In 1992, early in my second year of law school at Emory University, the student newspaper reported that the body of a former assistant editor of the paper had been discovered in an abandoned bus in Alaska. The former student, Chris McCandless, had graduated from Emory as an undergraduate in 1990. The story was tragic, but the details that began to emerge were fascinating. Immediately after his graduation, McCandless had abandoned or given away most of his earthly possessions, headed west in an old Datsun, and never communicated with his family again. He adopted the nom de guerre “Alex Supertramp.”
The student population at Emory’s law school was not generally of the “forsake worldly possessions and status” mindset, so McCandless seemed an odd duck to most of us. He was smart, talented and well-to-do. Unlike most of us, he had graduated without debt and with $25,000 in the bank, all of which he gave away to feed the hungry before he disappeared. The name “Alex Supertramp” inevitably showed up on a few sign-up sheets, and someone scrawled “Alex Supertramp Was Here” on a bathroom wall. I can’t claim to have thought much about it, nor did his story have an impact on me at the time.
McCandless’s story did capture the attention of a lot of people, including Jon Krakauer, who was commissioned to write an article on the subject for Outside Magazine. The resulting article generated more reader response than any previous article in the magazine’s history (having never heard of Outside Magazine before, I can’t imagine the bar was that high), and Krakauer himself was so taken with the story that he embarked on a more exhaustive quest to research the details of McCandless’s life and death. The result was the national bestseller “Into the Wild”, which Sean Penn recently turned into a movie. After some prodding, I checked the book out of the local library and read it this past weekend. McCandless’s story was far more interesting and nuanced than I had realized when I was a law student.
What I hadn’t realized back in 1992 (at least not that I can remember) was that McCandless hadn’t died in some empty bus in a parking lot. After wandering the American west for about two years, he had gone into remote Alaska where, I am sure much to his surprise, he discovered a surplus bus that had been dragged deep into the woods by a Caterpillar many years prior in connection with a long deserted road project. In the four months leading up to his death, he’d been completely alone. He died of starvation.
It’s impossible to put McCandless in any sort of box. Despite his charitable impulses, he was no liberal. In the editorials he wrote for the Emory Wheel, he spoke of Ronald Reagan in glowing terms, and passionately argued the need to combat communism. He showed up as a freshman at Emory with a .30-06 rifle, and wrote in his journal of his grief at having his .38 revolver seized by U.S. Immigration officials when he was crossing back into the U.S. from Mexico. At the same time, he was outraged at poverty and hunger and sought to live completely detached from earthly possessions.
McCandless was somewhat unique, but as Krakauer explains, not completely so. In the book, Krakauer tells the stories of several other individuals during the 20th century and before who had forsaken the world and gone deep into the wild in search of…well, we’re never quite sure. In some cases it appears to be asceticism (a renunciation of the comforts of society), or perhaps aestheticism (a pursuit of beauty). In most of the stories, the protagonists end up dead. Krakauer himself had a near-death “into the wild” experience, and I am sure that fueled his fascination with McCandless.
My take on McCandless is that he wanted to strip himself of need. Krakauer explores Chris McCandless’s strained relationship with his parents, his father in particular. The resentment of need is a key element in the parent/child dynamic, and that seemed to have been exaggerated in McCandless’s life. McCandless had discovered that his father was a bigamist in Chris’s childhood, and he had half-siblings who were both older and younger than he was. He was unable to forgive his father for that. In several instances related in “Into the Wild”, McCandless vehemently declines gifts, from his parents in particular.
In the end, it was need that killed him. Admirably, he managed to survive completely alone for over 100 days in the Alaskan wild with just a bag of rice and a .22 rifle (he managed to kill a moose with it). He sought to return at one point, but a river that he’d waded across in search of solitude had swollen into a raging torrent with the melting snow, and he was unable to cross back over. Although he’d managed to survive on small game and edible plants prior to that ill-fated crossing, Krakauer postulates that McCandless then ingested seeds of a local plant that inhibited his ability to digest food, and already weakened by a limited diet, he died alone in the sleeping bag his mother had sewn for him.
What we know about McCandless’s four months of solitude comes from a sporadic journal he kept on some blank pages in the back of a book and some photographs that he took. Interestingly, the journal contains no profound insights or spiritual reflections. He wrote almost exclusively about what he ate. He didn’t eliminate need, he merely reduced his needs to the most primal.
Chris McCandless would have turned 40 this year if he’d survived. I can’t help but wonder what sort of perspective he might have gained had he lived. I wonder too how different his life might have been if he’d been introduced to a faith that provides a framework for dealing with sin, a faith that shares his detachment from earthly possessions (though it’s adherents all too rarely live this out). I think his stumbling block would have been that coming to the Christian faith involves a confession of inherent need, complete insufficiency, and the need to rely on a heavenly father – for provision, for forgiveness, for redemption, for significance.
There’s a lot that I appreciate about Chris McCandless. I share his love for the wild outdoors, and admire his disdain for our acquisitive society. For both of us running was (and for me still is) a spiritual experience. But in the end, all he left was a rifle, a few books, and a grieving family. His life and death were as tragic as they were fascinating.
He had pondered going to law school. Wouldn’t that have been something if we’d met there? I wonder if I would have had the guts to tell him what I’m saying here.