Feature

Will.

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.

April 2013

Morning in the desert. Sunlight peeks over brush and boulders and ignites the canyon walls in brilliant swaths of orange and red. Will LaFever has been stranded alone on southern Utah’s Escalante River for nearly a month. The water is perhaps the only thing keeping him alive. Bordering on starvation and delirious from a lack of sleep, he is on his chest at the river’s edge, head arched out of the water, the scruff of his wet beard dangling like a fisherman’s net from his gaunt face. His green button-down shirt is worn; his suede bandana is caked with dried sweat; he’s holding a white bed sheet in his right hand. His shoes sit side by side on the sandy bank next to a pair of muddied brown pants. The river laps over his shoulders as he listens for the sign of help he has convinced himself is on its way.

He drags his body into the cool waters each morning at first light. For weeks, he has seen the vapor trails of jetliners in the azure sky, heard the buzzing of prop engines from smaller planes as they turn overhead. He thinks he knows how far he’s wandered downriver, believes he’s close to completing what his family in Colorado now worries was a suicide mission to self-discovery. His legs are weak and tired and virtually useless; his feet are blistered and swollen. He is certain Lake Powell is just a few more river-turns away. Maybe a mile or less, he thinks.

From the water, the canyon walls seem like an endless maze of slickrock and tangled willow branches. He’s heard birds call and occasional bellows from the free-range cattle roaming the desert. Perhaps a pilot in one of those low-flying planes might see the speck of life on the river? He has screamed for help—but the only answer has been his bristly baritone echoing back from the canyon walls as if it were taunting him.

It takes almost all of his energy to sit up. The water on this stretch of the Escalante is less than eight inches deep. He scans the sky. Another plane passes, and he lifts his head. He wonders if he should get his sheet and wave it, until he sees a silvery flash as the plane turns away.

He leans back into the river and lets the water run across his face.

 

He was always drawn to the wilderness. As a young man, the high desert had been Will’s favorite place—the rocky formations, the gnarled hardwood trees, the bends of the land. He escaped there as often as he could; it was the only place he felt normal. He spoke mystically, almost in reverent tones, about the outdoors whenever his parents or his friends would ask why he’d disappear for days on end. In the wild—with a bedroll, wool blankets, extra socks, food, a bottle of water, and a Bic lighter—Will would remove himself from a world he thought had forsaken him.

He never traveled with a map. Blessed with a photographic memory, he studied backcountry routes and geological formations. He learned to hunt rabbits and could field-dress a squirrel; he read books on wild plants, on navigating with stars, on traveling light. As he got older, his adventures became more audacious. When he was in his mid-20s, he would wrap a leather headband around his forehead, bum a ride deep into the Rocky Mountains, and survive by himself for weeks. When he’d return home, his mother would lecture him on safety, on how his travels upset his family. He needed to stop. Will’s father worried, too, but he was done reasoning with his son. When Will made up his mind, they all knew that was it.

Will never thought his parents understood him or his mind—never cared to know why he wandered. When he spoke to his father, it was usually about bills and obligations. He couldn’t remember the last time the man had visited his apartment simply to talk. He wasn’t close to his two sisters or his parents. To them, Will imagined, he was different and unsalvageable. Even when they said he was an exceptional man, when they invited him over for dinner or for a holiday gathering, he thought they saw an animal. For much of his life, he had thought of himself that way, too.

By the time he was 27, in 2011, he was living in a small apartment on the outskirts of eastern Colorado Springs. He sometimes wore the same clothes for days on end. He grew a beard. His hair—a boyish plume that fanned out over his forehead—was oily and unkempt.

As the end of the year approached, Will felt more alone and more isolated than he ever did in the wilderness. In the city, he’d been called freak, retard, dummy. He’d heard it all.

He decided he needed to do something drastic. He dreamed of an odyssey—a “long walk,” as he would later call it—that would be bolder than anything he’d done before. It would be a journey that would transform him. Will settled on the desert.

 

Will began searching Google Earth on his father’s computer and pulled up images from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. He was looking for the most remote place he could find, but he knew he would need a ready water supply. As he studied the images, he was drawn to one place: southern Utah.

By spring 2012, he’d chosen the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—a 1.9-million-square-acre plot of federally preserved land that fell 100 miles or so south of Interstate 70 and continued all the way to the Arizona border. The photos he found were arresting, an irresistible balance of natural beauty and inhospitableness. Rough-cut mesas and gravely washes fanned out in a rainbow of color across terrain more than double the size of Rhode Island. Rocky arches and ancient petroglyphs dotted the canyons. Of particular interest to Will was the Escalante River, roughly 80 miles of life-giving water that stretched through the monument, flowed into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and fed directly into Lake Powell.

The desert surrounding the river had been a favorite for settlers, explorers, and vagabonds for more than a century. In the 1870s, Mormon pioneers blazed a trail near what today is Green River, Utah, and marched across more than 150 miles of steep canyons and alternating brush and piñon to settle the towns of Boulder and Escalante—the latter named for the Franciscan priest Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who traveled parts of Utah in 1776. For generations, the settlements were among the most isolated in the United States. In 1934, a California artist and writer named Everett Ruess arrived on Escalante’s dirt streets with two burros, camping gear, and the goal of exploring south toward the Colorado River. The sandy-haired 20-year-old made it 50 miles outside town before he vanished forever.

