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.
He was always drawn to the wilderness. As a young man, the high desert had been Will’s favorite place—the rocky formations, the gnarled hardwood trees, the bends of the land. He escaped there as often as he could; it was the only place he felt normal. He spoke mystically, almost in reverent tones, about the outdoors whenever his parents or his friends would ask why he’d disappear for days on end. In the wild—with a bedroll, wool blankets, extra socks, food, a bottle of water, and a Bic lighter—Will would remove himself from a world he thought had forsaken him.
He never traveled with a map. Blessed with a photographic memory, he studied backcountry routes and geological formations. He learned to hunt rabbits and could field-dress a squirrel; he read books on wild plants, on navigating with stars, on traveling light. As he got older, his adventures became more audacious. When he was in his mid-20s, he would wrap a leather headband around his forehead, bum a ride deep into the Rocky Mountains, and survive by himself for weeks. When he’d return home, his mother would lecture him on safety, on how his travels upset his family. He needed to stop. Will’s father worried, too, but he was done reasoning with his son. When Will made up his mind, they all knew that was it.
Will never thought his parents understood him or his mind—never cared to know why he wandered. When he spoke to his father, it was usually about bills and obligations. He couldn’t remember the last time the man had visited his apartment simply to talk. He wasn’t close to his two sisters or his parents. To them, Will imagined, he was different and unsalvageable. Even when they said he was an exceptional man, when they invited him over for dinner or for a holiday gathering, he thought they saw an animal. For much of his life, he had thought of himself that way, too.
By the time he was 27, in 2011, he was living in a small apartment on the outskirts of eastern Colorado Springs. He sometimes wore the same clothes for days on end. He grew a beard. His hair—a boyish plume that fanned out over his forehead—was oily and unkempt.
As the end of the year approached, Will felt more alone and more isolated than he ever did in the wilderness. In the city, he’d been called freak, retard, dummy. He’d heard it all.
He decided he needed to do something drastic. He dreamed of an odyssey—a “long walk,” as he would later call it—that would be bolder than anything he’d done before. It would be a journey that would transform him. Will settled on the desert.