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