August 25, 2008
Into the Wild ... But Not Out of It
By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
“Within modern traditional societies, the ability to survive is drastically reduced if the group is too small. A lone individual rarely survives for more than a year….”—Modern People in Africa and Europe, by Goran Burenult
In April, 1992, an electrician named Jim Gallien gave a 24-year-old hitchhiker named Chris McCandless a ride to the Stampede Trail above the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River. McCandless, who gave his name only as “Alex,” said it was his intention to hike up the trail into the wilderness and live off the land. His equipment consisted of 10 pounds of rice, a .22 rifle and ammo, a guide to the edible plants of the area, several books, and no map or compass.. Gallien was appalled at what the kid was about to do, and offered to buy him some of the things he would need to stay alive. But “Alex” would not listen. Gallien was the last person to see him alive. When his body was found by hunters in September, Chris McCandless—or what was left of him—weighed 67 pounds.
McCandless’ death made national headlines. He had come from a well-to-do Virginia family, graduated from Emory University in 1990, and then simply vanished. He abandoned his car, gave away his money, and calling himself as “Alexander Supertramp,” hoboed around the American West for nearly 2 years before heading for Alaska and his end.
These are the bare bones of one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s called Into the Wild, and was written in 1996 by Jon Krakauer. It sold something like 2 million copies and has been made into a motion picture.
A good deal of the book’s appeal (for people like you and me) is that we can see parts of ourselves in McCandless. He actually did what just about all of us have dreamed of doing at some point or another. But at some point or another we developed common sense, but poor McCandless, who was very, very bright, did not.
His cause of death was given as starvation, but he may have poisoned himself through carelessness, and if he had owned a decent map, he would very likely have been able to save himself before he grew too weak to walk.
Into the Wild follows McCandless from his childhood to his death, and the odds are you will not be able to put it down. It’s marred only by two chapters telling of Krakauer’s own near-death experiences climbing mountains in Alaska. They are there, I guess, to show that he understands Spiritual Angst and has Messed with Death. You can skip them and you will be none the worse for it. The other missing element is the photos that McCandless took of himself as he starved. The last one, taken just before he crawled into his sleeping bag to die, is something out of a nightmare. You can find it on YouTube, or maybe we can conjure it up here.
And as you read, you will wish you could have given McCandless a hard smack upside the head and said, “Kid, this is serious; this is no game.“ But he didn’t listen in life, and he would not listen to you or me now.