Into the Wild
I was just 17. Mad at my folks because they wouldn’t let me go on an end-of-the-year school picnic.
It was 5:30 in the morning. I stepped out of my bedroom window onto the back porch. No packed bags. No money. I got as far as turning the corner of our ranch-style home by our front porch.
Dad always said I thought seven steps ahead. Sure enough, I begin to fret on how I’d make a go of it with no money, no skills, not even a high school diploma.
Then, I turned around and entered the house the way I’d left and went back to bed. I never mentioned this to my folks.
But, what if? What if I’d left? Forget the gender ramifications. In all likelihood, like “Alex Supertramp” in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” I probably would have starved to death.
“Alex’s” real name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. On the book’s cover, we learn that, in April 1992, this “young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mount McKinley.”
“He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter.”
I read Krakauer’s book after we returned from Alaska years ago, and Alex’s experiences haunt me still.
It’s odd how I can relate to a character that I have little in common with. What intrigued me about Alex is that he did what I’d wanted to do for decades – just run off, on my own and see the world. The difference is I thought about the ‘what if’s’ and how I wouldn’t want to hurt my family.
Alex was a likeable guy, intelligent, musically talented and well-read. But it seems that any time people got close to him, he’d pull another vanishing act. He’d bummed around the country for about two years, doing odd jobs and living with people he met along the way.
He aimed for Alaska, a place he’d dreamed about since he was a kid. Alex/McCandless told a friend “about his intent to spend the summer alone in the bush, living off the land.” He wanted to be alone in the wilds and “wanted to prove to himself that he could make it on his own, without anybody’s help,” said Gaylord Stuckey, a trucker, who drove Alex to Fairbanks before they parted ways.
Jim Gallien was the last one to give Alex a ride. He thought Alex’s “scheme was foolhardy and tried repeatedly to dissuade him.“ When Gallien couldn’t, he insisted that Alex take “an old pair of rubber work boots.”
The only food Alex carried from Gallien’s truck was a 10-pound bag of long-grained rice he’d purchased, “plus two grilled-cheese-and-tuna sandwiches and a bag of corn chips” that Gallien had contributed. Alex’s backpack also contained library books that included Thoreau and Tostoy.
Some 20 miles into the wild, “he stumbled upon the old bus beside the Sushana River. It was “outfitted with a bunk and a barrel stove” and other provisions left by previous visitors.
In time, he missed the companionship. In his remaining days, he noted: “Happiness is only real when shared.”
Perhaps, Alex discovered some truth in Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”
In August, “McCandless penned a brief adios: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”
“Then he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had sewn for him and slipped into unconsciousness. He probably died August 18, 112 days after he’d walked into the wild, 19 days before six Alaskans would happen across the bus and discover his body inside,” Krakauer wrote.
No longer that starry-eyed teen who once fantasized about running away, I now look at Alex’s journey thru a mother’s eyes. I wish he’d been able to say good-bye to his parents, as well as others who missed and loved him.
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Movie trailer, “Into the Wild:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LAuzT_x8Ek
Photo: Alaska – big bull moose. Photo was taken in 2005 in Chugach State Park, Alaska. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/47/Bigbullmoose.jpg/622px-Bigbullmoose.jpg
Photo: Denali – Grizzly Bear, picture taken by Jean-Pierre Lavoie in 2004. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/36/Grizzly_Denali_edit.jpg/640px-Grizzly_Denali_edit.jpg
Photo: Alaska – Young moose near Point Woronzof, Anchorage. Taken: April 2008. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/Young_moose_with_the_munchies_near_Point_Woronzof%2C_Anchorage%2C_Alaska.jpg/526px-Young_moose_with_the_munchies_near_Point_Woronzof%2C_Anchorage%2C_Alaska.jpg
Intriguing story. I have never had an interest in being a hermit. Traveling the world, yes. Living off the land, no. This was a very tragic story and you wonder what he was all about.
From what I read in Krakauer’s book and article in “Outside” magazine, Alex/Christopher McCandless would not even contact his sister to tell her that he was OK because he didn’t want her to tell his folks where he was. That disconnect from his family is, indeed, deeply troubling. I wondered if he eventually wanted to get in touch with his family. He did not leave them a note.
We read and hear all the time about people who are born with the wrong gender. I wonder if there are people who feel they were born into the wrong life, and need to go find the right one, even if it kills them. I’d never heard about this story, Judy. Thank you for conveying it so well.
An intriguing premise, Charles. I’m not sure what Alex/Christopher was searching for. It’s unfortunate that he never made it out of the wild and reconnected with those who cared about him. Jon Krakauer’s book is a compelling read.I also read his article on this in “Outside” magazine where it was first published. In Krakauer’s riveting tale, the author said he drew on his own experiences to “throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.”
Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you liked it.
Oh, Judy, I am still troubled by INTO THE WILD. Although he didn’t seem sorry for his choices, I ache for his family and friends who had no such assurances.
I’ve had students who thought what he did was a grand adventure, a declaration of ultimate independence, and when we studied Emerson and Thoreau there were always those who compared passages from Why I Went To The Woods with INTO THE WILD. I always had them read the rest of Thoreau about why he left the woods…
I think that his final message comforted some of them because he seemed peaceful; I think the reality of it stunned others into understanding the finality.
Superb post, Judy. You make us think and feel.
I haven’t taught this book, but I did provide it in my classroom library. It is tragic. While Thoreau lived simply, from what I read, he did not live in the wild. He moved into a home, owned by Emerson, “in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres.” (wikipedia)
Chris McCandless was better prepared than some who might follow his example. But they need to see the outcome … and the heartbreak he caused by his choice. Marilyn, I’m glad that you’re getting your students to understand the finality of Chris’ actions. Thank you for the compliments on my post.
It says something about you Judy that at 17 you were able to put a brake on your emotions and think about consequences. It’s not always an easy thing to do even if you’re an adult.
I’d like to think that common sense kicked in, Mary. It might be that a dose of reality set in. You’re right … sometimes, emotions override all. I believe we have to see beyond today or we’ll have regret for many tomorrows.
I definitely have never desired to be off somewhere in the wild by myself. No thanks. But, it definitely makes you think about how one choice can change everything.
I agree, Danielle. I recall once, as a teen, being out in the woods on my folks’ 66-acres in the country. Once I heard a noise, I was off like a scared rabbit for home. But, seeing far-flung places on my own terms … like Costa Rica … that’s a different story.
At one point in my life I had part of Alex’s desire to be into the wild but thank heavens my fear overcame my youthful desire for independence. Today, so many Alex in the world who kept going a similar sad, frightening road. So many parents grieving and longing but never will see their kids again. I hope it will serve to remind us all to keep reaching for our youth so they will choose a safer path. Thanks for sharing.
A very thoughtful comment, Island Traveler. The hubris of youth, believing that we/they are invulnerable. I think back to when I first moved away from home to Syracuse, New York – from a very sheltered upbringing to being completely independent. Whether the “wild” is the wilderness or a huge city that will swallow you up, there are dangerous situations lurking. You’re right. We do need to help our youth choose a safer path. Thank you for writing.
What a heartbreaking story, Judy. So very sad, for him and his family.
Exactly, Kate. This is why the story has stuck with me all these years. I first read it in 1996.
I read that story, a tiny little piece far from the front pages, in an Australian newspaper at the time of the discovery of his body. Later I read the book (better than the film in my opinion) and in time found that, like Bryson’s ‘Walk in the Woods’, it was one of those books that just about every hiker and long-distance walker has read.
I wonder if you saw this, Krakauer’s recent explanation of McCandless’s death in the bus: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/09/how-chris-mccandless-died.html
Thank you for the link. Fascinating update. I first read Krakauer’s book, then the magazine article in “Outside.” By the time Krakauer wrote the book, he had changed his mind about Chris McCandless’ cause of death. (I agree the book was much better than the film, but I thought director Sean Penn did a good job of capturing the Alex/Chris’ spirit and story.)
From the story, it appears that McCandless did know how to survive in the wild. But his lack of information about that particular plant and its seeds was the real killer. It is a tragic story. A young man, adventurous, kind-hearted, and yet unable to connect to those around him. The magazine article says Chris would be 45 today. Maturity might have led him to make those connections and to extend his idealism and charity to forgive those he was upset with.
I read the Outside magazine article about this book but haven’t read the book yet. I found just the short article to be disturbing. On a happier note, I love your photos. Alaska is on my bucket list.
Knowing the outcome from the outset was disturbing. Still I was very drawn to this story and Krakauer’s excellent writing.
I wish I could take credit for the photos. They’re from wikimedia. My husband and I visited Alaska in 1996 (Fairbanks and Fort Yukon), but we didn’t see any of the animals in the wild. Our spur-of-the-moment trip to Denali was cut short when our rented Ford Explorer hit a patch of ice and flipped onto its roof. We, thankfully, were relatively unscathed. The vehicle was totaled. (I’ve written about that experience before.)
The draw, for us, was the northern lights – which also would be an excellent opportunity for your photography skills. 🙂
I remember reading about your Explorer, so I guess I thought these were from the same trip; now that I think about it, that doesn’t exactly make sense.
