On September 6 1992, just outside of Denali National Park in central Alaska, a group of moose hunters discovered the decomposing remains of Christopher McCandless. Inside the rusting broken down bus in which McCandless was found dead were many notes and diary entries. It appeared that he had been dead for nineteen days from what the coroner’s report later determined as starvation. McCandless’ death was soon picked up by local newspapers before finding its way into the national press. McCandless’s life and journey toward his death in the Alaskan wilderness is documented in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild which has also been adapted for cinema in a film by the same name directed by Sean Penn.
McCandless’ short but epic adventure began in the early summer of 1990. After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Chris took to the road in his yellow Datsun for what his parents thought would be another summer of travelling. Chris had other ideas however. Deeply admiring authors and philosophers such as Jack London, Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, McCandless, wishing to introduce many of their ideals into his own way of life; went into the wild.
Thoreau advocated simpler living in the wilderness, where he believed that man could come to terms with his own existence and find a higher purpose while Tolstoy advocated a life of poverty instead of glorifying wealth. Chris’ choice to abandon his old life and seek a simpler one in pursuit of his own ideals and dreams was indeed shaped by these authors as well as many others. Each author added to Chris’ personal philosophies, and he followed their examples as much as he was able; abandoning his car and possessions, donating his life savings to charity and leaving the mundanity and conformity of modern society behind.
The question at the heart of every McCandless discussion is whether he should be admired or condemned. To some, he is both selfish and naïve for wandering into the depths of the Alaskan wilderness alone and unprepared. For many though, he is an inspiration, the embodiment of true adventure and deep down what we all aspire to be; free.
Even during Chris’ two year adventure west he met and inspired dramatic change among many people along the way. Ronald Franz, an 81 year old leather worker had grown so close to Chris that he offered to adopt him upon his return to Alaska and when Franz received a letter from Chris urging him to change his old way of life, he packed up his belongings and set out on an adventure of his own. Krakauer’s book details a number of people that Chris touched along the way. wayne Westerberg, the owner of a grain elevator in South Dakota where Chris spent a few weeks said; “He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs”.
In his death and immortalization in literature and film McCandless has had far greater influence. Reading Into the Wild it is easy to understand why it has captured the imaginations of so many and inspired journeys into the wilderness. While certainly a story of tragedy, it’s also a compelling and thoughtful look at why we often turn to nature for answers to life’s questions. “The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure,” McCandless wrote in his letter to Franz. Upon reading that within the pages of Krakauer’s book, it’s hardly surprising that many readers have, in turn, sought adventures of their own.
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.
― Christopher McCandless.