Jon Krakauer’s Classic On An Ill-Fated Walk Into Wilderness

Book review: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (Amazon / Book Depository)

His exact words were: “I think I’m going to disappear for a while.”

At 24, Chris McCandless was a young man with, on the surface, a lot going for him. His family had provided wealth and economic stability, he was smart and college educated, and possessed a unique ability to connect with people, touching them deeply even when he only passed through their lives briefly.

But he was restless and unsatisfied, drawn to something he felt was more fulfilling, and began dismantling this life and its creature comforts. He gave away his possessions, including nearly $25,000 in savings to OXFAM, and drove West on what would be a two-year itinerant odyssey, eventually ditching his car and hitchhiking. Ambling wasn’t enough, and in April 1992 he headed for the Alaskan wilderness, withdrawing from everything. Hiking an old mining path near Denali National Park until the overgrowth stopped him, he camped out in an abandoned bus for nearly four months, foraging and hunting with minimal supplies, food or otherwise.

At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.

Jon Krakauer was a reporter with Outside magazine when McCandless died, and covered the initial story when his body was discovered by hunters weeks later in the bus, apparently dead from starvation. The book is his detailed, biographical expansion on McCandless’s intriguing, confounding story, and it’s become a contemporary nonfiction classic.

Krakauer notes that how you respond to the story will depend on how you view McCandless’s actions. Although I felt sympathy for him, and understand the desire to isolate and be in nature – not exactly an uncommon urge (Walden, etc.) – McCandless struck me as naive, dangerously idealistic, and, as many have criticized, strangely unprepared. His off-the-grid endeavor isn’t even all that unusual, but his lack of preparation is.

And, to be fair, not that we all weren’t obnoxiously convinced of the rightness of our own ideas at his age, but knowing the unnecessarily sad and lonely end it brought about is painful. Yet he’s become a kind of cult hero, with people making pilgrimages to where the bus still stands.

Also painful is reading about the mistakes McCandless made, with death as avoidable, heartbreaking outcome. In addition to what he suffered, and knowing it’s not what he wanted, he left brokenhearted people in his wake. Krakauer reports that McCandless avoided romantic relationships possibly in order to avoid this very situation, but friends, even the near-strangers, and family were devastated.

Some of his actions make frustratingly little sense. Retreating to the wilderness is one thing, but burning cash? He did odd jobs for cash in his travels, why burn money? It underlined the naivete. In a story that’s rife with turns that could’ve gone quite differently, a glaring irony is that the place where he holed up in the abandoned bus wasn’t even deep in the Alaskan backcountry. A major thoroughfare was nearby, plus highly-trafficked Denali and multiple cabins. But his unpreparedness and inferior map meant that after the river rose, he couldn’t find a way out besides the way he came in, which should’ve been simple.

What expedited his death remains unclear – that he starved is undisputed, but whether it was caused by ingesting something poisonous (McCandless himself suspected this), and what specific effects it caused has been debated, and Krakauer’s conclusion is apparently outdated (here’s a fascinating update he wrote in 2013 on a researcher with an interesting theory).

What I liked more than learning the narrative of McCandless’s story (and I don’t mean that to sound callous) is Krakauer’s writing. Can he ever tell a story. It’s been a few years since I read Under the Banner of Heaven but I remember being impressed with its storytelling, and the same here.

I especially liked that it’s filled with so many little details of who this person was. We get insights into his personality and ideals through the last things he left behind – highlighted passages in books, excerpts from his correspondence and journal.

He met and made deep impressions on so many people during his journey, including strangers who offered him kindnesses and worried about him, one of whom even took his advice, abandoned home and possessions and went off the grid at an advanced age. It broke my heart. I know McCandless meant well, but it feels misguided and laden with the cocksure attitude of youth. He wrote a letter to this older man, who’d felt such a connection to him, that’s preachy and pretentious, about how he should “lose [his] inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life.” When you’re sharing keywords with Manson, time to reconsider.

