and down the canyon below him."
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"The guy had two mules, one that he rode and one that was packed with things dangling off the side" (a quintessential Ruess mode of travel). One day the Utes appeared and chased him down the wash. "They caught up with him and hit him on the head and knocked him off his mule. They left him there and took off with the mules and whatever else the guy had."
When all was clear, Nez moved down to the wash and found Ruess dead at the scene. Nez packed the body back up the ridge and buried it as best he could in a crevice on the rim where, due to the National Geographic investigation, it was recently unearthed.
As has been mentioned quite often since the Roberts piece appeared, the mystery of where Everett ended up may have been cleared up, but many other cans of worms have had their lids unceremoniously ripped off.
Not the least of which concerns how Everett Ruess found himself in Comb Wash with a new brace of burros some sixty brutal and convoluted miles east of Davis Gulch and why a Navajo, considering the tribal taboos involved, would bury a white man, a breach, however, that would ultimately lead the rest of us to Everett’s final resting place.
In the Sunday edition of The Salt Lake Tribune, reporter Ben Fulton goes directly to the heart of all matters Ruess and speaks to author and editor W. L. "Bud" Rusho who wrote the Everett bible "A Vagabond for Beauty," edited his journals, and contributed an epilogue to the commemorative edition of "On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess."
One clue that pointed to Everett never having crossed the Colorado River onto the Navajo Reservation from the Escalante centered on the fact that no young white man had been seen in that country where, for generations, rumors of such intrusions most always ran rampant whenever such activity occurred.
In Fulton’s piece, Everett’s burros posed a big problem for Rusho who told the Tribune that "Ruess once swore never to travel the Utah desert without horse or burro." Fulton goes on to note, according to an entry in ‘Vagabond for Beauty," that, as part of the 1935 search team formed at the behest of the Tribune, Gail Bailey returns to Escalante with both of Everett’s pack animals.
Roberts, in his National Geographic piece, appears to have an issue with Rusho’s account, stating instead that, according to Escalante townsfolk, the burros Bailey ended up with turned up prior to the start of the search. Hmmmm Curiouser and curiouser.
So how did Everett get to Comb Ridge and where did those burros come from? How about the continuation of the "Hole-in-the-Rock" road south of the Colorado River? Extremely difficult, it would seem, without burros, however.
Thankfully, too many unanswered questions, contradictions, and mysteries abide. Maybe we can milk it for a few more books and a few more red-rock scrambles.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.