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Found

Twenty-five days. That’s how long I lasted on the lam. Most people arriving at this site will already know the basics: Last month, after writing a story for Wired about people who faked their own deaths, disappearing from their lives to start again, I set out to do something similar myself. I would drop out of my own life for a month, and act like I was starting a new one. Wired, meanwhile, would offer a $5000 bounty for anyone who tracked me down. We set a few basic parameters and then, journalistically speaking, we turned out all the lights and plunged headlong into the darkness. You can read a summary of what happened here.

I’ll be describing those 25 days in great detail in the December issue. There were almost daily surprises, both in what I found myself doing, and what I saw (and, of course, failed to see) the “hunters” doing to find me.

But for now I wanted to offer an extended thanks. First, to my friends and family, some of whom were made unwitting participants in this privacy-obliterating endeavor, and all of whom—especially my wonderful girlfriend (whose name the dedicated hunters know already)—were incredibly understanding and played along. Also to Nick Thompson, who sacrificed an insane amount of hours from other work and from promoting his own book (“The Hawk and The Dove,” which is getting a fantastic response, and which everyone should check out), to serve as the lead investigator. Without Nick, the whole thing would have failed in a multitude of ways. As well everyone at Wired and Lone Shark Games (particularly Teeuwyn Woodruff and Mike Selinker), both for enabling it and putting in many of their own hours. And finally to all the folks who hunted me—and aided me—for contributing their obsession and ingenuity, and especially for (with a few pretty harmless exceptions) honoring the rules about harassing my family. Many have emailed—and I want to hear from anyone who followed it: eratliff@atavist.net—to let me know they were glad I was caught. I don’t blame them. And although I was disappointed, I’m pretty pleased that at least it was by a clever bunch like Jeff Reifman and the guys at Naked Pizza.

I’d also like to offer an apology, to people I encountered along the way and deceived about my identity. It was one of the worst parts of the whole experience. I’ve been contacting them individually to explain whenever possible (a strange journalistic endeavor, that), and they’ve so far been gracious and forgiving, taking the whole thing in the spirit of fun it was intended. But many I won’t be able to find, and to them I am sorry. I won’t write about anyone by name who hasn’t given me explicit approval to do so.

To critics who griped that it wasn’t “real” enough; that it was either too easy to find me or (as people argued right up until I was caught) too difficult; that a “true” man-on-the-run would or wouldn’t have done this or that; I can only say: You nailed it! I wasn’t, in fact, a “real” fugitive. Very well observed, and I fully support your conviction that you would have done it better. But in our case, we were trying to remain, as much as possible, both authentic and engaging, two goals that were often in conflict. In compressing my time on the lam into 30 days, with the general public as the investigators, we didn’t exactly have a model to follow. You may also find that many of the things people found most “unreal,” like me using my ATM and credit cards at times, were not at all what they seemed.

Finally, to accusations of carrying out a “stunt,” I plead guilty to all but the pejorative assumption—given that category would include the journalistic “stunts” behind “Hell’s Angels,” “The Paper Lion” (and other Plimpton adventures), “Into Thin Air,” and “Nickled and Dimed,” among other pieces of narrative nonfiction that I greatly admire. We attempted what we thought was a unique, albeit self-indulgent and inevitably flawed, reporting venture. We’re hoping readers will find the results as fascinating as we did. But you can check out the December article and decide for yourselves.


Vanished

What does it take to up and disappear these days? Not to head off the grid for a few days, mind you, but to actually vanish from your life? That question is the subject of a two-part feature I’ve been working on for Wired over the past few months, the first piece of which is in the September print issue, and out online now. It tells the story of an Arkansas man named Matthew Alan Sheppard who faked his death last year and took off on the run, and the cops who pieced together his plan and tried to track him down alive. The story is also a broader look at the evolving cat-and-mouse game between investigators and the intentional missing — be they fugitives from the law, insurance scammers, or people under pressure who just walk out the door one morning and never come back. The short answer is: going on the lam is not like it used to be.

The trouble with stories of people caught faking deaths, or just lighting out on the run, however, is that in hindsight they always seem to fall victim to a singular dumb error. (Or, in the case of plane-jumper Marcus Shrenker, probably the recent fake-death attempt people are most familiar with, a tidy collection of dumb errors). “If I had just…” is the refrain of the caught fugitive, while stories of successful lives on the lam — for obvious reasons — never get told. Even the Matthew Alan Sheppards of the world can’t tell us what I think we really want to know: so how hard is it really, to disappear?

So I decided to try it.

For part two of the story, I’m going on the lam for 30 days. The magazine has put a $5000 bounty on my head for anyone who finds me.  The contest has a variety of rules, for both me and my presumptive pursuers, to try and make it a reasonable simulation of a real life on the run. The most important of which, for me, is this incentive: if I am found before September 15, most of that $5k comes out of my story fee.

You can find the details, and follow or participate in the speculation, at www.wired.com/vanish. They’ll have any info on my bank account usage, cell phone, email, and the like, along with disturbingly large professional photos of me taken from every angle (which are also in the magazine). The man running that site, my editor Nick Thompson, wants me found, and he doesn’t have a clue where I’m going. So anything that comes from him is trustworthy. Anything that purports to come from me, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

I’m not dropping out, though, heading for a cabin or living in a cave. So security permitting, I’ll be posting more thoughts and leftovers from the first piece here over the month — or however long I make it. But if you are reading this, it means I’m already gone.