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Loving the Land That Engulfed Him : New Interest in Young Man Who Vanished 53 Years Ago

March 15, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

May many another youth be by me inspired to leave the smug safety of his rut and follow fortune to other lands.

--Everett Ruess, writing at age 19

Amid the arrests and auto thefts reported in the Los Angeles Police Department bulletin for Sept. 4, 1935, one item seems out of place. It's too romantic, too mysterious to belong on a police ledger. It seems better suited to a novel by Zane Grey:

A Los Angeles youth leaves his family's home to paint landscapes and explore Indian caves and cliff dwellings in southern Utah. The boy befriends Indians in remote villages and learns to walk like an Indian, and to speak the Navajo language. He travels with a couple of burros whose saddlebags are decorated with colorful Indian designs.

The Lone Clue

Then the boy vanishes. He is seen last by a sheepherder on Nov. 19, 1934. Four months later his burros are found in a place called Davis Gulch. A lone clue to the mysterious disappearance of Everett Ruess is the word NEMO, scratched on the cliffs alongside Indian pictographs near where the burros were discovered.

Nemo, as adventure fans know, is the name of the captain in Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," a favorite novel of Ruess'. Nemo, Latin for "no one," escaped humdrum civilization in a submarine.

And fleeing civilization is just what the missing boy seemed to have done. Nothing has ever been found of him but his burros and a couple of dusty footprints.

The police bulletin has yellowed in the last half century, but Everett Ruess' story has acquired new life. Ruess' older brother, Waldo, who lives in Santa Barbara with his wife of 29 years, said that Everett's name is becoming legend in the West. Waldo Ruess, 77, has heard many accounts of people who have been inspired to adventures of their own after hearing the tale of Everett Ruess.

Solo Wilderness Journey

A 26-year-old Fort Collins, Colo., college student, Judy Perkins, is currently on a year's solo wilderness journey, following the route of Ruess. New Mexico writer Marc Simmons also set out to explore the Utah canyon country on a long-earred burro named Taco after reading Ruess' letters home.

The letters were recently published by Peregrine Smith Books in a volume called "Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty." (The $9.95 paperback is available in bookstores or from the publisher at P.O. Box 667, Layton, Utah 84041.) Peregrine president Gibbs Smith said that many readers have written to say how much Ruess means to them.

What accounts for the growing popularity of this long-vanished youth? "He kept his dream," Waldo Ruess said. "Most of us go lock-step through the decades, talking about what we'd like to do and never doing it."

Frank Cook of Peregrine Smith Books said Everett Ruess represents "that special spirit which exists in all of us but which few have the courage or opportunity to express."

Gibbs Smith discovered Ruess' writing in a 1940 volume, "On Desert Trails," that has been long out of print. Smith, along with veteran river-runner Ken Sleight and W. L. Rusho, who compiled the recent edition of letters, pieced together Ruess' story by visiting the towns and campsites he had written about.

Sleight, who lives in Escalante, Utah, said Ruess' tale has been told around campfires for 50 years. Sleight first heard the saga from an old river-runner, and has since passed on the mystery to tourists who ride the rapids with him. Sleight said he identifies with Ruess' "wanting to be out, to escape from civilization.

"Those that I meet down on the river and the trails, they all know the story of Everett Ruess," he said. "And no doubt about it, there are still a lot of people looking for him."

Different Stories

There is little agreement about what happened to Everett Ruess. Waldo Ruess thinks his brother was killed by cattle rustlers who were known to hide out in the canyons. Sleight thinks he might have drowned while trying to cross a river on his way to rendezvous with a Navajo girlfriend. Others think he fell off a cliff and was killed--although this is unlikely since neither his body nor his paints and other supplies were ever found.

Still others--those people Sleight refers to who are still looking for Ruess--think he didn't die, but disappeared intentionally. His letters are studded with references to disappearance. The message is so clear that it's difficult to dismiss it as a young man's tendency toward melodrama--which Ruess certainly was guilty of at times. There are numerous passages like this one:

\o7 I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.

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