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I usually won’t read a book if I see the movie first.  But I was so touched by the movie version of Into the Wild that I pulled the book from my “not-yet-read” shelf.

Jon Krakauer, author of the spellbinding Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, wrote Into the Wild, a true account of Christopher McCandless‘ trek across the country and into the Alaskan wilderness–where he died.

After graduating with honors from Emory University in 1990, McCandless disappeared from home and dropped his given name to become “Alexander Supertramp” as he headed west.  His ultimate goal–an Alaskan Odyssey–living off the land in the wild. 

McCandless gave his savings to charity, burned his remaining cash and abandoned his car after it was submerged in a flash flood.  Alexander Supertramp hitchhiked and jumped trains on a cross-country journey. He camped at Lake Mead, worked a farm in South Dakota, canoed the Colorado River all the way into Mexico where he got caught in a storm off the coast–then illegally crossed back into the states. 

McCandless lived on the fringes of society–but he deeply affected people he met along his way.  Wayne Westerberg, for whom he worked on a farm.  Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, who travelled around selling used books at flea markets.  Ronald Franz, who lost his wife and child by way of a drunk driver and wanted to adopt McCandless. 

Almost two years later, on April 28, 1992, an electrician named Jim Gallien dropped McCandless at the head of the Stampede Trail in the Alaska Interior.  McCandless walked “into the wild” carrying a 10-pound bag of rice, a 22 rifle, ammunition and some camping supplies.  He survived 112 days as a hunter/gatherer alone near the Alaska Range.  He died, probably from starvation–after eating potentially toxic wild potato seeds that left him ill and too weak to hunt, on August 18.

Emile Hirsch does a wonderful job of portraying McCandless in the movie, Into the Wild, directed by Sean PennThe movie really brings the irony of McCandless’ journey into focus

Yearning for ultimate freedom, McCandless essentially becomes trapped in the wild.  He crosses the mostly frozen Teklanika River on foot to arrive at the abandoned Fairbanks Bus No. 142 that becomes his campsite.  In July he decides to reenter civilization–but the Teklanika, swollen by rain and snow-melt, has become a raging rapid.  (Sadly, had McCandless brought a map to his wilderness, he would have seen that there was a gauging station within hiking distance, complete with a manual tram for crossing the river). 

Looking for complete independence, McCandless later notes in his journal, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” 

This story is so much more than just a tragic tale of a young man who made a fatal error.  The search for excitement, adventure and meaning in life.  The pull of nature–how nature is not always gentle and does not suffer fools lightly.   McCandless’ final photo is a self-portrait, holding a brief note and smiling into the camera:

“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD.  GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

Not everyone agrees with Jon Krakauer’s interpretation of events and sympathy for McCandless.  Many Alaskans believe McCandless was either mentally ill or just foolhardy and unprepared.  And they don’t appreciate Krakauer and Hollywood romanticizing a tragedy–and attracting others to follow in McCandless footsteps. 

Regardles, I was transfixed.  Watch the movie.  Read the book.  Or like me, do both.

 

 

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