“The fantasy of swapping out your tired life for a better one is a stalwart plot device in fiction, from Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby to The Passenger and Mad Men. In such stories, the decision to take on a new identity often occurs in a single, serendipitous moment; an opportunity presents itself, and the character makes the fateful choice, often getting away with it. In real life, ad hoc escape plans rarely end well.” [Gone Forever: What Does It Take to Really Disappear? via Wired]

Writer Evan Ratliff has long been fascinated by faked deaths and sudden disappearances–ploys of fugitives and individuals desperate to start a new life. In Gone Forever, Ratliff recounts the story of 42 year old Matthew Alan Sheppard. Due on charges of fraud and embezzlement, Sheppard staged a drowning to thwart the police (complete with family getaway). But he slipped up and was captured six months later.

Reporting on the phenomena of disappearances and reinvented identities and was one thing, Ratliff said. To understand it, he figured he had to try it out. After talking with the editor of WIRED, Nicholas Thompson, it turned into a contest.

On the evening of August 14, Ratliff announced the details.

Starting August 15, he would try to stay hidden. He challenged readers to find him in 30 days. The prize? $5,000. To make it fair, Thompson posted Ratliff’s bank transactions, phone calls, and e-mails online.

Hundreds teamed up, sharing intel and coordinating through social media networks, in what quickly became a coast-to-coast augmented reality game. Ratliff narrates his harrowing journey, how he hid and was chased in Gone: Shedding your Identity in the Digital Age.

“The goal was to see whether Evan could create another identity—of a person who would live the kind of life that Evan would want to live. And Evan likes to live in cities; he likes to use Facebook and Twitter; he wouldn’t ever want the life a recluse or someone truly off the grid,” said Thompson.

It’s a fantastic read:

August 13, 6:40 PM: I’m driving East out of San Francisco on I-80, fleeing my life under the cover of dusk. Having come to the interstate by a circuitous route, full of quick turns and double backs, I’m reasonably sure that no one is following me. I keep checking the rearview mirror anyway. From this point on, there’s no such thing as sure. Being too sure will get me caught.

I had intended to flee in broad daylight, but when you are going on the lam, there are a surprising number of last-minute errands to run. This morning, I picked up a set of professionally designed business cards for my fake company under my fake name…” [Read more here]