By Jon Krakauer
“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.”
I confess to having been all-but ignorant of the circumstances surrounding the life and death of American itinerant Christopher McCandless who perished in curious circumstances in the Alaskan bush in 1992. I first came across his name in Abi Andrews’ novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness when reviewing it for Serpent’s Tail in 2018. McCandless’s name appears several times in her fictional account of a young English woman setting off alone into the Alaskan wilderness – one of her characters describing him as “a suicidal maniac”. Erin, her 19-year old protagonist, portrays him thus:
“A runaway […], who ditched his ivy-league-trust-fund life and travelled all across America to get to Alaska and live the Jack London dream.”
My curiosity piqued, I acquired a copy of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s 1996 investigation into this obsessional young man who was driven to abandon civilization in order to seek enlightenment through complete seclusion and immersion in the natural world. The book was later adapted for the big screen and is these days held to be a modern classic.
The US non-fiction writer and mountaineer, Jon Krakauer, first researched McCandless’s story for a 9,000-word article in Outside magazine. He remained deeply fascinated by the case long after his piece had run and was, by his own admission: “haunted by the particulars of the boy’s starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those of [his] own.” Indeed, retracing his journey became for him something of an obsession and he spent over a year attempting to follow “the convoluted path that led to [McCandless’s] death in the Alaska taiga”
McCandless was an educated young man from a relatively wealthy background who horrified his conservative parents by donating his $24,000 law school fund to Oxfam, dropping out of society and wandering into the wilderness in the manner of his heroes, Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. Indeed, they never saw or heard from him again. At the age of only 24, his severely emaciated body was discovered by moose hunters in the back of the abandoned bus in which he had been living. In one of the windows he had stuck a note saying:
“Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?”
Krakauer constructed this highly readable biographical work by talking to the people who met, travelled and worked with McCandless as he roamed across North America, and from his journal, which documents the 113 days he lived off the land in the Denali National Park. He frequently interrupts “McCandless’s story with fragments of narrative drawn from [his] own youth… in the hope that [his] experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.”
He gradually pieces together various parts of the puzzle and attempts to answer the question: What compelled an idealistic yet far from unintelligent young man (who liked to be known as Alexander Supertramp) to head off into the Alaskan backwoods carrying only 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle, a selection of books, one or two personal effects and a few items of camping equipment?
This is a fascinating and eloquent, if disturbing tale of human cacoethes leading to tragedy. A gripping narrative well worth reading.
“At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn’t yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who’d entrusted the deceased with their hearts.”
I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019