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Examining Chris McCandless, 20 years after he went 'Into the Wild'

Craig Medred

Twenty years after Chris McCandless died alone in an abandoned bus on the edge of the real Alaska wilderness, there are still those who don't get the fundamental lesson: The Alaska wilds do not deal kindly with those who fail to have their wits about them.

All McCandless had to do in 1992 was start a big, smoky fire next to the bus in which he was squatting less than 20 miles from the George Parks Highway, and a small army of firefighters would have descended to rescue him from the north side of Denali National Park and Preserve. But McCandless, who'd already proven himself unable to dry meat like the early Athabascan Indians did or find the tramway across the Teklanika River only about a half mile off the Stampede Road that had led him to the bus, didn't start a fire.

Instead he wrote a note, crawled into a sleeping bag, and died of starvation.

It took author Jon Krakauer to come along and lionize him years later with “Into the Wild,” a sad tale of youthful searching for the meaning of life felled by some poisonous seeds. The poisonous seeds part turned out to be bunk. McCandless wasn't killed by the seeds. He was killed by his own inability to find food or find a way out. And his youthful searching, well, if anyone read the book closely, it appeared more about mental illness than anything else:

Abandon your family for no reason. Ditch your car in the desert. Burn or bury your money for reasons unclear. Stop bathing because it's too much trouble. There are people just like McCandless living on the streets of Anchorage today.

But enough on that. Let's move on to the people who still don't get it. One of them, a writer named Pete Mason, seems to find McCandless's sad story inspirational. He wrote about it for The Huffington Post this week:

The thrill of adventure I gained from reading Into the Wild and seeing where (McCandless) traveled is inspirational. Wandering the country for more than two years with no phone, no car, no cigarettes, serves as a lesson that the material goods we all cherish and seek to obtain as status symbols are doing nothing but holding us back from doing what we are truly capable of doing.

"No cigarettes"? "No cigarettes serves as a lesson that the material goods we all cherish and seek to obtain as status symbols are doing nothing but holding us back from doing what we are truly capable of doing"?

And what exactly was McCandless doing? Nothing.

No matter. Mason seems fully taken in by Krakauer's book. Not McCandless's book, mind you, but Krakauer's book. Here's how Mason sees that book:

In another time, (McCandless) would be called an explorer, much like founder of the Sierra Club John Muir, who wrote in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf of his 1867 walk from Indiana to Florida, all for the purpose of taking the walk. McCandless walked because he was looking for something greater than what he had found in the 20th century, while Muir walked as an explorer in a century when the country was not yet fully discovered. Muir went on to great things because he lived....

Muir went on to great things because he had a talent for observation and skill as a writer, not just because he lived. Muir compiled copious journals and wrote long letters during his journeys across the U.S. and Alaska, to which he traveled to -- and returned safely from -- when it was tough and dangerous to get here. Muir later used the information he collected to write books. He helped to document natural history.

What did McCandless do? He jotted a few lines of script down here and there as he aimlessly wandered the country. He left no substantive work. He barely left anything coherent. Here are the insightful notes from his Alaska diary:

Day 2: Fall through the ice day. Day 4: Magic bus day. Day 9: Weakness. Day 10: Snowed in. Day 13: Porcupine day.... Day 14: Misery. Day 31: Move bus. Grey bird. Ash bird. Squirrel. Gourmet duck! Day 43: MOOSE! Day 48: 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. Day 68: Beaver Dam. Disaster. Day 69: Rained in, river looks impossible. Lonely, Scared. Day 74: Terminal man. Faster. Day 78: Missed wolf. Ate potato seeds and many berries coming. Day 94: Woodpecker. Fog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great jeopardy. ... Day 100: Death looms as serious threat, too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in wild—no game. Day 101-103: [No written entries, just the days listed.] Day 104: Missed bear! Day 105: Five squirrel. Caribou. Day 107: Beautiful berries.

The words of McCandless's very last missive, a note fastened to the aforementioned bus:

Attention Possible Visitors. 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. ("JOKE" underlined twice) 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.

Is there anywhere in these writings anything to lead an intelligent individual to believe that McCandless could have written more than a dozen books and heaven only knows how many articles as Muir did? Mason apparently thinks there is. It makes one wonder if Mason thinks.

"Mind you," Mason writes, "McCandless walked when he didn't hitch a ride, while Muir walked entirely. Adjusting for time and technology, (however), the journeys are much the same...."

