Thursday, October 25, 2007

Into the Wild

Date: Oct. 24
Mileage: 31.3
October mileage: 531.5
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: 0.30"

Last weekend, Geoff and I went to see “Into the Wild” with several friends. As we were walking out of the theater, I was just about to rave about the movie when my friends lit into the film’s subject, Chris McCandless. The conclusion they drew was that Chris was a “total douche” and the actor who played him was “not believable” but the movie was “OK.”

We didn’t have a chance to discuss it much further, but I wish we had. Of all of the books I’ve read, Chris McCandless is one of those literary figures that stuck with me, like Edward Abbey or the pseudonyms of Thomas Wolfe (because I’m drawn to creative nonfiction and biographies, most of my favorite literary characters were living, breathing people.) Like any favorite literary character, I saw pieces of myself in Chris McCandless and empathized with his pain and his joy. I read Jon Krakauer’s book long after it dropped off the best-seller list. I missed most of the fallout and didn’t follow the pre-release movie chatter. So I had no idea McCandless’ life evoked so much widespread disdain. But it seems, if my friends' and coworkers' opinions are any indication, my view that Chris McCandless is “not a douche” puts me in a minority of Alaskans.

It makes sense to me that person is either going to identify with Chris McCandless, or they’re not. What catches me off guard is the venom. Why hate him? Because he was stupid? (Given his success in his education, I think it would be hard to argue that he was stupid.) Because he was selfish? (Selfishness is such an omnipresent personality trait. I think it’s arguable that everybody is selfish in their own way.) Because he was naive? (Also such a common and life-shaping quality that it’s practically a virtue.) Because of the cruel way in which he cut off his family? (I think this is the great tragedy of the story, but I can step outside myself and recognize how a person could feel so alienated, and so trespassed against, that they felt they had no choice.)

Maybe people simply dislike him because he died, needlessly. People die of self-destructive means every day. People die from alcoholism and drug abuse; they drive recklessly and take dangerous chances. People make bad choices. People make fatal mistakes. But rarely do they draw so much ire ... or so much fame.

I wonder if that may be the anger's source ... the fame. What makes Chris McCandless so special? He certainly didn’t do anything new or original, especially in the eyes of many Alaska settlers, who have been tromping off into the subarctic wilderness and making their own way for more than a century. The fact that McCandless was an outsider, and completely unprepared, makes his canonization all the more infuriating. So many Alaskans were successful in their own “into the wild” endeavors, and remained anonymous their entire lives. When Chris died, he lost his anonymity. And with that, he evolved into something like a patron saint to the vagabonds and vagrants at heart, the people who are disillusioned with society and curious about what it would be like to give up on it completely - but don’t have the courage to do so.

I neither resent Chris McCandless’s fame, nor do I think he’s a “saint" or a “hero.” I think he was a really compelling person who espoused some of the ideals I cherish (not unlike Edward Abbey) but took an extreme path I would never take. Extreme actions tend to evoke extreme reactions. Chris McCandless has a volatile place in American history because his simple but stark story causes us, whether consciously or subconsciously, to ask some unsettling questions of ourselves. His extreme convictions cause us to question our own faith. His extreme passion causes us to ask where our own passion lies. His extreme solitude causes us to take stock of our own relationships. His extreme death causes us to consider our own mortality. I think Chris angers us not because he failed in his quest to live what was, at least in his mind, a true existence. It’s because he succeeded.


  1. Great post. I think people are most upset that he died needlessly. Reminds us of our own frailty.
    People don't like to be reminded.

  2. I haven't read the book or watched the movie. I have read a long-ish article on Chris and the various commentaries on the web - so take my comments in that light.

    The part I don't like about Chris' story is that if you really want to do something you believe in cool - whatever it is, but if you "really" do believe in something do the work required to be serious about it. He died because he didn't take the time and effort to learn the skills necessary to survive in the AK wilderness.

    Imagine how you'd feel at a winter ultra bike race if you came across a rider that needed your help, some of your tools & spare parts - maybe a rescue and you find out the guy bought a Pugsley and decided to trace without doing his homework. He didn't train properly or pack the right gear. He just showed up and decided to wing it.

