This poem is written by myself in my native language Afrikaans. I’m just posting it for the sake of posting.
Ek jaag ideale na in volkswagen
roes slaan uit op my gesig
rondom die grense
deur die baard
op my lyf
en my voete begin kraak nes lyne op ‘n kaart
my oë vermink-verstyf:
ek lê onder ‘n dak van lig
die rivier in my is geslag
die hert in my is bloed en sag
die beer in my het van krag
net die dun benerige mens
supertramp ek is alex supertramp
is oor: en die leegte in my is groot.
hikers kry my waar ek lê
ek is tot op die been
maar my gedagtes wil nog
uit my oë uit rol
ek het getimmer:
met ‘n stomp hand
manifesto’s vas aan alles
wat ek teekom
o, bewaar tog nou my byron, louis l’amour, robinson jeffers:
wise men in their bad hours!
There’s a dead man in the bus at Sushana River.
Where the cold air punishes you more than any fever;
Where the tundra feeds the miles and the estate of imagination grows wild.
Throwing hats up in the air, what good is college anywhere?
Not for Christopher McCandle, Alexander was his new handle thumbing to Alaska.
Finally free from this world, “I now walk into the wild.
Return all mail to sender, ’til we never meet again. Love, Alexander.”
Spring thaw was around the bend when he crossed over the border in the frozen month of May.
By the river he saw the magic bus, Alex jots in his picket log, “a marvelous fourth day.”
Snapping meals with his Minolta, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes.
Carves his fate into the ceiling…”I’m never leaving. The West is the best.”
Maybe later he’d change the world — Alexandria, city of gold.
It was the greatest ever misadventure,
But Alex could never read the evil poetry in his white world.
The bag of rice emptied yesterday, ranging through the wood, Alex knows the food is low.
But his ragged sould will never die, he rereads his tattered Walden and Dr. Zhivago.
Catch a fish, cherish the moment as he smokes it in the dirt.
His belly cries out louder, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Getting weaker by the day, without that map he burned Alex has lost his way.
Imprisoned by the river, day 100 still had the sweetest taste.
Writing on the bus, his mind slips into a dream.
“In God’s name someone help me.” Signed Chris McCandle.
Maybe later he’d change the world — Alexandria, city of gold.
It was the greatest ever misadventure,
But Alex could never read the evil poetry in his white world.
There’s a dead man in the bus at Sushana River.
Where the cold air punishes you more than any fever;
Where the tundra feeds the miles and the estate of imagination grows wild.
Ten Years Ago Chris McCandless Starved to Death on the Stampede Trail. Today Hundreds of Pilgrims Trek to the Bus Where He Perished.
by Sherry Simpson
February 7 – February 13, 2002 / Vol. 11, Ed. 6
Photos by Charles Mason
Before we started our small journey last year to the place where Christopher McCandless died, I wondered whether we should be traveling on foot rather than by snowmachine. It was probably the last weekend before the sketchy snow would melt and the river ice would sag and crack. If we waited a few weeks, we could hike the Stampede Trail to the abandoned bus where his body was found in 1992. Wouldn’t it seem more real, more authentic somehow, if we retraced his journey step by step?
No, I thought. This is not a spiritual trek. I refuse to make this a pilgrimage. I will not make his journey my own.
And so we set off on the tundra, snowmachines screeling across a thin layer of hard snow. The five of us moved quickly, each following the other westward through the broad valley. To the south, clouds wisped across the white slopes that barricade Denali National Park and Preserve. I wore ear protectors to dull the grinding engines. When the sun burned through, we turned our faces toward it gratefully, unzipped our parkas, peeled away fleece masks. It had been a long winter — warmer than most in Interior Alaska, but even so each day was filled more with darkness than light.
We kept on, the only motion against a landscape that seemed still and perfect in its beauty. It was the kind of day when you could think about Christopher McCandless and wonder about all the ways that death can find you in such a place, and you can find death. And then, a few minutes later, you’d look out across the valley, admiring the way the hills swell against the horizon, and think, “Damn, I’m glad to be alive in Alaska.”
A few summers ago I rode in a shuttle van from Fairbanks to the park with a group of vacationers and backpackers. As we left town, the driver began an impromptu tour of McCandless’s final days. In April 1992, he had hitchhiked to Alaska, looking for a place to enter the wilderness. The van driver pointed out a bluff near Gold Hill Road, the last place McCandless camped in Fairbanks. The driver talked about the purity of McCandless’s desire to test himself against nature. He slowed as we passed the Stampede Road, the place where a Healy man had dropped off McCandless so the young man could begin his journey. He ignored all offers of help except for a pair of rubber boots. He did not take a map.
In the van, people whispered to each other and craned their necks to peer at the passing landmarks.
McCandless had hiked about 25 miles along the trail before stopping at a rusting Fairbanks city bus left there in the 1960s by a crew building a road from the highway to the Stampede Mine, near the Park boundary. He had a .22 rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice. In the back of a Native plant lore book he scribbled brief, often cryptic entries. In July he tried to leave but apparently was turned back by the roiling Teklanika River. He did not know enough to search for a braided crossing. By August, a note tacked to the bus pleaded for help from any passerby: “I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here,” it said in part. In early September, hunters found his body shrouded in a sleeping bag inside the bus. He had been dead for more than two weeks. Although he had tried to eat off the land, and had even succeeded in killing small animals and a moose, he had starved, an unpleasant and unusual way to die in America these days.
The strange manner of his death made the 24-year-old infamous in Alaska as authorities tried to puzzle out his story. A 1993 Outside magazine article by Jon Krakauer, followed by the 1996 best-selling book “Into the Wild,” made him famous everywhere else.
The van driver was maybe in his early 30s, mild and balding. As he drove and talked, he held up a copy of Krakauer’s book, a sympathetic and compelling portrait of McCandless. The driver said he kept the book with him always because he felt close to the dead man. “I understand his wanting to come here and go into the wild,” he said. Like McCandless, he’d attended Emory University, and he and his wife had recently moved to Anchorage in search of whatever it is people want when they come to Alaska.
In a van full of out-of-state vacationers, the driver felt safe criticizing the response of Alaskans to the story of McCandless. “They called him a young fool who deserved what he got,” he said. “There was not a positive letter to the editor written about Chris McCandless. It went on for days.” He checked our reactions in the rearview mirror. “It was pretty chilling to read.”
Through some strange transmogrification, Christopher McCandless has become a hero. Web sites preserve high school and college essays analyzing “Into the Wild,” which is popular on reading lists everywhere and frequently seen in the hands of people touring the state. A California composer has written a concert piece meant to convey the dying man’s states of mind — fear, joy, acceptance, etc. A Cincinnati rock band has named itself “Fairbanks 142,” after the bus where McCandless lived and died.
And then there are the pilgrims, the scores and scores of believers who, stooped beneath the weight of their packs and lives, walk that long Stampede Trail to see the place where Chris McCandless died — and never take a step beyond.
For two hours we rode along the rim of the shallow valley. Heat from the engines warmed our hands. We followed a trail used by dog mushers and snowmachiners; here and there other trails looped to the north or south. Russet scraps of tundra patched the snow, and the packed trail wound across the ground like a boardwalk. We had barely beaten spring. A Healy woman named Connie led most of the time because she knew the way. The others in the group were my friends Kris Capps, Joe Durrenberger and Charles Mason. Kris and Joe live just outside the park; Kris, a freelance writer, covered the McCandless story when it first broke in Alaska, and she’s the one who told me that people had been visiting the bus like it was Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. Joe had visited the site shortly after the body was discovered. Charles, a photographer, came along to document the bus and to make tasteless jokes. He wasn’t alone. I suggested our journey should be titled “Into the Weird.”
Now and then we rode by other trails looping across the snow, and an hour into our trip, two snowmachiners passed us before we reached the Teklanika River. They were friends of Joe’s on their way northward to fix an off-road tracked vehicle that had broken a fuel line during a fall moose hunt. Their trail curved across a distant ridge, and I admired their ease and confidence roaming around out here, where machines can break down or dogs can run away and the walk home will be long and troublesome. You couldn’t call it the middle of nowhere; the Stampede Trail has been mapped for decades. Still, you’d want to know what you’re doing, so as not to make your next public appearance in a newspaper headline or as another statistic.
The Teklanika River ice had not yet softened, and we crossed its smooth expanse without trouble, just below where it emerges from a gulch. We cruised through Moose Alley, dipped into the forest, wound across the beaver ponds, and rose along an alder-thick ridgeline. Occasionally moose tracks postholed the snow. I tried to imagine hiking here in the summer, calling out to bears and waving away mosquitoes.
We rounded a bend and suddenly there was the bus, hollow-eyed and beat up, the most absurd thing you could imagine in this open, white space. Faded letters just below the side windows said “Fairbanks City Transit System.” The derelict bus seemed so familiar because we had seen its picture many times in newspapers and on the jacket of Krakauer’s book. For decades it had served as a hunting camp and backcountry shelter, a corroding green-and-white hull of civilization transplanted to a knoll above the Sushana River. Now it was haunted real estate.
