I wanted to write about this whilst it was still fresh in my mind… I have just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s novel ‘Into the Wild’, an account and biography of the nomadic, highly intelligent American traveller and hitchhiker Chris McCandless. Although the ending to this book is ultimately a sad one as Chris lost his life in the Alaskan bush, I believe that there is much to be learnt from what Chris was trying to achieve.
Originally from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the son of an extremely well-respected NASA employee and his wife, Billie, Chris grew up comfortably, achieved the highest grades, went to a good college, and to all intents and purposes was expected to go on to lead a ‘successful’, probably quite high-earning career in Law. However, almost as soon as he graduated from college, Chris gave his parents the slip and left to intentionally live a life almost completely devoid of human intimacy, contact or civilisation.
Chris’s trajectory from the summer of 1990 to April 1992 saw him travel off the beaten track with little or no money through Arizona, California, South and North Dakota, eventually hitchhiking a ride to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he walked into the Alaskan wilderness along what is known as the Stampede Trail.
His family never heard from him again, and it would be 3 years after Chris left for his expedition before they were told the heart-breaking news that Chris had been found dead in an abandoned, derelict bus in Alaska. There are several theories surrounding his death, but it is clear that Chris starved in the end, probably from ingesting the toxic seeds of a wild potato plant which his already malnourished body did not have the strength to fight off.
Up until his ingestion of the potato seeds, Chris had been living off berries and roots of plants foraged in the area, as well as small game such as squirrels and porcupines. The above picture shows Chris crouching over a moose he has shot, a decision he bitterly regretted later when the meat went bad before he could eat it.
Many people, I believe, would see Chris’s undertaking to live a life in the American wilderness as doomed from the start, self-destructive, and incredibly selfish, not least for what he put his family through by refusing to contact them. A large portion of those who lampoon Chris for his expedition argue that Chris had no business in pursuing his dream to live off the Alaskan land, since he was not properly equipped with any first hand knowledge of its dangers, seasonal weather patterns, or topography, nor did he possess a map. Finally, Jon Krakauer points out in his account of Chris’s story that some believed Chris to be an idealistic madman who risked life and limb to live out the lofty but impractical ideals of his most revered literary idols – Jack London, Henry Thoreau, and Leo Tolstoy – whose books ‘White Fang’, ‘Walden’ and ‘War and Peace’, Chris read and re-read religiously in search of life’s meaning as well as for inspiration and guidance for living life in the wilderness.
Jon Krakauer’s novel is based on rigorous analysis of the books and diaries that Chris took with him on his journey, as well as primary interviews with his family, friends, and many of the individuals whose lives he touched along the way. For my part, and I believe Jon would agree with me, I do not consider Chris McCandless to be a madman, nor that he is or was in any way stupid for pursuing his dream. Scattered throughout the anecdotes from friends and family who knew him before his expedition are portraits that paint Chris as an extremely sensitive, intelligent and moral person, one who was more aware than most of the pitfalls of a capitalist, money-orientated society.
When Chris was at college in Atlanta for instance, his friend remembers a night when Chris harangued him into accompanying him on a trip downtown, to walk the streets and converse with prostitutes, pimps and homeless people who traversed the same paths. By the end of the evening, when Chris had spoken with every person he met and his friend was thoroughly freaked out, Chris insisted on spending every cent they had between them on hamburgers for those they had met. They spent the next few hours handing them out. Chris wasn’t interested in money, or at least if he was, he wasn’t interested in benefitting himself – he only wanted to help other people.
Nor did Chris have any interest in material wealth. His sister Carine recalls how plainly he hated the relatively comfortable middle-class lifestyle that his family enjoyed. When Chris left college, he donated the substantial savings in his bank account to the global charity OXFAM, and burned the rest of his dollar bills later on the trail, only picking up work as and when he needed it to fund his travels. Chris just couldn’t understand how there could be so much disproportionate wealth in the world – how some countries starved whilst others gorged themselves on too much to eat.
I have added Chris McCandless to my list of inspirational people. Beside his name I have written:
‘Chris McCandless – Into the Wild – Because he always wanted to use money and profit to help people. He lived by his values and was vocal about them, that material wealth should be used to help others in need, that we should reconnect with Nature, for having the courage to say that a ‘career’ is a made up thing. For refusing to conform to ‘normal’ existence – to suits and money and pay rises and 9 -5 hours. For exploring with so much courage and with so little money – nothing stopped him’.
His is the longest entry in my list so far. Peace and love Alexander Supertramp, nothing ever stopped you achieving your dream to live life in the wild.