I remember reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer the summer before senior year started in high school. It was one of the assigned books by my AP language arts teacher. If I could go back now to see those first moments when it really made an impression, I think I’d tear up a little. See, Chris McCandless (Alexander Supertramp) was one of those guys that really had a strong motivation to throw off the fetters of a discordant society. It was the first time I had come across literature like this, and nothing has been quite the same since.
I can recollect being thoroughly glued to the pages of this book. In particular, I have a fond memory of being on a camp trip with my family, sitting by the fireside and reading, much in awe that one man chose to go out on his own to explore the U.S. by hitchhiking and working odd jobs.
McCandless has received a lot of criticism over the years for his untimely death (spoiler alert!) and his novice understanding of survival skills as he ventured out into the Alaskan wilderness. His death was officially ruled to be from starvation, though this is still subject to some debate.
As I read on, something was sparked within me, that perhaps, only to be discovered by the courageous, there was something to be known inside that is not often known by the hapless, the labor drones, the 9 to 5ers set on amassing money for such creature comforts as television, nice cars and retirement.
I was a confused kid in high school (who wasn’t?) and I had just been broken up with by a girl I thought had really been into me (oh, the futility of high school relationships). So, as I sat reading by the light of the fire, already well endowed with travel from having camped all over the mid-west with my family, I learned that it was possible to extend travel into something more than the occasional vacation from work and school.
This single man I attribute to igniting my drive to become nomadic (Emphatically!).
Do you know how everyone will tell you that the book is always better than the movie? In this case, I’m not so sure. Sean Penn directed a movie about Chris McCandless a few years after the book came out under the same name, Into the Wild. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend watching the movie. At the time of writing this, the movie is on Netflix.
Emile Hirsch, the lead actor playing McCandless brings such raw emotion to his on screen portrayal of the itinerant traveler. There’s one scene of great significance that comes to mind when I think of this movie. Picture this: A herd of elk are running through the Alaskan outback, the sun is coming down on a frigid evening, and McCandless is portrayed running up to the wild beasts to catch a sight of their majesty, tearing up with joy as he nears. I swear by it, I tear up with him every time.
It’s this kind of acting that leads me to believe McCandless was just like this during his life. He was undaunted, unbroken, resolute, and actual in his pursuit of the raw and ravishing splendor embedded within nature.
In the years that I followed, I started to read more from prominent naturalist writers: Thoreau, Tolstoy, London, Emerson; those of which are mention by McCandless in his recovered journal entries. These writers, I began to feel, were truly onto something. There wasn’t convoluted theories espoused on religion, or the hereafter. What they had to offer was something ever-present, effervescent, and hidden between the cracks of socially conditioned thinking.
Maybe from a professional standpoint McCandless was naive. Maybe he should have prepared more before he took flight. Maybe he hardly knew himself and his place in the world as a man meant to contribute to society. But let me ask you this: Can many of us say we truly know our place? Is there ever really a “place” in the world specifically meant for us? And should we stop ourselves from truly setting forth in search of that elusive inborn godliness, even if it means risking our lives?
I guess it depends on who you ask, where they’ve come from, and where they are now.
McCandless was a graduate of an Ivy league school. Following his graduation, he drove his Datsun through Arizona, California, and South Dakota, took a kayak down into Mexico, and hitchhiked up into Fairbanks, Alaska, where he attempted to live off the land for a number of months before meeting his end.
As many before us have gone and carried out, we have an enduring dream to see the “magic bus” where McCandless passed in August of 1992. It would be a kind of ritual, a pilgrimage for us that would bring us in full circle back to the nomad who, for us, started it all.
If you like McCandless, dislike him, or simply want to voice your thoughts on him, drop a comment below. We’ll be happy to read how his story has influenced others.
Thanks for reading!