I usually get my reading material from the public library, but every now and then I’ll crack open my wallet just enough to buy a book on sale at our local book, video, and music store. So, it was sometime last summer when browsing through a sale bin, I spotted a thin-ish paperback that looked promising.
It was the black and white photo of a snow-covered bus on the front that first caught my attention, but it was these words printed below the photo, that had me running to the nearest register: “In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned most of his possessions, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter.” (He died 19 years ago today.)
Just a little over 200 pages, I read Jon Krakauer’s, Into the Wild, about the Alaskan odyssey of a young man named Christopher McCandless in one sitting. McCandless’s ill-fated journey is, at once, uplifting, moving, funny, and tragic. That his journey ended in Alaska made the story all the more interesting to me, since my family and I lived there for a time.
Let me say this about my experience with Alaska — though it’s a breathtakingly beautiful place, the hugeness of its wilderness was pretty scary to me as a child. Growing up in Arizona and Texas did nothing to prepare me for the vast ruggedness of Alaska — the size of the mountain ranges and glaciers, the extreme temperatures, the amount of snowfall, and the shortness of the summer season. It seemed to be nature at its best, and worst.
We never wandered extremely far from Anchorage, on our weekend drives in the family station wagon, but we saw enough wildly treacherous, uninhabited terrain that I remember thinking on more than one occasion, if you got lost there, you might not ever be found. I believe Christopher McCandless must have found that thought as exciting as I found it terrifying.
For McCandless, it wasn’t “if” he was headed for Alaska, it was “when.” “When” turned out to be right after graduating from college. A self-described “aesthetic voyager whose home is the road,” Chris had been entertaining ideas of setting out on this lone journey to spiritual salvation for years. The disdain he felt for his parent’s materialistic lifestyle only fueled his determination to get away and get on the road — the road that eventually led him to Denali National Park near Mt. McKinley. After crossing the Teklanika River, he happened upon an old Fairbanks Transit System bus (placed there as a shelter for hunters) where he set up camp.
With little more than rudimentary camping supplies, 10 pounds of rice, a camera, a small-caliber rifle, and a few books, he spent a summer of quiet solitude and contemplation while living off the land. Along the way he documented his physical and spiritual progress. His journal entries, covering his 112 days in Alaska, are filled with more happiness than despair.
He wasn’t totally unprepared. He was young and physically fit. What he had was intelligence, drive and noble intentions. What he lacked was a map, a compass and some good-old common sense. At the end of the summer, when he felt he was ready to walk out the way he had come in, he found the river so swift and swollen from snowmelt, it was impossible to cross.
Back at the bus, Chris expended so much energy foraging for food, his weight plummeted to a dangerous level. Shortly before his death from starvation, he wrote, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Good Bye, and may God bless all.”
In spite of what critics have had to say about McCandless’s lack of preparedness, I personally think the kid had the adventure he set out to have — the swollen river was the only thing that really tripped him up in the end. His plan had always been to go in “unknowing,” and just let the adventure unfold.
Ron Lamothe, who also retraced Chris McCandless’s steps and produced a documentary about his journey, reflected on McCandless’s legacy. As Lamothe says, “Why he didn’t walk out, perhaps, is less important in the big scheme of things, than why he walked in.”
This summer, I picked up my copy of Into the Wild and read it again. Afterward, I “Googled” to see if there was more to the story and found it had been made into a movie — way back in 2007 — a very critically acclaimed movie, directed by Sean Penn. Where the heck have I been? And, it was on sale at our local book, video and music store. Heading for home, I found myself tearing off the cellophane cover of the DVD with my teeth, as I struggled to maintain a legal speed. For once, the movie turned out to be as good as the book.
While most of us wouldn’t give up our money, privileges, and conveniences for three months in the wilds of Alaska, we can always find ways to lighten our load. Why, I recently cut up a couple of credit cards and turned off my cellphone for a few hours.
And once, to find a little inner-peace, I called in sick when I wasn’t. Oh sure, it wasn’t much, but I’ve been to Alaska.
Peck is a local mother and grandmother who works in Enid Public Schools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.