I 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)