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They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …


A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

2 comments

1 On the Trail of Everett Ruess - This Time on Twitter! — Jukebox in My Head { 05.05.09 at 7:24 am }

[...] my own personal feelings about the discovery and its connection to one of my favorite Dave Alvin songs. Gene Autry is still singing about [...]

2 Everett Ruess is Still Missing — Jukebox in My Head { 10.22.09 at 7:13 am }

[...] It was a great story, but an even harder lesson that reminds us that even DNA evidence isn’t unassailable if it’s done incorrectly. And I really feel for Ruess’ family, which has had to endure an emotional roller coaster ride. [...]

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