02 Oct Legacy of the Lost: Exploring one of Utah’s Most Enduring Mysteries
By Nicole Cowdell
Here at the University of Utah, most 20 year olds are happily entrenched in their undergraduate experience. They spend their time studying and doing coursework, socializing with friends, and working various part-time jobs. However, at 20 years old, Everett Ruess led a much different life. One that ultimately led to his unexplained disappearance – a mystery that has remained unsolved for 84 years.
Photo credits: Marriott Library Special Collections
Born in March of 1914, Everett Ruess was a creative soul from the very beginning. His father, Christopher, was a Unitarian minister and his mother, Stella Knight, was an artist and dancer. Both parents encouraged Everett, and his older brother Waldo, to be as expressive as possible. Writing became an integral part of the Ruess household, each family member diligently kept diaries and frequently shared memorable passages with one another. When one was away, daily letters to each member of the family were commonplace. In addition to writing, the Ruess boys pursued painting, drawing, and any means of creative expression.
This creativity, ingrained into him from childhood, seemed to lead Ruess to a life of adventure. Constantly seeking out inspiration for new writings, paintings, and poems, Ruess struck out on his own, preferring the serenity of the wilderness to the hustle and bustle of city life. In his own words, “I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and the star sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”
As young as 15, Ruess would venture out, traveling on his own for months at a time. His travels took him across the states, including much of California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon. As expected, Ruess kept in close contact with his family while away. Their frequent letters, along with Ruess’ regular diary entries, help track his whereabouts and mindset during his long travels.
While away, Ruess worked odd jobs to earn either money or room and board. He’d also try and sell the many paintings he made along the way, however, not quite to the level he may have liked. When money levels ran low, Ruess was not above begging. Many of his letters home included pleas for money, in addition to traveling provisions and the odd special treat he wasn’t able to procure along the road, to be sent his way; pleas his parents generously answered.
Regularly writing home about the joy he felt with his transient lifestyle, the desert was not without its perils. In a shakily written letter home, Ruess confesses “this is written with my left hand, as I have blood poisoning in my right hand.” He frequently mentions his close encounters with rattlesnakes, attacks by bees which left his eyes swollen shut and his hand weak for days, and being stuck in the cold and rain with little shelter. However, none of the realities of living in the wild seemed to dull his sense of wonder.
Despite reveling in the serenity of the outdoors, Ruess grappled with one constant battle no matter where he traveled: his desperate desire for companionship. Close with few outside his immediate family, Ruess was constantly searching for someone to share his wanderlust and join in his travels. And, while he found temporary friends in the locals of the towns he came through, none stuck around for more than a few weeks at most. Writing friends back home, Ruess yearned for a companion, yet, never found one.
“I have some friends here, but no one who really understands why I am here or what I do,” says Ruess in a letter home, dated June 29, 1934. “I don’t know of anyone, though, who would have more than a partial understanding. I have gone too far alone.”
During an extended exploration of Southern Utah, Ruess writes in a letter to his brother in November of 1934, that he “has had a few narrow escapes from rattlers and crumbling cliffs. As to when I shall visit civilization, it shall not be soon, I think.” The letter proved prophetic as, days after sending this letter, Ruess headed deep into the canyons of Southern Utah, just outside of Escalante, hoping to find inspiration for new paintings amid the canyons.
He was never seen again.
Numerous search parties have been conducted in the hopes of finding Ruess’ remains over the years, ultimately ending in disappointment each time. Enamored with his unwavering sense of adventure, yet confounded by the lack of answers his disappearance leaves, the mystery surrounding Everett Ruess has plagued minds for decades.
A glimmer of hope was shed in 2009 when skeletal remains were found near Ruess’ last known location. Initially identified as Ruess, family members and curious followers were pleased to finally have an ending to the story. However, many contested the findings, skeptical of the results. After closer examination and DNA analysis, it was found that the skeleton was not Ruess, rather, they were the remains of a young Navajo.
And so, the mystery remains. What truly happened to Everett Ruess may never be known. However, a collection of his work lives on at the J. Willard Marriott Library. Local Utah historian W. L. Rusho dedicated much of his life to studying Ruess. His work includes Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess, and On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess. Rusho generously donated his life’s work to the Marriott Library and a collection including journal excerpts, poems, photographs, and personal correspondence from Ruess are available for viewing in the Special Collections department. Charitable contributions such as these keep valuable historical artifacts preserved, remembered, and most importantly, accessible. The Special Collections department is located on the fourth floor of the J. Willard Marriott Library and is open to the public.
About W. L. “Bud” Rusho:
Wilbur L. “Bud” Rusho was a well-known historian who specialized in the American West. Spending most of his life working for the Bureau of Reclamation, Rusho spent decades documenting the creation of the Glen Canyon dam and Lake Powell, he also chronicled the journey of river runners, and of course, he tirelessly researched the mysterious disappearance of Everett Ruess.
Throughout his career, Rusho wrote several novels, produced a number of films, and took countless photographs and notes. His devotion to exploring and documenting the West led him to become a founding member of the Utah Westerners in 1967, a group dedicated to promoting and preserving historical knowledge of the West.
Rusho passed away in 2011, however, his life’s work lives on at the J. Willard Marriott Library. The collection includes journals, correspondence, interviews, poems, manuscripts, video scripts, photographs, lectures, maps, and more from throughout Rusho’s career. The collection is available to the public through the Marriott Library’s Special Collections department. A detailed description of the collection can be found here.