We turned off the snowmachines and stood stretching in the sunshine and the kind of quiet that vibrates. A trash barrel, a fire grill, plenty of footprints, and frozen dog shit provided evidence of passing dogsleds and snowmachines. A wire chair leaned against the bus. I wondered how many people had posed there for photographs. The bus made me uneasy, and I was glad to be there with friends. It must have sheltered many people over the years who came to shoot and drink and close themselves up against the night.
Kris and I squeezed through a gap in the jammed door and climbed in. It was warm enough to remove our hats and gloves while we looked around, though an occasional draft swept through the broken windows. A bullet hole had pierced the windshield on the driver’s side. The bus was littered with messages scratched into the rusted ceilings and walls referring to McCandless’s death, which seemed to bring out the earnestness of a Hallmark card in visitors: “Fulfill your Dreams, Nothing Feels Better” and “Stop Trying to Fool Others as the Truth Lies Within,” and “The Best Things in Life are Free.” Also, “Keep This Place Clean You Human Pigs.”
Scattered among the needles and twigs on the floor were bizarre artifacts: frayed hanks of rope, a mayonnaise jar lid, a camp shower bag, blue playing cards. The driver’s seat was missing, but downy grouse feathers lined crannies in the dashboard. A few liquor bottles — big gulps remaining of the Jack Daniels and the Yukon Jack — crowded a small stand, which also held an electronic guitar tuner, a tin coffeepot, shotgun shells, a yellow container of Heet and a can of Copenhagen. Stowed beneath were worn Sorel boots and pairs of filthy jeans, one set patched crudely with scraps of a green wool Army blanket. Were these the jeans mentioned in the book? Hard to believe they were still here considering that locals joke about dismantling the bus and selling it on eBay. It was creepy.
A stovepipe lurched from a small barrel woodstove and poked through the roof. A green tent fly covered the rusted springs of a twin-size mattress. And here was the disturbing part: the bed lodged sideways against the bus’s rear, mattress stained, straw-like stuffing exposed, the remnants of the cover torn and shredded. That’s where his body was found.
On the wall beside the bed was a brass plaque left by his parents that read:
Christopher Johnson McCandless. “Alex.” 2/68-8/92. Chris, our beloved son and brother, died here during his adventurous travels in search of how he could best realize God’s great gift of life, with his final message, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All,” we commend his soul to the world. The McCandless Family. 7/93
Three notebooks sat on the plywood table. They included a three-ring binder protecting a photocopy of Krakauer’s original Outside article with its blaring headline “Lost In the Wild.” It was a Monty Pythonesque moment when someone pointed out an unrelated headline on the magazine cover: “Are you too thin? The case for fat.” This kind of humor is one reason why Alaskans fear dying ridiculously: the living are so cruel to the foolish dead. It’s a way of congratulating ourselves on remaining alive.
Kris and I began flipping through the steno notebooks, which had been filled with comments by visitors, the way people write in logbooks in public cabins or guestbooks at art galleries. The chronology began with the July 1993 visit by McCandless’s parents. His mother wrote:
“Sonny boy, it’s time to leave. The helicopter will soon arrive. I wondered briefly if it would be hard to enter your last home. The wonderful pictures you left in your final testament welcomed me in and I’m finding it difficult to leave, instead. I can appreciate joy in your eyes reported by your self-portraits. I too, will come back to this place. Mom.”
These heartfelt words were followed by a single sentence from Krakauer himself: “Chris — Your memory will live on in your admirers.”
“Oh, gag,” Kris said.
Kris is not what you would call romantic about the wilderness. She and Joe are among the most competent Alaskans I know. They hunt, guide river trips, paddle whitewater all through Alaska and Canada, and travel frequently in the backcountry. In March, they had wanted to catch some of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, so they’d snowmachined from their house near McKinley Village through the uninhabited midsection of Alaska to Rainy Pass, winter camping along the 300-mile route. I was embarrassed about my modest survival gear when I saw how well-rigged their machines were with snowshoes, a come-along and other useful equipment compactly stowed. To people like them, the adulation of Christopher McCandless is just one more reason to stay in sensible old Alaska.
Beneath the bed was a small blue suitcase, a Starline, the kind your grandmother might have taken on weekend trips. The lid was busted off the hinges. Christopher McCandless’s mother had filled it with survival gear and left it, and over the years other people had removed things or added to it. Joe dragged the suitcase out, plopped it on the bed and called out an inventory as he sorted through the jumble, beginning with a crumpled silver survival blanket: “The Jiffy Pop tinfoil thing. Look right here: saltwater taffy. Holy Bible. Cheesecloth. A map saying ‘You are here. Walk this way out to get food.’”
He was joking, I think.
“Emergency first aid kit. The mittens. The headnet. Waterproof matches. The squirrels have gotten to the Ramen. Vaseline. Sewing kit. Jungle head net. Toothpaste. Cigarette papers. Princess Cruises Suntan Lotion SPF 30.”
There was more: firestarter, tissue paper, soap, a can of tuna. Then Joe grew bored and went outside so Charles could take his picture posing by the famous bus with a can of Spam in his left hand.
“That’s almost bad luck,” Connie said quietly, and I had to agree.
Kris and I took turns reading aloud comments left by those who came after the visit by Krakauer and McCandless’s parents. Some were epistles, others aphorisms. The earliest dated to January 1994 and was left by a pair of Alaskans who came by snowmachine: “Cloudy, & 42 degrees. Emergency supplies in good order.”
In May, people started recording more intimate thoughts:
“Like Chris, I came to Alaska looking for some answers as I near my last year in college. A very emotional day and a highlight of my summer up here in the wild land of Alaska. Constant thoughts of my family and friends.”
“I’ll return next year and try to set myself free again.”
“The vibes I felt from the bus made me sit and think for hours. I wasn’t able to sleep until I felt every emotion possible: amazed, sadness, wonderment, happiness, and many more…”
Charles looked over my shoulder and read. “I wish I could come in here and have an inspirational moment,” he said. “I wish my life was Zenned out.”
“‘Only time will tell how Chris McCandless’s life has affected mine,’” Kris read. She snorted and looked up. “It’s garbage! I mean, am I too cynical?”
We were. We were too cynical to read entry after entry from people looking for meaning in the life and death of a man who had rejected his family, mooched his way across the country and called himself “Alexander Supertramp” in the third person. I struggled to imagine the emotional currents that had carried people here to this bus, so far from their homes, to honor his memory. Later, a friend who had been born in Alaska and exiled to Maryland for five years tried to explain the overwhelming smallness and sameness of life on the suburban East Coast, where lawn care excites great interest; no wonder someone like Christopher McCandless seems adventurous and spiritual and inspiring, despite being dead.
Several visitors mentioned that “Into the Wild” had prompted their trips, but the book must have motivated nearly all of the pilgrimages, because why else would people attach any significance to the bus? They had come from Europe, California, Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Utah, Ontario, North Carolina.
One man made the journey after reading a book review while sitting in a doctor’s office in Ithaca, N.Y. “It was then I knew the bus was a place I must visit,” he wrote. “Christopher’s story changed the way I look at a lot of things, moreover it changed my perception of ‘need.’ I will be forever in your debt Alex! May you wander your travels in peace.”
A fellow from Belgium wrote: “I’ve come from Europe to follow the footsteps of a ‘pilgrim,’ as says Krakauer, and I’d almost say a prophet!” He then criticized the materialistic attitude of Alaskans and urged them to read Tolstoy “instead of prostituting their country to tourism.”
I laughed at that. The Belgian and the others had themselves turned the bus into a perverse tourist destination now so well known that it’s mentioned in The Milepost. They urged each other to protect the vehicle as a memorial, to leave things untouched. “His monument and tomb are a living truth whose flame will light the ‘way of dreams’ in other’s lives,” someone wrote. It was not hard to imagine that before long visitors would be able to buy T-shirts saying “I Visited The Bus” or “I Survived Going Into the Wild.” So many people seemed to have found their way out here that an espresso stand didn’t seem out of the question.
Astounded by page after page of such writings, we counted the number of people identified in the notebooks. More than 200 had trekked to the bus since McCandless’s death, and that didn’t account for those who passed by without comment. Think of that: More than 200 people, many as inexperienced as McCandless, had hiked or bicycled along the Stampede Trail to the bus — and every one of them had somehow managed to return safely.
Only one person even vaguely questioned this paradox: “Perhaps we shouldn’t romanticize or cananize (sic) him. . . . After all, Crane and I walked here in no time at all, so Chris wasn’t far from life. . . . not really.” But then, perhaps unwilling to seem harsh, the writer added, “These questions are in vain. We shouldn’t try to climb into another’s mind, attempting to know what he thought or felt.”
Others criticized Alaskans for doing just that:
“I am quite offended when I hear that people mock his story as one of stupidity and carelessness. Every man and woman has desires and hopes for happiness in life, but sadly, only few succeed.”
A newcomer to Alaska wrote, “No wonder Alaskans did not understand the call to which most men feel at some point in their lives. No wonder they did not understand Chris McCandless. If you cannot fell it, mine it, or rape it, and in the very end profit from it, then it must be ludicrous and ill-conceived. Idealism, when harnessed for good unselfish acts, results in great men; the greatest and most influential of our times. Chris was on the verge of that path…”
Many people promised in their comments to call their families as soon as they could, so who’s to say their journeys were wasted? Yet I felt exactly as a friend did as he read my notes later: repulsed and fascinated.
