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.
Around 2 p.m. on July 12, Shane Oldfield maneuvered the helicopter a few hundred feet above the Escalante. The river wound beneath him as deputy Ray Gardner looked out the chopper window and toward the desert. It had been nearly two hours since Oldfield had picked up Gardner, and the helicopter was beginning to run low on fuel. They had only 15 minutes before they needed to turn around.
Out of one of the windows to his left, Oldfield saw something in the river. He pointed and yelled to Gardner. “Did you see that?” Oldfield circled the chopper a couple of times, and Gardner yelled with excitement: “That’s him!” The two pulled closer to the river and flew upstream toward the figure. The man was feebly raising and lowering his arm into the air. They got close enough to see the man’s face. It looked like he was crying.
Oldfield lowered the helicopter onto a flat area along the riverbank. It was 3:30 p.m. They were 78 miles down the Escalante River and five miles from Lake Powell. Gardner stepped onto the desert floor and rushed through shin-deep water.
“Are you Will?” Gardner asked when he reached the man.
“You don’t know how lucky you are.”
Will was emaciated. His button-down shirt fit like a tent. His pants and shoes were on the riverbank, and he was wearing white underwear. His legs were sticks; his knees were knots. The deputy had seen photos of starving people in Africa, but none of them looked this bad. He asked Will to get up, but Will couldn’t stand. Gardner tried to pull Will from the water, but it was as if he were frozen in place. The deputy motioned for Oldfield, who ran into the river. The two men wrapped Will’s arms around their shoulders and carried him the dozen-or-so yards to the chopper. On one side of the helicopter, Gardner checked Will’s breathing and his pulse and gave him a granola bar and a bottle of Gatorade.
All Will wanted was to talk, about his walk and what he’d eaten, about how he lived off the river. He talked about how this had been the most important journey of his life. “Medicine,” he told Gardner. The deputy told Will he needed to eat, but as he looked at Will, he couldn’t help but think: This man was starving to death, but he might have been starving for human contact even more.
Gardner strapped Will into a back seat, and Oldfield lifted off the sand. The thump-thump-thump of the chopper blades overwhelmed the cabin. Will stared quietly out a window as he rose above the river. Gardner pulled out his phone and shot a text to the sheriff with just two words: “Will found.”
Will was taken to Garfield Memorial Hospital in Panguitch, Utah, an 87-mile helicopter ride from his spot on the river. When he arrived at the hospital, he was severely dehydrated. He weighed less than 120 pounds and was covered in scratches and blisters. His cheekbones protruded from his narrow face, and he was covered from head to toe in grime. He argued with nurses and with Tim Dennis, the physician’s assistant on duty that day. Will said he didn’t need medical attention, just some food, and then he’d be ready to go back to the river and finish his journey. “You’re not in good shape,” Dennis tried to tell Will. “You need help.” Will shook his head. No.
“He was not grasping how dangerous a situation he was in,” Dennis says. “He was not making good decisions.” Dennis listened to Will’s heart and lungs and checked for signs of a rapid heartbeat. He poked Will’s stomach, felt his arms and legs for fractures. A nurse drew a vial of blood. The lab results were surprising: Will was significantly dehydrated, and his sodium and potassium levels were down, but not dangerously so. The medical staff was stumped.
Out of imminent danger, Will was assigned a private room at the hospital. He ordered orange, apple, and grape juices, lots of cornbread, pudding, and oatmeal with brown sugar. He ate all of it.
A day later, Will was transferred to a larger hospital in St. George, Utah. He recovered slowly, ate more oatmeal, and refused to have his blood drawn or his body poked. When Lisa, his sister, called the hospital, Will was angry. “Why did you have to call the sheriff?” he asked. “I was OK.” Lisa told Will she cried every day when she realized he was missing. Will didn’t care. He was upset his story had made national news and that everyone knew about his journey. Lisa told her brother that she loved him; then, she hung up.
Weeks went by. Will ignored his father’s offer to come to Utah to pick him up—to at least see Will while he was recovering. But Will didn’t want to go home. No one pushed the point. “Our biggest fear was he’d get better and run off again,” Lisa says. “We just wanted him to come home safe. We didn’t want to scare him off.”
On July 19, Will was discharged from the hospital and hopped a Greyhound bus back to Colorado Springs. He arrived at his aunt’s house the next day. Will looked frail. His skin was still tan, his hair and beard long. He couch-hopped, staying with different family members for weeks. He stayed with his stepsister, then an aunt, then his dad. His joints and his back ached less by the day and his feet slowly began to return to normal. He meditated in the mornings and thought about the river.
He can still see the stars. He thinks of them almost every day—especially when he walks alone through the fields just outside Colorado Springs. He’s pictured those nights in the Utah desert, the million pin pricks of light exploding across the darkness. He has imagined the mornings, the first wave of warming daylight cascading over the canyon ledge—the moment when the desert springs to life. Sunlight is on his face, sand squishes up between his toes. He can see himself walking, jumping, running along the riverbed. He can feel himself in the water as it laps over his body. He is weightless, free.
His dreams now are tied to the canyon, to the luminous reds and pinks and greens, to the trees and insects and plants and birds. He can see himself going to that water again. This time, he is sure he will finish his journey. Alone.