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The beatification of Chris McCandless: From thieving poacher into saint

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published September 20, 2013

Thanks to the magic of words -- and words can indeed be magic -- the poacher Chris McCandless was transformed in his afterlife into some sort of poor, admirable romantic soul lost in the wilds of Alaska, and now appears on the verge of becoming some sort of beloved vampire. Given the way things are going, the dead McCandless is sure to live on longer than the live McCandless, who starved to death in Interior Alaska because he wasn't quite successful enough as a poacher.

Alaska moose hunters in August 1992 found the remains of his 67-pound body in a sleeping bag in a deserted bus not far off the George Parks Highway west of Healy. Author Jon Krakauer later immortalized McCandless in the 1996 book "Into the Wild," conspired with director Sean Penn to bring him back to life again in the 2007 movie of the same name, and is now playing the media to resurrect McCandless once more with a new theory as to how the 24-year-old died.

Since Krakauer, the maker of the literary magic and a man who seems interested in nothing in life so much as book sales, wants to revisit his defining character, isn't it about time for a painful and objective public consideration of the real McCandless, given that he has now been dead long enough that no one really needs to play nice about his behaviors preceding his death?

Enough with Krakauer and his mysterious poisons, isn't it about time to wash off the makeup Krakauer put on the corpse of the offspring of a very comfortable American upbringing and take a serious look at the boy-man beneath?

What you find there is not very pretty. It could leave many more than a little troubled that some schools in America actually encourage students to read Krakauer's eulogy to the bum, poacher and thief Chris McCandless as if his behaviors had redeeming value.

McCandless did commit one commendable act in his life: Just before he turned his back on family and old friends, he gave the $24,292 left in his college education fund to Oxfam, a hunger relief organization. Whether this was an act of benevolence or a challenge to his well-to-do family -- at which he was angry for reasons that have never been explained -- no one will ever know.

But it was commendable. Afterward, McCandless's behavior went pretty steadily downhill.

He drove from his Virginia home into a future as a scofflaw. He abandoned his car, according to Krakauer, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area because he couldn't get it started after a flood and figured that if he asked for help authorities might ask him to explain why the registration was expired, and why he carried no insurance.

Not to mention the questions that might arise as to why he was driving in an area closed to motor vehicles.

McCandless hitchhiked northwest into the Sierra Nevada Mountains where he burglarized a cabin, or as The New Yorker writer Chip Brown put it in so-much-politer terms back in the 1990s, when reporters were glossing over McCandless's warts, he "came upon a cabin stocked with emergency food. He broke in and loaded up his pack."

Brown was one of the first to start backtracking McCandless after moose hunters in August 1992 found the man's emaciated body in the bus where he'd taken up residence as a squatter. It is interesting to go back now and reread Brown's story.

Brown, too, soft-pedaled McCandless's backstory. Don't forget the Golden Rule of the Society of Polite Journalists: Never speak unkindly of the dead. But despite this impediment, Brown didn't romanticize McCandless the way "Into the Wild" later would.

World-class freeloader

After the burglary in the Sierras, Brown wrote, McCandless "fell in with an itinerant society, a life of temporary camps and plans that never reached more than a week or two into the future." The phrase "itinerant society" refers to folks commonly called "bums" or "street people." They survive on handouts of the governmental or panhandling sort, and often a little thievery.

Eventually, McCandless left them to wander northwest then back to the east where he took an actual job in South Dakota. It didn't last long. McCandless was soon off again, but this time sent a postcard to the man who'd paid him to do odd jobs.

"Tramping is too Easy with all this money," he wrote. "My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to Forage Around for my next meal ... I've decided that I'm going to live this Life for some time to come."

"This life" to which he refers is panhandling, stealing and freeloading. If "Into the Wild" makes nothing else clear, it documents that McCandless was a first-class freeloader.

From South Dakota, McCandless headed southwest and illegally slipped into Mexico packing a handgun. He then equally illegally re-entered the U.S., still packing heat, only to be caught and jailed. He was let go after his gun was taken away.

Most of this behavior can in many ways be excused by McCandless's youth. A lot of young men are rebellious thrill-seekers prone to bad behavior. I'd have to plead guilty to some of this myself. Just to stay alive, I did a little poaching when I first arrived in Alaska in 1973, though I never wasted anything in my life. And I confess to having abandoned a Volkswagen van along the Alaska Highway in Canada when I was near McCandless's age, and to having taken advantage of more than a few friends, and to getting into a couple Fairbanks bar fights, and to engaging in some bad behaviors involving controlled substances.

Alaska doesn't always attract the best young men, though some of them do grow up to become responsible citizens. And some don't. That a young man like McCandless should pack up and start hitchhiking north to The Last Frontier is an all-too-familiar story.

American frontiers have always had a history of attracting adventurers, oddballs, ne'er-do-wells and misfits, and Alaska is the final extension of the frontier. That is why, for better or worse, it still attracts those that folks here have come to call the "end of the roaders."

McCandless was a classic end-of-the-roader. An Alaska Native man who is pretty sure he gave McCandless a ride north on the Alaska Highway in 1992 remembers him this way:

My aunt and I picked him up hitchhiking when we were coming back from Dot Lake to Fairbanks. He was somewhere near Delta. When I asked him his name he gave us some weird name, was generally strange and did not want to chitchat at all. He was too weird, and after about a half hour on the road with this strange dude we stopped by a general store.

He brought his big backpack in with him, and we ditched him. I never made the connection until I saw a picture of him.

He was so bizarre (my aunt) could barely tolerate him in the car. He was smelly too, and gave no information about himself and distrusted us. It was weird. He was weird ... he had some weird energy.

This description is not exactly out of line with Krakauer's fluffier reference to the quirky McCandless, who worked for a very short time at a McDonald's in Arizona. That was the McCandless who, Krakauer concedes, hated wearing socks, worked too slow and did not shower enough, if at all. Krakauer painted this as somehow endearing.

So, too, McCandless' clear adoption of the "it's-all-about-me" philosophy after that donation to Oxfam. What was actually going on in McCandless' head at that time no one really knows.

"Chris told me he thought he was going to be alone in his life," friend Don Springer told Brown. "He had been drinking a bit, and he got very emotional. It wasn't a cry for help. I think he just wanted to tell somebody."

Or maybe it was a cry for help. Springer was one of the many high-school and college friends with whom McCandless cut off contact after he hit the road. Personally, I think the evidence is there to draw a reasonable conclusion McCandless was suffering from a mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, take your pick.

That would help explain both his disinterest in socially redeeming behaviors and his comfort with the "itinerant society," as Brown described the people now sometimes referred to simply as "homeless." A fair number of them suffer from mental illness.

'Stupid rules'

Whatever the case, it is clear McCandless's later, major -- and only -- contribution to the society and economy of Alaska was the Fairbanks purchase of a Remington .22-caliber rifle and 400 rounds of ammunition, though no hunting or fishing license.

Granted, those are costly for non-residents, but at the very least he could have illegally claimed residency and obtained the $5 license available to the poor. But he really didn't seem to care about hunting or fishing laws.

As he reportedly told the last man to see him alive, "How I feed myself is none of the government's business. Fuck their stupid rules."

And fuck their stupid rules is what he proceeded to do. He shot a moose, a highly valuable commodity in the Alaska Bush, apparently tried to preserve the flesh by smoking, apparently failed, and obviously let lots of prime meat go to waste.

McCandless's so-called journal of his 133 days in Alaska is so pathetic in the description of anything that it is hard to tell what he did with the moose. Photographs make it clear he shot it, however. He poses wild-eyed with the carcass, as he posed with the carcasses of many of the animals he killed.

Child-like killing, ignorant waste

The photos would make it appear he wanted to idolize himself as some sort of accomplished hunter. But really? How many people pose with the porcupines they've slaughtered? It's not like killing them requires any skill. Porcupines are stupid, slow-moving animals. A child can easily chase them down and beat them to death with a stick.

Whether McCandless did that or wasted ammo, no one will ever know. Likewise for how much of an effort he put into preserving the moose. Krakauer attributes the waste of that animal to the naivete of a caring, sensitive individual.

