In April 1992, Chris McCandless set off alone into the Alaskan wild for his great adventure. For two years, the young lad had been on the road, working off odd jobs, wandering across North America in search of new experiences. The great white North, to him, was a way to “no longer be poisoned by civilisation” and “walk alone in the land to become lost in the wild.”
Inspired by Tolstoy, McCandless had adopted austerity and a moral high ground that was hard to reach. Immediately after graduating, he gave away all his money to charity, abandoned his car and adopted a new name – Alexander Supertramp. Four months after he set out, however, his decomposed body was found by a few hunters. Into the Wild is an attempt to recreate his wanderer days, thoughts, journey and demise. Stringing together quotes found in McCandless’ books, his logs, pictures, the people he kept in touch with via postcards and their tales of the man, Jon Krakauer gives us an insight into the young man, whose life was cut short too soon.
Krakauer’s analysis of McCandless as “an extremely intense young man”, who “possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that didn’t mesh readily with modern existence” hits the nail on the head. The boy’s desire to escape into the wild was a result of this idealism, compounded by a mix of youthful arrogance, his anger at his family as well as the hypocrisy of society. Yet, McCandless made connections wherever he went, making an impression on those around. Nor was he blind to the dangers that awaited him. Over 100 days that he spent in the Alaskan wild, McCandless held his own – he killed prey, was calm, level-headed, and adapted to his situation. If it weren’t for a mistake, he would have walked out of there with an incredible tale.
His actual tale, however, is one that lays bare the fascination with the wilderness we have, the romanticism associated with it. There are countless others like McCandless who got lost in the wild, driven by the same desire to escape or find themselves. In Krakauer’s retelling of a few, we are confronted with a singular truth – that nature for all its charm can be cold, hard and savage to borrow Jack London’s words.
Krakauer’s exploration of these Alaskan mishaps seems a little disjoint as part of McCandless’ collage. His own experience in the Alaskan wild – around the Devil’s Thumb – better explains the boy’s way of thinking. It’s why Krakauer believes that McCandless’ spiritual pilgrimage was done and he was ready to return to civilisation.
For those who call out McCandless for his ignorance and recklessness, there are counterpoints neatly laid out in the book. However, the boy’s inexperience comes across clearly and a sigh escapes the lips when one considers how close to help he really was. A knowledge of topography could have helped McCandless come out alive. That a folly cost so much is simply heartbreaking. It makes you pause and reflect. Into the Wild is not a cautionary tale, but a reminder to always be on your toes while meeting the unpredictable muse.
A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness – a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the wild, the savage, frozen-hearted North-land Wild.
– Jack London, White Fang
Ps: The movie is well made and equally heartbreaking.
Pps: This is a much better read on the wanderer life than Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which didn’t appeal to us at all.