LOST IN THE UTAH DESERT
The disappearance of the twenty year old Everett Ruess
by Kyt Lyn Walken
There are stories that stay with you from the beginning. It also happens that daily worries, of little value or serious, make them sink. For months, maybe years. It may happen that names are forgotten, dates lost, names of places confused with others. But one thing is certain: they always surface.
And that’s exactly what happened to me with the story of Everett Ruess. For years I have forgotten his name, and a few days ago, looking for some texts on the great American deserts, his story has returned to the surface. With arrogance, because it is a strong and true story that, apparently, I was not the only one to forget.
And I decided to tell you about it.
Let’s start from the end, this time. It is November 1934 and we are in Escalante, in the central south of the state of Utah. A city of just over 1000 inhabitants (even less today: around 800), located not far from the spectacular Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, now reduced by 47% by Trump to around 1,003,863 acres, or 4,062 km2.
Immense layers of rock and petrified forests (in fact the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park has been here since 1991) give no respite neither to contemplation nor to the desire to see more, to dive even deeper into one of the most evocative scenarios that this planet has to offer.
Maybe you’ve seen it in documentaries, or in some travel magazine. Or in the posters of the waiting rooms of the dentists. It is something that the eyes and the mind cannot forget.
Young Everett Ruess knows this well, who on November 20, 1934 ventures alone into those boundless spaces. Only with two donkeys carrying his equipment. Leave it to the parents (to whom it will be able to send some letters) where it is: but it will be difficult to keep the correspondence. In fact, it is found in the middle of nowhere, just as it had been in the past when it had crossed Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, always on the backs of horses or donkeys. Between 1930 and 1933 he had been in Sequoia National Park, Yosemite and the Sierra. In short, a very young explorer who loves extreme spaces and climates.
Born in California in 1914, Everett had soon developed two distinct passions, which he often liked to intersect: Art – he was in fact very skilled in Linoleography – and poetry: in 1920 he had published a first book, entitled – and not could be otherwise, considering his shy personality – “Lonesome (Solitaire)”
Unsurprised by his umpteenth adventure, the parents are not worried: Everett knows how to handle it, and that’s his world. More than any other.
Months pass and 1935 arrives, and distressed by the lack of any contact, they ask the local authorities to start looking for their son. It is February 7th.
Ruess donkeys are first found north of Davis Gulch, a canyon crossed by the Escalante River. No trace of the boy, if not a small corral created by him to gather the animals, and an inscription: “NEMO Nov 1934”. The searches continue until March 15th, but no other clues or objects dating back to Ruess are recovered. It is as if the boy has been swallowed up by those canyons he loved so … tenaciously.
Theories about his death have been stubborn: a sudden flood, a brutal murder, a kidnapping for ransom. And for years it has not been possible to put an end to the Ruess affair.
In 2009, an elderly member of the area’s Navajo community revealed that the young man had been murdered by two natives of the Ute tribe who wanted to steal his donkeys. The elder was also aware of the tomb, in which remains of bones and teeth compatible with Everett’s profile were found, only to be proved wrong by subsequent investigations and more detailed DNA tests.
The case remains open today.
You can say that this is not a real survival story: Ruess may have fallen a few days after his arrival, or may have had another fate. We know nothing of how he spent those days in one of the most avaricious places of natural resources on the planet, and at the same time full of dangers, premonitions and solitude. Or it could have lived very long after losing the donkeys, perhaps running away for fear. Assumptions could be wasted.
The bitter solitude of those places, and their never completely forgotten stories with them, remains.
“I have to consider my short life full of interesting events,” Everett had written to his brother from Arizona three years earlier “I will go to some wild place, to a place I have known and loved. And I will never go back […] Where I go, I leave no traces ”
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