For those of you that don’t yet know the story of Chris McCandless and his years-long trek across the US that eventually led him to summer over in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness… Stop now.
Either read Krakauer’s book, Carine McCandless’ 2014 memoir, The Wild Truth, watch the 2007 movie, or even the Ron Lamothe documentary, The Call of the Wild. First contact with this story is worth experiencing in a much better environment and owed more than what a short review could possibly highlight. A rendition of events pertaining to that story will follow from here on in, so read at your own risk. On another note, it’s really hard to do a normal book review on a subject such as this, so I will be delving less into style and page setup and more into a commentary on the way Chris’ story is carried across over the next few thousand words.
Some years ago, a good friend told me that Into the Wild was one of those have-to-see-in-a-lifetime movies. Not expecting much, being a teen with an instant disregard bordering on disdain for any form of media that is supposed to elicit emotion in the consumer, I went ahead and watched it, spurred on by the fact that said friend hailed it as a personal favourite, and mentioned he identified with Chris McCandless in certain regards.
I concluded that it was a unique experience in many, many ways, not the least of which being I also saw my rebellious, nature-loving self in certain facets of the protagonist.
What seems like a lifetime ago, in September 1992, Christopher Johnson McCandless was found dead in Alaska, inside Fairbanks Bus 142, on the Stampede Trail. Armed with 10lbs. Of rice and a .22 caliber rifle, he had headed alone into the wilderness, braving the elements and living off the land some 45km removed from civilisation. What would have been, at least in my opinion, a triumphant return was cut off by the engorged river he had easily forded not 5 months prior, coupled with stubbornness, idealism, and a general disregard for norms and compliance on Chris’ part.
An Outside magazine article penned by Jon Krakauer in January 1993 gave Chris’ story wide recognition and drew both praise as well as ire towards the young man from the general public. This book expands upon the 9,000-word article, delving deeper into the whys and hows of Chris’ deeds, and on such a momentous occasion as his would-have-been 50th Birthday (this past February 12th), I thought purchasing and reading it was fitting.
As impressive (even visceral) as the movie was, and even safe in the assumption that I knew the whole story after reading plenty about it since, I was still surprised by the candid and detailed rendition of the facts herein. Jon Krakauer blends tidbits gained from postcards, journal entries, workplace information, and eyewitness accounts into a vivid picture of the young man and his backpacking, hitchhiking, canoeing, and wandering experience that led to an untimely demise.
But more than the style which lends itself to fast, easy reading and stands testament to Krakauer knowing exactly when and how to inlay breaks and PoV shifts into it all so as to keep the reader on their toes, this book is a cavalcade of emotions that sifts through the kind words literally everyone who had met him had for the self-styled Alexander Supertramp.
Going as far back as his parents’ tumultuous past, and even further, to Everett Ruess, another gone-too-soon daredevil, dreamer, and adventurer of the 1930s, Krakauer also displayed one of his own experiences, lone-hiking in the wilderness, and the feelings and thought processes he went through when faced with utter failure and the threat of death, using these ancillary tales to underline that Chris had undertaken his task not out of a desire for self-destruction, but rather one of self-betterment, and a self-stated search for truth.
Although you’d think the book builds towards the inevitable Alaskan conclusion, Krakauer smartly deals with the ending of the endeavour over the first pages of the book, quickly thereafter switching to retread what exactly led to that turn of events.
Between his college graduation, close-knit relationship with his younger sister, a love for the outdoors instilled into him by his father, and a difficult parent-child relationship, Chris’ evolution from young college grad with a bright future ahead of him into someone who lived day to day, town to town, and squatter camp to rundown camper van is a how-to in shedding the weight of societal norms and following your ideals. While not many will find themselves in the Supertramp, a metaphor for that latter course of action can be gleaned from every step of his journey. His goal was set on spending that summer in Alaska, and he let nothing (and nobody) deter him from his grand scheme.
Along the way, he met a great many people, and made lasting impressions on each person he either traveled, lived with, or worked for along the way. To both elderly individuals as well as teens and everything in between (pets included), Chris came off as savvy, well-spoken, and much more gregarious than his reluctance to become attached to anyone for prolonged periods of time (or almost at all, really) might suggest.
Throughout some 200-odd pages I’ve followed a man who loves life, in spite of the allegations of him strolling into the North to die. He simply wanted to live life his own way, which he did for the most part of 2 years, his challenging odyssey carrying him from natal California through Arizona, South Dakota, and eventually leading him North, near the Denali National Park. Whether from behind the wheel of his old Datsun, canoe-paddling swamps, canyons, and open ocean, or simply walking across barren lands, deserts, roads and highways, I would argue Chris, in his big adventure, instills a sense of longing in even the most fervent non-traveler, if ever there was such a thing.