The practical entries, and there were just a few, were penned by Alaskans who noted the weather conditions, the river’s depth, and so on — the sort of information useful to other backcountry travelers. Jon Nierenberg, a Stampede Trail resident, left a detailed description of how to cross the Teklanika River when it runs high — a problem that had defeated McCandless. Added in pencil was the advice, “Also, there’s the park boundary cabin 6 miles away — upstream on the Sushana river. Food there. Don’t trash the place.”
A few people didn’t feel obligated to join the soul-searching. “Too spooked to stay,” one guy wrote. Another said, “This place is a mess.” And another noted, “It sure is a long way out here. I’m glad I flew in.”
But most comments were written by those experiencing some sort of emotional release:
“It’s a good place to die.”
“I cried so much I couldn’t believe it.”
“This bus has a sacred feeling to it and I feel grateful to be able to visit the place where Chris lived and died.”
“I started my journey here hoping two things. 1) somewhere out there I would find myself 2) that I would find some hope for the future. Now I am here at the bus and I am happy because the future looks up. And I know who I am. Now it’s time to go home to the ones I love and help bring truth to the light.”
“The beginning of my journey is my departure from this abandoned bus. I feel alive and free — a freedom too beautiful to express in mere words.”
“I didn’t begin to understand Alex’s quest until today. Along the way I have discovered peace and tranquility and realized for the first time that the journey is the best part. Unexpectedly filled with emotion upon finding the bus, choking back tears, I can return to life and civilization with fresh eyes. Alex, you have inspired me and changed my life forever. If only there were more like you. Left bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Chris may have fucked up, but he fucked up brilliantly. Nonetheless, family and freedom would have been better.”
And on and on.
Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the “he had a death wish” camp because I don’t know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the “what a dumbshit” territory, tempered by brief alliances with the “he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest” partisans. Mostly I’m puzzled by the way he’s emerged as a hero, a kind of privileged-yet-strangely-dissatisfied-with-his-existence hero.
But it’s more complicated than that. I can almost understand why he rejected maps, common sense, conventional wisdom and local knowledge before embarking on his venture. Occasionally when I hear others make fun of Christopher McCandless, I fall quiet. My favorite book growing up was Scott O’Dell’s “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” based on a true story about a 19th-century Chumash Indian girl who survived for years alone on an island off the California coast. How often had I imagined myself living in that hut of whale bones, catching fish by hand and taming wild dogs for companionship? It’s common, this primal longing to connect with a natural world that provides and cradles, that toughens and inspires.
Yet this is the easiest thing to criticize — the notion that wilderness exists to dispense epiphanies and spiritual cures as part of the scenery. Live here long enough, and you’ll learn that every moment spent admiring endless vistas or wandering the land is a privilege, accompanied by plenty of other moments evading mosquitoes by the millions, outlasting weather, avoiding Giardia, negotiating unruly terrain, and thinking uneasily about the occasional predator. Walking cross-country through alder thickets or muskeg may be the hardest thing you do all year, as you fight against the earth’s tendency to grab hold of you for itself.
And of course it’s hard to eat out there. A friend who trapped in his youth likens the Bush to a desert, nearly empty of wildlife. One winter he ate marten tendons for days because his food ran out. Read the journal of Fred Fickett, who accompanied Lt. Henry Allen on a 1,500-mile exploration of the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk river valleys; it is the story of hungry men.
May 20, 1885: “One of our dogs found a dead goose. We took it from him and ate it.” May 22: “Had rotten salmon straight for breakfast. It was so bad that even the Indian dogs wouldn’t eat it. May 28: “Had a little paste for breakfast, rotten and wormy meat for dinner, rotten goose eggs and a little rice for supper… about 1/4 what we needed.” May 30: “Indian gave us a dinner of boiled meat from which he had scraped the maggots in handfuls before cutting it up. It tasted good, maggots and all.”
There’s a reason the Natives sometimes starved in the old days — and they knew what they were doing. There’s a reason that many homesteaders and Bush rats collect welfare to supplement hunting and fishing. There’s a reason we gather in cities and villages. So many people want to believe that it’s possible to live a noble life alone in the wilderness, living entirely off the land — and yet the indigenous peoples of Alaska know that only by depending upon each other, only by forming a community, does survival become possible.
People have been dying in the wilderness for as long as people have been going into it. There are always lessons to be learned from such sad stories, even lessons as simple as: Don’t forget matches, don’t sweat in the cold, don’t run away from bears. But sometimes there are no learning moments, no explanations. From an account in the Nome Nugget of July 30, 1901:
“The death of George Dean by starvation at the mouth of the Agiapuk river and the narrow escape of his two companions, Thierry and Houston, from the same fate makes a strange story. Without wishing to criticise the survivors, it looks as if they did not make that hustle for life which men should. They were so near the course of navigation that they could hear the voices of men as they passed up and down the river.”
Why didn’t they . . . why couldn’t they . . . why wouldn’t they? And the wise Nome Nugget avoids this trap by shrugging away such unanswerables:
“But it’s a strange country, and strange things happen in it.”
In 1930, not far south from the Stampede Road, park rangers found the body of prospector Tom Kenney on a bar of the McKinley River. Kenney had disappeared July 19 after separating from his partner. On September 3, searchers discovered Kenney lying on his back with his arms at his side. One shoe was off, and searchers concluded he had been salving his foot — “which would indicate that he had been in his right mind up to the last,” the newspaper reported.
Kenney had traveled about eight miles downriver, making several campfires. He and his partner had been searching for a lost gold placer mine, but toward the end, Tom Kenney surely would have traded all the gold he could carry for the sight of another person, for some clear notion of the way home. He must have eaten berries. He had killed and eaten several porcupines. At his final camp, rangers found a large pile of unburned dry wood. “It is known that Kenney always kept a diary, but as his pockets were not examined before burial it will never be known whether he set down an account of his wanderings or not,” the Alaska Weekly reported.
You can hear the pain of letting go in the words of a prospector and trapper named Tom O’Brien, who died of scurvy in the summer of 1919 on the Whiting River near Juneau. In the book “The Dangerous North,” historian Ed Ferrell includes O’Brien’s diary entries that describe teeth rattling in his sore gums, his fever and his aching joints, which conspired to keep him from collecting water, firewood and food. Day by day he ate one meal of unheated rice or potato soup. He weakened and his mental faculties faded. Finally he realized he was suffering from scurvy, but his relief measures came too late. After two months of recording his trials, he left behind a final entry: “Life is dying hard. The heart is strong.”
So many ways to die in the north, in manners grand and surprising and sad. A moment’s inattention, the proverbial series of small miscalculations that add up to one giant screw-up, delusion about one’s abilities, hubris, mental imbalance, plain bad luck — that’s all it takes.
For a few weeks last spring, I kept track of news articles reporting outdoor deaths. Over the winter, more than 30 Alaskans died in snowmachine accidents, a record. They had lost their way in blizzards, fallen through ice and drowned, been buried in avalanches, collided into each other. An intoxicated man perched on a boat’s gunwales fell into the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks when waves rocked the vessel; his body did not emerge for days. Two men suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning after they brought a charcoal grill into their tent near Chena Hot Springs. Two young kayakers were missing and presumed dead in the Gulf of Alaska. Campers found the bones of an 18-year-old soldier who disappeared while ice fishing near the Knik Arm 15 years ago. And even as searchers looked for a man who had disappeared in the Chugach Mountains came the news that 70-year-old Dick Cook, an extraordinary woodsman described by John McPhee as the “acknowledged high swami of the river people,” had drowned in the Tatonduk, a river he knew intimately. Some days it seemed surprising that people survive the outdoors at all.
And yet there we were, we crude Alaskans, scoffing and making jokes in Fairbanks 142, shaking our heads and posing with cans of Spam. We want it both ways. We want to impress others and ourselves with scary tales of death defied at every turn, to point out that Alaska is so unforgiving that a person could die just a few miles from help, and still we scorn those drawn to that mystique, those poor, foolish slobs who manage to die out of ignorance or stupidity or even bad luck. Perhaps that’s because we know that one day — just like that, really — we could so easily become one of those poor, foolish slobs ourselves.
Occasionally I paused while flipping through the notebooks and looked out a busted window to watch how the mid-afternoon sun glazed the snow. We needed to return before dark, so I started skimming the entries, my eyes catching only certain words: Peace. Solitude. Meaning.
It was hard work, resisting the longing that rose from the scribbled words. I spent some moments puzzling over this comment written by a man from Ontario: “[Chris] gave his life in exchange for knowledge and his story is his contribution to the world. I feel complete now to put this story behind me as it was on my mind for quite some time.”
This may be our oldest, truest survival skill: the ability to tell and to learn from each other’s stories, whether from Aesop’s fables, quest narratives, Greek mythology, the Book of Genesis, office gossip, the wisdom of elders, or made-for-TV movies. In some ways, Alaska is nothing but stories. We have constructed many of our ideas about this place, and about ourselves, from creation stories, gold rush stories, hunting and fishing stories, pioneer stories, family stories, clan stories. Even the animals told tales in the old Story Time, which is long behind us now.
