It was a chilly day in November 1934. The country had been mired in the Great Depression for over five years, and no town felt the pinch of poverty more acutely than Escalante. Founded by Mormon pioneers fifty-nine years earlier, the small settlement in southern Utah— then one of the remotest towns in the United States— had been stricken in successive summers by a plague of grasshoppers that ruined the crops and by the worst drought in nearly eight decades.
In late autumn, the arrival of any visitor in Escalante was a rare occurrence. It was all the more surprising, then, when the thin, sandy- haired stranger rode into town from the west, saddled on one undersized burro, leading another that was packed with camping gear. His name, he told the locals, was Everett Ruess. He was from California. And although he was only twenty, he had been wandering all over the West and Southwest for the better part of the last five years.
The young boys of Escalante took an instant liking to the vagabond. During the next several days they rode horseback with him along the nearby ridges, hunted for arrowheads, and shared his campfire dinner of venison and potatoes. One of those boys, ten years old at the time, was Norm Christensen. "He told us all about his family," Christensen remembers. "Showed us how the Indians could make fire using sticks. We hiked the hills, showed him the Indian writings"— petroglyphs etched on the sandstone walls by Anasazi and Fremont people more than six hundred years earlier. "He didn't brag on himself. Wasn't a show-off. He said he'd come out to look the country over and make his paintings. Showed us some."
Another Escalante native, Melvin Alvey, was twenty- six years old that autumn. Decades later, standing in the front room of the house in which he had lived all his life, Alvey pointed out the window. "I talked to Everett over there in the street as he was leavin' town," he recalled. "He had these two little burros. They didn't stand that high." Alvey flattened his palm four feet above the rug. "I don't think either of 'em had fifty pounds [loaded] on 'em. I looked at those two little burros, goin' out in November. He never even had a tent. Didn't have a good camp stove."
Alvey tilted his head back, summoning memories. "He said he was goin' to go down in the Desert and stay six weeks. Claimed he was goin' to be an artist and write stories. He didn't have enough for one week, let alone six. I said, 'It looks like you're travelin' pretty light.' 'Yes,' he said, 'I don't need much.' "
According to Norm Christensen, "Everett had a lot of spotted dog in his pack bags— rice and raisins with condensed milk. We gave him a bunch of potatoes. Offered him bottled fruit, but he just didn't have room for it."
Arnold Alvey, Melvin's nephew, six years old in 1934, recalls, "He came to our place on the outskirts of town. I was standin' out there by the well, here come this young guy with a coupla little gray burros. I'd never seen burros before."
"He said, 'Could I water my burros in your trough?' I said, 'Sure.' He had on a floppy hat. A light- colored orange shirt that fluttered in the breeze. He had quite high cheekbones. Quite a nice-lookin' guy. Said he was goin' down in the Desert to spend the winter. I can see it like it was yesterday."
"Last night he was here," Norm Christensen recounted, "he took some of us kids to the picture show. It was called Death Takes a Holiday. Probably cost ten cents. Everett treated us."
Christensen shook his head. "I still remember him wavin' next morning as he passed on down the river."
"I've thought about him quite a bit over the years," Melvin Alvey confessed. "Whenever it gets cold. To go down there and draw as an artist, in November, when you only got three–four hours of decent weather in the day . . . I think he had some plans that nobody knew."
From Escalante that November, Everett set out southeast down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. The path had been blazed during the winter of 1879–80 by a remarkable band of Mormon pioneers, as they crossed the Colorado River, forged their way through labyrinthine canyons and mesas, and finally established the town of Bluff on the San Juan River, the first Mormon stronghold in southeast Utah. Fifty-four years after the pioneers, Everett gradually left behind the piñon-juniper forest that sheltered Escalante and its outskirts, as he passed through an increasingly barren landscape of slickrock and drifting orange sand — the badlands that the locals simply called the Desert.
A week down the trail, more than fifty miles out of Escalante, Everett ran into a pair of sheepherders at the head of Soda Gulch, a short, dry tributary of the Escalante River. Addlin Lay and Clayton Porter invited the young man to share their campfire. He stayed two nights, during which he quizzed the sheepherders about the canyons, trails, and prehistoric ruins to the east. Lay and Porter offered Everett a quarter of mutton, but the young man said he didn't have room for it in his burros' saddlebags. He had plenty of food of his own, he insisted.
On the morning of November 21, Everett parted ways with the sheepherders. They watched him as he ambled with his burros farther southeast, headed for the Hole-in-the-Rock, the steep cleft in the nine-hundred-foot precipice down which the Mormon pioneers, with painstaking care, had lowered their eighty-three wagons in January and February of 1880 before ferrying them across the Colorado River.
And then Everett Ruess vanished from the face of the earth.
Excerpted from Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer. Copyright 2011 by David Roberts. Reprinted by Permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.