    Funny thing is it reminds me of another story about the fellow who walked around the coast of Baja. He succeeded [luckily] and wrote a book which seems to be well received, but a lot of the comic relief in his book is about how grossly unprepared he was and some of the dumb mistakes he made. Now he lived and became mildly famous in some circles. Had he died due to his lack of preparation those same people who are buying his book would be thinking "moron".

    I think it is pretty universal in any culture that has to deal with a harsh climate that people who are unprepared or seem foolhardy that meet an untimely end are regarded pretty poorly. It is a cultural way to passing along the message "do your homework".

  3. Jill, that's a great picture; it really captures the spirit of "into the wild". Think I'll print it and put it up for inspiratioin.

  4. Us Americans, we like underdogs, not losers.

    Poor Chris was, in fact, a loser.

    I am staying away from the movie because Eddie Vedder's voice is like nails on the chalkboard to me. All that sincerity.

    Spare me.

  5. Great post.

    ...and, if you did happen to drop by my blog yesterday, thank you! :)

    It's one state checked off of the list either way, as I had two visitors from Alaska yesterday.

    Take care!

  6. I was scared of your post at first because I am dying to see the movie. First off, Krakauer is an amazing story teller and that book is a fantastic read no matter if you agree with Chris' take on life or not.

    I think that a lot of Gen (apply whatever letter best suits our generation)'ers will find they can empathize with Chris. Our generation is fighting a great battle. It is the battle against losing our precious parks, woods and forests.

    People can argue about his thoughts and beliefs on life but at least he lived a life that he wanted to live. Whether it was right or wrong is not a discussion in my book.

    I also don't think the "great Alaskan trip" is the big discussion factor. It is the most debated topic about him but I think people miss the point if they only look at that one fact.

    Anyway, great post.


  7. Wow, your last paragraph just put into order all the thoughts that had been sloshing around my head about Chris McCandless since I first read the book, and more recently saw the movie.

    Seems like a lot of folks don't dwell too much on the way the world is, too busy trying take care of themselves and their families maybe.

    Others have moments of realization that something about the way we live might not be inherently right. But generally dwell on the satisfaction they get from their day to day lives and relationships.

    For a few people though, the stark injustices of the world and the expectations of our society of how to live well, or correctly are blatantly, unignorably, and inexcusably wrong.

    I think McCandless was one of the latter types. He was regularly aware of the big picture injustices of life that most people only occasionally think about, and conversely, at the finer scale of life, was insensitive to the hardships he caused in his personal relationships.

    As for wandering off into the Alaskan wilderness "unprepared," how many of use found our way up here in our early 20's looking for adventure with a capital "A"? My hand is raised.

  8. I'm not from Alaska and I haven't seen the movie but I loved the book. I'm with you on this one. Maybe the disdain comes from the fact that he just wasn't macho enough or didn't have the right "gear" or that he was so amazingly vulnerable.

  9. Thanks Jill.

    You put into words what I have been trying to argue all week to my friends since I saw the movie on Sunday. As soon as I mention the movie, I here phrases like "stupid kid" and "what a loser". This angers me.

    I think of all of the climbers that die in Alaska (because they made mistakes, like Chris) and how they are called heroes. People say they died doing what they love so that makes it okay. How is this any different?

    People make mistakes in life, and it is part of what makes up who we are. I guess I feel this strong urge to defend him, because I relate to him as well.

  10. I think people often disdain people who die in ways that they see as wasteful. A free-climber falls to his death and we think: "He should have had a rope!" We don't think to ourselves that they lived life their way and died their way. Maybe a tiny part of us is jealous, I dunno.

    What is more disturbing is that many such people try to then save us from ourselves. "Well, we need to close this cliff to climbing!" Why? Because someone died? We don't close highways to cars because someone died (what a thought, but I digress).

    I can imagine in the afterlife one would rather have died living than lived dying.

  11. "I am staying away from the movie because Eddie Vedder's voice is like nails on the chalkboard to me."

    Juancho, are you serious? Eddie Vedder is probably the best vocalist in rock right now. Others scream or rasp, he sings. Oh well, to each his own... :) To me, that's one of the draws of the movie, and I can't wait to see it.

  12. I just read the book about 2 months ago, now I must mentally stop myself from dropping everything and heading the other direction from work every morning. Can I identify with McCandless?? You bet I can, I wish I had the cajones....