"Although McCandless was enough of a realist to know that hunting game was an unavoidable component of living off the land, he had always been ambivalent about killing animals," Krakauer wrote in "Into the Wild."

The funny thing is, only a paragraph before Krakauer wrote this:

"Overjoyed, the proud hunter took a photograph of himself kneeling over his trophy, rifle thrust triumphantly overhead, his features distorted in a rictus of ecstasy and amazement, like some unemployed janitor who'd gone to Reno and won a million-dollar jackpot."

McCandless's ambivalence about killing seems to be mainly one of those things "Into the Wild" pulls out of Thin Air. Ambivalence is nowhere to be found in the McCandless journal, which is sometimes just a nice list of what he's apparently killed:

The diary entries following his return to the bus catalog a bounty of wild meat. May 28: "Gourmet Duck!" June 1: "5 Squirrel." June 2: "Porcupine, Ptarmigan, 4 Squirrel, Grey Bird." June 3: "Another Porcupine! 4 Squirrel, 2 Grey Bird, Ash Bird." June 4: "A THIRD PORCUPINE! Squirrel, Grey Bird." On June 5, he shot a Canada goose as big as a Christmas turkey. Then, on June 9. he bagged the biggest prize of all: "MOOSE!" he recorded in the journal.

The above is Krakauer's description again, just before the author starts describing McCandless's mixed feelings on the subject of killing. What mixed feelings? McCandless looks to be celebrating every kill.

"On the south wall of the bus he wrote, 'All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too!'" Brown noted. What were those last words of Capt. Ahab in "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville?

"…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

If McCandless ever had mixed feelings about killing things, he appears to have gotten over them by the time he arrived in Alaska. If he still had any, he surely would have put more effort into salvaging that moose. Even if flies contaminated it and maggots appeared, the maggots can be scraped or cut off and the meat dried.

As observed Brown, who had some experience with life in Alaska, "hunters know that it's imperative to dry the meat, and that the smoke is only to keep the flies off while you cut it into thin strips. Even meat blown with flies can be eaten if it's been dried right.

"The waste of the moose," which he had shot out of season, "was one measure of his inexperience," Brown concluded. Krakauer blamed it on "naivete" and reliance "on the advice of hunters he'd consulted in South Dakota, who advised him to smoke his meat, not an easy task under the circumstances."

Me, me, me

But what if the real answer was simply that McCandless just didn't care about the moose that much? He had his trophy. He'd lost the meat. But what the hell, he could shoot something else. This would be a view wholly in line with his post-Oxfam life up until then.

His journey wasn't about saving the animals, or helping other people, or about anything at all for that matter but Chris McCandless. He spelled it out loud and clear in the message he carved into a sheet of plywood in the bus:

two years he walks the earth. no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. ultimate freedom. an extremist. anaesthetic voyager whose home is the road. escaped from atlanta. thou shalt not return, 'cause "the west is the best. and now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north. no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.

alexander supertramp MAY1992

The spiritual revolutionary who armed himself and marched into the Alaska wilds intent on the climatic battle didn't much cotton to others and their issues, which might help explain three cabins in the vicinity of the bus that were trashed just after his arrival. Brown glosses over the vandalism, saying "much was later made of the deliverance (a Park Service) cabin might have offered; it had been stocked with 25 pounds of rice, and with powdered milk, oat meal, peanut butter, pilot bread, coffee, and tea.

"But that spring, for the first time in memory, someone had broken in and vandalized it. Rangers who discovered the vandalism in July were able to estimate that it had occurred in the spring, from the stage of plant growth under the mattress that had been tossed outside.... Some rangers wondered if he had been the vandal, but the Park Service doesn't want for enemies, and, although Chris had broken into the cabin in the Sierra Nevada to find food, it doesn't seem in his character to have wrecked the place."

It doesn't? The guy is a poacher, a bum and a thief trying to escape into his own little wilderness, and it seems out of character to destroy the other remnants of civilization encroaching on that wilderness? Exactly how many people were in-country west of the Sushana River immediately after the season Alaskans call "break-up," the pending arrival of which is a signal for everyone in the Healy area to retreat from the many winter trails west of that community until summer arrives? If there was someone else temporarily trapped on the west bank of the Sushana just after breakup, why is contact with that person, or sign of that person, not mentioned in McCandless's journal?

Krakauer, all too predictably, goes beyond Brown's assessment of the vandalism to set up another straw dog -- "Into the Wild" is full of them -- to immolate in the name of his heroic character:

"It was completely trashed," Will Forsberg says of his cabin. "Everything that wasn't nailed down had been wrecked. All the lamps were broken and most of the windows. The bedding and mattresses had been pulled outside and thrown in a heap, ceiling boards yanked down, fuel cans were punctured, the wood stove was removed-even a big carpet had been hauled out to rot. And all the food was gone. So the cabins wouldn't have helped Alex much even if he had found them. Or then again, maybe he did."

Forsberg considers McCandless the prime suspect. He believes McCandless blundered upon the cabins after arriving at the bus during the first week of May, flew into a rage over the intrusion of civilization on his precious wilderness experience, and systematically wrecked the buildings. This theory fails to explain, however, why McCandless didn't, then, also trash the bus.

(Steve) Carwile also suspects McCandless. "It's just intuition," he explains, "but I get the feeling he was the kind of guy who might want to 'set the wilderness free.' Destroying the cabins would be a way of doing that. Or maybe it was his intense dislike of the government: He saw the sign on the Park Service cabin identifying it as such, assumed all three cabins were government property, and decided to strike a blow against Big Brother. That certainly seems within the realm of possibility."

The authorities, for their part, don't think McCandless was the vandal. "We really hit a blank on who might have done it," says Ken Kehrer, chief ranger for Denali National Park. "But Chris McCandless isn't considered a suspect by the National Park Service."

Why would he be considered a suspect? He was dead. There's no sense in investigating whether a dead man committed a crime, and if ever there was an agency that practices the policy of never-speak-unkindly-of-the-dead, it is the park service. You could willfully leap to your to death off Mount McKinley and the park service would describe it as tragic accident.

As to the rest of the Krakauer's convoluted logic, he argues there is also "nothing in McCandless's journal or photographs to suggest he went anywhere near the cabins .... And even if he had somehow chanced upon them, it's difficult to imagine him destroying the buildings without boasting of the deed in his diary."

Boasting in his diary? Go look at the photographs of some actual excerpts from the so-called "diary." Not only isn't there any boasting, there isn't much of anything.

"68 BEAVER DAM. DISASTER. 4 SQUIRREL," reads what is apparently the Day 68 entry. If you're a football fan, it almost feels like there should be a "hut" at the end of those words. And nobody knows what McCandless was doing on all the days unaccounted for in the "diary."

For a man whose résumé up until his arrival in Alaska includes bum and thief, vandal wouldn't seem much of a stretch. And then there is this:

At 74, which is widely assumed to be Day 74, McCandless wrote in his journal "Terminal man. Faster." That's it for 74: "Terminal man. Faster."

"The Terminal Man," however, just happens to be the name of a Michael Creighton novel, later a movie, in which the main character turns into a homicidal maniac. Krakauer claims "The Terminal Man" was among the nine or 10 books McCandless packed into the bus.

Did McCandless's "74" reference to "Terminal Man" express his belief he'd become the terminal man? Who knows, but when you start to strip away all the romanticized bullshit to get down to the real McCandless, one of Brown's observations from 1993 looks like it could be spot on:

"....When someone who has as strong a will as Chris had dies of starvation, can it not but hint at an impulse for self-destruction?" the writer asked. "Might not more than a flare for grandiosity and drama lie behind (his) apocalyptic postcards, and the masochistic cross-country running, and the asceticism that embraced the difficulties and dangers of hitchhiking and at time seemed bent on refining the spirit at the expense of the body? The anger that drove the renunciation of his family, and animated his views of injustice in distant countries, and fed his aversion to authority of any kind, could well have been directed at himself in the form of inhumanly high standards and stern self-criticism -- in a kind of imploded narcissism."

More than 20 years later, it is richly ironic to think of some self-involved urban Americans, people more detached from nature than any society of humans in history, worshipping the noble, suicidal narcissist, the bum, thief and poacher Chris McCandless.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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