Jack Nelson: The Everett Ruess Legend Lives On

The son of a Norwegian immigrant, Jack Nelson grew up in California.  As a youth he danced the Squaw Dance with Navajos on the Reservation at the prodding of his cousins who ran the Denehotso Trading Post.  In college he became a heartfelt Utahn after discovering the wild places of that lonely land.  A former reporter, he taught journalism, then settled in to teach writing for 25 years at Brigham Young University.  He has published four previous novels with New York publishers.  His most recent book, Flashes in the Night: The Sinking of the Estonia, has been named as an Award-Winning Finalist in the Non-Fiction Narrative category of the 2011 International Book Awards Competition.   He lives with his wife, Patrice, in Provo, Utah.

 It is a wild place– beautiful, mysterious and deadly all at the same time.           

This is the red-rock wilderness of Southern Utah–so gorgeous that practically every major Western movie was set among the soaring red cliffs, deep-cut canyons and mesas that rise to stare at the sky.  From John Wayne to Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan, hundreds of cinema cowboys set up camp in Kanab, Utah near the Arizona border and just north of the Grand Canyon, where cinema goers could experience the most scenic West ever imagined.

It was here in this land that Everett Ruess, the charismatic teenaged adventurer/ wanderer/ poet from Los Angeles, turned his back on civilization and sought out the beauty and majestic solitude of the desert. From here he wrote lyrical descriptions of the lonely land in his journals and letters that– when published after his disappearance three quarters of a century ago– have made him a cult hero to wilderness lovers ever since.   “I am roaring drunk with the lust for life and adventure!” he wrote his brother.  The charismatic young artist—barely 20 years old in 1934— left the canyon-lands town of Escalante with his burros and was never seen again. 

After seven decades, the name Everett Ruess still resonates across the Southwest.  In 1999, Escalante recently held its third annual Everett Ruess Days, and the Museum of Northern Arizona in 2006 held a month-long exhibit of his drawings.  

I first became intrigued with the Everett Ruess drama when the inaugural issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine published a 12-page article about the youth who spent years roaming the desert with his two burros painting watercolors and making friends with anyone who crossed his path.  He would walk into any Navajo hogan and would be fed. The Navajos figured he was some sort of a witch.

 So intriguing was his story that I decided there needed to be a fictional version that solved the Everett Ruess mystery. The result was my novel TO DIE IN KANAB: THE EVERETT RUESS AFFAIR.           

 A year or so after its publication, Adventure followed up its earlier story with another 10-page offering:  “Finding Everett Ruess,” (April/May 2009) which claimed a witness had seen him killed by Ute Indians and his grave had been found. Even verified by DNA evidence. I was sad, because I wanted his legend to live. I had been skeptical about the story from the first, because the old Navajo who had seen the Utes do the killing then said he carried the body to a crevice on Comb Ridge.

 Now I know a bit about Navajos, and even have an adopted Navajo son. It is chindee or cursed to touch a dead body, so that didn’t make sense. In addition, Navajos and Utes are traditional enemies so it seemed likely a Navajo might find them handy to blame for the killing.   

Then, lo and behold, last summer further DNA testing showed the bones were definitely NOT  those of Everett Ruess–much to the chagrin of National Geographic Adventure..     

To find what really might have happened to the lyrical young romantic, you might like to check out this novel:

When Sheriff Jared Buck of Kanab sees a Hollywood company arrive to do a movie about Ruess—and the possibility that he was murdered by local people—he expects trouble.  And it is not long in arriving—one of the movie company ends up murdered.  In addition, information comes to light about the vanished wanderer—that the young artist may have been done in—so the sheriff finds himself faced with a double problem.

The search for answers brings him face to face with reluctant families who want nothing to do with this investigation, ranchers angry about their cattle being kicked off the new National Monument, someone shooting at the movie company at the movie company in a lonely canyon, an old Navajo who knows more than he cares to tell, and a face-off with the mafia in San Francisco.  As a bonus, this is a slice of Southern Utah Americana.


 JACK NELSON:  Home   Works

The book is also available on Amazon.com

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17 thoughts on “Jack Nelson: The Everett Ruess Legend Lives On”

  1. Hi Jack, I’ve been through southern Utah just once and will never forget it. It’s one of the most stunning places in this great country of ours, and a perfect place for a bit of mystery. And a Hollywood movie too!

    Thanks for visiting P&P today! We’re happy to have you!

  2. Good morning Jack and everyone. I want to tell our friends that I’ve read your book and it’s a real page-turner. Great characters, suspense and some tender moments as well. And since I grew up just north of UTah’s red-rock country it was like going home (anyone who knows how the locals say Escalante gets my vote).
    For our readers, I want to mention that Jack is a longtime friend and the first real writer I’d ever met. It was Jack who inspired me to write my first book, so it’s a real honor to have him as our guest today.

  3. Good Morning, Jack,

    Southern Utah is beautiful country, and still captures the image of the old West. Your book sounds fascinating, and I’m heading over to Amazon to pick up a copy. I’m somewhat glad the bones they found weren’t Ruess’s. Some legends were meant to live on.

  4. Sounds very interesting. I love a reading about a new area. By new I mean one I have not visited or read about. Looking forward to this one!

  5. I’ve never heard of him but it does sound very intriguing. I hope he lived to a ripe old age (although I doubt it lol).

  6. Liz,
    Wow, I’m impressed with the job you guys did on this. Nice work, and I’m grateful. I owe you one.

    I assume this is how I answer any questions or points that people may have. So I welcomed your chance to do it.

    This is quite a web site you girls have cooked up. Cngratulations. This is the first blog I’ve ever participated in.

    Let’s keep in touch. Jack

  7. I was sixteen at the time. This was at a trading post that took forty miles of at-times-disappeared dirt road west of Shiprock, and we weere the only anglos there. The dance didn’t start until midnight, and the girls come and take hold of a guy and everyone dances in a circle to the drumbeat all night long. The guy has to give the girl some money if he quits dancing with her. My cousin, the trading post owner whose name is, wonderfully, Nelson Jack, told me that if you dance until sunup with a girl, you have to marry her. Finally two giggling, shy Navajo girls each took an arm and led me into the circle–much to the merriment of my cousins. The leader came by and said, “FOllow me” so I tried to keep in step. I was embarrassed but danced a while, and finally I paid them each a dime. An unforgettable experience.

  8. For CatLady above,

    I too hope that Everett Ruess lived to an old age, but I think the scenario that my book provides is the most likely fate. A funny thing happened when researching the book: we stopped at the visitors center at the Navajo bridge over the Colorado River and I told the old ranger there that I was doing a book on the mystery of Everett Ruess. He screwed up his mouth, gave a slow shake of his head, and drawled, “Why I know exactly what happened to Everett Ruess. He lives in Hannibal, Missouri. He rode into there on his mules in 1934. Used to ride by my folks house every day. I saw him often.. ‘course he may be dead by now.”
    I laughed, but he never would admit he was pulling my leg.

    By the way, if anyone is interested in the fascinating, charismatic Everett Ruess, there two books you should look up: Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess and Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty. Both are edited by W.L Rusho and published by Gibbs-Smith Publishers of Salt Lake City.
    Rusho said a year ago that a long time ago he and Wallace Stegner spent weeks plodding southern Utah trying to solve the mystery. When they finished their fruitless search, Stegner said: “I hope he’s never found. That would ruin the legend.”

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