  13. Great post - I look forward to seeing the film. I haven't read the book either - think I'll do that first.

    As an aside: "I am staying away from the movie because Eddie Vedder's voice is like nails on the chalkboard to me." - I totally agree - I feel like wandering off into the wilderness and getting eaten by a grizzly when I hear his voice.



    Mungo Says Bah

  14. I agree with what Vik had to say about Chris McCandless -- most people I know are resentful because he chose to go off into a grand "adventure" half-cocked. I personally don't hate him for that, but I do think he was stupid, and I don't like it when other people's lives are endangered and our resources are used because of someone's hubris. Although Chris died and wasn't rescued, I think to a lot of people, he represents a group of people who put themselves in dangerous situations without thinking about how it might affect others.

    It did make me very sad to see how Chris chose to make his statement against society. I agree that modern society is greedy and wasteful; however, instead of choosing to help others, Chris chose to burn his cash and then spend his life wandering around, doing no good. I felt like it was a waste of the resources he did have. He could have made a much bigger statement by helping others in need.

  15. i like what the person who posted last said, about how he "represents a group of people who put themselves in dangerous situations without thinking about how it might affect others".

    i have yet to see the movie--i will, soon--but i remember just being frustrated, not so much by him, and not my his "fame" but by the myth he seems to become. people die in alaska all the time, and i'm okay with that. i don't think his story is particularly worth making a movie out of, over all the other stories out there. and i don't think he's worth turning into a mythological figure, which is what he seems to have become to a lot of people my age.

    on a different scale, i have a general frustration with people who come to alaska (or any place they define as wilderness, really) with hopes that it will solve their problems, soothe their souls, expand their mind... but without much respect for what it can do to them that might not be so uplifting. the purpose of wilderness--or any natural landscape, really--has nothing to do with us. it's not there to solve our problems. we just like to think it can.

  16. Wow! This is the first post of yours I've read (link from Lauren's blog) and I'm just Wowed.

    Thanks for putting into words what I was thinking when I read the book - I do have mixed feelings about seeing the movie but your "review" will get me there. Thanx.

    I can see why some Alaskans would hate it.

  17. All I know is that if I were always as prepared for everything as I should be, I'd probably never leave my house.

  18. Thanks everyone for all of the great thoughts.

    I tend to agree with Brittany. Just how does one judge a state of preparedness? Chris' level of preparedness was unorthodox for sure, but it wasn't inconsistent with his goals. His goal was to be completely self-sufficient in the wild. One can question the wisdom of that goal, but they can't question that he was "prepared" to meet it, by taking almost nothing with him (even though he did eventually accept help from society, such as the boots from the last guy who gave him the ride, and his decision to live in an abandoned bus.) He made a decent go of it, too, keeping himself alive and healthy for nearly three months before he made his fatal mistake. I'm confident that's a whole lot better than I could do. But have no doubt, if I ever decide to take a three-month camping trip in the Alaska backcountry, I am going the be "prepared" with an 80-pound pack, GPS, maps, a gun, and plenty of food drops and/or stops planned. Still, how do I know when I am sufficiently "prepared?" One can never really know, because nature is chaotic and uncertain, and cares nothing about our level of experience or knowledge.

    I come from a bit of a defensive perspective on this point, because right now I am planning on embarking on an "adventure" that many would consider "reckless," "crazy," "dangerous." It most certainly is dangerous. I plan to devote all the time, money and energy I can spare to preparing for the dangers. But will I be prepared enough? Only time knows that answer.

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  20. You know what, Chris McCandliss was a dreamer. He believed he had a personal visionary quest and he gave it his all. Was he sometimes given to cheesy, hippie rhetoric? Yep. Was he practical and prepared in all respects? Certainly not. Was he a gear head, weekend warrior like all the shitheads who stand around and judge him harshly, out of hand - absolutely fucking not. Would he give a crap what those people have to say? Who knows, but given his conviction, his complete repudiation of his antecedents, his idealism, his pigheadedness, his purposeful tunnel vision planted right towards the sky, I seriously doubt it. Was he selfish? He was 23! For all we know he would have called his mom from Cantwell and then gone on to join the Peace Corps. Folks act like they know everything! Remember, a lot's not known about him, and what we do know we're getting from John Krakauer and Sean Penn, both arrogant polemicists posing as reporters and biographers. Personally, I wish he'd just walked down the river to the suspended cart which would have taken him safely across, or brought a lot more food with him, or been more knowledgeable about Alaskan flora (although the wild potato theory has been more or less disproved). I wish these things for him so that he wouldn't have died, not so that he wouldn't have been 'such a dumb ass.' He might have been 'unprepared,' but I would rather live in a world where some people have the guts to make bold, dangerous choices because they have an idealistic dream, regardless of how savvy or strong or whatever they may be. Bottom line. Come what may. And one last thing - he didn't endanger anyone else, don't put that line on him. He didn't try to climb Denali, he holed up in a bus and poached a moose. And I'm sorry, but that whole Colorado river thing was just fucking cool.

