When I sat down and started reading my first Jon Krakauer novel, Into The Wild, I was expecting a dry, factual recounting of the life (and eventual death) of Christopher J. McCandless-- a young man that donated all of his money, most of his possessions, and spent two years hitchhiking across North America before making his way into the desolate, rural mountains of Alaska where he died.
But this book is far from a dry recounting. I was captured by the first sentence and taken on a voyage through California, Oregon, and South Dakota while following McCandless not only in the two years he spent on the road, but his life before, the lives of his parents, and the lives of those who also met their end at the hands of nature.
To better explain the mastery of Krakauer’s storytelling, I want to talk about the protagonist of this story, and, similarly to the book, I want to start at the end.
On September 6, 1992, three moose hunters hiked out to Bus 142-- the last bus left from a construction project in the Alaskan mountains back in 1961, outfitted with a bunk and wood stove for the workers and used as a base camp for hunters and hikers since the termination of the project in 1963.
At the bus, the hunters came across a couple from Anchorage, who had been intending to use it as well, but were too frightened by a note on the door and a terrible stench to go inside.
The note read:
“S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?”
In the bus, on the bunk, a sleeping bag held the decomposing body of Chris McCandless, where he’d slowly starved to death in August of 1992.
In April of that year, McCandless walked into the Alaska Range on “the great adventure”-- supposedly the greatest of his life. After a few minor mistakes, McCandless’s situation turned from livable to deadly, while he attempted to survive in the outback with simple tools and limited knowledge of living off the land, all learned after he made the choice to turn his back on his home in Washington DC and live out of his backpack.
McCandless, two years prior to being found dead in Alaska, had set out on foot across North America-- donating 25,000 dollars to charity, abandoning his car, and burning the cash in his wallet. He lived off of rice and picked up odd jobs, becoming acquainted with life as a vagrant.
Unfortunately, whatever skills McCandless acquired during his expeditions were not enough to keep him alive in the Alaskan wilderness. He died from starvation after (as far as has been deduced) either eating the seeds of the poisonous wild sweet pea, or eating the seeds of the non-poisonous wild potato that had accrued a substance called an alkaloid, which prohibited his body from receiving nutrients from any type of food in any amount.
Neither instance makes McCandless look good, especially to the eyes of the local Alaskans. He received abundant criticisms for being a foolhardy, ignorant young man that had unrealistic ideas about the wilderness and a dreamy outlook on life that didn’t hold when the rubber hit the road. This is pretty similar to what I initially thought in the beginning of the book, and it’s certainly easy to see that point of view with a quick glance through the newspaper or skim of his wikipedia entry. But Jon Krakauer was intrigued by this boy’s circumstance and, after writing an article in the Outlook on McCandless shortly after his death, he was inspired to dive into the history, personality, and mentality of the young man throughout all 24 years of his life.
In the Author’s Note, Krakauer tells us he did his best to keep from tinting the story in his own light, but he found himself relating to the boy and had to draw on his own experiences in hopes of understanding what went through McCandless’s mind. This is why Krakauer takes time in the middle of the book to diverge from McCandless and to the stories of Carl McCunn, John Waterman, Gene Rosellini, and Everett Ruess to better comprehend the mentality of these men that went into the wilderness to find something in themselves-- and died as a consequence.
Krakauer even takes a chapter to talk about his own experience on a perilous trip up the Devil’s Thumb (a mountain on the Stikine Ice Cap east of Petersburg, Alaska), that seemed to captivate him in a similar way the adventure in Alaska captivated McCandless-- despite the warnings and discouragement from anyone Krakauer told, he couldn’t tear himself away from the idea of climbing the 9,077 foot peak.
Krakauer doesn’t outright defend McCandless for how he died, but you can see that he relates to him too much to chastise McCandless for his failures-- not failing to point out the faults in McCandless’s logic, but not indulging in the viewpoint of the many people that heard his story. Krakauer shows you how much more there is under the surface of an ignorant boy from the DC suburbs.
McCandless encountered many people on his travels, and Krakauer sought out nearly all of them to hear what they had to say about the young man. What was most intriguing to me, was that not only did almost everyone McCandless meet like the boy, they became inexplicably attached to him. A farmer from South Dakota went to great lengths to try and convince him to work longer, a man in Southern California practically offered to pay for anything McCandless needed, after failing to convince him to stay. Even when people could see the foolhardiness of some of his actions, they still enjoyed his company and did their best to inform him of the gaps in his logic, out of concern of his safety. Many offered housing, money, or gear, which McCandless turned down the majority of the time.
