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Forget Chris McCandless. Has Craig Medred gone into the wild?

Pete Mason
Aaron Jansen illustration

Craig Medred’s Aug. 20 article “Into the Bus: Chris McCandless’s example, 20 years later” expresses a great deal of vitriol towards the deceased McCandless, a common theme in Medred’s writing on the topic in recent years. After reading the article by Medred in response to my article "Remembering Christopher McCandless 20 Years Later," I sought to clarify a few things with Craig in advance of this letter, because there were some misrepresentations that, if taken into account, may help Craig and I find some common ground.

I had long sought a dialogue with someone who had an opposing view of Chris McCandless. Craig said he would be welcome to this, but when I called midday Aug. 31, he immediately went back to his talking points that were in his article, ignoring my questions and comments, and denying a dialogue, instead lecturing me to the point where he ignored anything I said. This was Medred’s chance to flex muscle and bully his point, not to have a discussion. In a sense, he was not interested in discussing his article, but rather talking about anything else related to McCandless except the topic at hand. So in place of that dialogue, here's my response to Mr. Medred’s article.


Craig Medred responds:
Pete Mason has claimed inaccuracies in my article. He was repeatedly asked to detail any inaccuracies. He refused. His explanation of schizophrenia must, however, be corrected. Schizophrenia is one of the leading causes of mental illness in America and one of the most misunderstand. One out of every 100 Americans are believed to be in some way afflicted. The illness most commonly affects men somewhere between the ages of 16 and 30, but it can affect anyone of any gender at any time. Many of those who suffer have high IQs. Many of them graduate from college. The National Institute of Mental Health warns that the characteristic signs of adult or late-onset schizophrenia "include isolating oneself and withdrawing from others, (or) an increase in unusual thoughts and suspicions." Read more.

Armchair psychologist Medred wishes very much that McCandless was schizophrenic, because it is the basis of his argument and the root of his resentment for him. No one can diagnose someone after death, nor can anyone diagnose someone without sitting down with them and talking to them. McCandless wasn’t mentally ill, he was someone who sought to seek out something else in life, and when you go off the beaten path, that’s a sure way for people to look at you funny and presume you are crazy for not doing what everyone else is doing with their lives.

It is convenient for Medred, a happenstance that he has touted for quite some time. What Medred ignores is that those in their 20s have a chance to seek adventure while they are young. Taking on a nickname isn’t a sign of mental illness, it is part of a sense of adventure, shunning who you are to see who you really are. Plenty of people do this and live happy lives. I would doubt any of them, living or deceased, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. Some folks want a fresh start from life. McCandless was one of those people.

McCandless went on his journey because he was one who believed, like I do, that life is something to be lived to the fullest, and not in a bumper-sticker or YOLO mentality. It means actually getting out there and exploring; in McCandless’s case, exploring the western half of the country for two years before heading north to Alaska. The path less taken is the more exciting and invigorating one. Taking the same path as the rest is far from preferable for most who seek something new and an adventure along the way. Avoiding the droll life and finding out what else was out there -- that’s what McCandless did. For if McCandless were crazy, the relationships he formed would not have existed, nor would he have made it as far as he did. He sought to go it alone, but didn’t turn away friendship on the journey. That was one of the things that helped him come to realize some of the truth about life, most notably, that "happiness is only real when shared."

RELATED: Remembering Chris McCandless and the misbegotten truth of self-reliance

Medred’s fantasy is that McCandless was mentally ill so that his argument these past years is validated. While Krakauer did not include the opinion of a doctor who would go on the record with a post-mortem diagnosis, something no doctor would ethically do. (A famous example is Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor, diagnosing Terri Schiavo as less than brain dead, back in 2005, based on videotape evidence alone).

Medred did once report that nearly "every psychiatrist, psychologist or mental-health professional I’ve talked to about 'Into the Wild' over the years has noted -- at least among those who’ve read the book -- that schizophrenia or bipolar disorder was one of the first things that popped into their thoughts." Medred uses this opinion as a basis for his full argument: blame it on mental illness and all the other pieces of the argument will fall into place.

The truly schizophrenic do not graduate from Emory University then travel the country for two years. Most do not make it to college in the first place. I know this because I have taught students with schizophrenia, emotional disturbance, ADHD, Autism and other areas of special education. Schizophrenia is a diagnosis of convenience for Medred, nothing more.

When I wrote my article, I reflected on the lessons I took from "Into the Wild" -- to seek out new adventure, to not settle for that which is offered plainly, and to pave my own path. I do not harp on McCandless’s death in my writing; I focus on his life, one that Medred ignores because it does not fit his narrative. There is much in the book that offers inspiration to me, but not for Medred.

I would plainly argue this is because of our age difference (26 years) and where we reside (myself in New York and Medred in Alaska). I take a lot out of the book for the adventure contained within, as my Adirondacks and Catskills are some of my normal route of adventure and pale in comparison to McCandless’ journeys. Medred has lived in Alaska for many years, so the allure of the mountains is at its pinnacle, nowhere to be bested in our part of the world. So I can understand why Medred pans McCandless’s life and focuses solely on his death -- it’s the only part of McCandless he is able to exploit through his armchair psychology.

Among other misrepresentations in Medred’s article, he dislikes my comparison of McCandless to John Muir, but Krakauer himself does this, focusing on the travels of each, not comparing writer to explorer as Medred does; apples to Apple computers does not a comparison make. The comparison, just like the Roger Miller song "King of the Road" is referenced from "Into the Wild," not invented for the article.

Distorting the book’s story by nitpicking my words is the only way Medred could continue his argument. McCandless indeed took what he needed when he left the bus, he was prepared to head out and back to civilization, but he was trapped and unable to take a risk that would have led to his death. If McCandless were truly schizophrenic, he would have attempted to wade into the Teklanika River and succumbed, with hardly a story to be told. His retreat to the bus was met with being rained in, and that prevented him from setting out again. Indeed, the elements played against him, just as they can play in our favor in other circumstances.

Medred furthermore advises me to not come (back) to Alaska, because I am "out of my element." This is quite interesting, to hear that an Eagle Scout who has traveled to all 50 states, climbed high peaks, traversed large swaths of New York, Vermont, New Mexico and Colorado, as well as ventured beyond the road well traveled, would be out of his element in a state previously visited. I’m glad Medred is able to assess how much I would be out of my element in Alaska. I’ll keep that in mind when I return in due time.

If Craig wants to condescend the deceased McCandless, that’s his right, although speaking ill of the dead for any reason is of questionable morals in my book. But when you condescend someone who took inspiration in his life, just because you disagree with who McCandless was, that’s a step too far.

Pete Mason is a special education teacher specializing in autism spectrum disorders. He is author of "PhanArt: The Art of the Fans of Phish"; co-author of "PhanFood: From the Kitchen Pot to the Tour Lot" and online editor for UpstateLIVE.com.

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