“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”– Chris McCandless, in a letter to his friend, “Ron”
Into the Wild is a haunting biography of Christopher McCandless, also known to the world as “Alex Supertramp”. By April of 1922, the intelligent young man, estranged from his family and known to a few friends only as “Alex”, abandoned his car, donated the 25,000 dollars in his savings to charity, burned the cash in his wallet, and hitchhiked to Fairbanks, Alaska. In that month he “walked into the wild” leaving no trail behind himself. In September local moose hunters discovered his emaciated corpse in a sleeping bag inside a nearly ancient bus.
Reporter John Krakauer attempts to piece together the story of what happened to Chris McCandless through diary entries, artifacts left behind, and interviews with those who knew the young man as “Chris” and those who knew him as “Alex. The author does insert stories of other such adventures who left life behind, as well as a story from his own young adult years, in an attempt to understand the kind of mindset that may have driven McCandless unprepared into the Alaskan wilderness.
At first I was angry with the author for using the name “Chris” when the subject of our story clearly wanted to be known to the world as “Alexander Supertramp”. Why not call him Alex? The book will answer that question with McCandless’s final note, which he signs as “Chris”. It seems in the end, Chris did decide to reclaim the name given to him at birth. Or perhaps in his dying mind, he simply used the name he had known the longest, or the one that might give his family the most comfort, the only name that they knew him by. We won’t ever know exactly why Chris changed his name to Alex, or what name he would prefer attached to his story now. I’m a proponent of supporting people in whatever way they identify, so it took me until the end of the book to understand why the author referred to this young man with his birth name. Based on his last written statements and the language used in the book, I have chosen to call McCandless by his given name, “Chris” in this review as well.
Laying aside my initial annoyance with the author over the issue of names, I found his style of reporting and narration to be compelling. He starts with what his audience (in 1996) would have likely known already from the past nearly four years of news reports. Then, after explaining how Chris, known as Alex, got to Alaska, he delves into the backstory of why this college educated, privileged young man felt compelled to go into the wild. The answer is not clear, of course, but the author does an excellent job of bringing together the details known to all parties who knew McCandless and leaving the question both answered and open. The author does acknowledge some errors in his initial reporting on the story and apologizes for the way that led readers to think of Chris McCandless as incompetent. As it turns out, Chris, although woefully unprepared and naïve, but he was not incompetent. Only a couple of very minor mistakes caused his death. If not for an incomplete entry in his botany book, Chris would likely have lived to walk out of those woods in August or September as he had planned.
The story is a tragedy. But it is also full of discovery. Readers know what happened to McCandless in the end. It’s not the destination of this story that is so compelling. It’s the journey.
Pictured above to the left: The McCandless family: Carine, Walt, Chris, and Billie. Chris also has siblings from his father’s first marriage. They play an important roll in Chris’s decision to leave home.
Pictured above to the right: Chris, also known at the time as Alex, with a porcupine. This is a self portrait found on his camera in the 142 bus in which he died. He survived for several months in the wilderness by hunting squirrel, grouse, and porcupine, as well as by foraging for edible plants.
Pictured above: The bus in which Chris’s remains were discovered. Chris discovered what he called the “magic bus” relatively early in his travels. He moved on, but later returned and spent the majority of his adventure near the bus. It was outfitted with a bunk and a stove and was mostly wind and bear proof. McCandless’s story inspired many to travel to see the “magic bus”. Two unfortunately perished in their attempts to reach it. As many as fifteen had to be rescued and retrieved from their quest. As a result, the bus no longer resides on the trail, but is now located in UAF’s Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Pictured above: Chris’s final message and a self portrait in front of the landscape. He is holding a card that reads, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All! – Chris”. This picture was likely taken a day or two at most before McCandless perished.
“I now walk into the wild.”– Chris McCandless, in a postcard to his friend, Wayne
- Compelling main character who captures the heart of difficult questions.
- A heartbreaking mystery
- Interviews with family and friends piece together a mosaic of who Chris McCandless became over the course of his travels
- Makes you want to go on an adventure and will give a greater appreciation for independence, family, and nature.
- It is terribly difficult to get to “know” Chris McCandless and his motivations. There isn’t always enough information.
“I’d like to repeat the advice that I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”– Chris McCandless in a letter to his friend, “Ron”
- Those interested in transcendalist literature and authors.
- Those who have or want to see the movie based on Chris’s journey.
- Those who long for a slower life, feel an unyielding sense of adventure, or who can relate to Chris in any way
Books to Read if You Loved Into the Wild:
- The Wild Truth: A Memoir by Carine McCandless (by Chris’s sister and also about Chris!)
- Into Thin Air by John Krakauer (same author!)
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
- The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (on my list to read soon!)
Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)
- Knowing that there is no simple answer to this question, in your opinion did Chris achieve what he set out to accomplish?
- Why do you think so many have set out on their own pilgrimages to the “Magic Bus” in the years since the publication and filming of Into the Wild?
- If you have read this story, are you interested in reading the book published by Chris’s sister, Carine? Why or why not?