If you read Into the Wild or watched the well done film version (directed by Sean Penn), you are familiar with the story of Chris McCandless who went to Alaska, somewhat ill-prepared but full of the Romance of the adventure.

Chris McCandless grew up in suburban Virginia and was a good student. He graduated in 1990 from Emory University and broke off connections with his family. He gave away his $25,000 to Oxfam and went “on the road.”

He traveled across the country in that road trip that many of us dreamed and talked about doing during or after college, but never did. Eventually, Chris abandoned even his car.

In April 1992, he hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in Alaska and headed down the snow-covered trail and into the wild. He wasn’t totally unprepared – 10 pounds of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, several boxes of rifle rounds, a camera, and a small selection of reading material – including a field guide to the region’s edible plants. But he wasn’t well prepared for an extended stay or very knowledgeable about the plant and animal life, food gathering or the topography of the area.

He survived for about 119 days. He is thought to have died on August 18, 1992.

He survived by foraging for edible roots and berries, shooting game from birds to a moose. He wrote in his journal. He took photographs, including self-portraits.

Although his plan had been to hike to the coast, summer was not a good time for that as the boggy terrain made it too difficult. So, he set up camp a derelict bus that others had used as temporary shelter.

He tried to leave in July 1992, but couldn’t cross a snow-melt swollen river. Unfortunately, there was a hand-powered tram just upstream that he could have used. He wrote in his journal on July 30, “EXTREMLY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED. It was interpreted by Krakauer to mean that Chris had eaten the seeds of an edible plant commonly known as wild Eskimo potato. He had been eating the roots (“potatoes”) which are sweet and nourishing in the spring, but when later in the season they became too tough to eat, he started collecting the seeds.

A new article by Jon Krakauer covers new evidence that the seeds theory is more likely to be true.  He might have made it if not for the poisoning by the seeds.

Maybe. Starvation seems like it still may have taken him. Some better maps and map skills and more information about the area and the seasonal changes would have helped, as would better food supplies.

I loved the book and I’m glad that this evidence seems to support Krakauer’s theory.  Not that the actual cause of his death is critical to what I got from reading and teaching this book to students.

My own belief is that Chris was a victim of Literature and Romance and the deadly brew they can be when mixed and taken in by some people. Krakauer describes McCandless’ very ascetic personality as having been influenced by reading Henry David Thoreau and Jack London.

His story is a lesson worth sharing. Though some people read the book and see Chris as heroic,  I don’t. I sided with about half of my students who saw Chris as someone not really prepared for the quest – though admittedly better prepared than most of us.

Did they want to do their own on-the-road questing journey? Almost all of them said they would like to do it in some form. We know that very few, if any of them, ever will.

I will tuck the article into my copy of the book as a footnote, but it doesn’t change the power or the appeal of the story for me.

I know that his story has become Walden-ish for some people. People make the trip, pilgrim-style,  to the bus in the way people go to Walden Pond.

It’s hard to explain what people would expect to achieve by going there, but I understand that desire. I felt that way about seeing Walden Pond and even the reconstruction of the Thoreau’s cabin. It had a kind of museum reverence.

Further Reading

Back To The Wild is a collection of the photographs and writings of Christopher McCandless and includes his original photographs, postcards and journal entries from his two years of traveling throughout the Western United States, Mexico, Canada and Alaska.

The Wild Truth written by Carine McCandless, Chris’s sister, tells another side of the story after 20 years. She fills in some of the blanks in his story and portrays a family that was dysfunctional and violent.