Emotion #1: Critique and Criticism
On the surface, “Into the Wild” is a book about a wealth young man (Christopher McCandless) who gives away all his money and embarks on a life of a hobo, thumbing his way across the American West – only to die of starvation in 1992 in the wilderness of Alaska due to his choice not to carry a map of the area in which he was camping.
In a nut shell, that is the book – and the movie it spawned.
As an avid wilderness backpacker, I distained Christopher McCandless’ decision to go out into the “wild” without carrying a map or a compass. To me, this one simple fact was enough to keep me from reading or otherwise thinking about his life or death.
Yet, as you can tell, I did read the book… mostly, to be honest, because a good friend and backpacking buddy met McCandless years ago while returning to the lower 48 states from Alaska (McCandless was on his way north at the time). Then there was another friend who read Krakauer’s book and identified with McCandless’ journey to forsake the craziness of modern consumer life and escape to raw beauty of nature.
So I read it.
Emotion #2: Mental Understanding
As I listened to the story, I begin to understand a little more about McCandless’ decision to forsake everything and go on the road. Honestly, how many of us dream of casting off the 9-to-5 work days and running from the ‘keeping-up-with-the-Jones” mentality of world today? How many of us have dreamed about picking a mountain trail and never turning back – living off the land and walking until we want to stop instead of being tied to a clock and food provisions?
McCandless just did it.
Sometimes I wonder if he couldn’t have made a ‘bigger’ impact by going to law school (he finished his undergrad degree days before he left on his journey) and teaching others to limit their consumer mentality…then again, as a friend argued, his live did impact thousands – if not millions – of people via Krakauer’s book and the movie that followed.
Emotion #3: Philosophical
One of the interesting things about the book “Into the Wild” is that Krakauer does not limit the book to just McCandless’ story. Instead, he weaves in stories of other people who tempted fate like McCandless. These are the folks who lived on the edge of society – who instead of being satisfied in the concrete jungles of modern life, drifted into the wild lands of the Rocky Mountains or the wilds of Alaska.
Some of these men wrote letters to their families and friends – letters which tell of their love of the land and the beauty of the wild.
Krakauer also tells a bit of his own story. How he quite his job as a carpenter and attempted to climb the Devil’s Thumb in Alaska. This was his dream – a dream that flew in the face of his fathers plans for him, similar to how McCandless dreams did not mesh with his parents plans… In this way, even though they were separated by time and distance – they both joined in the same journey to push themselves to the limit and discover who they really were.
This way, “Into the Wild” tells of the philosophical journey to find ones self without the hindrance of ones’ family or modern distractions.
Emotion #4: Grudging Respect
Christopher McCandless lived for a tad over 100 days in the Alaskan wilds with only 10 pounds of rice, a .22 calibre ride, some boxes of ammo, a camera and some books.
Could I do that? I doubt it.
And it is because of this that I have to admit that I am impressed with McCandless’ ability to survive.
Yet, it is a ‘grudging respect’ as I still think he was dumb not to take a map or a compress into the wilderness…but, on the other hand, I can understand why he did so… as Krakauer states:
McCandless had a desire for “being the first to explore a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map–not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.”
I must, at this point, return to the case of McCandless’ death. The simple truth is that he starved to death. However, the simple facts sometimes cover over truths that lead to the facts.
In this case, it is likely that McCandless accidently poisoned himself eating the seed pods of a wild potato plant, which prior to his death, was unknown to have any toxics. This mistake of fate added to the fact that McCandless was already thin due to his low calories diet, caused his body to turn against itself – leading to his death.
There is a little bit of Christopher McCandless in a lot of us. A small part that would love to leave everything behind and start afresh – living off the land and seeing new places like the long hunters of old.
Yet, the wilderness is still wild. It is unforgiving and very, very hard on the body. All who wonder into the wilds must realize this and give respect to nature and the hard cruelty of the land.
Enjoy the beauty and the trail. But remember that death lays waiting for the unprepared and foolish.