Pay attention to what people say in bars and across dinner tables and around campfires, and often they are really telling survival stories of some sort or another: How I crossed the river, how I lost the trail, how I got my moose, how I fixed my boat, how I left home for the north, how I beat the storm, how I made it through another cold and lonely winter, how I became a true Alaskan. What all these stories mean, though — that’s up to you, the listener.
We can’t know exactly why Christopher McCandless died. What matters now is what people want to believe about his death. Krakauer hypothesized that toxic seeds of the wild potato plant weakened him, and early test results seemed to support that. But chemists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks further studied wild potato seeds, as well as seeds from the similar-looking wild sweetpea, and their work seemed to eliminate the poisoning theory.
“I would be willing to bet money that neither species had toxic metabolites that would account for the fate of McCandless,” chemist Tom Clausen told me in an email. His conclusions appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner but never received wide coverage. Clausen added, “I believe McCandless died not from toxic foods but from foolishness. I hate to be so blunt about the dead but he clearly went ‘into the wild’ unprepared.”
But the idea that McCandless was poisoned accidentally has become critical to his legend, because it means he wasn’t stupid, wasn’t seeking death. When I mentioned the research to the bus driver, he gave me an obstinate look and said, “The question is still open.” He could not surrender the “right” story.
The one thing we can say about McCandless is that his biggest mistake may have been his failure to listen to the right stories. He ignored advice about the scarcity of game, the practicalities of bear protection, the importance of maps, the truths of the land. He was too intent on creating the story of himself.
And yet, that story has such power, such meaning for so many people, that they feel drawn — called personally — to travel across the globe and hike the trail all that way to the bus to look for Christopher McCandless or Alexander Supertramp or themselves. They endure mosquitoes and rain and tough walking and bad river crossings and the possibility of bears. The burden the pilgrims carry to the bus is so heavy, laden with their frailties and hopes and desires, with their lives that don’t quite satisfy.
Well, so many of them are young, and they’re lost, somehow, just as he was.
As he was dying, Christopher McCandless took a picture of himself propped against the bus. He held up a good-bye note, a smile on his gaunt face, and from this photograph Krakauer concluded that “Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.” But only Christopher McCandless could have known what truth was in his heart, there at the end. All we can say is that whoever he was, he’s not that person anymore. Jon Krakauer made a story about him, by way of telling his own, and every pilgrim since his death has shaped him into something different as well. I’m doing it right now, too.
For many Alaskans, the problem is not necessarily that Christopher McCandless attempted what he did – most of us came here in search of something, didn’t we? Haven’t we made our own embarrassing mistakes? But we can’t afford to take his story seriously because it doesn’t say much a careful person doesn’t already know about desire and survival. The lessons are so obvious as to be laughable: Look at a map. Take some food. Know where you are. Listen to people who are smarter than you. Be humble. Go on out there – but it won’t mean much unless you come back.
This is what bothers me – that Christopher McCandless failed so badly, so harshly, and yet so famously that his death has come to symbolize something admirable, that his unwillingness to see Alaska for what it really is has somehow become the story so many people associate with this place, a story so hollow you can almost hear the wind blowing through it. His death was not a brilliant fuck-up. It was not even a terribly original fuck-up. It was just one of the more recent and pointless fuck-ups.
At 3 p.m., after we’d read through the notebooks, taken our silly and disrespectful photographs and eaten our lunches, we climbed back on our snowmachines and left. We rode against the wind as the light softened and dimmed all around. It grew colder, but it was still a good day to be outside, with spring on its way. I could feel fond about winter, now that it was dwindling. What I really wanted was to keep going beyond the bus, across the Sushana River and maybe down into the park.
As we followed our tracks home, I kept thinking about poor Christopher McCandless, entombed by the tributes of his pilgrims, forever wandering between the world he wanted and the world that exists, still trapped by other people’s desires to make him something he is not – which is why he came out here in the first place.
Too late he learned that the hard part isn’t walking toward the wilderness to discover the meaning of life. The hard part is returning from the consolations of nature and finding meaning anyway, a meaning lodged within the faithfulness of our ordinary lives, in the plain and painful beauty of our ordinary days.
Some day, I told myself, I might return. I’d do what few people do anymore, which is to pass by that junky old bus with only a sidelong glance and see what else is out there.
Dispatches from the Wild
Chances are you’ve heard of Christopher McCandless, the 1990 graduate whose road adventures and eventual death in the Alaskan wilderness became the focus of the book and now the film “Into the Wild.”
What you may not know, unless you read the book carefully, is that for one of his four years at Emory, McCandless served the Wheel as an assistant editorials editor.
During the 1987-88 school year, McCandless wrote numerous pieces for the opinion pages of the Wheel — columns which lambasted political candidates, refuted the claims of Christian scholars and touched on topics as diverse as AIDS research, the Nicaraguan Contras and the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.
Whatever the issue, McCandless’ fervent arguments inspired no shortage of response. On one occasion, an entire page of the editorials section was devoted to responses to a McCandless column, the “Religious fanaticism is alive in Georgia” piece.
What follow are excerpts from several of those columns McCandless wrote for the Wheel:
Sept. 11, 1987.
“Biden won’t take his medicine”
“(…) Ever since Biden was given chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee eight months ago he has bravely upheld his right to change, re-change or exchange his mind, the latter probably being the most prudent at this point.
Biden’s brilliant campaign to undermine his own fidelity began with the now-infamous remark uttered last November, ‘Say the administration sends up Bork and, after our investigation, he looks a lot like Scalia. I’d have to vote for him, and if the special interest groups tear me apart, that’s the medicine I’ll have to take.’ How unfortunate it was when only a few months later Biden contracted ‘specialgroupinterescitis,’ a horrible disease which often strikes liberal politicians, causing severe allergic reactions to all types of ‘medicine.’
The effect on Biden has been devastating. He has reportedly been seen wandering aimlessly, uttering incoherent phrases like, ‘…in light of Powell’s special role I want a justice with an open mind…I don’t want someone with a predisposition on every major issue…I can be President…’”
October 23, 1987
“Religious fanaticism is alive in Georgia; society’s ignorant reign”
“Religious fanaticism showed that it is alive and well last week when the largest Southern Baptist church in Georgia, First Baptist Church of Atlanta, announced it would cut off its annual contributions to Mercer University on the basis that its president, R. Kirby Godsey, is not a ‘bible believer.’ (…)
Fred Powell and his church should be glad that Godsey is a universalist. The controversy initiated by First Baptist vividly displays the problems which arise when a group of fanatics with narrow and primitive religious views try to impose their beliefs on a man who has read books with his eyes open. (…)
Surely all Americans have the right to give their money only to those causes which they support. But what kind of society has this created? A society where the ignorant reign. A society where enlightened must hold their tongues. A nation whose politicians must profess half-hearted devotion to an ancient fable or face the disastrous consequences of speaking their true mind.”
April 1, 1988
“No one can say ‘Jackson can’t win’”
“It seems that everywhere I turn I find people congratulating Jesse Jackson on the incredible feats he has accomplished in his drive for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most people are truly amazed, as I am, at the unprecedented success of his campaign, and appear to hold Jackson in high esteem.
However, when the question arises as to his actual chances for being the nominee most everyone gives him none. (…)
Some people might argue that Jackson ‘doesn’t want’ to be President. They maintain that Jackson is merely in the race to try to benefit the cause of black citizens. (…) Is it to become precedent that a black man can never be on the ticket because that ticket could then ‘never win’? Or is there supposed to be some ‘better time’ in the future for a black man to be on the ticket? When would this be, year 2000, year 3000?
The Democratic voters are the backbone of the party, and through their votes they have shown a strong interest in Jackson as the nominee. Let’s leave these ‘can’t’ win’ people to rot in their mire.”
April 12, 1988
“Hijacking crisis shows new tactics are needed to deal with hostages”
“The recent events that have transpired in the Kuwaiti airliner hijacking clearly demonstrate that a bold new policy is needed to rectify such situations. (…)
First, airport security must be tremendously overhauled. It is essential that an adequate military force brandishing assault rifles be present at the airport. (…) A couple of security guards with pistols is not going to offer adequate protection of airport gates. (…)
Second, security measures during the flight must also be tightened. Central to this idea is the in-flight guard himself. In-flight guards should carry assault rifles and wear some type of body armor. (…)
Finally, there needs to be some type of international policy for dealing with hostage situations should they occur. Basically, this entails a policy for for permission to land and refuel. Officials should abandon the previous policy of hesitancy and confusion. When officials try to bully terrorists in such an uneffective manner it results in the kind of disasters we saw last Sunday.”
by Ellis Paul
from The Speed of Trees
He was out on the highway smiling
A mystic in torn blue jeans
The kid left his trust fund to come out walking.
He hitched across this country
backpack and a head full of dreams
Couldve sworn he heard the earth a talking.talking
Sometimes, he said, dont it feel like the concretes closing in?
Were putting bricks on the horizon
Was he chasing fools goldor a holy man walking a dirt road to the end?
I hitched a ride with Chris McCandless
Stepped in the wild of a dream
The horizon in South Dakota
Is an ocean of harvest grain
In a dusty silo we found work for the taking
Wed hitched up from California
But he never told me his real name
Never told me what past he was out here shaking
We’re all shaking something…
Sometimes, he said, dont it feel like technologys closing in?