It is on our list to take a small cruise in Alaska, one that allows you to get in close to wildlife. And yes, I would love to see the Northern Lights.
comment from earthrider to Photography Journal Blog:
Amy, that sounds like an exciting trip. We were in Fairbanks in March 1996 and the Chena River was just beginning to thaw. People drove their vehicles over the ice bridge that connected one side of the river to the other. We told the folks at our hotel to wake us when the Northern Lights were out and we did see 2 or 3 of them while we were there. Just beautiful.
I’ve not read the book or watched the film, but I have heard quite a bit about the disaster adventure this young man had. That kind of life, even temporary, is my kind of nightmare, so I’m truly puzzled when I hear stories like this one!
Well, I’m so glad you came back through your window and slept on those thoughts! 😉 Obviously even at a young age you had a mind that reached out in many directions, and made logical connections with every idea you had – your parents must have taught you well! Other than a lack of teaching from parents, I can’t imagine what it is that makes some people incredibly naive and not have the ability to question and think logically. My Dad had a tendency to talk about living another life on a mountainside somewhere, where the water was perfect and the air was fresh, and on and on and on….. I think it was really a fantasy he had when he got too stressed with the life he was living, combined with his huge love for nature. But I’m relieved that he wasn’t dumb enough to actually do it! As annoying as he was at times, I would have missed him! 😉
I have fantasized about living on a large piece of property by a brook or some body of water. But I know I’m a social animal and would really miss hanging out with family and friends. So, ideally, my fantasy property would be on a large piece of land (that someone else mows for free), by water (no alligators or other threatening species), and is close enough to my neighbors (and the mall) that I can run out and borrow a cup of sugar if needed. 🙂
The ability to think things out, as Native American Indians did, to the seventh generation has its pluses and minuses. On one hand, you do coolly, calmly and logically think out the intended and unintended consequences of your actions. (If I do this, then this, this and this will happen. Am I prepared to accept that?) The downside is it can be crippling. You over think things and are afraid to move on.
Your Dad’s fantasy site sounds wonderful. But I’m glad for you that he didn’t follow thru. 😆
Loved the post. As I think of it so many aspects seem to jump out and crowd my thinking……
As you wondered about your own albeit brief intention to run away, ” What if…..”. What if you had indeed run away that morning? What if you had followed your heart and made that leap of faith? To link that to what happened to Alex is but one of many possibility.Challenges do bring out the best in us most of the times…….
Yes, I can well empathise with the mother in you as you reflect, ” I wish he’d been able to say good-bye to his parents, as well as others who missed and loved him.”
One of my favorite poems is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. So I naturally wonder ‘what if?’ no matter what decision I make.. Your’re right, of course, challenges often bring out the best in us. But it’s the human factor. I knew I’d miss my family – especially my little brother.
I’m glad you see my point about my motherly instincts kicking in. If he were my child, the sadness would be too overwhelming to contemplate.
Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your presence.
I’m glad you turned back when you did, Judy. Of course, if I’d seen a big moose lookin’ at me like that, I’da thought twice and turned back, too… : )
A very affecting post, definitely one of your most thoughtful and moving. I’ve seen references to “Alex’s” story, but haven’t read the book nor seen the movie. One can’t help but feel there must have been some profound alienation there, something well beyond the normal rebelliousness and recklessness of youth. I’ve often thought that we have to be lucky enough to somehow survive our youth before we can start making sense of things. The story also makes one wonder how many of the people we meet each day are suffering in silence, hungry for a kind word or a nudge in the right direction.
You’re an excellent writer, my friend, and a mighty good influence.
Thank you, Mark. I really value your thoughtful comments. I suspect, if I left home, that I wouldn’t have made it past breakfast. (I hadn’t thought to pack anything.) 🙂
I first read this book in 1996 and often think about Alex/Chris’ story. I agree with your view about the “profound alienation.” Also the part about “we have to be lucky enough to somehow survive our youth before we can start making sense of things.” I’m still working some of that stuff out.
A kind word and a nudge in the right direction? Powerful insight, my friend.
Did you publish in Ploughshares or The Gettysburg Review? I swear your name and work sound familiar! 🙂
I have worked in a newspaper in Utica, New York (under the name of Judy Manzer) and at its sister paper in Melbourne, Florida as Judy Berman. I’ve worked at several radio stations in the Syracuse, New York area (under the name of Judy Manzer). But I have not published in – Ploughshares or The Gettysburg Review. Do they take freelance material?
When I did a Google search, I spotted another Judy Berman who is a writer. But that is not me.
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