  21. What bugs me about the whole thing is that McCandless's story amounts to little more than an unremarkable failure; lots of kids show his kind of early promise but fall along the way for any number of reasons - broken promises, broken homes, broken dreams - and then they, too, get mired down in meaninglessness - drugs, goal-less wandering, dead-end jobs, harmful relationships, whatever. I feel bad for the kid; like Pete, I wish he had found his way back out. I thought Krakauer's book, although well-researched, in the end amounted to pointless nosiness. There's no "there" there. Maybe McCandless was a special kid, but you know, they all are, and it's sad when they fall.

  22. Personally, I have been pondering my own reactions to this film and the mystique around it. Before the film actually came out, I had read that people had been making pilgrimages to the bus.

    This repulsed me. It struck me on several levels, but mostly, that it was the glorification of a very misguided individual. McCandless was not saint, he was a little boy lost I think.

    I have read Abbey, Thoreau, Kerouac, and of course London and know that "feeling" that McCandless had, but I would never be so silly as to assume I could live off the land in the bush without the proper planning. Planning that would include a map and a compass.

    Had McCandless had a proper map and a sense of the land, he could have located the cache not 2 miles away. He also could have found a way across the river. However, because he did none of the prep, he ended up dying slowly from malnutrition and perhaps toxic plant ingestion.

    I am just two years older than he would be today. He and I had similar ideals and ideas I think from reading the book and his journal entries. Chris had many contradictory and naive ideas in his head as all late teens to twenty somethings do. He acted on them and in typical fashion of the age, did so with little thought to the potential consequences.

    I have been running this all through my head again after seeing the film and feeling somewhat ambivalent about it. I guess what it really comes down to for me now is this...

    He was no folk hero...

    He did live the way he wanted to and I can appreciate and perhaps even envy that...

    I find it funny that he wanted to remove himself from society, but always found himself on its periphery. Until that is, he went to AK where he died "on his own" Thus proving that he was not an island unto himself, and NOT able to "live off the land" Ask any Alaskan, you need people there to survive.

    More than anything, had he really wanted to affect change, he could have done more with his life than donate 24K to Oxfam, he could have volunteered and made some lives better...


  23. hello from Fairbanks--I enjoyed reading your commentary about McCandless. I was just out at bus 142 and since then I have been stumbling around the web to see if any other AK bloggers were expressing their thoughts about the story of Chris...

  24. If you really know the Chris's story you will understand that embarking on his journey to Alaska was something he HAD to do. No, I don't think you can call him stupid. He was prepared in a lot of ways for being a college boy.

    Definetely see the movie, there is more to the story than in the book in a lot of ways. Chris's family contributed a lot to the story line in the movie. Sean Penn could and wanted to put out this movie much earlier, but was holding out for more information from the family. I'm guessing that a lot of the dialogue between the people he met on his travels was formulated in the movie, but I think it helped the story tremendously.

  25. I realize this is an old post and most will never read this comment, but for those skimming the archives, my .02$

    The kid lived and lost his life on his own terms. There is no grand purpose to our lives. Regardless of what he did, since it did not effect any of his critics(save family and friends) who assualt his memory, I do not see the origen of the emotion they feel.

    I think they are the fake ones, who are perhaps jealous that he had teh stones, if not the vision, to do something bigger than himself. That they wish they could, but are irate that they never can, live out their own dreams. The hatred comes from within, and is only directed out to keep from hurting themselves.


  26. Thank-you for your sensitive post about what was obviously a very troubled young man. That he suffered from some sort of disassociative disorder is readily apparent given his cruel renunciation of his family and, ultimately, himself. His "seeker" and "visionary" status given Krakauer is much more humane and kind than the vitriolic comments by so many. To those who were so scorching in their hatefulness I ask you, what's YOUR problem?


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