Were raising towers on the horizon
Was he chasing fools goldor a holy man walking a dirt road to the end?
I hitched a ride with Chris McCandless
Stepped in the wild of a dream
A stone.a patha river of glass
The night skycan you see stars from wherever you are?….wherever you are….
In a broken school bus they found him
In the heart of the Alaska range
The journey ends when the heart stops beatingtime is fleeting
Was he chasing fools gold,
Or a holy man walking a dirt road to the end?
I hitched a ride with Chris McCandless
Stepped in the wild with Chris McCandless
And I felt alive with Chris McCandless
I was wide awake in the dreamdream.
Copyright Ellis Paul Publishing SESAC
By Jon Krakauer
James Gallien had driven five miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaskan dawn. A rifle protruded from the young man’s pack, but he looked friendly enough; a hitchhiker with a Remington semiautomatic isn’t the sort of thing that gives motorists pause in the 49th state. Gallien steered his four-by-four onto the shoulder and told him to climb in.
The hitchhiker introduced himself as Alex. “Alex?” Gallien responded, fishing for a last name.
“Just Alex,” the young man replied, pointedly rejecting the bait. He explained that he wanted a ride as far as the edge of Denali National Park, where he intended to walk deep into the bush and “live off the land for a few months.” Alex’s backpack appeared to weigh only 25 or 30 pounds, which struck Gallien, an accomplished outdoorsman, as an improbably light load for a three-month sojourn in the backcountry, especially so early in the spring. Immediately Gallien began to wonder if he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the Lower 48 who come north to live out their ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for unbalanced souls, often outfitted with little more than innocence and desire, who hope to find their footing in the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier. The bush, however, is a harsh place and cares nothing for hope or longing. More than a few such dreamers have met predictably unpleasant ends.
As they got to talking during the three-hour drive, though, Alex didn’t strike Gallien as your typical misfit. He was congenial, seemed well educated, and peppered Gallien with sensible questions about “what kind of small game lived in the country, what kind of berries he could eat, that kind of thing.”
Still, Gallien was concerned: Alex’s gear seemed excessively slight for the rugged conditions of the interior bush, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. He admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. He had no compass; the only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered road map he’d scrounged at a gas station, and when they arrived where Alex asked to be dropped off, he left the map in Gallien’s truck, along with his watch, his comb, and all his money, which amounted to 85 cents. “I don’t want to know what time it is,” Alex declared cheerfully. “I don’t want to know what day it is, or where I am. None of that matters.”
During the drive south toward the mountains, Gallien had tried repeatedly to dissuade Alex from his plan, to no avail. He even offered to drive Alex all the way to Anchorage so he could at least buy the kid some decent gear. “No, thanks anyway,” Alex replied. “I’ll be fine with what I’ve got.” When Gallien asked whether his parents or some friend knew what he was up to—anyone who could sound the alarm if he got into trouble and was overdue—Alex answered calmly that, no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn’t spoken to his family in nearly three years. “I’m absolutely positive,” he assured Gallien, “I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own.”
“There was just no talking the guy out of it,” Gallien recalls. “He was determined. He couldn’t wait to head out there and get started.” So Gallien drove Alex to the head of the Stampede Trail, an old mining track that begins ten miles west of the town of Healy, convinced him to accept a tuna melt and a pair of rubber boots to keep his feet dry, and wished him good luck. Alex pulled a camera from his backpack and asked Gallien to snap a picture of him. Then, smiling broadly, he disappeared down the snow-covered trail. The date was Tuesday, April 28, 1992.
ore than four months passed before Gallien heard anything more of the hitchhiker. His real name turned out to be Christopher J. McCandless. He was the product of a happy family from an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. And although he wasn’t burdened with a surfeit of common sense and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not readily mesh with the realities of modern life, he was no psychopath. McCandless was in fact an honors graduate of Emory University, an accomplished athlete, and a veteran of several solo excursions into wild, inhospitable terrain.
An extremely intense young man, McCandless had been captivated by the writing of Leo Tolstoy. He particularly admired the fact that the great novelist had forsaken a life of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute. For several years he had been emulating the count’s asceticism and moral rigor to a degree that astonished and occasionally alarmed those who knew him well. When he took leave of James Gallien, McCandless entertained no illusions that he was trekking into Club Med; peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were what he was seeking. And that is precisely what he found on the Stampede Trail, in spades.
For most of 16 weeks McCandless more than held his own. Indeed, were it not for one or two innocent and seemingly insignificant blunders he would have walked out of the Alaskan woods in July or August as anonymously as he walked into them in April. Instead, the name of Chris McCandless has become the stuff of tabloid headlines, and his bewildered family is left clutching the shards of a fierce and painful love.
On the northern margin of the Alaska Range, just before the hulking escarpments of Denali and its satellites surrender to the low Kantishna plain, a series of lesser ridges known as the Outer Ranges sprawls across the flats like a rumpled blanket on an unmade bed. Between the flinty crests of the two outermost Outer Ranges runs an east-west trough, maybe five miles across, carpeted in a boggy amalgam of muskeg, alder thickets, and scrawny spruce. Meandering through this tangled, rolling bottomland is the Stampede Trail, the route Chris McCandless followed into the wilderness.
Twenty or so miles due west of Healy, not far from the boundary of Denali National Park, a derelict bus—a blue and white, 1940s-vintage International from the Fairbanks City Transit System—rusts incongruously in the fireweed beside the Stampede Trail. Many winters ago the bus was fitted with bedding and a crude barrel stove, then skidded into the bush by enterprising hunters to serve as a backcountry shelter. These days it isn’t unusual for nine or ten months to pass without the bus seeing a human visitor, but on September 6, 1992, six people in three separate parties happened to visit it on the same afternoon, including Ken Thompson, Gordon Samel, and Ferdie Swanson, moose hunters who drove in on all-terrain vehicles.
When they arrived at the bus, says Thompson, they found “a guy and a girl from Anchorage standing 50 feet away, looking kinda spooked. A real bad smell was coming from inside the bus, and there was this weird note tacked by the door.” The note, written in neat block letters on a page torn from a novel by Gogol, read: “S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. 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?”
The Anchorage couple had been too upset by the implications of the note to examine the bus’s interior, so Thompson and Samel steeled themselves to take a look. A peek through a window revealed a .22-caliber rifle, a box of shells, some books and clothing, a backpack, and, on a makeshift bunk in the rear of the vehicle, a blue sleeping bag that appeared to have something or someone inside it.
“It was hard to be absolutely sure,” says Samel. “I stood on a stump, reached through a back window, and gave the bag a shake. There was definitely something in it, but whatever it was didn’t weigh much. It wasn’t until I walked around to the other side and saw a head sticking out that I knew for certain what it was.” Chris McCandless had been dead for some two and a half weeks.
The Alaska State Troopers were contacted, and the next morning a police helicopter evacuated the decomposed body, a camera with five rolls of exposed film, and a diary—written across the last two pages of a field guide to edible plants—that recorded the young man’s final weeks in 113 terse, haunting entries. An autopsy revealed no internal injuries or broken bones. Starvation was suggested as the most probable cause of death. McCandless’s signature had been penned at the bottom of the S.O.S. note, and the photos, when developed, included many self-portraits. But because he had been carrying no identification, the police knew almost nothing about who he was or where he was from.
Carthage, South Dakota, population 274, is a sleepy little cluster of clapboard houses, weathered brick storefronts, and shaded yards that rises humbly from the immensity of the northern plains, adrift in time. It has one grocery, one bank, a single gas station, a lone bar—the Cabaret, where Wayne Westerberg, a hyperkinetic man with thick shoulders and a rakish black goatee, is sipping a White Russian, chewing on a sweet cigar, and remembering the enigmatic young man he knew as Alex. “These are what Alex used to drink,” says Westerberg with a smile, hoisting his glass. “He used to sit right there at the end of the bar and tell us these amazing stories of his travels. He could talk for hours.”
Westerberg owns a grain elevator in town but spends every summer running a custom combine crew that follows the harvest from Texas north to Montana. In September 1990 he’d been in Montana cutting barley when, on the highway east of Cut Bank, he’d given a ride to a hungry-looking hitchhiker, a friendly young man who said his name was Alex McCandless. They hit it off immediately, and before they went their separate ways Westerberg told Alex to look him up in Carthage if he ever needed a job. “About two weeks later,” says Westerberg, “he thumbed into town, moved into my house, and went to work at the elevator. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. And totally honest—what you’d call extremely ethical. He set pretty high standards for himself.
“You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent,” Westerberg continues. “In fact, I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.”
McCandless didn’t stay in Carthage long—by the end of October he was on the road again—but he dropped Westerberg a postcard every month or two in the course of his travels. He also had all his mail forwarded to Westerberg’s house and told everybody he met thereafter that he was from South Dakota.
In truth McCandless had been raised in the comfortable, upper-middle-class environs of Annandale, Virginia. His father, Walt, was an aerospace engineer who ran a small but very prosperous consulting firm with Chris’s mother, Billie. There were eight children in the extended family: Chris; a younger sister, Carine, with whom Chris was extremely close; and six older half-siblings from Walt’s first marriage.
