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.
On June 7, Nathan Waggoner noticed a skinny man in a corner of his family’s outdoor outfitting shop on Main Street in Escalante. The man appeared to be in his early 30s, though he could have been younger, and had a brown beard that stretched halfway down his neck. He was studying several maps, moving from one to the next, staring at them with unflinching attention. To Waggoner, the man looked like one of the countless desert rats who bummed rides into town every year, lived off the land for a few weeks, and then came crawling back to civilization. But with nothing more than a bedroll cinched to an old rope lashed across his chest, the man seemed underprepared for whatever he planned to do. He looked homeless. Waggoner approached him and asked if he needed help.
They spoke briefly, but the discussion piqued Waggoner’s interest. The man said he’d been robbed, then he’d wandered nearly five days in the desert east of town. At some point, he’d gotten turned around in an area just east of Escalante and crossed a couple of canyons. Eventually, he climbed down a rocky cliff that rose above Highway 12 and made his way back into town. He’d arrived with a dog, but the animal took off after a herd of cattle and didn’t return.
The man had called his father in Colorado to tell him about his stolen gear, and his old man planned to wire a couple hundred bucks to help buy some camping equipment or a bus ticket home. The closest Western Union was nearly 200 miles away by car in Page, Arizona. His father wanted him to get a ride to Page, then he’d send the cash. “He seemed real excited about going back out,” Waggoner remembers. “There was something a little off about him, but it was hard to put my finger on it.”
The man inquired about the availability of wild game near the Escalante River; said he “planned to hunt rabbits on the flats.” He spoke confidently about the land and seemed to have at least a working knowledge of wilderness survival. He wanted to spend nearly all his time along the river and find his way to Lake Powell. It was an inadvisable route in Waggoner’s opinion. Even if the man made it to the river’s end, Waggoner knew there was no way to cross the lake without a boat. But the man was adamant about taking his own route. Waggoner offered one of the maps he’d seen the man studying earlier. The man declined. Seeing the man wouldn’t accept his help, Waggoner wished him luck.
A month would pass before Waggoner learned more about the slim, bearded man who showed up in town that afternoon. His photo was on flyers passed out by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. His name was Will LaFever, and he was missing.