That day in 1934, when the slender, soft-featured youth rode into town on his undersized burro, people stopped and took notice. There was something distinctly odd about the stranger's arrival.
It was a rare thing, then, especially in November, for an outsider to ride into Escalante [in southern Utah]. But Everett Ruess blithely made himself at home, pausing in the dirt streets to chat, camping a few nights under a gnarled cottonwood across the river on the edge of town.
* * *
From Escalante, in search of solitude and beauty, Ruess rode southeast along the Hole in the Rock Trail, which had been blazed by Mormon pioneers in 1879. Snow already dusted the top of Kaiparowits Plateau, looming on his right. Within the fortnight, a screaming three-day blizzard would sweep the canyon country.
A week after waving goodbye [in Escalante], Ruess, now 50 miles [80 kilometers] out, shared a campfire with a pair of sheepherders. Shortly after that he may have run into another party, cattlemen riding the Escalante Desert's farthest range.
Then Everett Ruess disappeared from the face of the Earth. He was 20 years old.
* * *
In January 1931, still only 16, Ruess graduated from Hollywood High School, and immediately set out on his first excursion into the Southwest. With a burro bought from a Navajo, he hiked for the better part of ten months, wandering from Phoenix to Canyon de Chelly, from Zion to the Grand Canyon. Though California still pulled at him, on this marathon journey Ruess discovered the landscape with which his soul truly resonated.
By the time he headed out onto the Escalante Desert, Reuss's increasingly daring solo journeys had taken on the nature of a quest. What the goal of that quest was, however, eluded his own analysis. "I am drunk with the fiery elixir of beauty," he wrote in one characteristic letter, and in another, "I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear." But always, beneath his soaring hymns of joy and awe, pulsed a dull throb of despair.
* * *
I was wrapping up my interview with Norm Christensen, the Escalante old-timer who had befriended Ruess at age ten and gone to the movies with him on his last night in town. Christensen had spent an hour fondly recalling every detail of those November days.
"So what do you think happened to Everett?" I asked.
Christensen's eyes held mine; his face clouded. "I know what happened to him," he said quietly. "He was shot. The man who did it told me."
* * *
It seemed improbable that the mound before me could be Ruess's grave: Surely if his killers had decided to hide his body rather than throw it in the Colorado, they would not have interred it smack on the trail. But what if the mound hid some of his belongings, paraphernalia the criminals did not want to trust to the river? What if this pile of rocks hid the answer to the puzzle of Ruess's fate? My mind leapt to Ruess's 1934 diary: By now, we would give more to find that journal than even his bones.
Get the complete story in the April 1999 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE.