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Remembering Chris McCandless and the misbegotten truth of self-reliance

  • Author: Peter Witteveld
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2012

Editor's note: The following commentary was submitted in response to Craig Medred's Aug. 20 column marking the 20th anniversary of Chris McCandless's death.

Ask the average guy in the food court or video store, even the graduate student of literary history, and he'll swear on Franklin's Autobiography that self-reliance is an inviolable, uniquely American inheritance derived from an unquestioning faith in the sanctity of rugged individualism and unconquerable independence. Whosoever would be a man, the belief goes, must be able to stand on his own, renounce the interdictions and commandments of governments and society and, like Horatio Alger's icons of rags to riches -- his newsboys and bootblacks and CEOs-in-embryo -- make his own way up in the world. In the tradition of the American western and hard-boiled detective fiction, self-reliance means being "tough," unsentimental and always prepared, when the onerous world of laws and propriety and surrogate authority is too much with us, to light out for the territory.

Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and himself a confessed outdoor junkie, knows the deathless lure of unsullied wilderness for the romantic dreamers and misfits who burden the literature of self-exploration and initiation, whose Jack London fantasies, he remarks, often exert an irresistible temptation to "patch holes in their lives." And certainly the Christopher McCandless Krakauer introduces us to on the deteriorated edge of the Stampede Trail, on the April 22, 1992, at the inception of his fatal odyssey into the wild, was a young man equally convinced that the way back to himself, to Truth and whatever there was of self-authenticating Virtue in the world, was away from civlization and security and that, whatever he found there, it was probably worth dying for.

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

Jim Gallien, the large-hearted Alaska native who rescued the pitiably unburdened hitchhiker outside of Fairbanks, described McCandless as "determined" and "real gung­ ho" and excited about trying (perhaps as blubber is tryed in the whaler's trying pots, to separate the precious elixir from the disposable detritus of flesh) his best stuff in the harsh loneliness of the wild. And while it is convenient to disparage his arrogance, condemn his hubris and deplore his lack of humility, Alexander Supertramp is a timeless reminder that the rush of raw experience, the irresistible throb of independence and being footloose "has always exhilarated us." This esurience for unmediated experience is not the extreme delirium of mental illness (a pin that many of McCandless's detractors have impaled him with), unless, for example, Martin Luther King, who was an extremist for love and brotherhood, was also mentally ill, as was Christ, and Ghandi, etc.

The cult of popular detective fiction and the ageless western, reverberant in the American and European classics McCandless annotated in his traveling library, have canonized this impulse for unrestricted life and its against-the-grain attitude toward civilization and its discontents, a natural tendency to seek authentic being over against the herd and to see as heroic that man or woman with the fortitude to resist the suasions of the group and the self-destructive material and communal values they purvey (only the solitary companionship of runaway slaves and aboriginal fellow-travelers is immune to this species of contamination). McCandless's experience seems to corroborate this salutary anti-social movement, a calculated excursion that "was to be an odyssey [emphasis mine] in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything," in which he would be "unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of experience."

The raw throb of experience. There it is, the romance and allure of self-reliance and unfettered individualism in a catchy slogan, a thumbnail adumbration of the collectively imagined life of cowboys and frontiersmen wandering the untrammeled forest path or open road, soldiers of fortune questing in exotic jungles, even underground vice cops battling the corruption that threatens to overwhelm them, as well as a nameless gallery of "lone" rangers who inhabit the margins of our collective American consciousness, if not the borders of some real cultural space.

So it might have been wise to stop here, aesthetically and intellectually content to have "proved" an enduring indigenous ideal, and concede with the cultured despisers of society's "joint-stock company" -- who may be happy enough reading or dreaming of a mythical west or Thoreauvian rustic cottage or primitive hunter's cabin in the uncharted wild -- that a credo of self-reliance may depend on the social institution of a kind of orthodox "outsideness" and its prophets of a redemptive alienation. But the truth, as always, is more complicated; it's this kind of outlaw conformity, yes, but it's also more than this, just as the mature plant derives from, but is more than, the seed that "contains" it. One must look to the terms already evoked to appreciate Christopher McCandless's wilderness adventure: exploration and odyssey.

