Like Jane, I spent much of my Spring Break with my nose buried in a book. I was lucky: my reading was interrupted by Costa Rican waves and cappuccino monkeys. By March, my students and I always need some sunshine and some time away from the classroom, so I rarely assign significant course work over Spring Break. But this year, I asked my Outdoor Lit students to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
I was surprised that more of my students hadn’t already read Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction account of 24 year-old Chris McCandless’ Alaskan odyssey. I read Into the Wild for the first time while I was working for an outfitting company in Florida in the late 90s. My twenty-something male colleagues were rock climbers and beach bums obsessed with the free spirited and careless character portrayed by Krakauer as a sort of latter day beatnik. I shrugged off work and hunkered down in the back of the store to read about McCandless’ mysterious life and eventual death. The story haunted me. The rock-wall boys welcomed me to their speculative discussions fueled by Krakauer’s masterful storytelling. We talked about McCandless incessantly.
Outside Magazine calls McCandless “Alaska’s most famous adventure casualty.” Chris’ story is compelling: after earning a degree at Emory University in 1990, Chris McCandless donated his life savings to OXFAM and set out to tramp around the US. In April of 1992, McCandless, now calling himself Alexander Supertramp, walked into the Alaska backcountry via the Stampede Trail. After 113 days of living on squirrels, porcupine, and edible plants, Chris climbed into the hollow city bus that was his basecamp and succumbed to starvation. His misadventure quickly became misunderstood legend. The New York Times and People magazine reported the story and then Outside published Krakauer’s lengthy investigation. In letters to Krakauer, Alaskans castigated McCandless immediately: many had “no sympathy for him. Such willful ignorance . . . amounts to disrespect for the land…just another case of [an] underprepared, overconfident [man] bumbling around out there and screwing up because [he] lacked the requisite humility.” But disenchanted, young people the world over found a hero in Chris McCandless.
Many are still obsessed. Bus 142, the retired city bus that McCandless died in, still sits along the Stampede Trail. It still contains some of Chris’ belongings and countless “McCandless pilgrims” contribute items to the growing shrine. And people are still dying along the Stampede Trail. Alaska troopers report rescuing pilgrims on regular basis. Over the years since Chris’ death, they have also recovered the bodies of many pilgrims. Some are experienced mountaineers; others want to emulate McCandless’ purposeful under-preparedness.
And I am again talking incessantly about Chris McCandless. My students seem to have visceral and immediate reactions to the book. They either hate Chris for his recklessness or are inspired by his ability make life happen. But in both cases they are compelled by his story. They began our discussion yesterday with the same verve I remember from the back of the outdoor store 15 years ago. I wonder what makes McCandless so hard to forget. Do we identify with his need to throw off all convention and live by chance? Did he do what scares us most? Are we struck by the mystery of his death (Krakauer is still writing about the actual cause some twenty years later)? Or do we take strange comfort in knowing we’d never take such risks, be so unprepared?
Something is stilling driving people in to the wild near Fairbanks. Something is still driving Karkauer’s need for understanding. And something keeps driving me back to this book. It seems possible that it is the conversation that the McCandless story demands. Krakauer says that book forced him to tackle bigger issues: the American obsession with wilderness, the seemingly inherent risk-taking behavior of young men, and even the volatile relationships present in many families. I think it is these big ideas that keep bringing me back to this wild story.