Kirby: Lost and confused in the desert? It’s more common than you think

By Robert Kirby

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: July 20, 2012 03:11PM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:33PM
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Robert Kirby, Tribune columnist

On my way to Boulder last week, I heard the news about William LaFever. Lost for three weeks in the desert south of Escalante, the 28-year-old Colorado native was rescued within a day or two of dying from starvation and exposure.

LaFever, who has autism, was trying to make it from Boulder to Page, Ariz., on foot. He got so lost and hungry that his dog finally concluded “the hell with this” and abandoned him.

Ever been lost yourself? I don’t mean temporarily confused. I mean totally lost with no idea what to do or where to go.

It’s terrifying. Nothing looks familiar, no direction seems right and even previously innocent things appear dangerous. It gradually occurs that this could well be the end of you.

It’s happened to me twice. Both times I barely made my way to safety, arriving exhausted and hysterically resolved to never again venture into such places unprepared. Once was in an abandoned silver mine. The other was in New York City.

Even worse is being stranded. You aren’t necessarily lost when your car (or leg) breaks down in the middle of nowhere. You might actually know where you are. It’s just that no one else does.

The desert around Escalante is infamous for this sort of thing. It’s beautiful and it lures the unwary.

LaFever isn’t the only one who’s wandered alone and lost in the Escalante desert. For more than 100 years, The Tribune has reported the accounts of those who went in and barely made it out.

In September 1935, George Johnson, 30, Brockton, Mass., stumbled out of the Escalante desert after 23 days of confused wandering. He survived on berries and two cans of corn given to him by passing cowboys.

The cowboys tried to persuade Johnson to stay in camp and recover, but he set off for Escalante. Along the way, he ate part of a rotting steer carcass and some jimsonweed beans. The combination left him nauseated and hallucinating.

Despite all of this, Johnson managed to survive long enough to reach an isolated ranch house, where the occupants found him in their garden cramming himself full of raw vegetables.

Johnson was lucky. His battle with the desert occurred a year after famed California poet Everett Ruess disappeared in the same area and was never seen again.

Unhappy endings are far more common to the lost and stranded in the desert around Escalante.

On Dec. 24, 1939, Philo and Asenith Alvey tried to drive to Escalante from Teasdale over a rough mountain road. Their truck broke down in a storm that dumped more than a foot of snow on the mountain.

Carrying their 4-month-old daughter, the Alveys tried to walk the 20 miles to Escalante. When Asenith collapsed and couldn’t go any farther, she begged Philo to go for help.

Philo pressed on, eventually losing toes to frostbite. In the last act of her life, Asenith removed her coat, wrapped her baby in it and hunkered down among some rocks. Rescuers found her frozen to death Christmas Day, but her baby survived.

In February 2003, Rachel Crowley and George Metcalfe didn’t tell anyone where they were going when they tried to drive their rented Jeep to Escalante from Kodachrome Basin. When they got stuck in a snowstorm, they lived on Skittles and sunflower seeds for three days.

Crowley died when they finally decided to hike out. Metcalfe was barely alive when he was found staggering down a road by two cowboys.

Tragic as these stories are, there are lessons in them for those of us who think we’re too smart for it to ever happen to us. That’s the scary part about serious trouble — you’re almost always in it before you know it.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.