Exploration and Odyssey. In both words is contained the idea of circuit, of a passage outward and return, a spiritual revolution presaged in McCandless's response to a seminal passage in Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Before the epiphany that might have saved his life, he is reminiscent of Andre Gide's immoralist who, in the last extremity of disencumbrance, begs his friends to give him some reason to live, because "this useless freedom tortures [and immobilizes him]" and he cannot move ofhis own accord. In Zhivago, next to the author's insistence that only a shared happiness is real, McCandless wrote large, " 'HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED'." Krakauer believes -- and I find his conviction and the dying boy's marginal testimony compelling -- that McCandless had ended his "long, lonely sabbatical ... [and] that upon returning [emphasis mine] to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community." Unlike Gide's immoralist, Chris McCandless had discovered a reason to live, and the real meaning of self-reliance.

Look at Ronald Franz, the grizzled Ancient of Salton City, the "disciplined, self­ reliant man" who found in the young adventurer the nexus he'd lost in his many years of solitude. When the young man he offered to adopt left for the consummation of his wilderness journey, he suffered the dreadful emptiness that the other's absence left, demonstrating the terrible inadequacy of the limited "doctrine" of self-reliance and its promise of personal power and enrichment.

It seems, then, that genuine selfhood is only achieved in the completion of a circuit, in the necessary movement away from some artificial locus of relevance, indeed, but just as surely in a return of the rejuvenated, recrudescent self to some vital source that sustains it, as Odysseus returned to Ithaca after twenty years of exile and wandering to his life at home. And what this necessary circuit says about "finding oneself' and achieving spiritual balance and wholeness is true about the real subject of this re-vision. McCandless's wilderness misadventure of self-reliance proves more than the solitary's outlaw dependence on himself, but rather, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his very American essay on the subject, leads further inward to the discovery of our immanent divinity, a recognition which prompts the discovery of divinity in our neighbor, which leads not to isolation, but to a community of individuals whose empowerment is in relation to each other and is grounded in some Original, immaterial and eternal fountainhead of In-spiration.

Why, then, does the story of a young man who found in the immediacy of primitive conditions the true meaning of self-reliance in life unhanseled and free of all that drags on it, provoke such a prodigious volume of human vitriol and ugliness? For he hasn't just disturbed readers of Into the Wild; he has angered and offended them. But can your purer, unbiased mind see him there, a forlorn wraith in the wilderness who, like Melville's Bartleby, without rancor or smugness or smirky superiority or the practiced posing of the complacent rebel, simply preferred not to submit to our cherished pieties of the good bad boy whose rebellions follow the track of an approved orthodoxy? No, it seems that Christopher McCandless threshed out of the Alaska taiga more than the occasional ptarmigan or squirrel, for his odyssey, as he called it, unnerves his detractors. His daring strikes at the heart of tender vulnerabilities hidden under stuccoings of habit and expedience, challenging us to imagine, perhaps even to realize, if we dared, life raw and unfiltered, to know for a moment a freedom real and precarious, stripped of the nagging fears that always call us back from the brink of immersion, back to security, back to the obligations we imagine are the salvific realities of sanitized, civilized life.

How else to explain the unkindness and virulent mean-spiritedness of readers who have measured him for a straightjacket, or the irrational and self-righteous machismo of his Alaskan detractors, unless both the attempt to prove him mentally unstable or impudently and imprudently unprepared disguises a secret shudder of resentment that it was McCandless who dared to live, like the young Russian in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the pure spirit of adventure. I suggest that a portion of the best and most unintentional part of us all died with Chris McCandless and that, whatever our paltry verdicts amount to or wherever resurgent life recalls the spirit of the young adventurer, two things are true: We can never forgive him for having done what we would never do ourselves and, without sentiment or self-reproach, he will always remind us of the recurring and inevitable passing of something pure and unspoiled in human life. So execrating him with expressions that impugn his humility or preparedness, or calling him a selfish and unfilial thrill-seeker, is not foolish or wrong-headed; it's beside the point, for there was a hard lesson in his excursion into the wild. And when, in spontaneous movements of sympathetic imagination, we reach out to the dying boy in the last lonely, unthinkable agonies of starvation, his death will leave us with an ineffable sadness that is naturally inseparable from anger and hostility and which comes from a too clear sense of our too human helplessness.

Peter Witteveld, PhD, lives in Carmel, Indiana.

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