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 weekends when Will was shuttling between foster homes, John would pick up his teenage son, and the pair would travel to Fountain Creek and hunt for fossils. Will found ancient seashells and camel bones and proudly showed them to his father. John watched Will lose himself in his exploration and discovery. One time, when Will was about 16, he soaked himself in the creek and John told him to throw his wet pants in the car’s trunk. When they got home, John opened the trunk and nearly screamed at the sight: At least 10 snakes were slithering along the carpet. Will had stuffed them into his pants and planned to keep them as pets.
Will pestered his father about their fossil-hunting trips nearly every time they were together, and pouted when John said they couldn’t make it. Will always won. The two would drive 30 minutes in near silence to the creek, and then Will would take off. He never asked how John was doing; he didn’t care to know what his family was up to. John had come to accept that they’d never have a regular father-son relationship, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still want a connection. He knew he’d have to gradually work his way back into Will’s life. But often when he tried, John felt pushed away, ignored.
With each new foster home, Will switched schools but was able to progress with minimal work. Whatever hope his parents had when they gave him up evaporated. Will shut down in class and didn’t respond to the psychiatrists he was seeing. “It was hard on us, but it was doubly hard on Will,” John says. “He felt totally useless.” Over three years, Will moved to five different foster homes. His only respite was in nature, in trips to the creek, in books about geology and topography. He memorized rock layers and studied animal migration habits.
After turning 19 and getting a diploma from Mesa Ridge High School in 2004, Will emancipated himself and got a construction job. He refused to follow directions, though, and quit before he could be fired. To his family, it seemed he prided himself on his outsider existence. He renounced help he was offered. He’d long stopped taking his medications, and he’d cut sugar out of his diet. He raged against excess.
Before he left for Utah, Will tried to give away two cats he’d been looking after for years. No one he knew wanted them. In mid-May, Will carried the cats to a nearby park and left them in the grass, near a tree. It was better to let them try to survive on their own, he thought, than it was to give them to the animal shelter where he knew they would be forced to live in a cage.
He’d been walking the river for a couple of weeks by mid-June, stepping across brush and rock, pushing away the wispy tree limbs that clustered in parts. The muscles in his upper back burned, his feet ached, his legs were fatigued. He pulled some roots off a plant, then rested in an open spot near the canyon wall as night fell.
Will crossed his legs and meditated in the darkness. He fell asleep in the soft sand and dreamed once again about the dark-haired woman. Will meditated again the next morning. And then, for the first time in days, he felt reinvigorated. He was full of confidence. His mind seemed sharper than it had before. He stopped for more roots, stretched a hand out and snatched red berries off ragged-looking limbs. At one point, he rested on a boulder as the sun blazed overhead. A wasp dropped out of the sky and stung a brown spider crawling just a few feet from where Will was sitting. He watched as the wasp dragged the spider across the rock.
By the time night had come and gone and the sun was rising over the wall on his left, Will estimated he’d walked at least 20 hours straight. He figured he’d covered perhaps another 30 miles. If his guess was correct, he was in a literal no-man’s land.
The canyon yawned open in front of him and stretched more than 100 yards across. The sun was relentless. He walked into the river and dunked his face into the water. When he stumbled out, a tree branch nearly poked him in the face. He broke off a five-foot hunk of the stick and made it into a cane. Looking downriver, the canyon maze seemed endless. Will imagined walking forever.