For more than a month this past summer, a 28-year-old man from Colorado Springs survived alone in the southern Utah desert on little more than plant roots and river water. Will LaFever was on a personal journey to repair a life broken by misunderstanding and misfortune. Fixing himself, though, might cost him everything.

April 2013

Morning in the desert. Sunlight peeks over brush and boulders and ignites the canyon walls in brilliant swaths of orange and red. Will LaFever has been stranded alone on southern Utah’s Escalante River for nearly a month. The water is perhaps the only thing keeping him alive. Bordering on starvation and delirious from a lack of sleep, he is on his chest at the river’s edge, head arched out of the water, the scruff of his wet beard dangling like a fisherman’s net from his gaunt face. His green button-down shirt is worn; his suede bandana is caked with dried sweat; he’s holding a white bed sheet in his right hand. His shoes sit side by side on the sandy bank next to a pair of muddied brown pants. The river laps over his shoulders as he listens for the sign of help he has convinced himself is on its way.

He drags his body into the cool waters each morning at first light. For weeks, he has seen the vapor trails of jetliners in the azure sky, heard the buzzing of prop engines from smaller planes as they turn overhead. He thinks he knows how far he’s wandered downriver, believes he’s close to completing what his family in Colorado now worries was a suicide mission to self-discovery. His legs are weak and tired and virtually useless; his feet are blistered and swollen. He is certain Lake Powell is just a few more river-turns away. Maybe a mile or less, he thinks.

From the water, the canyon walls seem like an endless maze of slickrock and tangled willow branches. He’s heard birds call and occasional bellows from the free-range cattle roaming the desert. Perhaps a pilot in one of those low-flying planes might see the speck of life on the river? He has screamed for help—but the only answer has been his bristly baritone echoing back from the canyon walls as if it were taunting him.

It takes almost all of his energy to sit up. The water on this stretch of the Escalante is less than eight inches deep. He scans the sky. Another plane passes, and he lifts his head. He wonders if he should get his sheet and wave it, until he sees a silvery flash as the plane turns away.

He leans back into the river and lets the water run across his face.