In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter..."
So begins Jon Krakauer's compelling biography of Chris McCandless. He was twenty-four year's old, a gifted athlete, exceptionally intelligent, and a recent graduate of Emory University. He also had a lingering and internal resentment of his family - both for their wealth and love of the material which he found to be valueless and deeper personal issues surrounding his and his sister's early childhood. In addition his was enamored with the works of Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Jack London and seeked to emulate them. Oddly enough he was able to forgive and even overlook the faults of his heros when he could not forgive those who loved him most.
Following McCandless' graduation from Emory he announced to his family that he would be spending the summer on a cross-country road trip. As he had completed such journey's previously, this was met without surprise. It was expected that in August he would be attending law school. He did not return in August. There was no phone call, no letter, not even a postcard to inform his family that he instead intended to travel around the country as a "rubber-tramp." He spent the next two years doing just that, eventually ditching his trusty Datsun in the desert, abandoning all his possessions except those he could carry on his back, and burning all his cash. He traversed all across the American West, even crossing Baja in a canoe. He seemed to charm and leave and indelible impression on just about every person he met. This quest culminated in a journey into the Alaskan wild, where he lived out of an abandoned bus, utterly isolated, surviving entirely on his wits and what he could hunt or scavenge. Four months later, six back-country hunters and hikers converged on the bus he had made his base camp, discovering his emaciated corpse accompanied by a haunting plea for help.
McCandless' story was at once both awe-inspiring and a cautionary lesson. In the beginning I found myself regularly shaking my head over what seemed to be a utter lack of common sense and compassion. By the end, I was amazed at his convictions and resilience. Reading the biography, I was not blown away by Krakauer's writing. I'm still not sure I am. However, it must have got to me, or maybe it was just Chris McCandless who did. I really get what drove him to wander the deserts and frontiers of Western North America. I understand his desire to be who he wants to be and not a slave to societal or familial expectations. I admire him for actually doing it. But at the same time he made some very selfish choices and foolish mistakes. I get wanting to spend time in solitude, reliant only upon yourself, but to trek into the Alaskan wild without the benefit of a compass, map, or radio is downright foolhardy. It was these foolish choices that ultimately cost him his life. Some condemn him for being a brash, arrogant and stupid youth, while others - like Krakauer, seem to treat him as a modern day hero. I think the truth, as is often the case, can be found somewhere in between.