The human spirit craves adventure, and those brave enough to journey beyond the comforts of mainstream society to experience the natural world are often rewarded with memories that last a lifetime. Sometimes, however, these risks may prove to be far too great, and the results can be deadly.
For one California adventurer, the call of the wild led him on a perilous journey through the Utah wilderness that he hoped would become the greatest adventure of his life. He was right, but not nearly in the way he expected to be…
Everett Ruess was born in March of 1914 in Oakland, California as the second child to parents Christopher, a probation officer, and Stella, an artist and poet.
From a young age, Christopher challenged his son to read heavily and encouraged him to study the great philosophers. Everett later began to write poetry himself, and he even took up archery.
But it was adventure that became Everett’s true passion, and he began showing an appetite for it as early as 1930 when he was just 16 years old. During that summer, Everett hitchhiked from Oakland to the town of Carmel-By-The-Sea, an impressive 100-mile journey.
The following year, after graduating from Hollywood High School, Everett purchased a burro and set out on his first major expedition. Over the course of ten months, Everett would come to see iconic locations like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
Not only was this trek an ambitious one, but it also set the foundation for the adventures Everett would seek out in the years to come. Unbeknownst to the young explorer, however, his next expedition would change everything…
In November of 1934, 20-year-old Everett Ruess rode into the remote Utah township of Escalante accompanied by two pack burros. A settlement founded by Mormons in 1876, Escalante was a place where the arrival of a stranger was a rarity.
Everett made his camp just north of the town, pitching his tent in a sunbaked area along the Escalante River that was perfect for mid-day naps. The townspeople visited Everett often, making small talk and giving the friendly adventurer the lay of the land.
The children of Escalante took a particular shine to Everett, and during his time there he took them riding and even treated them to a movie. After spending a few nights in town, Everett packed his burros and disappeared into the wilds of Utah. He was never heard from again.
So what happened to the young explorer? Well, in 1999 David Roberts, an adventure writer for National Geographic Magazine, sought to find an answer to the 65-year-old mystery. The first stop on his investigation? Escalante.
After arriving in town, Roberts sat down with 74-year-old Norm Christensen, one of the children charmed by Everett during his stay in Escalante in 1934. Norm, who was only 10 at the time, was one of the last people to see Everett Ruess alive.
According to Norm, Everett set off into the Utah desert after leaving Escalante, traveling southeast along the Hole in the Rock trail. This historic route had been plotted by 19th-century Mormon settlers and was a tried-and-true passageway for navigating the desert. Or so they believed.
Roberts also spoke to a 91-year-old man while in Escalante named Melvin Alvey, who met Everett during his stay in town all those years ago. Melvin wasn’t surprised that Everett had disappeared, as even then he believed that the young man was ill-equipped to survive the harsh winter climate of the Utah desert.
However, historical reports show that Everett was still alive at least a week after leaving Escalante, having traveled 50 miles through the desert. We know that he came across two shepherds and some cattlemen, but after that, he simply vanished.
Despite Everett’s disappearance, red flags weren’t raised until almost three months later. This wasn’t out of the ordinary, though, as Everett had sent a letter to his family weeks earlier saying that his journey would likely prevent him from communicating for a month or two.
But when the letters Christopher and Stella sent to Marble Canyon, Arizona — the place where Everett was expected to re-emerge into civilization — were returned unopened, they quickly grew concerned. After contacting the postmistress, a search party was dispatched from Escalante in March of 1935.
Eventually, the same two shepherds that had crossed paths with Ruess the previous November stumbled upon an old campsite in a steep-sided canyon known as Davis Gulch. Although Everett’s burros were found alive — albeit severely malnourished — there was no sign of the young explorer, his diary, or his camping gear.
While no traces of Ruess were found, it was widely believed that he was murdered while trekking through the desert. More specifically, the group of cattlemen — who were the last to see him alive — were the supposed culprits behind Everett’s disappearance.
In fact, Norm Christensen revealed that one of the cattlemen, a man by the name of Keith Riddle, had confessed to Everett’s murder. However, Riddle died in 1984 and no definitive evidence was ever found that pinned him to the crime.
But in 2008, 74 years after Everett’s disappearance, a tip from a Navajo who claimed to have witnessed Everett’s murder led a man named Denny Bellson to the skeletal remains of a body at Comb Ridge. The bones — found in a crevice 60 miles from Everett’s last camp — were tested against the DNA of Everett’s nieces and nephews. It was a match!
Heartbreakingly, however, it was later discovered that the DNA test had been botched and that the Comb Ridge remains belonged to a Native American. And so, the truth behind Everett Ruess’ disappearance still remains a mystery to this day.
What do you think happened to Everett Ruess?
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