Into the Wild

into the wildI heard about Chris McCandless’s trip into the Alaskan wilderness decades before I read Jon Krakauer’s take on it. After all, his back yard almost looked into mine: he grew up in Annandale, Virginia, just a few years older than I was in neighboring Alexandria. When he made a few crucial mistakes and starved to death on the Alaskan Stampede Trail in August 1992, I saw it in the news. Not to mention that I was (and am) a folk music fan, and the band Eddie From Ohio (Virginia-based, despite the name) has a song on their album Actually Not about his quest and his death.

Chris was no philosopher
he was an ordinary man
twenty-four and running out of room
a rifle and a pack
and a sack of rice on his back
guided by Tolstoy and the moon
into the Yukon he would go
in search of a higher truth
Christopher would make a break
with this world
but he never escaped his youth

Into the Wild is an expansion of Krakauer’s long article for Outside magazine, which was written in January 1993. While the prose is crystal-clear and straightforward (after all, the man is an experienced 20th-century journalist), he has no trouble understanding the emotions and motivations of those involved. He evokes Chris as a type of young man who wasn’t made to fit into society in an ordinary way; someone who wanted to experience solitude and nature much more radically than most people ever desire. Krakauer brings up several examples of this kind of young man from America’s past — men who left jobs and families behind and went to live in completely wild places, depending on a sack of rice, a book, and their own instincts. Not many came back alive.

Krakauer traces Chris McCandless’s wanderings around the United States, and his often-reckless behavior. It’s clear that Chris was slowly shedding possessions. He’d stopped contacting his family in any meaningful way. For his final trip down the Stampede Trail, he had 10 pounds of rice, a .22 caliber rifle and rounds for it, and some books: Tolstoy, Jack London, Thoreau. He had no other gear (not even snow boots), no tent or sleeping bag, no food supplies other than the rice. He survived there over 100 days; he might have made it out if his tendency to take extreme risks hadn’t finally turned on him.

Four months alone in the ice and snow
is a long way from Annandale
locals and trappers and Eskimos
knew better than to trust that trail
at one with the earth he loved so well
a retreat from the civilized
hunger and emptiness took their toll
Chris McCandless passed us by

Krakauer introduces the book by admitting, rather nervously, that although he’s an objective journalist, this particular story calls to something inside him. He, too, was a risk-taker, a solitary wanderer, when he was young, but instead of hiking in Alaska, he climbed mountains. (Did he ever! I’ve read Into Thin Air.) He spends several chapters of the book describing his reckless solo ascent of the Devils Thumb, from which he was more than fortunate to return alive. It’s clear that some of his sympathy for Chris comes from their similarity: it might have been Krakauer’s family who spent a lifetime grieved and puzzled about why their son did what he did, if things had turned out differently. But Krakauer’s sympathy allows us the grace to see things his way, and we wind up liking and admiring Chris, even though we see all his flaws and stubbornness.

It strikes me that this sort of proceeding is the most helpful for any research we do. “Objectivity” is a myth, even in science; the questions we ask determine the answers we get, and who gets to determine the questions? Shining a light on our own sympathies and histories and standpoints and beliefs doesn’t eliminate bias. But pretending we have none merely makes it worse. Krakauer’s approach tells us what we need to know, and asks us to examine our own inner Alaska, as well: our need for solitude, our need for connection.

Sahara will never be the south of France
obvious with the rising sun
if I had no home
I’d build one in the sand
if I didn’t have a love I’d find me one
if I didn’t have a love I’d find me one

(quotations from “Sahara,” by Eddie from Ohio)

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18 Responses to Into the Wild

  1. christopherlord1 says:

    When I was in a book club back in the day, this was the rare non-fiction book (along with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Color of Water) that generated a lively and heated discussion (the record for heat being held by Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years). We were deeply divided as to whether Chris was sane and reckless or mentally unstable. One of the things I liked best is that Krakauer has the ability to reveal character; what he can’t do is to explain it, because the truth in this case is elusive. And that’s what makes the story so compelling. Along with Krakauer’s exceptional ability to communicate a sense of place.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure that Krakauer came down on one side or the other of that divide, either. He pointed out a lot of things as evidence on each side. His own affinity with Chris made him lean a little more on the reckless side, but it’s hard to tell. I can see that the debate would be heated! And I do agree about the sense of place.

  2. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    This sounds interesting! I’ve never thought about reading it, but your review makes me curious.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s a beautiful book, and very sharply written, and it’s quite short. If it’s over 200 pages, it’s not by much. So far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what he’s written.