Yes, and except for the fact that I haven't written "For Whom the Bell Tolls" or anything even remotely approaching it, Ernest Hemingway and I "are much the same." I have a beard; he had a beard. He was good with a shotgun; I am good with a shotgun. He drank too much; I drink too much. He wrote; I write. Etc.

What the hell has become of the young men of America that someone like Mason, an apparently educated person, writes like this.

"Christopher McCandless packed up what he needed and prepared to head out of the wilderness, only to be blocked by the now-raging Teklanika River," Mason concludes. "Even though McCandless took risks in his journey, he didn't do something that might kill himself like navigate a glacial river."

A.) McCandless didn't take "what he needed," which was part of the problem from the get-go. B.) McCandless was in no way "prepared" to be going into the wilderness or coming out. C.) If McCandless had shown the sense to take "risks in his journey," he might be alive today.

As Mason writes, McCandless "didn't do something that might kill himself like navigate a glacial river." No, McCandless did something sure to kill him. He retreated to the bus to await death or someone's arrival to rescue him, fully aware there was no reason for anyone to come looking. The intelligent thing to do in that situation was to take the gamble on the glacial river because while it "might" kill you, you might also survive. And then you've got a shot.

Mason is so beyond clueless here it is shocking.

Although the mistake of trying to be self-sufficient off the unspoiled land of Alaska while searching for some inner meaning to his life may seem far-fetched to some, and not a popular vacation destination for most, (McCandless) did find what he was looking for in the wild of Alaska, as well as on the rest of his trip.

What McCandless found in the "wild of Alaska" was death. It is quite possible, too, that death is what he sought. In that case, he found success. But he most certainly didn't find what Mason thinks he found:

The continuous journey, new each day, provided him something to look forward to with great pleasure each day. When he finally did die, he did so having lasted 118 days in the Alaskan wilderness before expiring.

"Great pleasure?" Read McCandless's sketchy diary entries again. "Disaster Day." "Lonely, Scared." "Extremely weak." "Starving." "Great Jeopardy." "Have literally become trapped in the wild -- no game."

Doesn't it sound like he was having a lovely time looking forward "with great pleasure to each day." I'm guessing Mason has never gone hungry, truly hungry. I have. I once spent 10 days lost in Alaska without food. It is an uncomfortable experience. You don't look forward to "great pleasure each day." You look forward only to find some berries or something else to put in your stomach.

But you can keep going. Alaska is not an impossible place to survive. The Athabascan Indians, who lived here before the likes of McCandless arrived, did it for thousands of years -- not just 118 days -- with the help of only primitive tools. City boys are obviously clueless about this part of American history and pre-history.

Mason writes that he learned something from McCandless. "I learned from his mistakes," he writes, "to journey with a guide, a map, the thing he lacked in his cross country quest."

By all means, Pete, if you ever come to Alaska by all means stick to the guide thing, because you're clearly out of your element in all of this. McCandless's problem wasn't that he lacked a map. He knew where he was. He was in a bus along the road he followed into the wilderness from the Parks Highway. The road led straight back to the highway. All he had to do was follow it. What he really lacked was a packraft with which to cross the Teklanika, or simply enough wilderness knowledge to allow him to figure out another way to get across.

It was a lack of knowledge -- a simple, old-fashioned lack of knowledge -- that, as Mason writes,"was his flaw and ultimately led to his downfall." Unfortunately, the rest of what is written makes no sense whatsoever. To quote Mason, parentheses mine:

But it proved to be the key thing that was needed to live a productive life. (He didn't live, he died.) Had he lived, (But he didn't.) it would have been something to know him, provided there was a book written from the viewpoint of his experiences, for he provided the framework for an independent life that was not short on excitement. (And you base this conclusion upon his previous great written works?) I imagine him leading an active life, (I imagine a life on other planets.) seeking out new quests to undertake and sharing his tales in the process. The latter does not seem to be in his character as we knew him through Into the Wild, but for an educated college graduate and traveler who kept a detailed journal in Alaska, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

McCandless kept "a detailed journal in Alaska"? Damn, why didn't Krakauer publish that? Why has it been kept hidden all these years? I reported on this story when it happened 20 years ago. All anyone could find then were the diary entries detailed above. Those can't possible be the "detailed journal" to which Mason refers.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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