If you followed my Alaskan travels this summer, you might remember that we spent a couple of days in Denali National Park. Our tour guide there mentioned a book about a young man who spent quite a bit longer there. His name was Christopher McCandless, and the book is called Into the Wild.
“Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives,” author Jon Krakauer writes. Chris McCandless sounds like the challenging teen most of us would struggle to raise. He was complex — rejecting his family, craving adventure, possessing a strong wanderlust (I thought often of Pa in the Little House books. He, too, always wanted to keep moving on to a new place, even when poor Ma preferred to live somewhere “civilized” with a school, church, etc). Chris was what we might call ornery, considering it his moral responsibility to flout the laws of the state.
“My impression was that his parents were very nice people,” said one of Chris’s acquaintances. “Chris just didn’t like being told what to do. I think he would have been unhappy with any parents; he had trouble with the whole idea of parents.” As he traveled across the US, Chris became close, briefly, to various people he met. One asked if he could unofficially adopt Chris as his grandson, but Chris was uncomfortable with the idea and soon traveled on again: “relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family.”
Into the Wild — Denali
After a few years of traipsing across the US, Chris headed north. His dream was to live in the Denali area of Alaska, but certainly not as a tourist. He wanted to live in the bush, “off the grid,” as people today like to say. Unfortunately for him, he went into this adventure without adequate preparation. He was a proponent of traveling light, owning “nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run.” The man who dropped him off near Denali was dismayed at his lightweight boots and lack of food, even offering Chris his own boots.
For four months, from May to August of 1992, McCandless did make it in the wild. During that time he didn’t encounter a single person. He managed to shoot enough animals and eat enough wild plants to keep himself alive, although he lost a large amount of weight. He lived in an abandoned bus. “He tried to live entirely off the country — and he tried to do it without bothering to master beforehand the full repertoire of crucial skills.”
In late July, McCandless ate some wild potato seeds, possibly with a little toxic mold mixed in. He had with him a book purporting to describe which plants were safe to eat, but trust me, after helping a daughter through three years of “Weeds” in 4-H, sometimes such references aren’t all that helpful. Many plants look very similar to each other and are difficult for the layperson to differentiate.
McCandless’s body was discovered in the bus, three weeks after he died, by a group of moose hunters. He had left a note, written on a page from a book he had brought along: “SOS 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?”
Ironically, he died (and spent most of his time in Alaska) just a few miles from places where he could have gotten help. But he had taken no map.
It must have been challenging to write a book about a young man who had already died, and who had tried to leave few clues behind. But, I found this book really fascinating. Krakauer also brings in stories of other non-conformists from history, as well as sharing some of his own “ornery” youth.
“McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily,” he writes. “He demanded much of himself — more, in the end, than he could deliver.”
Also read and reviewed this month:
Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenet Ramsey? (re-read, with all the attention given this is the 20th anniversary of the event. I’ve read several books on the case, and if you’re interested, I think this one comes closest to what most likely happened)
More of what others are reading at 5 Minutes for Books —