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.
It had been three weeks since John had heard from his son. Even for Will, even after all the years of him wandering off without a word, it was rare to go this long without a call. John phoned his daughter Lisa. She heard the worry in his voice. She called her mother, but Anita hadn’t talked to Will since he left Colorado Springs. Lisa hung up and dialed the police.
Garfield County Sheriff’s Office dispatch took the call and transferred Lisa to deputy sheriff Ray Gardner. “This is the craziest thing you’ll ever hear,” she told the deputy. “But you have to believe me.” Gardner was dismayed: white male, 28, about six-foot-three, autistic, missing since June 7 with a last-known location in Escalante. It was now July 9.
Figuring out Will’s location would be nearly impossible, Gardner told Lisa. And even if they did, there was little chance he was still alive. June and July were the most brutal months in the desert. Without a vehicle, rescue teams couldn’t check trailheads; there was no way to put out a bulletin for a license plate. After all this time, Will could be anywhere. The deputy asked Lisa to email a photo so he could make some flyers.
Covering the massive swath of desert by four-wheel-drive vehicle was a waste of time, Gardner knew. Even if he sent other deputies and brought out the full force of the rescue team, they could be searching for weeks for nothing and eat up valuable resources. If Will were lost in the desert, the only place that could possibly sustain him was the Escalante River. Gardner pulled out a map, called the Utah Highway Patrol, and arranged for a helicopter.
At 1:30 p.m. on July 12, the chopper touched down in a field near the deputy’s house in the remote town of Boulder, Utah. Gardner was dressed in black pants and a gray sheriff-issued polo-style shirt when he stepped out his front door. He said goodbye to his wife, walked to the helicopter, and gave pilot Shane Oldfield coordinates to the river. Within minutes, the men were airborne. As the chopper made its way south, Gardner looked toward the sweeping horizon. He hoped he’d eventually find a body to return to Colorado.
Will could see himself wasting away. It was late June, and what little fat he’d had on his body had evaporated, and his skin had gone slack over his midsection. Will dropped into the river one morning and could see his hips sticking out from under his pants. His body would soon begin to eat away at his organs. After that, it could be anything: kidney failure, liver failure, heart attack.
His walking had become labored and brought him to the point of exhaustion after less than an hour. Each time he stopped to put his head into the water, or to pull another root off a plant, it was harder to regain his momentum. He briefly considered setting some brush on fire with his lighter, perhaps a tree. But Will couldn’t bring himself to destroy even a sliver of the desert. He staggered over boulders, meekly pushed away brush and tree limbs. The hearing in his left ear faded in and out, and his shallow breaths echoed in his head.
He’d now walked dozens of miles since first being dropped off at Harris Wash—perhaps even 100 or more he thought—and his body was on the verge of total collapse. At one point, he scanned the sky for passing planes and saw a hawk and a raven flying together. The raven swooped closer to the hawk, wings flapping wildly as it nearly touched the bigger bird. The hawk screeched, then pulled away. The raven followed. To Will, it looked like a beautiful dance.
Sometime before June 30, he passed Coyote Gulch—another route off the Escalante—and stopped briefly to marvel at Stevens Arch, a ring of sandstone set more than 150 feet up the canyon wall. The arch was nearly the size of a football field, and with the azure sky as a backdrop, it looked like a massive blue eye gazing back at him.
Days passed; Will covered more ground. By this time, he was just eating roots. The last quarter mile had taken nearly an entire day to walk. He staggered through the water, then crawled up an embankment toward a bush. He collapsed backward onto the rocks. The sun pulsed down on his face. Dying was a strange feeling, he thought. His worries had dissolved. He wasn’t in pain. Instead, he was filled with something he’d never felt before, something far more powerful than the anger and confusion that had marked so much of his existence. He finally felt peace.
The woman reappeared in his dreams. Night after night, for the next week. But now, Will saw someone else. A child. A boy was standing with the woman. Will was certain it was his future son.
His eyes blinked open. It was July 12. Sunlight crept into the canyon. Sand was in his hair; his beard was a tangled mess. By his estimation, he hadn’t moved off this bit of earth for at least two weeks. His body wouldn’t allow him to go farther. His legs were numb, and he had to crawl to the river each morning. Will managed to pull several broken tree limbs together and fashioned them into what looked like a medieval torture device designed to stretch his back. No longer able to hunt or build a fire, he fed mostly on the cattails that grew abundantly along one side of the shallow riverbed.
Floating on his back in the river gave him his last feeling of freedom. He lay for what seemed like hours, then rolled himself into a sitting position and screamed for help.