Wilderness south of Machtesh Ramon, Israel

Sometimes people just give up on civilization and head out into the wild. It’s a Romantic notion. Some of those people are prepared for the wild. Some are naive.

In many religions, there are stories of people who sought out God or enlightenment away from civilization. The story of the temptation of Christ is one early one. After being baptized, Jesus is supposed to have fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean desert. The “Desert Fathers” were Christian hermits of the third century who abandoned the cities of the “pagan world” to live in solitude in the desert of Egypt. Anthony the Great was the first known ascetic to go directly into the wilderness.

Gauguin’s landscape

When I was in high school, I was charmed by the biography of the painter, Paul Gauguin. I had fallen into my own Impressionist period, and discovered Gauguin’s (a Post-Impressionist) art and writing. I liked his primitivist style and philosophy. And I loved that in 1891, broke and frustrated by his lack of recognition, he sailed to the tropics. He wrote that he wanted to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.”

Gauguin spent his remaining years living in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. He wasn’t really living in the “wilderness” and he was interacting with the natives and even clashed with colonial forces. But, he did escape civilization as he knew it.


Closer to our own time is Henry David Thoreau, American author, naturalist, and philosopher best known for his book Walden. That book is his reflections on his time spent living independently in a cabin beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Thoreau returned to civilization and didn’t really have it all that rough in the woods and Concord wasn’t that much of a walk away. But his self-imposed isolation helped him get a perspective on the civilization he left behind. And many people since then have followed in his footsteps and tried to escape from civilization – even if it wasn’t very far or for very long.

Self-portrait of McCandless at his camp that was found undeveloped in his camera after his death.

Christopher McCandless is one modern escapee who took those of the past much more seriously. His story is told well in the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild and in a good movie version of that book.

McCandless took the notion of living civilization behind and decided to live off the land in Alaska. He had some book knowledge of survival but was more fueled by literary Romanticism.

Disenchanted with his parents’ lives and wealth and materialism in general, he set out across the country, took on the name Alexander Supertramp, and finally ended up in Alaska.

Unfortunately, he did it at the wrong time of the year and without the proper equipment and knowledge. His odyssey lasted only 113 days before he died of starvation in August 1992.

But the bus that he ended up living in has become a destination for a kind of Romantic tourist who probably has the same kind of dream. Maybe Chris’ death has become a good lesson for what doesn’t work if you want to escape.

If you read or watch these stories, you can view some of these individuals as idealistic or naive. That is true with McCandless who I see as both of those things.

I feel the same way about Tim Treadwell whose idealism pushed him to protect a habitat he loved through his activism and filmmaking. His story is told in a really unusual documentary film, Grizzly Man.

Tim Treadwell was an environmentalist, amateur naturalist, eco-warrior and documentary filmmaker. He lived with the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska.

The documentary was made by Werner Herzog who had access to over 100 hours of video shot by Timothy Treadwell.

Treadwell spent thirteen summers in Katmai alone or with is girlfriend learning about the grizzly bears and developing a “relationship” with them.  In the film, you see Treadwell’s sanity slipping away. It is not unlike the portrait of McCandlees in Kakauer’s book. Though the madness may come from  different places in these two cases, you get the feeling that the wilderness and isolation is part of the madness. No wonder Thoreau occasionally walked into Concord to get some cookies.

Treadwell was an idealist, a failed actor, a recovered alcoholic and yet someone we can admire as a truth-seeker. Herzog takes that view. But, in that thirteenth summer of living among the bears without any protection, his luck ran out as he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a bear.

Kaczynski’s cabin

If you want to look at an extreme, take the case of Ted Kaczynski, another primitivist who deeply criticized civilization and technology. Of course, he is known to us now as “The Unabomber” and he is serving a lifetime sentence without parole in a federal prison.

Like McCandless and Thoreau, he was educated. My own theory is that a college education will expose you to all kinds of ideas that can change your life for better or worse – because they are the kinds of ideas that lead to dreaming.

He was an academic but quit his math professorship at the University of California at Berkeley to live in a remote cabin without running water or electricity in the wilds of Montana. He rejected civilization.

Sounds a bit like Thoreau.

In Montana, Kaczynski was self-sufficient. He learned tracking, edible plant identification, and primitive “technologies.” He was there from 1971 until 1996. He built a box of a “cabin” (more like a shed) that wasn’t unlike Thoreau’s cabin. In his time there, he saw the wilderness around his cabin disappearing.

It is easy to see that Kaczynski slid into madness over the years because he realized that he could not really escape from society and technology. He has been called a “neo-Luddite” and “eco-terrorist” but both terms bother me. They demean Luddites and anyonyone involved in ecological work. He was a madman.

From 1978 to 1995, he created 16 bombs that blew up and caused the death of three people and the injuring of 23. He was arrested in 1996 at his cabin. They found 40,000 handwritten journal pages about bomb-making, his targets, and the typed manuscript of his “manifesto.”  I wouldn’t even link to his manifesto here, but it is online and he has continued to write and even be published from prison.

Better that you should read some of the best writers who have considered wilderness and wildness. It’s a pretty long list.

My own favorites include Edward Abbey, Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Loren Eiseley, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben, John Muir, Gary Snyder and Lewis Thomas.

Read them. Maybe you can escape in your armchair. I will continue to escape to Paradelle for now.