As the man's eyes wandered across the red-rock country of southeastern Utah, he first saw a weather-beaten saddle jammed in a canyon wall crevice and then, behind it, bleached bones sticking out from the earth the keys to unlocking one of the West's enduring mysteries.
That discovery, made more than a year ago, came full circle Thursday with the announcement that the bones belong to Everett Ruess, a poet and painter, writer and thinker who vanished near the Four Corners area in 1934.
For 75 years, the answer to his disappearance at age 20 had been the stuff of speculation.
It might never have been solved but for a Navajo medicine man's admonition, a grandfather's story of long-ago death, a curious writer and contemporary
Maybe, some posited, he had slipped while climbing a canyon or met his end at the fangs of a rattlesnake. Maybe he'd been murdered.
Ruess died, not long after he was last seen, in a remote wash miles from anywhere.
"The family is deeply, deeply appreciative of everything that came together to solve the mystery," his niece, Michele Ruess, said Thursday during a conference call announcing that work by CU anthropologists and DNA experts had identified the remains as those of the wandering intellectual.
Tale of Ute chase, clubbing
Born in Oakland, Ruess was just a boy when he began writing, and by the time he was 16 he was exploring the West, on a horse or a burro or on foot. He trekked through the Sequoia and Yosemite parks. He crisscrossed the canyon country of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
He painted. He made woodcuts of the beautifully stark images of the landscapes he visited. And he wrote of his own restlessness and the land.
He scrawled "Nemo" on rocks, maybe because it was Latin for "no one," or maybe because it was the name of the main character in one of his favorite books, "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
On Nov. 11, 1934, Ruess wrote a letter to his older brother, Waldo.
"As to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon," it said, in part.
The next day, Ruess set out from Escalante, Utah, with his two burros, heading off on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. A week later, a sheepherder talked to him close to where the Escalante River emptied into the Colorado.
He was never seen again.
Daisy Johnson was a young woman in 1971 when she walked in on a conversation between her grandparents.
"Grandmother was getting after him, saying, 'You should have never, ever messed with that body,' " Johnson said. " 'You should have left him down there.' "
Daisy asked her grandfather, Aneth Nez, what they were talking about, and he told her the story of sitting on desolate Comb Ridge, of sometimes seeing a young white man riding a burro in the canyon below him.
He told her about the day he saw three Ute Indians chase down that young man, club him and leave him for dead, and how he later sneaked into the wash, where he picked up the bloodied body and carried it up the canyon, then buried it in a crevice.
Now her grandfather was sick. A medicine man blamed his cancer on what he had done with that corpse, and said he needed to return to it and take a lock of hair that could be used in a ceremony to cure him.
Nez had Johnson drive him out to Comb Ridge, and then set out on foot into the desert while she waited. Two hours later, he returned with a lock of hair. He lived another 10 years.
Bones, family's DNA a match
Uncle Everett was always a part of Michele Ruess' life. Paintings and prints hung on the walls. Books bulged with his writings. On a rock slab, her grandmother painted one of her uncle's favorite sayings: "What time is it? Time to live."
And her father, Waldo, spent his life trying to uncover the mystery of his brother's death. He went to Utah in 1964 to see whether any human remains had been found during work to build a dam, creating Lake Powell. He wrote to magazines imploring people with information to come forward.
Waldo Ruess died in 2007, still wondering what happened. He was 98.
In the spring of 2008, Daisy Johnson told her grandfather's story at a family gathering. Her brother, Denny Bellson, had never heard it before.
Bellson searched the Internet for disappearances in the Four Corners area and found stories about Ruess. He got a map of the Comb Ridge area and had his sister show him where she had taken their grandfather.
On May 25, 2008, Bellson drove to Comb Ridge. He parked and descended into Chinle Wash. In a slot in the chalky red rock, he saw the remains of a saddle. Bellson moved closer. There, behind the saddle, were bones.
"I looked around and I knew it was him," Bellson said.
Bellson took a friend to the site. That friend knew the Ruess story, and he knew David Roberts, a contributing editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine. Roberts had researched the Ruess mystery extensively in 1999 for a story.
Roberts approached CU anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven, asking whether he would examine a jawbone discovered on Navajo land.
"I was actually not interested, but David persisted," Van Gerven said.
Van Gerven and doctoral student Paul Sandberg carefully exhumed the remains and determined they were those of a man between 19 and 22 who was roughly 5-feet 8-inches tall. All of that matched up with Ruess.
They photographed facial bones and superimposed them over pictures of Ruess. They matched .
Next, they turned to Ken Krauter, a CU biology professor, who directed the process of extracting DNA from a leg bone unearthed from the grave. They compared that to DNA obtained from Waldo Ruess' four children, and it matched exactly as one would expect between an uncle and his nieces and nephews. Krauter called it "an irrefutable case."
The scientific work and Nez's story answer many questions about Ruess. But they don't complete the tale.
There is no proof of how or when Ruess died, or how he ended up 60 miles from the place he was last seen. And there is no way to know who might have killed him.
Still, the discovery of his remains brought a measure of peace to his surviving family members.
"Even though it's very sad to imagine the manner in which he died, we're happy to know how it happened and where he's been resting all these years," Michele Ruess said, "and that there was such a man as Aneth Nez who cared for a fellow human being."
Her uncle's remains will be cremated, she said, and scattered in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, Calif. It's the same place where the ashes of Waldo and other family members have been scattered through the years.
It's the place where Everett Ruess will be one with the earth forever.
Kevin Vaughan: 303-954-5019 or email@example.com
"Adventure is for the adventurous.
My face is set.
I go to make my destiny.
May many another youth be by me inspired to leave the snug safety of his rut,
and follow fortune to other lands."
"God, how the wild calls to me.
There can be no other life for me but that of the lone wanderer.
It has an irresistible fascination.
The lone trail is the best for me."
Find more at everettruess.net