Years after Ruess’ disappearance, the area became home to an increasing number of artisans and outdoorsmen who were attracted to the region’s beauty and sought a sort of spiritual communion with the land. It also became a magnet for eccentrics looking to live out their poorly conceived survivalist fantasies, or for novice hikers unaccustomed to impenitent wilderness. A couple of times each summer, someone was being scooped out of a canyon or found mindlessly wandering the dirt-and-rock trail leading back to Escalante. In most cases, those people had been missing for only a few days. Rare were those who walked the entirety of the Escalante River. There was little in terms of food, the water was virtually undrinkable without boiling it, and heavy rains periodically flooded the slot canyons leading to the river. Even to the most experienced hikers, the idea of spending weeks alone on the river—risking it all to survive among the canyons—seemed mad.

Will spoke obsessively about the Escalante. His mother, Anita, tried to talk him out of his desire to go on the journey. His father, John, was skeptical. He asked his son where he would sleep, how he would eat, how he could live out there. When would he know he was done?

Because he didn’t have a car, getting to Utah, in Will’s mind, was his biggest obstacle. He knew his family would never help, so he began to ask strangers. He’d been frequenting a bar near his apartment for months. The people were friendly, and he began talking about his trip. In early June 2012, two men said they would drive him to the desert. Will would pay them for the ride.

The men picked Will up the night of June 2. Will brought a small, olive green pack with a hatchet, rope, and knives; two glass bottles filled with water; his bedroll; and a dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback that had been given to him by a friend. Will sat in the front passenger seat and studied the pair. Both men were of average height and a bit disheveled, and struck him as the sort of people who might work at a carnival. He made small talk with the two as they drove north on Interstate 25, then later hooked west on Interstate 70. They stopped infrequently for gas and didn’t seem to eat. By the time they reached the turnoff for Highway 24 in Utah, around 5 in the morning, Will had drank nearly all of his water.

By 7 a.m., the men turned onto Highway 12 and were nearing Will’s destination off an old Mormon trail called Hole-in-the-Rock Road—the same empty road Ruess had taken nearly eight decades earlier. Will begged the men to go a few miles farther west, into the town of Escalante, so he could fill up his bottles. He was confident in his outdoor survival skills, but even he thought it was too dangerous to begin a trek without more water to drink. The men ignored him. They made a left off the highway and pulled onto Hole-in-the-Rock, then drove several more miles before turning onto a remote, boulder-pocked road near a piece of land called Harris Wash. When the driver stopped, he told Will to get out.

Will pulled out his bag, his bedroll, his bottles, and his dog. He told the men he’d find some water with the dog, then he’d return for the larger green pack. It might be a mile or two, he said, so the men didn’t need to wait for him. He figured they wouldn’t, anyway. He stuffed the bottles in his back pockets, said goodbye, and stepped into the desert. When he returned a few hours later with filled bottles, the men were gone. So was his pack.

 

On June 7, Nathan Waggoner noticed a skinny man in a corner of his family’s outdoor outfitting shop on Main Street in Escalante. The man appeared to be in his early 30s, though he could have been younger, and had a brown beard that stretched halfway down his neck. He was studying several maps, moving from one to the next, staring at them with unflinching attention. To Waggoner, the man looked like one of the countless desert rats who bummed rides into town every year, lived off the land for a few weeks, and then came crawling back to civilization. But with nothing more than a bedroll cinched to an old rope lashed across his chest, the man seemed underprepared for whatever he planned to do. He looked homeless. Waggoner approached him and asked if he needed help.

They spoke briefly, but the discussion piqued Waggoner’s interest. The man said he’d been robbed, then he’d wandered nearly five days in the desert east of town. At some point, he’d gotten turned around in an area just east of Escalante and crossed a couple of canyons. Eventually, he climbed down a rocky cliff that rose above Highway 12 and made his way back into town. He’d arrived with a dog, but the animal took off after a herd of cattle and didn’t return.

The man had called his father in Colorado to tell him about his stolen gear, and his old man planned to wire a couple hundred bucks to help buy some camping equipment or a bus ticket home. The closest Western Union was nearly 200 miles away by car in Page, Arizona. His father wanted him to get a ride to Page, then he’d send the cash. “He seemed real excited about going back out,” Waggoner remembers. “There was something a little off about him, but it was hard to put my finger on it.”

The man inquired about the availability of wild game near the Escalante River; said he “planned to hunt rabbits on the flats.” He spoke confidently about the land and seemed to have at least a working knowledge of wilderness survival. He wanted to spend nearly all his time along the river and find his way to Lake Powell. It was an inadvisable route in Waggoner’s opinion. Even if the man made it to the river’s end, Waggoner knew there was no way to cross the lake without a boat. But the man was adamant about taking his own route. Waggoner offered one of the maps he’d seen the man studying earlier. The man declined. Seeing the man wouldn’t accept his help, Waggoner wished him luck.

A month would pass before Waggoner learned more about the slim, bearded man who showed up in town that afternoon. His photo was on flyers passed out by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. His name was Will LaFever, and he was missing.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Will nodded.

“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.