  3. Sadly this was a DNF for me. I just couldn’t stand Chris. I found him to be such a brat. Love Krakauer’s writing and loved the other two books by him that I’ve read but not this one.

    • Jenny says:

      I can see why you would think that, but he didn’t come across that way to me. He endangered himself a lot, and he estranged himself from his family, but he also responded to new relationships and kept in touch with those people (pre-email and basically pre-cell phone, remember). And he found jobs he liked and worked hard at them, and made plans for himself and carried them out. He wasn’t in synch with what most people do and I probably wouldn’t have him over to dinner, but he didn’t strike me as entitled.

  4. boardinginmyforties says:

    This was a great read but as a parent I wanted to reach through the pages of the book and make Chris stop his reckless behavior. It seems like he had a death wish but I think maybe he was just an impulsive young man…good read though!

    • Jenny says:

      I think Krakauer was pretty persuasive that he didn’t have a death wish — he just thought he was immortal up until almost the very end. It sounded to me as if he wanted a lot of extreme experiences to remind him of his connection with life and nature. Most people don’t need that. As a parent, I agree, it was a tough read!

  5. Teresa says:

    I only just realized a few months ago that song was about Chris MacCandless. I’d not paid any attention to the words, but I happened to catch the name when listening to it recently, and I went back and listened to the whole thing more carefully.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s a great song even without the associations, but the album came out that same year, in 1993, and the news was fresh for me then. I wonder if they knew him? He went to Emory for college, but maybe one of them knew him in high school, or just read the Outside magazine article. Anyway, the song is lovely.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t Krakauer a good storyteller? I read this a number of years ago not long after reading Into Thin Air. I started it thinking Chris was an ignorant back-to-nature yahoo but Krakauer convinced me otherwise and I ended up having real sympathy for Chris. We may never know exactly what caused his death but clearly he wasn’t without knowledge or skill.

    • Jenny says:

      I know from reading a lot about Arctic and Antarctic exploration that cold and starvation can do a number on your cognition. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ate something bad simply because he was starving and freezing and his brain was responding poorly; it’s been known to happen. But I agree that Krakauer’s narration is wonderful. It’s a complicated story, and he brings us right along!

  7. Deb says:

    Very recently (within the last year), I read an article that suggested that Chris was slowly poisoned by a plant he was eating. There was a lot of technical, botanical information and–if I remember rightly–Krakauer himself did not agree with the findings; but as you say, we may never know what actually caused Chris’s death.

    Have you read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven? A very interesting book about the loosely-affiliated network of breakaway polygamous Mormon communities in the American southwest and, specifically, the murder of a woman and her child from one of those sects.

    • Jenny says:

      I did see that information (but on Wikipedia, not in a real article, shame on me.) I think it could easily be that, but the main point is that it’s very easy to make mistakes when you are starving and freezing — and even if it’s a small mistake at first, it can be fatal if you don’t have the margin to back out of it.

      I haven’t read Under the Banner of Heaven, but I have a friend who absolutely loves that book. I think Krakauer could tell a good story about almost anything, though.

  8. Stephanie says:

    This is a really great review and almost makes me want to go back and revisit it. I read it many years ago and I remember liking the book and thinking Krakauer did a great job but I had a really hard time getting into Chris’ head space even with Krakauer’s skill. I’m a wildlife biologist and totally get the need to connect with nature but my impression of Chris was of someone who had a romantic and little real world understanding of wilderness and who walked into that situation completely unprepared. I couldn’t forgive him for that. On another note I was born and raised in VA (though I now call IA home) and I LOVE Eddie from Ohio. I bust them out whenever I’m feeling homesick.

    • Jenny says:

      I was hoping someone else would connect with the EFO reference! Heh. Well, I think Chris must have had a pretty good understanding of wilderness, or he would never have survived 119 days with the gear he had. I doubt I personally would have survived a week. He almost made it out! You must know from your own experience and reading that just one or two mistakes can quickly be fatal, whatever your expertise is. So I don’t really blame him, even though he was reckless. But it’s certainly a divisive book, which is another of Krakauer’s skills.

  9. Christy says:

    I’ve read Into Thin Air, but not this one. My co-worker read it recently and found it hard to read, mostly because she could not sympathize with Chris McCandless. She finished it though. It was from her that I found out that he was from the NoVa area. I live very close to Annandale. I think I’m more likely to pick up Under the Banner of Heaven than Into the Wild, but I could see eventually getting to all of the major Krakauer books.

    • Jenny says:

      So could I — he’s a very good author and chooses interesting topics. I was surprised at how much I remembered about this from when it was in the news 20 years ago!

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