McCandless had graduated in June 1990 from Emory University in Atlanta, where he distinguished himself as a history/anthropology major and was offered but declined membership in Phi Beta Kappa, insisting that titles and honors were of no importance. His education had been paid for by a college fund established by his parents; there was some $20,000 in this account at the time of his graduation, money his parents thought he intended to use for law school. Instead, he donated the entire sum to the Oxford Famine Relief Fund. Then, without notifying any friends or family members, he loaded all his belongings into a decrepit yellow Datsun and headed west without itinerary, relieved to shed a life of abstraction and security, a life he felt was removed from the heat and throb of the real world. Chris McCandless intended to invent a new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience.
In July 1990, on a 120-degree afternoon near Lake Mead, his car broke down and he abandoned it in the Arizona desert. McCandless was exhilarated, so much so that he decided to bury most of his worldly possessions in the parched earth of Detrital Wash and then—in a gesture that would have done Tolstoy proud—burned his last remaining cash, about $160 in small bills. We know this because he documented the conflagration, and most of the events that followed, in a journal/snapshot album he would later give to Westerberg. Although the tone of the journal occasionally veers toward melodrama, the available evidence indicates that McCandless did not misrepresent the facts; telling the truth was a credo he took very seriously.
McCandless tramped around the West for the next two months, spellbound by the scale and power of the landscape, thrilled by minor brushes with the law, savoring the intermittent company of other vagabonds he met along the way. He hopped trains, hitched rides, and walked the trails of the Sierra Nevada before crossing paths with Westerberg in Montana.
In November he sent Westerberg a postcard from Phoenix, urging him to read War and Peace (“It has things in it that I think you will understand, things that escape most people”) and complaining that thanks to the money Westerberg had paid him, tramping had become too easy. “My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to forage around for my next meal,” he wrote. “I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up. One day I’ll get back to you, Wayne, and repay some of your kindness.”
Immediately after writing that card, McCandless bought a secondhand aluminum canoe near the head of Lake Havasu and decided to paddle it down the Colorado River all the way to the Gulf of California. En route he sneaked into Mexico by shooting the spillway of a small dam and got lost repeatedly. But he made it to the gulf, where he struggled to control the canoe in a violent squall far from shore and, exhausted, decided to head north again.
On January 16, 1991, McCandless left the stubby metal boat on a hummock of dune grass southeast of Golfo de Santa Clara and started walking north up the deserted beach. He had not seen or talked to another soul in 36 days. For that entire period he had subsisted on nothing but five pounds of rice and what he could pull from the sea, an experience that would later convince him he could survive on similarly meager rations when he went to live in the Alaskan bush. Back at the border two days later, he was caught trying to slip into the United States without ID and spent a night in custody before concocting a story that got him across.
McCandless spent most of the next year in the Southwest, but the last entry in the journal he left with Westerberg is dated May 10, 1991, and so the record of his travels in this period is sketchy. He slummed his way through San Diego, El Paso, and Houston. To avoid being rolled and robbed by the unsavory characters who ruled the streets and freeway overpasses where he slept, he learned to bury what money he had before entering a city, then recover it on the way out of town. Snapshots in the album document visits to Bryce and Zion, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Palm Springs. For several weeks he lived with “bums, tramps, and winos” on the streets of Las Vegas.
When 1991 drew to a close McCandless was in Bullhead City, Arizona, where for three months he lived in a tent and flipped burgers at McDonald’s. A letter from this period reveals that “a girl Tracy” had a crush on him. In a note to Westerberg he admitted that he liked Bullhead City and “might finally settle down and abandon my tramping life, for good. I’ll see what happens when spring comes around, because that’s when I tend to get really itchy feet.”
Itchy feet prevailed. He soon called Westerberg and said that he wanted to work in the grain elevator for a while, just long enough to put together a little grubstake. He needed money to buy some new gear, he said, because he was going to Alaska.
When McCandless arrived back in Carthage on a bitter February morning in 1992, he’d already decided that he would depart for Alaska on April 15. He wanted to be in Fairbanks by the end of April in order to have as much time as possible in the North before heading back to South Dakota to help out with the autumn harvest. By mid-April Westerberg was shorthanded and very busy, so he asked McCandless to postpone his departure date and work a week or two longer. But, Westerberg says, “Once Alex made up his mind about something there was no changing it. I even offered to buy him a plane ticket to Fairbanks, which would have let him work an extra ten days and still get to Alaska by the end of April. But he said, ‘No, I want to hitch north. Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip.'”
McCandless left Carthage on April 15. In early May Westerberg received a postcard of a polar bear, postmarked April 27. “Greetings from Fairbanks!” it read.
This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon Territory. But I finally got here. Please return all mail I receive to the sender.
It might be a very long time before I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again, I want you to know your a great man. I now walk into the wild.
McCandless’s last postcard to Westerberg fueled widespread speculation, after his adventure did prove fatal, that he’d intended suicide from the start, that when he walked into the bush alone he had no intention of ever walking out again. But I for one am not so sure.
In 1977, when I was 23—a year younger than McCandless at the time of his death—I hitched a ride to Alaska on a fishing boat and set off alone into the backcountry to attempt an ascent of a malevolent stone digit called the Devils Thumb, a towering prong of vertical rock and avalanching ice, ignoring pleas from friends, family, and utter strangers to come to my senses. Simply reaching the foot of the mountain entailed traveling 30 miles up a badly crevassed, storm-wracked glacier that hadn’t seen a human footprint in many years. By choice I had no radio, no way of summoning help, no safety net of any kind. I had several harrowing shaves, but eventually I reached the summit of the Thumb.
When I decided to go to Alaska that April, I was an angst-ridden youth who read too much Nietzsche, mistook passion for insight, and functioned according to an obscure gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end it changed almost nothing, of course. I came to appreciate, however, that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.
As a young man, I was unlike Chris McCandless in many important respects—most notably I lacked his intellect and his altruistic leanings—but I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul.
The fact that I survived my Alaskan adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance; had I died on the Stikine Icecap in 1977 people would have been quick to say of me, as they now say of him, that I had a death wish. Fifteen years after the event, I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and a monstrous innocence, certainly, but I wasn’t suicidal.
At the time, death was a concept I understood only in the abstract. 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 was stirred by the mystery of death; I couldn’t resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The view into that swirling black vortex terrified me, but I caught sight of something elemental in that shadowy glimpse, some forbidden, fascinating riddle.
That’s a very different thing from wanting to die.
Westerberg heard nothing else from McCandless for the remainder of the spring and summer. Then, last September 13, he was rolling down an empty ribbon of South Dakota blacktop, leading his harvest crew home to Carthage after wrapping up a four-month cutting season in northern Montana, when the VHF barked to life. “Wayne!” an anxious voice crackled over the radio from one of the crew’s other trucks. “Quick—turn on your AM and listen to Paul Harvey. He’s talking about some kid who starved to death up in Alaska. The police don’t know who he is. Sounds a whole lot like Alex.”
As soon as he got to Carthage, a dispirited Westerberg called the Alaska State Troopers and said that he thought he knew the identity of the hiker. McCandless had never told Westerberg anything about his family, including where they lived, but Westerberg unearthed a W-4 form bearing McCandless’s Social Security number, which led the police to an address in Virginia. A few days after the Paul Harvey broadcast, an Alaskan police sergeant made a phone call to the distant suburbs of the nation’s capital, confirming the worst fears of Walt and Billie McCandless and raining a flood of confusion and grief down upon their world.
Walt McCandless, 56, dressed in gray sweatpants and a rayon jacket bearing the logo of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a stocky, bearded man with longish salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back from a high forehead. Seven weeks after his youngest son’s body turned up in Alaska wrapped in a blue sleeping bag that Billie had sewn for Chris from a kit, he studies a sailboat scudding beneath the window of his waterfront townhouse. “How is it,” he wonders aloud as he gazes blankly across Chesapeake Bay, “that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain?”
Four large pieces of posterboard covered with dozens of photos documenting the whole brief span of Chris’s life stand on the dining room table. Moving deliberately around the display, Billie points out Chris as a toddler astride a hobbyhorse, Chris as a rapt eight-year-old in a yellow slicker on his first backpacking trip, Chris at his high school commencement. “The hardest part,” says Walt, pausing over a shot of his son clowning around on a family vacation, “is simply not having him around any more. I spent a lot of time with Chris, perhaps more than with any of my other kids. I really liked his company, even though he frustrated us so often.”
It is impossible to know what murky convergence of chromosomal matter, parent-child dynamics, and alignment of the cosmos was responsible, but Chris McCandless came into the world with unusual gifts and a will not easily deflected from its trajectory. As early as third grade, a bemused teacher was moved to pull Chris’s parents aside and inform them that their son “marched to a different drummer.” At the age of ten, he entered his first running competition, a 10k road race, and finished 69th, beating more than 1,000 adults. By high school he was effortlessly bringing home A’s (punctuated by a single F, the result of butting heads with a particularly rigid physics teacher) and had developed into one of the top distance runners in the region.
