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.
Will began searching Google Earth on his father’s computer and pulled up images from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. He was looking for the most remote place he could find, but he knew he would need a ready water supply. As he studied the images, he was drawn to one place: southern Utah.
By spring 2012, he’d chosen the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—a 1.9-million-square-acre plot of federally preserved land that fell 100 miles or so south of Interstate 70 and continued all the way to the Arizona border. The photos he found were arresting, an irresistible balance of natural beauty and inhospitableness. Rough-cut mesas and gravely washes fanned out in a rainbow of color across terrain more than double the size of Rhode Island. Rocky arches and ancient petroglyphs dotted the canyons. Of particular interest to Will was the Escalante River, roughly 80 miles of life-giving water that stretched through the monument, flowed into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and fed directly into Lake Powell.
The desert surrounding the river had been a favorite for settlers, explorers, and vagabonds for more than a century. In the 1870s, Mormon pioneers blazed a trail near what today is Green River, Utah, and marched across more than 150 miles of steep canyons and alternating brush and piñon to settle the towns of Boulder and Escalante—the latter named for the Franciscan priest Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who traveled parts of Utah in 1776. For generations, the settlements were among the most isolated in the United States. In 1934, a California artist and writer named Everett Ruess arrived on Escalante’s dirt streets with two burros, camping gear, and the goal of exploring south toward the Colorado River. The sandy-haired 20-year-old made it 50 miles outside town before he vanished forever.
Years after Ruess’ disappearance, the area became home to an increasing number of artisans and outdoorsmen who were attracted to the region’s beauty and sought a sort of spiritual communion with the land. It also became a magnet for eccentrics looking to live out their poorly conceived survivalist fantasies, or for novice hikers unaccustomed to impenitent wilderness. A couple of times each summer, someone was being scooped out of a canyon or found mindlessly wandering the dirt-and-rock trail leading back to Escalante. In most cases, those people had been missing for only a few days. Rare were those who walked the entirety of the Escalante River. There was little in terms of food, the water was virtually undrinkable without boiling it, and heavy rains periodically flooded the slot canyons leading to the river. Even to the most experienced hikers, the idea of spending weeks alone on the river—risking it all to survive among the canyons—seemed mad.
Will spoke obsessively about the Escalante. His mother, Anita, tried to talk him out of his desire to go on the journey. His father, John, was skeptical. He asked his son where he would sleep, how he would eat, how he could live out there. When would he know he was done?
Because he didn’t have a car, getting to Utah, in Will’s mind, was his biggest obstacle. He knew his family would never help, so he began to ask strangers. He’d been frequenting a bar near his apartment for months. The people were friendly, and he began talking about his trip. In early June 2012, two men said they would drive him to the desert. Will would pay them for the ride.
The men picked Will up the night of June 2. Will brought a small, olive green pack with a hatchet, rope, and knives; two glass bottles filled with water; his bedroll; and a dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback that had been given to him by a friend. Will sat in the front passenger seat and studied the pair. Both men were of average height and a bit disheveled, and struck him as the sort of people who might work at a carnival. He made small talk with the two as they drove north on Interstate 25, then later hooked west on Interstate 70. They stopped infrequently for gas and didn’t seem to eat. By the time they reached the turnoff for Highway 24 in Utah, around 5 in the morning, Will had drank nearly all of his water.
By 7 a.m., the men turned onto Highway 12 and were nearing Will’s destination off an old Mormon trail called Hole-in-the-Rock Road—the same empty road Ruess had taken nearly eight decades earlier. Will begged the men to go a few miles farther west, into the town of Escalante, so he could fill up his bottles. He was confident in his outdoor survival skills, but even he thought it was too dangerous to begin a trek without more water to drink. The men ignored him. They made a left off the highway and pulled onto Hole-in-the-Rock, then drove several more miles before turning onto a remote, boulder-pocked road near a piece of land called Harris Wash. When the driver stopped, he told Will to get out.
Will pulled out his bag, his bedroll, his bottles, and his dog. He told the men he’d find some water with the dog, then he’d return for the larger green pack. It might be a mile or two, he said, so the men didn’t need to wait for him. He figured they wouldn’t, anyway. He stuffed the bottles in his back pockets, said goodbye, and stepped into the desert. When he returned a few hours later with filled bottles, the men were gone. So was his pack.