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.
The overdose, as Will would admit later, was a cry for help. From the age of 12, and for the next couple of years, he was shuttled between his home and the Cleo Wallace Center in Westminster, a facility for young pyschiatric patients. John was away from home often by then—he worked as a truck driver—and thought he’d failed his son.
In 1997, Anita filed for divorce, and John quit his job to be closer to Will. Around the same time, Will overmedicated himself again and was sent back to Cleo Wallace. It was a hellish existence, he’d tell his father during weekend visitations. Pills were passed out like candy, he said, and he’d lost nearly all his freedom. Will pounded his head against concrete walls when he wanted to defy the center’s employees, was put in isolation when he disobeyed rules, and struggled to sleep at night while the other children screamed.
During his stay, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—a disorder on the autism spectrum. “We had no idea what it was,” John says. Will was high-functioning and reasonably intelligent, his doctors told his parents. But he’d probably always be socially awkward; his stubbornness would never go away. With intensive treatment—including therapy—and special schooling, Will could learn to make adjustments and live a fairly productive life. But neither John nor Anita had health insurance, and appropriate care for Will could run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Shortly after admitting their son to Cleo Wallace for the last time, Anita and John were presented with an extreme option: The pair could relinquish their parental rights. By making Will a ward of the state, he could get the psychiatric care and schooling he needed. Cost wouldn’t matter. The consequence, though, would be wrenching. Will would have to spend the rest of his childhood in group homes or foster care. “It was like we’d given up on him,” John says now.
But if his parents kept Will, they risked watching him sink further. For Anita and John, it seemed that Will’s only chance was for them to legally give up, to hope their son could get better by getting away. If they wanted to save Will, they had to let him go.
The desert was like a dream. In the morning, Will awoke early, started walking, and picked berries that grew along the Escalante. He mostly kept to the river, but every now and then he’d run toward an outcropping along the canyon wall and begin to climb. He’d dart among the rocks looking for food, his skinny arms and legs reaching out like tendrils, dancing from one boulder to the next, smiling, laughing.
He crossed and re-crossed the river. He flipped minnows out of the water and popped them into his mouth; he ate plant roots; he chased down small snakes and cooked them over a small campfire. When he got thirsty, he drank from one of his bottles or dropped to his knees and dunked his face into the river.
He tried to sleep at night, but the temperatures often dipped to near 40 degrees. He broke off willow limbs and covered himself in them. When he finally did fall asleep, he experienced the most vivid dreams of his life. In one, a thin, dark-haired woman danced in his mind.
Each day, he walked a little farther. He tromped across brush and stopped often to check out his surroundings. Back at the outfitting shop in Escalante, he’d memorized in detail the canyons and the washes that fed into the river, and he ticked them off in his mind as he passed them. He felt supremely confident in his ability to traverse the land and thought he was making good time, despite his constant breaks. But he was expending far more calories than he was taking in. His condition started to deteriorate. Burrs scratched his ankles and clung to his shoelaces. His feet began to blister. The day-to-night temperature swings wore on him. His body slowed and his mind dulled. He misidentified a poisonous toad, ate it, and developed a stomachache that kept him from eating for at least two days. His water bottles broke. Later, in a moment of supreme exhaustion, he thought his bedroll was too heavy so he abandoned that, too. Will kept his white bed sheet and hung it over his head to shield himself from the sun as he walked.
Time expanded and contracted. Days ran together. His stomach growled. He searched for anything beyond a root to eat. One night, he dreamed he was in a bar, eating popcorn; one by one, he watched people wander past his stool, but no one noticed him.