It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

Krakauer gets personal showing why this story resonated with him, and it’s an eerie glimpse at what a different outcome McCandless’s life could have had. He writes about his own youthful frustrations and a reckless adventure in Alaska’s beckoning but dangerous terrain.

“I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul,” he explains, noting however that their similarities didn’t extend to McCandless’s “lofty ideals,” perhaps what drew Krakauer back.

Krakauer has a special ability to tell a story so that it holds up a mirror to society and how we live, forcing an uncomfortable if necessary reckoning, and that’s in brilliant form here. A certain melancholy sets in and lingers, though.

A bonus: Chapters open with so many excellent, thoughtful literary quotes about nature, risk, and isolation, including from Annie Dillard and an appropriate one from Edward Whymper’s (first person to scale the Matterhorn) Scrambles Amongst the Alps:

There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

Into the Wild
by Jon Krakauer
published 1996

Amazon / Book Depository

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38 thoughts on “Jon Krakauer’s Classic On An Ill-Fated Walk Into Wilderness

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  1. Great review, and brilliant line: “When you’re sharing keywords with Manson, time to reconsider.” I read this years ago and also found McCandless sympathetically portrayed but naive. It’s always confused me that some approach him as heroic, making pilgrimages to the bus, when the book hardly romanticizes him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! That bit bothered me, what good association comes from “helter skelter”? Eek.

      I was similarly confused, especially because I started reading some of the articles about how people have been so polarized in reactions to this book. It’s one thing to sympathize with him, or see something of your own ideals in his, but I didn’t get the impression at all that Krakauer romanticized him. He even basically showed why he might have, once, but saw it differently after his own experiences. I think this is one of those books/stories where you’ll see in it what you bring to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you’re exactly right, and at this point the story’s so famous that I can see how some might map the mythology surrounding McCandless onto the book, glossing over the text itself. In high school I read parts of this and watched the film (which I remember as being very sympathetic?), and the class discussion somehow centered on how he was heroic and transcendentalist-esque.

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      2. I’ve heard this is required reading in some high schools, that’s so interesting! Is it for English classes, or what’s the framework around it? I was wondering if maybe the film glorifies him more too, it sounds like it. I just don’t get the hero-worship or mythology of it at all! I could see the transcendentalism, that seemed along the lines of what he had in mind, but the whole thing was misguided and his death could’ve been avoided. It’s like you say, it seems people gloss over so much of the message here. It’s why I loved the last quote I shared, I felt like the book made a point about patience and careful consideration over recklessness and risk!

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      3. I think it’s mostly taught in American lit classes. My class was to debate “hero/reckless/both?” (teaching how to argue for/against/qualify something I guess?), but the discussion quickly landed on “hero” and barely touched upon how unprepared he was. He certainly seems to have thought of himself as a modern Thoreau, but I felt like Krakauer was really clear about disagreeing with that idea.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That is too funny. I can’t believe the consensus went that quickly to hero. I agree, I thought Krakauer made it perfectly clear that he disagreed with what he’d done and that’s why he included his own experience and basically acknowledged how lucky he was to have come back from that brink. I can’t imagine having to debate the hero argument in that class!

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    1. Thank you so much! It was a really interesting but completely tragic story. When it’s a tragedy so easily avoided, it’s even more upsetting! What else of Krakauer’s can you recommend? I’ve only read Under the Banner of Heaven.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Into Thin Air, his personal account of that disastrous Everest expedition back in the 80’s. I read it with my book club years ago and it was fascinating. My low rating is based on my perception of his motives in writing the story, which I still vacillate over. I highly recommend reading as it’s well written and provocative.