And while McCandless spent many weeks and months in solitude, he too enjoyed the company of people, and was considered an extrovert back home in Washington DC. His personality seemed magnetic; one of his first jobs was doing door-to-door advertising for a construction company, and his success was through the roof. He was well-liked in highschool, where he received high grades, and became the captain of his cross-country team.
He was described as intense, having an unwavering willpower, and strongly opinionated on moral values of life; he was disgusted by his parents' money, despite seeing and appreciating that they’d worked hard their whole lives to become a well-off family. He cared strongly about the homeless, and, as a teenager, would go into the low-down parts of his town to give food to the people living on the street. After graduating Emory University, he thought the only true way to live was by leaving all material possessions behind and living a nomadic lifestyle, free of the constraints of society. He was inspired by the works of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau, people that wrote about the simplicity of living in nature, of being rid of all but the necessities of life.
After leaving his family without warning in 1990, he adopted the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp, and frequently wrote in his diary in the third person. He sent letters to people he’d met on the road, staying in contact with almost everyone he’d encountered, but refusing to speak with his family.
To Walter and Wilhelmina “Billie” McCandless, their son disappeared without warning after what they thought was a happy graduation from Emory University. And, despite long police searches, they didn’t hear anything of his whereabouts until he was found dead in the Alaska Range, two years later. If McCandless knew or cared about the amount of grief he caused his parents in those two years, he didn’t show it in his diary entries and to those he met on the road.
McCandless didn’t have a great relationship with his parents, especially his father, and let his resentment for them fester until he could escape his college and live the life he wanted, without their supervision. His parents wanted and expected him to go to Harvard Law School, and McCandless even let them believe that was his intention, but in reality, he’d always had his sights set on the great Alaska adventure. His wanderings from Washington state to Mexico may have seemed aimless, but I think he was just building up to that ultimate voyage.
McCandless wasn’t a complete idealist. Although it pained him to kill animals, he knew hunting was necessary to survive, and he picked up as many tips from hunters and survivalists as he could before heading into the mountains. Unfortunately, he was naive to the more nuanced points of outdoorsmanship (most notably, the difference between what a hunter in South Dakota would do to preserve meat to what a hunter in Alaska would do). A few simple mistakes led to him wasting the majority of a moose he’d shot.
And all it takes is a few simple mistakes.
McCandless didn’t have a map. He refused to take one, wanting to learn the area on his own, and this choice was at least a major factor in his eventual fate, if not the deciding one.
McCandless went into the mountains in April and stayed at bus 142 until July, when he packed up all of his stuff and got ready to hike out. The way back to town in that region is blocked by the Teklanika river-- a river that hadn’t been flooded by the yearly melt when McCandless crossed in April. Back then, it was just low and cold; an easy crossing.
But when McCandless went to cross in July, the ice caps were still dripping away under the sun, and the river was twice the size-- swift whitewater grinding boulders along the riverbed.
McCandless knew he could not cross; not there, and not up river either. He decided that, since he’d done well enough up until then, he could last a bit longer, wait for the river to go down, and then leave in August sometime.
What McCandless didn’t anticipate was how much harder it became to find food that late in the summer-- the plant life was scarce, and he was not yet an expert hunter. Once he ate the poisonous seeds, his already weak body deteriorated past the point of survival.
The second thing McCandless didn’t know was that there was an old cable car that stretched across the Teklanika not a mile downstream of where he was on the trail. In the past, it was used to measure the level of the river, but was decommissioned and now just carries hunters across the treacherous rapids.
McCandless would’ve known about the cable car if he’d had a map. Instead, he went back to bus 142.
After several short passages describing his weakened, pained state, McCandless wrote his final diary entry on August 12, which simply read, “Beautiful Blueberries.”
At some point later in that week, he scrawled a message on the back of a page from L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man:
I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!
McCandless was in the Alaska Range approximately 113 days.
While he was ignorant, unskilled, and unprepared for what met him in the Alaskan wilderness, there was also something about McCandless that is quite inspiring. He had a dream. He had something that, to everyone else, seemed completely out of reach. And he knew it was dangerous, he knew it was going to be hard, but he went out and did it anyway. He made it farther than many would have-- he lasted long enough for his own satisfaction, and that’s why he got ready to leave that July. He was so close to success.
I would be careful retelling McCandless’s story as a cautionary tale or as something to achieve. He lasted too long to not get a few things right-- and he didn’t make it, which proved he got a few too many things wrong.
I admire Krakauer’s storytelling and his thoroughness in writing Into the Wild; he does a brilliant job giving you the whole story and letting you come to your own conclusions. I look forward to reading another one of his works.
I think this is a book I’ll remember for a long time.