Into the Wild
This story, which turned Jon Krakauer from a niche journalist focused on mountaineering and the outdoors into a best-selling author, is now almost thirty years old. It may even be familiar in rough form: a young man, determined to make it alone in the wilderness, gets in over his head and finds big trouble.
If you saw the posters for the movie, or the book cover based on them, you may recall the photo. A thin, bearded man sitting atop a bus bathed in golden light, a visual elegiac. The whole thing, though, the book and even more so the movie, is a mirage for the simple reason conveyed in every pirate movie: dead men tell no tales.
That’s why the book reminded me of a similar non-fiction bestseller from the same time period: The Perfect Storm. In each case, no one really knows what happened and so the writing–more informed in the present case; Junger is no commercial fisherman–involves a lot of speculation disguised with whatever reportage is possible. It’s non-fiction, sure, but it’s not a reliable record, either.
What this book most closely resembles, instead, is a fictional form: the Bildungsroman. The subject of this story, Christopher McCandless, is a young man in search of himself, disaffected with the hard-wrung upper middle class security his parents provided.
Special as he is, Chris is really a common type, a card-carrying Romantic, right down to the requisite volume of Thoreau. He’s carrying Tolstoy with him, too, so he may also have a thing for hair shirts.
The above is not meant as criticism. I’ll even admit to having a soft spot for such thinking. One of the greatest compliments I believe I’ve ever received was to be classified, dismissively, as a Romantic by a young woman. (Hey, if you don’t get the girl you should at least have made an impression.)
We all are trying to create meaning and we readers use books as tools. My disaffected youth included many of the sources McCandless fed upon (and a few more), so I understand their allure. I’ve found little that compares to stumbling across a writer and discovering I am not alone, that my thoughts are not strange and, in fact, can form the foundation of a life.
I also recognize that I’m talking about books. In a way, I think they were more than that for McCandless.
So let’s get back to this story. After graduating from Emory University, McCandless hops in his car and hits the open road headed west. He also takes the time to donate what remains of his college fund (a fairly substantial amount) to Oxfam. His family, including a sister with whom he was particularly close, never see him again.
That westward journey takes him in a big circle west of the Mississippi. He spends time in the Arizona desert. He canoes nearly to the mouth of the Colorado River. He meets modern nomads in coastal Oregon. He works as a laborer for an agricultural entrepreneur in rural South Dakota. He ditches his car, sleeps in tents, lives by his wits and dreams of doing the full Tolstoy in Alaska.
You might think, then, that he’s a true loner. In fact, he’s far less of one than I am. It’s fair to say I feel safer hidden in my books. Chris, by some accounts a natural salesman and charismatic fellow, makes lasting, favorable impressions on people. Even though he takes on the ridiculous alias of Alexander Supertramp he’s immediately Alex to everyone and Chris to those who know him longer. It’s easy to do so; see how he became Chris in this post.
He does, eventually, get to Alaska and hikes off down the Stampede Trail, a deteriorating road outside Healy on the back side of the Alaska Range just outside the boundaries of Denali National Park. About 30 miles in he sets up what becomes his final camp at an abandoned bus left behind by road builders who abandoned their project.
Krakauer notes the great irony of Chris’ tale is that, by Alaska standards, he was hardly remote at all. The bus lies just down the road from a town and there are a half-dozen cabins scattered in the area. But look at the nearby photos. It’s hardly overpopulated and obviously you could go months without encountering another human being.
Before there was the book there was the magazine story, also penned by Krakauer. It’s fairly apparent where the extra material needed to expand the tale to book length has been interpolated. There are at least three chapters only tangentially related to the McCandless story. One deals with Everett Ruess, another young man who disappeared on a quest, in the early 20th century in the American Southwest .
The other two offer a compressed retelling of Krakaeur’s own twenty-something Alaska adventure when he scaled Devil’s Thumb. Driven, he thinks, by similar impulses as McCandless, he believes he has an advantage in understanding what happened and, more importantly, why Chris acted as he did.
To fully illustrate these similarities he delves into the family relationships both he and McCandless experienced. Both of them were formed by, and in reaction to, strong fathers. So each needed to establish for himself mastery of challenges “that mattered.”
This is where my personal experience acts as a barrier to accepting that explanation. . For a child to see a father, “…used to protecting and paying…helpless. …The overwhelming message on their faces… that nothing mattered anymore, nothing.,’ as the poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch put it, is to lose both childhood and the sense that your own actions have no consequence.
That may have cost me a certain derring-do; but the knowledge behind it is awful, in the original, now archaic sense. Such a father bears a greater burden than anyone can possibly imagine. You may butt heads but you won’t allow yourself to be the source of such pain.
A couple of final items. At one point, comparing himself to McCandless, Krakuer says “I did not share his intellect.” He’s selling himself short, mistaking book learning for other forms of intelligence.
Krakeur has mastered mountaineering and solo-scaled an icy pinnacle alone in blizzardy, wintry Alaska. More important, he can explain and convey the subtleties and mechanics of a highly technical subject in clear, lucid prose. If Howard Gardner ever needed an example of kinesthenic and verbal intelligences dominating within one person he need look no further than Jon Krakaeur.
Lastly, Krakaeur uses the book to correct some things he got wrong in the article. That’s admirable but things he now deems incorrect are integral to the film. Perspective and time may make us personally more knowledgeable and yet not have a broader impact.