As captain of his high school cross-country team he concocted novel, grueling training regimens that his teammates still remember well. “Chris invented this workout he called Road Warriors,” explains Gordy Cucullu, a close friend from those days. “He would lead us on long, killer runs, as far and as fast as we could go, down strange roads, through the woods, whatever. The whole idea was to lose our bearings, to push ourselves into unknown territory. Then we’d run at a slightly slower pace until we found a road we recognized, and race home again at full speed. In a certain sense, that’s how Chris lived his entire life.”
McCandless viewed running as an intensely spiritual exercise akin to meditation. “Chris would use the spiritual aspect to try to motivate us,” recalls Eric Hathaway, another friend on the team. “He’d tell us to think about all the evil in the world, all the hatred, and imagine ourselves running against the forces of darkness, the evil wall that was trying to keep us from running our best. He believed doing well was all mental, a simple matter of harnessing whatever energy was available. As impressionable high school kids, we were blown away by that kind of talk.”
McCandless’s musings on good and evil were more than a training technique; he took life’s inequities to heart. “Chris didn’t understand how people could possibly be allowed to go hungry, especially in this country,” says Billie McCandless, a small woman with large, expressive eyes—the same eyes Chris is said to have had. “He would rave about that kind of thing for hours.”
For months he spoke seriously of traveling to South Africa and joining the struggle to end apartheid. On weekends, when his high school pals were attending keggers and trying to sneak into Georgetown bars, McCandless would wander the seedier quarters of Washington, chatting with pimps and hookers and homeless people, buying them meals, earnestly suggesting ways they might improve their lives. Once, he actually picked up a homeless man from downtown D.C., brought him to the leafy streets of Annandale, and secretly set him up in the Airstream trailer that his parents kept parked in the driveway. Walt and Billie never even knew they were hosting a vagrant.
McCandless’s personality was puzzling in its complexity. He was intensely private but could be convivial and gregarious in the extreme. And despite his overdeveloped social conscience, he was no tight-lipped, perpetually grim do-gooder who frowned on fun. To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham who would seize any excuse to regale friends and strangers with spirited renditions of Tony Bennett tunes. In college he directed and starred in a witty video parody of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault. And he was a natural salesman: Throughout his youth McCandless launched a series of entrepreneurial schemes (a photocopying service, among others), some of which brought in impressive amounts of cash.
Upon graduating from high school, he took the earnings he’d socked away, bought a used Datsun B210, and promptly embarked on the first of his extemporaneous transcontinental odysseys. For half the summer he complied with his parents’ insistence that he phone every three days, but he didn’t check in at all the last couple of weeks and returned just two days before he was due at college, sporting torn clothes, a scruffy beard, and tangled hair and packing a machete and a .30-06 rifle, which he insisted on taking with him to school.
With each new adventure, Walt and Billie grew increasingly anxious about the risks Chris was taking. Before his senior year at Emory he returned from a summer on the road looking gaunt and weak, having shed 30 pounds from his already lean frame; he’d gotten lost in the Mojave Desert, it turned out, and had nearly succumbed to dehydration. Walt and Billie urged their son to exercise more caution in the future and pleaded with him to keep them better informed of his whereabouts; Chris responded by telling them even less about his escapades and checking in less frequently when he was on the road. “He thought we were idiots for worrying about him,” Billie says. “He took pride in his ability to go without food for extended periods, and he had complete confidence that he could get himself out of any jam.”
“He was good at almost everything he ever tried,” says Walt, “which made him supremely overconfident. If you attempted to talk him out of something, he wouldn’t argue. He’d just nod politely and then do exactly what he wanted.”
McCandless could be generous and caring to a fault, but he had a darker side as well, characterized by monomania, impatience, and unwavering self-absorption, qualities that seemed to intensify throughout his college years. “I saw Chris at a party after his freshman year at Emory,” remembers Eric Hathaway, “and it was obvious that he had changed. He seemed very introverted, almost cold. Social life at Emory revolved around fraternities and sororities, something Chris wanted no part of. And when everybody started going Greek, he kind of pulled back from his old friends and got more heavily into himself.”
When Walt and Billie went to Atlanta in the spring of 1990 for Chris’s college graduation, he told them that he was planning another summerlong trip and that he’d drive up to visit them in Annandale before hitting the road. But he never showed. Shortly thereafter he donated the $20,000 in his bank account to Oxfam, loaded up his car, and disappeared. From then on he scrupulously avoided contacting either his parents or Carine, the sister for whom he purportedly cared immensely.
“We were all worried when we didn’t hear from him,” says Carine, “and I think my parents’ worry was mixed with hurt and anger. But I didn’t really feel hurt. I knew that he was happy and doing what he wanted to do. I understood that it was important for him to see how independent he could be. And he knew that if he wrote or called me, Mom and Dad would find out where he was, fly out there, and try to bring him home.”
In September—by which time Chris had long since abandoned the yellow Datsun in the desert and burned his money—Walt and Billie grew worried enough to hire a private investigator. “We worked pretty hard to trace him,” says Walt. “We eventually picked up his trail on the northern California coast, where he’d gotten a ticket for hitchhiking, but we lost track of him for good right after that, probably about the time he met Wayne Westerberg.” Walt and Billie would hear nothing more about Chris’s whereabouts until their son’s body turned up in Alaska two years later.
After Chris had been identified, Carine and their oldest half-brother, Sam, flew to Fairbanks to bring home his ashes and those few possessions—the rifle, a fishing rod, a Swiss Army knife, the book in which he’d kept his journal, and not much else—that had been recovered with the body, including the photographs he’d taken in Alaska. Sifting through this pictorial record of Chris’s final days, it is all Billie can do to force herself to examine the fuzzy snapshots. As she studies the pictures she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow.
“I just don’t understand why he had to take those kinds of chances,” Billie protests through her tears. “I just don’t understand it at all.”
When news of McCandless’s fate came to light, most Alaskans were quick to dismiss him as a nut case. According to the conventional wisdom he was simply one more dreamy, half-cocked greenhorn who went into the bush expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found nothing but mosquitoes and a lonely death.
Dozens of marginal characters have gone into the Alaskan backcountry over the years, never to reappear. A few have lodged firmly in the state’s collective memory. There is, for example, the sad tale of John Mallon Waterman, a visionary climber much celebrated for making one of the most astonishing first ascents in the history of North American mountaineering—an extremely dangerous 145-day solo climb of Mount Hunter’s Southeast Spur. Upon completing this epic deed in 1979, though, he found that instead of putting his demons to rest, success merely agitated them.
In the years that followed, Waterman’s mind unraveled. He took to prancing around Fairbanks in a black cape and announced he was running for president under the banner of the Feed the Starving Party, the main priority of which was to ensure that nobody on the planet died of hunger. To publicize his campaign he laid plans to make a solo ascent of Denali, in winter, with a minimum of food.
After his first attempt on the mountain was aborted prematurely, Waterman committed himself to the Anchorage Psychiatric Institute but checked out after two weeks, convinced that there was a conspiracy afoot to put him away permanently. Then, in the winter of 1981, he launched another solo attempt on Denali. He was last placed on the upper Ruth Glacier, heading unroped through the middle of a deadly crevasse field en route to the mountain’s difficult East Buttress, carrying neither sleeping bag nor tent. He was never seen after that, but a note was later found atop some of his gear in a nearby shelter. It read, “3-13-81 My last kiss 1:42 PM.”
Perhaps inevitably, parallels have been drawn between John Waterman and Chris McCandless. Comparisons have also been made between McCandless and Carl McCunn, a likable, absentminded Texan who in 1981 paid a bush pilot to drop him at a lake deep in the Brooks Range to photograph wildlife. He flew in with 500 rolls of film and 1,400 pounds of provisions but forgot to arrange for the pilot to pick him up again. Nobody realized he was missing until state troopers came across his body a year later, lying beside a 100-page diary that documented his demise. Rather than starve, McCunn had reclined in his tent and shot himself in the head.
There are similarities among Waterman, McCunn, and McCandless, most notably a certain dreaminess and a paucity of common sense. But unlike Waterman, McCandless was not mentally unbalanced. And unlike McCunn, he didn’t go into the bush assuming that someone would magically appear to bring him out again before he came to grief.
McCandless doesn’t really conform to the common bush-casualty stereotype: He wasn’t a kook, he wasn’t an outcast, and although he was rash and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he was hardly incompetent or he would never have lasted 113 days. If one is searching for predecessors cut from the same exotic cloth, if one hopes to understand the personal tragedy of Chris McCandless by placing it in some larger context, one would do well to look at another northern land, in a different century altogether.
Off the southeastern coast of Iceland sits a low barrier island called Papos. Treeless and rocky, perpetually knocked by gales howling off the North Atlantic, the island takes its name from its first settlers, now long gone, the Irish monks known as papar. They arrived as early as the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., having sailed and rowed from the western coast of Ireland. Setting out in small open boats called curraghs, made from cowhide stretched over light wicker frames, they crossed one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world without knowing what they’d find on the other side.
The papar risked their lives—and lost them in untold droves—but not in the pursuit of wealth or personal glory or to claim new lands in the name of a despot. As the great Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen points out, they undertook their remarkable voyages “chiefly from the wish to find lonely places, where these anchorites might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world.” When the first handful of Norwegians showed up on the shores of Iceland in the ninth century, the papar decided the country had become too crowded, even though it was still all but uninhabited. They climbed back into into their curraghs and rowed off toward Greenland. They were drawn west across the storm-wracked ocean, past the edge of the known world, by nothing more than hunger of the spirit, a queer, pure yearning that burned in their souls.
