For almost a year, the world thought the final chapter had been written about the life—and death—of a young artist and poet who mysteriously disappeared in the Southwest's canyon country 75 years ago.
His name was Everett Ruess, and at age 20, he was already fed up with modern life, preferring to wander alone in the desert. The discovery of what seemed to be some of his remains made for a dramatic tale: a long-kept secret that described the murder of a white man for the burros he traveled with, and an ensuing scavenger hunt that resulted in the discovery of a desert grave outside Bluff, Utah. Some high-tech lab work was done, and voila! A mystery that began in 1934 had apparently been solved at last.
Well, not so fast. Science has since come around to refute the findings. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., tested a femur from the gravesite along with samples taken from Ruess' living relatives. And the military lab, widely considered to be at the apex of DNA research, conclusively ruled out the bone as belonging to Everett Ruess. Instead, the researchers declared that there was a high probability that it comes from a Navajo.
The various parties involved reacted differently to the news. Professor Kenneth Krauter at the University of Colorado humbly took responsibility for making the original, mistaken identification. Those with a firm hold on the romantic image of Ruess as a "vagabond for beauty"—as he called himself—celebrated the idea that their resourceful hero did not come to such a grim end after all. Meanwhile, the Ruess family, mere weeks away from cremating the remains and sending the ashes adrift on the currents of the Pacific Ocean, continues to live without closure, and the Navajo Nation awaits the return of the still-unidentified remains for reburial.
I'd sooner ride a bike sideways on a cattle guard than get mixed up in the emotions swirling through these camps. But I find myself happy that Ruess' final demise and resting place remain unknown and unfound. On a recent trip to the Southwest, I felt as if the purported discovery of his bones had leached some power out of the place. The so-called discovery had put a cold, scientific end to one of the Four Corners area's most provocative mysteries, further eroding one of the last enigmas of the West.
As the world becomes ever more quantified and classified, our remote lands are becoming endangered. Humans have reached just about every nook and crevice of our planet Earth, from highest peak to deepest ocean trench. In virtual form we soar the stars, sending probes to the edges of our solar system. Voyager 1, originally launched in 1977, will most likely leave our solar system within the coming years. In July 2009, NASA and Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry an-nounced the creation of the most complete digital topographical map of the Earth. Pieced together from over 1 million satellite images, the map is said to account for over 99 percent of the planet's terrain. In the glow of a computer screen, an armchair explorer can zip anywhere on the globe, see the ocean floor, rove across Mars and even time-travel to view swaths of the globe as they looked yesteryear.
But I want blank spots and the curiosity they arouse. We need places that humble, awe and intrigue us. Humanity needs boundaries—places that are so far out there that if we cross them, we will get lost—even vanish. The remote spots on the map and their periphery are the landscapes that define who we really are.
There's nothing like the surprise discovery of a narrow canyon or the mouth of a cave to awaken wonder and make a person pause. Do I dare explore it? What's in there? Whatever choice is made, the chooser learns something about fear, common sense, courage.
So here's hoping Everett Ruess' final resting place stays hidden. Here's to the remaining 1 percent of the undiscovered country hiding under slickrock overhangs, concealed by curving cliff walls or shadowed by dense forest. Here's to never telling anyone just where Edward Abbey is buried and never figuring out what those creepy Marfa Lights down in Texas are all about. The idea of a world that's 100 percent known is just plain boring.
Jeff Osgood is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Longmont, Colorado.