I’m not the first researcher to chase the mysterious wanderer Everett Ruess and find myself caught up in a mystery.
Ruess’s legend—wanderer, sage, vagabond, artist—has fascinated many since his 1934 disappearance. Books and articles by the score have tried to secure Ruess’s place in history and to settle the question of his fate.
I stumbled across Ruess’s dusty trail by accident recently in the course of researching a story for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. I wanted to write about watching wildlife at one of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s wildlife areas. Lamar Haines Memorial is near my house, so I figured a few visits and some research might yield a readable feature.
In the course of research, I interviewed Tom Britt, a retired Game and Fish staffer whose knowledge of people and places in this area is encyclopedic. As we were talking, Tom recalled something about the person who, back in the 1940s, sold the property that is now the wildlife area to Game and Fish. Randolph “Pat” Jenks was an ornithologist. I thought that would make an interesting note in the story, so I Googled him.
That’s when I ran across Ruess’s tracks. In 2009, enterprising reporter Doug Kreutz of the Arizona Daily Star wrote a story about Ruess’s disappearance — and about his friendship with a longtime Tucson resident named Pat Jenks.
That caught my attention. Kreutz described a youthful Jenks and his friend Tad Nichols rescuing Ruess when they found him, “looking worn out and forlorn” according to Jenks, on a northern Arizona road one hot day in May 1931. Jenks and Nichols talked Ruess into coming with them back to Flagstaff …
… to a ranch Jenks owned “on the slopes of the San Francisco Mountains.”
Hold on, I thought. That could easily describe the wildlife area I’m writing about. I’ve never heard Ruess might have stayed there.
The story quoted Jenks as saying, “I drove Everett there, to the Deerwater Ranch. It was cool there in the aspens at 8,000 feet. . . . He was greatly relieved.”
A cool ranch in the aspens at 8,000 feet: That sure sounds like our wildlife area.
Did Everett Ruess once spend time at what is now the Lamar Haines Memorial Wildlife Area? Suddenly, I couldn’t get the question out of my mind. The only catch was, most of the accounts I’d read referred to Jenks’s property as “Veit Ranch,” after the person who homesteaded the property in the 1800s. I had only one source who said it was also called “Deerwater Ranch,” and that was Tom Britt.
When I checked with Tom, though, he thought there was a second “Deerwater Ranch” farther west of town, out old Route 66.
So, I had a mystery on my hands, and like countless writers before me, from Wallace Stegner to Jon Krakauer to W.L. Rusho to David Roberts, I was hooked. All these decades later, Ruess still fascinates. And as always seems to be the case with him, finding the answer to even a minor question like mine can turn the tedium of research into a grand quest.
What’s the answer, you ask? Stay tuned …