I originally heard the tale of Christopher McCandless from the Eddie From Ohio song, “Sahara.” There’s something fitting about the introduction coming in that format. Nothing adds to the romanticism of a tale quite like dissemination through music.
Of course, from “Sahara” I moved on to the more detailed (and, honestly, the more common) form of exposure to the story, Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild. More recently, the Krakauer book was transformed into a movie, directed by Sean Penn.
The short version of the McCandless story is a young man, from a far-less-than-deprived background, college educated, donates his life savings, and drops out of society for two years, no contact with his family, tramping around the Western US on a sort of philosophical quest, a search for a kind of truth from living off the land in solitude….only to be found dead in the Alaskan Wilderness.
The longer version is more complex. McCandless seemed to be driven to this break, at least in part by the discovery of a family secret (he and his sister were not born in wedlock–his father was still legally married to his first wife at the time). He worked hard to stay hidden, off the RADAR–donated his lifesavings, hid his car in the desert. He re-christened himself Alexander Supertramp, and in his wandering across the west, he set his sights on Alaska. He seemed to keep people at arms’ length during his odyssey. Ultimately, he went into the wilderness near Denali having taken few of the precautions an experienced woodsman would take. No compass. No notification to people outside of where he would be. Limited food. Death was by starvation. There are multiple theories as to how this came about–poisoning from misidentified vegetation, spoiled seeds/grain, simply burning more calories than he could forage/hunt. From his journals we know he attempted to hike out from his location, but was cut off by the increased flow of the Teklanika River at that time of year….although, had he consulted a map, there was a hand operated tram crossing about a quarter mile away. There were also huts with stores for lost hikers in the area–though these may have been spoiled by vandals.
The story tends to yield two camps, the Pro-McCandless camp that embraces him as a hero for daring to buck the trend of society and reject material considerations in favor of that higher truth, and the McCandless-is-a-damned-idiot camp that resents the hero status he’s been given for what–to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of wilderness survival–is at best ignorance tinged with arrogance and, at worst, suicide.
For anyone who has ever wanted to give the finger to “civilization” and get back to the most basic elements of surviving, it’s easy to romanticize McCandless. His tragic end makes him a martyr. I can’t deny, that I find some attraction in the thought of disappearing into the wild to live alone. The fact that I find this attraction frightening is no doubt due to the fact that I can also identify with those who are less pleased with the tale of this young man (particularly native Alaskans). What he did? It really was either dumb or suicide. I’ve done my fair share of camping. Dad’s taught me a thing or two about getting along in the wilderness. It’s by no means enough to make me a woodswoman, but it’s plenty to tell me that you don’t do what he did and expect to come out alive. Dropping out of society seems good….but it just doesn’t work like that. You either need a lot of equipment and training, or you just can’t go solo.
For me, I think the imbalance in how I feel about the story is part of what intrigues me. I admire the strength of the attempt, but shake my head at the stupidity. I applaud the ideals he was supporting, but I question the method in which he chose to execute them.
Regardless, whether cautionary or in praise, I tend to think this story is one that bears retelling.