Further than making the reader think about braving the open road for a while, it warms one to Chris himself, and it left me longing to pick this man’s mind for the unique view on life that lay within. And I mean that in more ways than just his up-and-away of 1990. Everything about Chris, up to and including his political views, was anything but usual, and the more I read, the more I found myself wishing for a chat with such an individual.
The book keeps a mostly nostalgic tone of remembrance from the interviewees Jon Krakauer met with. Short snippets of dialogue and descriptions of mannerisms, either the interviewees or Chris’ own, are interspersed with the author’s own musings on what (and why) happened, deductions and extrapolations, all of which ground the book and provide a counterbalance to the almost daydreaming quality the narration takes on at times.
From having interviewed several of the hallmark individuals McCandless had encountered, poring over Chris’ own scribbles in his makeshift journal, and jumping backwards and forwards in time (switching protagonists if need be) to easier lay out the thought process beneath said musings, Krakauer never paints with a broad stroke, and goes into the tiniest details that he can find on McCandless, from clothing to skills gained along the way. In doing so, Krakauer also leans into the investigative, almost sleuthing style of work, especially when it comes to detailing what supposedly brought about Chris’ demise, i.e. ingesting toxic substances from wild plants.
As a literary piece, this is a pleasant read, a cleverly thought and laid out telling of facts that collects many strands and angles of the same subject and weaves them into a solid string of happenstances whose origins can sometimes be traced back to the protagonist’s childhood, and whose similarities with other such instances of what may be deemed nature-loving hermits, either contemporary or long since gone, are laid out to further build the myth of the lone wanderer that some of us may have even nurtured or had brushes with at some point in life.
Ultimately, the story is one of self-discovery, self-improvement, challenging one’s self, and eventually change, as one of the most heart-rending and impactful scribbles that Chris put to paper inside his copy of Doctor Zhivago stands testament:
(collage from Into the Wild, 2007)
I will admit that my view towards what others have called the romanticising of a tragic event, of a boy thinking he can take on the Alaskan barrens and being defeated by hubris and inexperience is skewed from the perspective of someone who grew up on nature overdose.
Leaning towards the mountain side of it, everything from hiking, rock climbing, skiing or snowboarding have had great influences on me as a small child and up to young adulthood. Thriving on the adrenaline of wandering into the unknown, either off the beaten path or jumping the slope’s limits for a thrash in the powder, I know what it means to push yourself for no other gain than a feeling unlike any other, more so when aimed for in nature: freedom.
In my experience, one of the most effective remedies to dealing with the daily bric a brac, to disconnect, and find yourself anew without the limitations and inhibitions that may stifle the fabled true self to shine through is to push your own limits. You may fail, or come out the other end scratched and tattered, but you’ll have learned much more than if you’d played it safe and learned nothing about how much you’re really worth.
Different people will find different ways to reach and cross those limits, and some, like Chris McCandless, are much more courageous or simply more willing to exert themselves further and more off the beaten path than others in this pursuit. Judging from the originators of disparaging comments leveled at Chris, calling him a bum, a dumb kid, or someone who lacked the most basic understanding of survivalist existence, most of them seem people that spout mostly uninformed opinions on McCandless from the relative safety of their comfortable existence.
On the other hand, the book and everything within stands as a stark warning of many things: from familial conflict and the dissonance between generations to the impulsiveness of youth and stretching oneself too thin in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.
A cautionary tale of a dreamer taking on the world and the road, exposing both the glitz and glamour (in a manner of speaking) of such an idea as well as the dread and despair one would face in the circumstances, Into the Wild is a must read for, I feel, many different people.
It is a tragic story, but thanks to the courage and decisiveness of one man, it has not only spawned such beautiful endeavours as Chris’ Purpose, a non-profit that helps women and children in need, but has also transcended time, being still talked about to this day almost 26 years after Chris’ death.
A definite page-turner, with a much more complex message than your regular fact-based retelling, and one that has something different in store for each person reading it, Into the Wild was, to me, a one-of-a-kind experience.
Harrowing, engaging, funny, sad, fulfilling in spite of its tragic loss of brilliant life, the book carries you through a rollercoaster of emotions, having you realise that Chris was not that much different from either yourself, or that friend you know who goes camping or hiking on their own…
I feel like the entire ordeal transcends any ratings that we may slap on it, so the Gung-Ho Geeks will give Chris’ story and Jon Krakauer’s telling of it a solemn nod of the helmet and a bittersweet smile.