Into the Wild

I recently read a blog about a trip two friends of mine took to an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wild known as “Bus 142.” They were aided by a guide and a vehicle to make it to the site, but also had to hike 8 miles to get to the bus. What is so special about a rusty old bus in the middle of no where? It serves as a shelter for hunters in the area, but they weren’t there for the game and checking out a hunters post is no reason to hike all that way. “Bus 142” is the site where Christopher McCandless died in July 1992 while he lived in the Alaskan bush. His story intrigued me and to learn more I read “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer.

Chris’ story starts in May 1990 when he graduated from college. Afterwards he donated all of his money to OXFAM ($24,000), cut off contact with family and friends and explored the country.

At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.

His journey started by car until it was immobilized by a flash flood in the deserts of northwest Arizona. He hitched his way across the west for a year and a half making significant impressions on those he met. He was an eccentric fellow who was reinventing himself and went by the new name of Alexander Supertramp.

Parallels between Chris and I jumped out at me throughout the book. The other day I had been talking with a friend about my plans to visit Alaska. Time off work is my biggest obstacle. I’ve done the mileage math a hundred times and can’t seem to fit the journey in under three weeks. By motorcycle at a relaxed pace, five weeks would be ideal to travel from Phoenix to Prudhoe Bay and back (8,000 miles total with 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel). I entertained the idea of shipping my bike north, but felt that I would be “cheating” if I went that route. Two days later, I read a passage where a friend of Chris offered to fly him to Alaska to avoid hitching, to which Chris replied, “Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip.” Chris and I were of the same mind when it came to travel. He traveled on foot and hitched, and I choose the saddle of a motorcycle, but the spirit of adventure remains the same.

The author Jon Frakauer doesn’t observe Chris’ life from an ivory tower. He is an accomplished climber who includes a tale of his own experiences in Alaska which ties in with Chris’ adventure. He recounts the mindset while climbing a mountain face:

By and by your attention becomes so intensely focused that you no longer notice the raw knuckles, the cramping thighs, the strain of maintaining nonstop concentration. A trance like state settles over your efforts; the climb becomes a clear-eyed dream. Hours slide by like minutes. The accumulated clutter of day-to-day existence–the lapse of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes–all of it is temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by and overpowering clarity of purpose and by the seriousness of the task at hand.

At such moments something resembling happiness actually stirs in your chest, but it isn’t the sort of emotion you want to lean on very hard. In solo climbing the whole enterprise is held together with little more than chutzpah, not the most reliable adhesive. Late in the day on the north face of the Thumb, I felt the glue disintegrate with a swing of an ice ax.

Replace the term “solo climbing” with “solo riding” and the experience is indistinguishable from the stresses and ecstasy of riding hard on treacherous mountains roads as I see it (see my post on my “Amazing Day in th Sierra Madres” for an example).

At a glance Chris can easily be perceived as an idealistic fool who died needlessly. He’s just some schmuck who died in a bus in the Alaskan wild right? I believe Krakauer dispels this line of thought throughout the book and succinctly describes this misconception below:

It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense. But the stereotype isn’t a good fit. McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself–more, in the end, than he could deliver.

I heard about the film version of the book, “Into the Wild,” directed by Sean Penn after I finished the reading it. I thought Penn did a respectful job of portraying Chris, however I did not enjoy the movie. I thought it was completely accurate and the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder could not have been more fitting, but it seems the screen isn’t big enough to contain the substance of Chris’ life that Krakauer brings to life on the page.

Christopher McCandless in his camp (Bus 142) on the Stampede Trail
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