“In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.”
So begins Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a wildly popular work of nonfiction that was “Entertainment Weekly” magazine’s best book of 1996. Wild is the story of Chris McCandless, a free spirit, an adventurer who dreamed of living off the grid. He graduated from college in 1990 (just a year before me), and spent two years roaming the U.S. and Mexico, at first by car and then on foot and hitchhiking, before moving on to something more ambitious: his plan to trek into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land, by himself, for a summer.
McCandless did significant journaling on his travels, so we know a lot about how he subsisted that summer in Alaska, shooting mostly small game; foraging for wild plants aided by a local-plants guidebook; and working his way through a 25-pound bag of rice he had brought with him. Against the odds, he survived quite well for about two months. He was proud of himself for achieving his goal, and ready to rejoin some version of civilization, when he found that a river he had crossed with no trouble on his way into the bush had significantly swollen with glacial melt in the meantime, and was now utterly uncrossable. He returned to his campsite, presumably to wait it out, and six weeks later was dead. His body was discovered about a month later.
When Krakauer initially wrote an article about McCandless’ death for “Outside” magazine, there was rampant speculation about what had caused his precipitous decline and death. Many readers, perhaps especially Alaskans, blamed his lack of preparation, his arrogance, and his supreme overconfidence about his abilities to master the wild. They saw McCandless’ behavior and attitude typical of non-Alaskans who think they’ve got Alaska figured out before they even arrive.
But Chris McCandless DID survive. Against the odds, providing nearly all his sustenance by himself, he lived fairly successfully off the land for an Alaskan summer. Krakauer makes a convincing case that that alone is an accomplishment. McCandless, ready to leave the Alaskan wilderness after two months, was a thinner, shaggier version of himself…but he had proven he could do it. And yet six weeks later he died, desperately sick and alone. Why? Initial readers of Krakauer’s first article didn’t seem to care about the why; they debated instead whether Chris McCandless was courageous and nobly idealistic, or a reckless, arrogant nutcase who deserved what he got.
One of the advantages of reading books from this list 20 years after the fact is that you sometimes get updates added to later editions of a book that shed more light on the story. It might be an interview with the author about how the book’s popularity has affected her life; it might be an afterword written by the author himself, with updates on the book’s subject. I like putting books in context and knowing the backstory, so I typically love any extra material that add more depth to the story.
With no book has this been truer than with Into the Wild. The afterword of the 2015 edition sheds a fascinating light on the actual “why” of McCandless’ death. Challenged by readers in the 19 years since its original publication, Krakauer and others did significant further research into what really happened to Chris McCandless. Far from being an arrogant neophyte, Chris actually had a very clear sense of what was causing his decline. In the words of researcher Ron Hamilton, quoted in the afterword, “…it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was ignorance…which must be forgiven, for the facts underlying his death were to remain unrecognized by all, scientists and lay people alike, literally for decades.” This extra material in the 2015 edition alone makes it worth picking up, even if you, unlike me, did read this book 20 years ago.
The other advantage to reading these books so much later than they came out is the benefit of reading them from a different point in life experience. When Wild was published, I was about the age Chris McCandless himself would have been; I was getting married and “starting” life, and had I read this book then I think I would have had even less sympathy for its hero. Because frankly, you kind of want to hate Chris McCandless.
People he met up with on his journeys have reported that he was among the hardest workers they ever met, meticulous and thorough even in the most menial of jobs. He was helpful, friendly, self-reliant…and before leaving on his odyssey, he donated his entire law-school fund, $24,000.00, to Oxfam.
These good qualities notwithstanding, McCandless more often than not comes off as an insufferable d-bag. With all the idealism of a 20-something fresh out of college, he’s judgy about his parents’ past mistakes, and he’s sure he knows exactly what everyone else should be doing with their lives (i.e. living one like his). When he no longer needs supplies or vehicles, he abandons them, making them at once both a blight on the natural landscape he claims to love (so much for protecting nature), and someone else’s mess to clean up. His journal is often pretentiously written in the third person; at one point, he actually burns all his remaining cash. At $123.00, it’s a symbolic gesture…but literally burning money has to represent the pinnacle of privilege.
So for a while, I hated Chris McCandless. I have none of that impulse he possessed in spades, that desire to separate myself from loved ones, to leave behind the known world, to take potentially life-changing risks. Really: I have NONE. Frankly, his actions come across as selfish and judgmental: When Chris died, he hadn’t spoken to his parents in over two years. With one phone call, they were transformed from people who longed simply for their son to call, from anywhere, and let them know he was okay, to people who will live the rest of their lives with the heartbreak of wondering what could we have done differently? Imagine asking that question about your dead kid for the rest of your life.
Even the author, who interviewed the family extensively, admits that it’s hard to find sympathy for his subject sometimes:
“A month later Billie sits at her dining room table, sifting through the pictorial record of Chris’s final days. It is all she can do to force herself to examine the fuzzy snapshots. As she studies the pictures, she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow.”
And that’s why Jon Krakauer is exactly the right person to have written this book.
Krakauer’s own life resembled Chris McCandless life in many ways: A demanding, competitive father who accepted only the best performance from his kids; an unparalleled love of nature and adventure; a risk-taking personality unafraid to be afraid. Seen through Krakauer’s eyes, as he shares some of his own near-death experiences, McCandless desires make more sense. I can’t relate to it because I’ve never experienced it, but Krakauer helped me at least understand it. The author describes one of his own adventures as a young man which could have easily ended with his premature death; a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I experience that he was lucky to have escaped. There’s no question that he could understand the roots of McCandless’ wanderlust better than most.
Coming at this now, twenty years on, with a different worldview, Wild has much more to offer than if I had read it when it was published in 1996.
These days, I’m a parent myself, and it’s no surprise that the passages about Chris’ parents, their grief, and how they found a measure of peace by visiting the site where he died, hit me the hardest. Most parents, when asked, will say that they just want their kids to be happy. Hopefully we want them to follow their passions as well. And while nothing–NOTHING–could make up for the death of a child, the last pictures Chris took of himself in the wilderness–starving, acknowledging his imminent death, and holding up his farewell note to the camera–nevertheless show a Chris happy and at peace. He knew the risks going in, he lived his last few months exactly as he dreamed, and his zest for life is unmistakable. It might be hard to forgive your child for leaving you, but as a parent, one has to hope that a “happy” death might have some, any, redeeming value.
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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