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  2. I’ve always wanted to read this one, although I’m pretty familiar with McCandless’s story already through the mag article and the movie. From what I’ve gathered, I’m in the “he had it coming” camp. What he did wasn’t particularly heroic or cool, it was just plain ridiculous. He had no map, and very little familiarity with living in the wild. How could this story have ended any other way? I’ve had my reservations about the book, that it did not portray him as obnoxious as his actions were. Thanks for the review, I may go check it out now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wholeheartedly agreed! I didn’t get the impression that it romanticized him or glorified his actions, but I guess I can see where others would read it and see what they wanted to in it, if that makes sense. It just reeks of youthful naivete and arrogance, like thinking you’ve read a few books so have it all figured out now. He does a lot of ungrateful things too, like a couple who were worried about him being cold gave him some warm clothes and later realized he’d hidden them in their car so he wouldn’t have to take them. Just plain ridiculous, as you said, and bratty!

      Krakauer also tells his own story briefly and basically admits “I was young and dumb like this too but thankfully got a different ending” so I really don’t see where the hero-worship came from. If he’d had a map he could’ve seen he was less than a mile from a river crossing he could’ve used to get out of the backcountry, that’s just the most avoidable mistake I can imagine. It was so annoying….but all annoyances aside, the writing is fantastic and it’s a pretty quick read and gives you a lot to mull over, which I think is always worthwhile. And don’t worry, his obnoxiousness wasn’t played down, from my reading at least! 😂

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  3. I read this a long time ago – it was nice to revisit it in your review! I remember having similar reactions to his decision making – along lines of “Why are you like this?!” A couple of years ago, I read his sister’s memoir and, while the writing isn’t adept, it’s a fascinating accompaniment to this one. You get more of the scoop on his family. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I saw his sister had written a memoir and was curious about it…it looked like there was a lot of nasty stuff going on, even beyond the father’s two families! That’s good to know not to expect too much from the writing but that it’s a good accompaniment. And I was asking myself the same, like why do it like that?!

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  4. I just finished teaching this to my seniors, and I have taught it for several years. Usually half the class calls him an idiot and the other half wants to run off to Alaska. Makes for some excellent discussions! Ha!

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    1. That’s so interesting! What kind of class do you teach it in? Those must be fun discussions!! I’m not surprised there’s a split like that, it does seem like everyone sees it very much from one side or the other. I tried to be open-minded as I read but the further I got the more I felt myself getting annoyed and frustrated by him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a class mostly focused on rhetoric for seniors. Most have never read a nonfiction book in their lives, so it’s a breath of fresh air for them.
        I admire McCandless for going his journey, but just think his preparation could have been more complete.

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  5. I am never disappointed whenever I drop by your blog! I was wondering whether to read this book a couple of weeks ago and read a few articles about it online. I decided against as the story sounded so heart-breaking. This young man must have been struggling with mental health problems and needed rescuing from himself, so building him up into some kind of folk hero seems misguided. If an elderly person acted like he had, relatives/concerned people would have suspected dementia and taken steps to protect them…????? Heck what do I know…. so I decided to read Into Thin Air instead and also now have your recommendation of Under The Banner of Heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m so happy to hear that, thank you for the compliment!! Yes, the story really is heartbreaking, that’s why I felt it worth mentioning that there’s a melancholy after reading it that lingers. I read it a few months ago, actually, and even revisiting it to write about it made me sad all over again.

      I also wondered whether there were mental health issues at play, and some of the articles I read speculated that, too. But I’m really not sure, his writings also reminded me of that kind of typical youthful arrogance, I could see it just being an over-enthusiastic sense of righteousness and conviction. But then again, like you said, if it was an elderly person, it would be handled completely differently, so who knows!

      I haven’t been sure whether I wanted to read Into Thin Air, I’m not usually so into extreme adventure stories. Did you like it? Under the Banner of Heaven was amazing, so well written and a crazy story, and Krakauer uses it to examine the role of fundamentalism so well!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this book, and agree with you about Krakauer’s storytelling. I found McCandless fascinating, if frustrating, and I find his story often resonates with me. Also, to the comment above, the movie soundtrack is amazing. Listening to it feels like reliving Candless’ story all over again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same – fascinating but frustrating is exactly it. I absolutely love his storytelling style, so comprehensive and well done. I just got Missoula and hopefully will get around to reading it soon. Great to hear that the soundtrack is so good, too!

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