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
Interesting that you hadn’t heard of this before. There is even a movie. I really like Krakauer and recommend particularly Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven.
Many thanks, Kay, I must check out those other titles. I was vaguely aware of the story but I’m not really a movie buff so didn’t pick up on the film. 🤭
It’s actually very good.
In the movie I think he eats something poisonous by mistake, and that contributes to his illness and death. It’s so sad but a fascinating story.
I think Krakauer suggested poisonous berries but I’m sure I read somewhere that theory had been disproved.
Hadn’t heard of this one before- kind of scary to think of it since Walden definitely made me want to go out into the wilderness as well.
He’s had that effect on many young people over the years, I just think McCandless took it to the extreme!
I’ve seen the film but not read anything about McCandless. This sounds respectful & not sensationalist. It’s a very sad tale.
Very sensitively handled.
Lovely review. 🙂 I haven’t heard of this book as well. Thanks for putting it on my radar.
Thank you, Debjani. You’re very welcome. 😊
This is an excellent review of a story that may be unfamiliar to many people, especially those of us who are not resident in the “land of the free.” It seems that many individuals want to escape from what passes for civilisation. Life is incredibly difficult and adaptation to late capitalism inherently problematic, so it is not at all surprising when citizens respond in risky ways. Sterile conformism will never appeal to everyone. It reminds me of a quote from W.B. Yeats:
“I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.”
This story is unknown to me also but what a sad tale it is. Thankfully we have people like Krakauer who ensure that such tales are brought to light and that a young man didn’t just disappear
Wonderful write-up of this one. I agree, this was highly readable and very disturbing. I’d heard of it before but it took me a long time to read it, I only got around to it several months ago. I liked reading it and am glad I did but found a lot of it to be very upsetting.
Thank you, Rennie. Yes, it’s very sad but extremely well written.
He’s a great writer – haven’t read this one but was very impressed (/horrified) by Under the Banner of Heaven, which explores Mormonism, mostly through the lens of two Mormon men who killed a baby in 1984 but also dealing with the prejudice Mormons have faced since their founding. Have you read any John McPhee? There’s some similarity between their work, I think.
Thank you, Elle. I haven’t come across John McPhee. I must investigate further.
Well, I’m intrigued. I don’t follow the news much so the story is new to me. I might have to give it a look.
I don’t recall it making the news in the UK – I think, initially at least, Krakauer’s original magazine feature made it quite widely known in the US.
I love the movie, but I haven’t read the book (yet). I find it hard to forgive him for what he did to his sister by being so careless with his own life (after all, she grew up in the same house he did). And it is hard for my views to not be colored by how close he was to a hand tram over the river (elided from the movie).
I read recently that his sister has since claimed there was sexual abuse in the family home when she and Chris were kids (denied strenuously by the parents), but it doesn’t appear in Krakauer’s book. In fact, the narrative is quite sympathetic towards the mother and father. He does, however, point out how close McCandless was to the tram – sadly he was ignorant of the fact since he failed to take a map!
The movie was great, I cried like a baby! So I’m a little scared to read the book. Sounds like it’s quite different though. The movie doesn’t have any of Krakauer’s story.
The movie certainly does seem to be different from the book, but I suppose that was inevitable.
I used to have a hobby of collecting edible wild plants. I don’t think it’s for everyone. Only once, over many years, did I accidentally get the “wrong” plant — and luckily for me, it immediately tasted both different and horrible so I didn’t suffer any ill effects. My wife, who is very smart, and infinitely better at recognizing music than I am, is very bad at recognizing plants from examples. She seems to seize on one feature — poison ivy has three leaves. So do wild strawberries. She can’t seem to reliably tell poison ivy leaves from strawberry leaves though to me, they are as different as say, a carrot and a sweet potato. Going into the wilderness alone is a very tricky thing and really not recommended. Anyway, thanks for the post.
But together you make an excellent team. Many thanks, Peter. I’m glad to know you didn’t ingest that poisonous plant!
This is an instance of a rare phenomenon in my life: choosing to watch the film because I had decided to not read the book. You make me wish, for a moment, that I’d followed my usual pattern. But, then I’ve got a monstrous list of films/series that I do want to watch, but I haven’t read the book(s) yet, so the films continue to go unwatched. So, perhaps it’s just as well that I enjoy reading your review and then move along to another (not-so-sad) story. The cinematography in the film was quite impressive. I really felt like I was in that small space inside that large space: so strange.
It’s a difficult one, I agree. Sometimes a film can lead you to a brilliant book – this happened to me with Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The movie is still one of my favourites but the book was pretty special, too. That isn’t something that happens very often, though.
Ohhhh, yes, what a terrific example, Paula! It also got me to finally *read* Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, of course), as did the lovely Vanessa Redgrave film of that book which came out at the same time) instead of collecting her and saying “someday”.
Excellent and detailed review. Sad at the same time. BTW, I keep having to refollow every time I visit you, and most other followed bloggers. It’s no wonder I never get notifications of your posts and sorry if I miss them. This one is a super retrospective.
Many thanks indeed. No need to apologise, this does seem to be an issue. I’ve had similar problems with regards to having to refollow bloggers when I hadn’t unsubscribed from their notifications in the first place. Very odd and quite frustrating!
Just a note to say that I wonder if either of you has tried an independent system to manage your subscriptions (i.e. not the system that hosts your blog). I had recurring problems like this until I set up everything under a separate umbrella and it’s worked tickety-boo since. (I use Feedly, but I know there are tonnes of services like it, so I’m not suggesting them as a solution for anyone else, but it’s also a place to begin looking for an alternative if you’re frustrated with this unsubbing business and don’t even know what to search for as options.)
Thank you, Marcie. It may well be worth looking for an independent system to handle subscriptions. I appreciate the suggestion. 👍