Jon Krakauer, author and outdoor thrill seeker, sensed a kindred spirit when he first wrote an article on Christopher McCandless for Outdoor magazine. In pursuit of McCandless' essence, Krakauer travelled across America, and did not stop working on the story until years after he had completed the initial piece of journalism. The resulting book, Into the Wild, was one of the most popular pieces of adventure writing of the late twentieth century. Instead of sensationalizing McCandless brief story, Krakauer offered a humane depiction of a boy in search of the love of his life: the American wild. McCandless sought a transcendental experience; he perhaps did not quite find one, but Krakauer patiently salutes his journey nevertheless.
The most famous chapter in McCandless' life began when he graduated with honors at Emory University. He promised his parents he would apply to law school, but instead he donated $25,000 in savings to charity. He then shuffled off his identity and wandered off into the American West. He lightened his load with each step, and abandoned most of his possessions along the way. He ditched his car when it suffered a dead battery (but not before hiding the plates to prevent easy identification). After two years of wandering under an assumed identity, he hitchhiked to Alaska.
Krakauer does not merely trace the steps of this journey--he interrogates the psyche and soul of every person he can find who met Chris McCandless along the way. Among others, McCandless befriended a lonely widower in the deserts of Southern California, a foot-loose romantic couple, and a Midwest machine operator. He left his mark on many, and for someone who prided himself as an isolated and independent young man, he nevertheless seemed to pursue genuine connections with many human beings. But after many adventures, he decided to try his hand at yet another. Therefore he made his way north.
In April 1992 Christopher McCandless walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness. In an age without uncharted territory, McCandless refused to carry a good map, or any navigation or radio equipment whatsoever. He forced his way into ignorance in hopes of better surprising his senses; he sought to develop an anachronistic type of self-reliance. Moving along an old miner's trail, he eventually found shelter in an abandoned bus. He read a stack of paperbacks he brought with him into the wild, with authors like London, Pasternak, Thoreau, and Tolstoy, as well as lighter stuff like Crichton. He shot and ate small game. He dug up edible roots and vegetables. He was proud, but he was also lonely, and scared. In July, he tried to leave the wilderness, but a stream that ran chest-deep in April had, in the face of an incessant summer sun, grown into a river surging with glacier rot and snow melt. The raging waters blocked his path. There was no leaving the wilderness. He returned to the abandoned bus. He grew increasingly lean, as did his margin for error. In August, he ate potato seeds that seized his system like a vice, and left him severely weakened; he could no longer digest enough calorie intake for his bone-lean body to sustain itself. He starved to death.
McCandless had survived 112 days in the wilderness. Less than three weeks later, a group of Alaskans discovered his skeletal, lifeless frame tucked into his sleeping bag and resting quietly in the abandoned bus.
Jon Krakauer's biographical essay, Into the Wild, deservingly became a best seller, and launched Krakauer into the highest order of American outdoor writing. For Krakauer pursues the story of McCandless' life and death with relentless questions and carefully carved detail. He traces McCandless' journey, not only in Alaska, but from his childhood onward.
Krakauer's Chris McCandless comes across as earnest and insistent, but perhaps not very intelligent or mature. He read deeply of the aforementioned authors, but not very broadly, and perhaps missed out on many of the most beautiful lessons that reading can offer. The lessons of empathy, forgiveness, and justice never fully captured his efforts, nor his imagination. But Krakauer uses a number of tools to show the importance of McCandless, not just as a person, but within the complex fabric of human life. McCandless epitomizes endurance and youth, naïveté and education; he stared so intently at the stars, and listened so intently to the sound of the wind shifting across the plains, that he felt himself transported far beyond the place his feet touched the ground. He moved beyond himself, and so joined the panoply of reckless wanderers that have sought self-realization in the American west.
In a particularly marvelous series of chapters, Krakauer breaks free from the narrow confines of biography and places McCandless' experiences in conversation with others who have died in the wilderness, as well as those who have barely survived. He places McCandless somewhere between inebriated self-delusion and euphoric expression; McCandless, in Krakauer's assessment, most closely resembles a young monk that chose to abstain from society as part of a vigorous test of self-worth. He may not have always been wise, but he pursued wisdom.
Near the end of the book, Krakauer reveals McCandless' vulnerability to the most universal of sensations: the shock of discovering your parent's imperfections. The recognition of parental imperfections threatened two aspects of the self. First, it upset McCandless' appreciation for his parents' model of adulthood; second, it challenged McCandless' assumed ability to achieve his own ideals. After all, if his parents could not live up to the values they taught their son, how could he possibly hope to achieve his own ideal behavior? McCandless began to disdain his parents for masking the origin of their marital relationship (McCandless' father refused, for a time, to end one marriage before starting another), and for their American materialism as expressed in houses, cars, and expectations of education. An average boy might merely fidget through a period of adolescent angst, but to a distrustful idealist like McCandless, his parents' transgressions gave him the necessary fuel to break all ties and vanish into the American landscape. The severing of all traditional social bonds eventually cost him his life, but it was a life he did not mind spending. He traded his complicated, well-to-do East Coast life for a simpler one, but the exchange destroyed him. [I wonder if McCandless is the capitalist-democratic version of Faust--instead of trading his soul for luxury, knowledge, and power, he must trade his life for simplicity and self-reliance.]
Krakauer writes with spirit and understanding; he traces the contours of McCandless' mind, as well as the terrain through which he traveled. Perhaps most importantly, the author uses his own experiences as a mountaineer to relate the essential impulses of McCandless' actions, and thus humanizes McCandless' apparently anti-social behavior. McCandless, rather than joining the ranks of mythic wanderers, becomes the brother of our strengths and weaknesses as human beings.
Is it a tragedy? Not quite. The story of Chris McCandless is something of a romance, a romance in which his love, the American west, not only failed to return his affection, but never even acknowledged his existence. It killed him without stirring a muscle.