Reading of the these monks, one is struck by their courage, their reckless innocence, and the intensity of their desire. And one can’t help thinking of Chris McCandless.
On April 25, 1992, ten days after leaving South Dakota, McCandless rode his thumb into Fairbanks. After perusing the classified ads, he bought a used Remington Nylon 66—a semiautomatic .22-caliber rifle with a 4×20 scope and a plastic stock that was favored by Alaskan trappers for its light weight and reliability.
When James Gallien dropped McCandless off at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28 the temperature was in the low thirties—it would drop into the low teens at night—and a foot of crusty spring snow covered the ground. As he trudged expectantly down the trail in a fake-fur parka, the heaviest item in McCandless’s half-full backpack was his library: nine or ten paperbacks ranging from Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man to Thoreau’s Walden and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. One of these volumes, Tanaina Plantlore, by Priscilla Russel Kari, was a scholarly, exhaustively researched field guide to edible plants in the region; it was in the back of this book that McCandless began keeping an abbreviated record of his journey.
From his journal we know that on April 29 McCandless fell through the ice—perhaps crossing the frozen surface of the Teklanika River, perhaps in the maze of broad, shallow beaver ponds that lie just beyond its western bank—although there is no indication that he suffered any injury. A day later he got his first glimpse of Denali’s gleaming white ramparts, and a day after that, about 20 miles down the trail from where he started, he stumbled upon the bus and decided to make it his base camp.
He was elated to be there. Inside the bus, on a sheet of weathered plywood spanning a broken window, McCandless scrawled an exultant declaration of independence:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.
But reality quickly intruded. McCandless had difficulty killing game, and the daily journal entries during his first week at the bus include “weakness,” “snowed in,” and “disaster.” He saw but did not shoot a grizzly on May 2, shot at but missed some ducks on May 4, and finally killed and ate a spruce grouse on May 5. But he didn’t kill any more game until May 9, when he bagged a single small squirrel, by which point he’d written “4th day famine” in the journal.
Soon thereafter McCandless’s fortunes took a sharp turn for the better. By mid-May the snowpack was melting down to bare ground, exposing the previous season’s rose hips and lingonberries, preserved beneath the frost, which he gathered and ate. He also became much more successful at hunting and for the next six weeks feasted regularly on squirrel, spruce grouse, duck, goose, and porcupine. On May 22 he lost a crown from a tooth, but it didn’t seem to dampen his spirits much, because the following day he scrambled up the nameless 3,000-foot butte that rose directly north of the bus, giving him a view of the whole icy sweep of the Alaska Range and mile after mile of stunning, completely uninhabited country. His journal entry for the day is characteristically terse but unmistakably joyous: “CLIMB MOUNTAIN!”
Although McCandless was enough of a realist to know that hunting was an unavoidable component of living off the land, he had always been ambivalent about killing animals. That ambivalence turned to regret on June 9, when he shot and killed a large caribou, which he mistakenly identified as a moose in his journal. For six days he toiled to preserve the meat, believing that it was morally indefensible to waste any part of an animal that has been killed for food. He butchered the carcass under a thick cloud of flies and mosquitoes, boiled the internal organs into a stew, and then laboriously dug a cave in the rocky earth in which he tried to preserve, by smoking, the huge amount of meat that he was unable to eat immediately. Despite his efforts, on June 14 his journal records, “Maggots already! Smoking appears ineffective. Don’t know, looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.”
Although he recriminated himself severely for this waste of a life he had taken, a day later McCandless appeared to regain some perspective—his journal notes, “henceforth will learn to accept my errors, however great they be”—and the period of contentment that began in mid-May resumed and continued until early July. Then, in the midst of this idyll, came the first of two pivotal setbacks.
Satisfied, apparently, with what he had accomplished during his two months of solitary existence, McCandless decided to return to civilization. It was time to bring his “final and greatest adventure” to a close and get himself back to the world of men and women, where he could chug a beer, discuss philosophy, enthrall strangers with tales of what he’d done. He seemed to have turned the corner on his need to assert his autonomy from his parents. He seemed ready, perhaps, to go home. On a parchmentlike strip of birch bark he drew up a list of tasks to do before he departed: “patch jeans, shave!, organize pack.” Then, on July 3—the day after a journal entry that reads, “Family happiness”—he shouldered his backpack, departed the bus, and began the 30-mile walk to the highway.
Two days later, halfway to the road, he arrived in heavy rain on the west bank of the Teklanika River, a major stream spawned by distant glaciers on the crest of the Alaska Range. Sixty-seven days earlier it had been frozen over, and he had simply strolled across it. Now, however, swollen with rain and melting snow, the Teklanika was running big, cold, and fast. If he could reach the far shore, the rest of the hike to the highway would be trivial, but to get there he would have to negotiate a 75-foot channel of chest-deep water that churned with the power of a freight train. In his journal McCandless wrote, “Rained in. River look impossible. Lonely, scared.” Concluding that he would drown if he attempted to cross, he turned around and walked back toward the bus, back into the fickle heart of the bush.
McCandless got back to the bus on July 8. It’s impossible to know what was going through his mind at that point, believing that his escape had been cut off, for his journal betrays nothing. Actually, he wasn’t cut off at all: A quarter-mile downstream from where he had tried to cross, the Teklanika rushes through a narrow gorge spanned by a hand-operated tram—a metal basket suspended from pulleys on a steel cable. If he had known about it, crossing the Teklanika to safety would have been little more than a casual task. Also, six miles due south of the bus, an easy day’s walk up the main fork of the Sushana, the National Park Service maintains a cabin stocked with food, bedding, and first-aid supplies for the use of backcountry rangers on their winter patrols. This cabin is plainly marked on most topographic maps of the area, but McCandless, lacking such a map, had no way of knowing about it. His friends point out, of course, that had he carried a map and known the cabin was so close, his muleheaded obsession with self-reliance would have kept him from staying anywhere near the bus; rather, he would have headed even deeper into the bush.
So he went back to the bus, which was a sensible course of action: It was the height of summer, the country was fecund with plant and animal life, and his food supply was still adequate. He probably surmised that if he could just bide his time until August, the Teklanika would subside enough to be forded.
For the rest of July McCandless fell back into his routine of hunting and gathering. His snapshots and journal entries indicate that over those three weeks he killed 35 squirrels, four spruce grouse, five jays and woodpeckers, and two frogs, which he supplemented with wild potatoes, wild rhubarb, various berries, and mushrooms. Despite this apparent munificence, the meat he’d been killing was very lean, and he was consuming fewer calories than he was burning. After three months on a marginal diet, McCandless had run up a sizable caloric deficit. He was balanced on a precarious, razor-thin edge. And then, on July 30, he made the mistake that pulled him down.
His journal entry for that date reads, “Extremely weak. Fault of pot[ato] seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great Jeopardy.” McCandless had been digging and eating the root of the wild potato—Hedysarum alpinum, a common area wildflower also known as Eskimo potato, which Kari’s book told him was widely eaten by native Alaskans—for more than a month without ill effect. On July 14 he apparently started eating the pealike seedpods of the plant as well, again without ill effect. There is, however, a closely related plant—wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii—that is very difficult to distinguish from wild potato, grows beside it, and is poisonous. In all likelihood McCandless mistakenly ate some seeds from the wild sweet pea and became gravely ill.
Laid low by the poisonous seeds, he was too weak to hunt effectively and thus slid toward starvation. Things began to spin out of control with terrible speed. “DAY 100! MADE IT!” he noted jubilantly on August 5, proud of achieving such a significant milestone, “but in weakest condition of life. Death looms as serious threat. Too weak to walk out.”
Over the next week or so the only game he bagged was five squirrels and a spruce grouse. Many Alaskans have wondered why, at this point, he didn’t start a forest fire as a distress signal; small planes fly over the area every few days, they say, and the Park Service would surely have dispatched a crew to control the conflagration. “Chris would never intentionally burn down a forest, not even to save his life,” answers Carine McCandless. “Anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t understand the first thing about my brother.”
Starvation is not a pleasant way to die. In advanced stages, as the body begins to consume itself, the victim suffers muscle pain, heart disturbances, loss of hair, shortness of breath. Convulsions and hallucinations are not uncommon. Some who have been brought back from the far edge of starvation, though, report that near the end their suffering was replaced by a sublime euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity. Perhaps, it would be nice to think, McCandless enjoyed a similar rapture.
From August 13 through 18 his journal records nothing beyond a tally of the days. At some point during this week, he tore the final page from Louis L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man. On one side were some lines that L’Amour had quoted from Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours”:
Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to the centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
On the other side of the page, which was blank, McCandless penned a brief adios: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”
Then he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had made for him and slipped into unconsciousness. He probably died on August 18, 113 days after he’d walked into the wild, 19 days before six hunters and hikers would happen across the bus and discover his body inside.
One of his last acts was to take a photograph of himself, standing near the bus under the high Alaskan sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave, beatific farewell. He is smiling in the photo, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.