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.
Bees. As a boy in Germany, Will loved to capture the insects in his mother’s Mason jars and study them as they buzzed behind the thick wall of glass. He’d catch and release the creatures, moving from one dandelion patch to the next in the field behind his parents’ apartment on a U.S. military base. The family was living in the town of Baumholder when three-year-old Will wandered into a field for the first time. Anita thought he’d been kidnapped, or worse. After a frantic search, she found her son sitting in the field, playing in the weeds. She picked Will up and made him promise he’d never wander again. Will agreed. Then he disappeared the next day.
Long before Will began elementary school, his parents could tell something was wrong. Whether it was capturing bees or climbing to the top of the highest slide at the park, their son was fearless—as if the part of his brain that sensed danger was turned off. No matter how often he tumbled down the slide, or how many times he’d hurt himself, he didn’t care. His mother also thought he lacked compassion; thought it was odd that he’d break into laughter at inappropriate moments, like when talking about how an animal had died. By the time he was seven, Will had already been suspended multiple times for acting out in class, for cursing, for fighting.
Sometime that year, his teachers called a meeting and asked Will’s parents to attend. Will was being put in a special-education class, where he could get more attention. But even in his new class, he failed to thrive. He’d put his head down on his desk. He ignored orders. After school one day, a boy ran to the LaFevers’ door and said Will was walking up the street on all fours, barking like a dog.
Will’s parents took him to doctors, but each visit only added to their frustrations. Will was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, then with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, then with depression, then with Tourette’s syndrome. With each diagnosis, Will would be prescribed a different medication, none of which worked, and all of which made him feel lousy. With each failed attempt to fix their son, Anita and John’s relationship became more fractured.
In 1992, the family moved to eastern Colorado Springs and John was discharged from the military. Will wandered his neighborhood for hours on end, running into fields and catching insects. When he was home, Will hid his medication under his mattress. By the time he was a teenager, he towered over his mother, and his persistent defiance suddenly became frightening. Anita once caught Will with his hands on the family dog’s head; he wondered aloud what would happen if he twisted it around. After that, Anita slept in a room with her daughter and locked the bedroom door.
Will felt lost. He didn’t know why he did what he did—couldn’t express his feelings, how mixed up he was inside. He hated school, he hated his parents, he hated himself. He acted out in public, told his mother he never wanted to see her. When he was barely a teenager, he swallowed so much medication he had to be rushed to the hospital.
The morning of June 8, 2012, Will walked nearly a dozen miles along Highway 12 toward a bridge where the Escalante River passes under the highway. The road was so empty he could have counted the vehicles he saw on two hands.
He arrived at the overpass sometime around noon, crossed through a dirt parking lot, went down an embankment, and stepped onto a patch of sand. He cut over a small wooden bridge and saw the remains of what appeared to be an ancient storage unit, made of mud and wood, set about 50 feet into a canyon wall. As he walked, Will crossed the Escalante for the first time, near a small ranch. It was at least 90 degrees outside, and the rushing water felt good as it soaked his pants.
About a mile in, along a worn trail, he passed Phipps Wash and left the last houses along the river behind him. After several more miles, the trail thinned. The canyon wall appeared red and orange and glistened in the afternoon sunlight. After walking for so much of the day, Will was sweaty and tired. He took a sip of water from one of his bottles and stopped at a tree surrounded by soft sand. He unfurled his bedroll and lay on his back near the river. He had never seen a sky so blue. Soon, Will closed his eyes. The sound of rushing water filled his head. He was finally alone.