Where This Meets That
When I was 22, I’d failed out of one college, was going through the motions at another, and had developed a nasty case of the hopelessness blues. I visualized a romanticized escape to Montana, where I would do God knows what. I knew I could never plan such an escape; it would have to be on impulse, so I just waited for the right moment, the right impetus, to trigger my departure.
One fateful night, that “right moment” arrived, and my car, of all things, wouldn’t start! Turned out to be a bad alternator. Having no real “plan A,” other than to leave, I definitely had no “plan B.” This meant I would have to stay.
Hindsight argues that staying was a good consequence. My desire to leave had stemmed, at least partly, from a desire to escape certain facets of my life. On the other hand, staying forced me to deal with things, which, in theory, strengthened my character, opened my eyes to new possibilities right where I was, and put me on a road to, eventually, intersect with my future bride and make possible our five amazing children.
It’s hard to look back on pivotal moments in life, like that night, and not wonder what might’ve been. What if my car had started? What if I’d left my car dead in the driveway and hit the road by foot and thumb instead? Such wondering, of course, is a purely hypothetical exercise, but this is where my interest in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild begins.
In May 1990, twenty-two-year-old Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University in Atlanta – just down the road from my hometown – then set out along the road less traveled. He skipped town, severed communication with family and friends, and soon scrapped his very identity, in pursuit of what he called “ultimate freedom.”
Late that summer, his car was caught in a flash flood in the Mojave Desert. Unable to re-start his car, McCandless removed and hid the plates then abandoned it to continue on the road by hitchhiking, doing his best to cover his tracks and avoid being “reeled back in” to his former life. For nearly two years, he bounced around the western U.S., even briefly finding his way into Mexico by kayak. He worked occasional odd jobs, as needed, and accumulated a few pen pals along his way.
As he wandered, a long-held dream of an “Alaskan Oddyssey” crystallized in his mind. An intelligent young man, he spent his idle moments doing calisthenics, studying edible plants, and getting hunting and butchering tips from experienced hunters he intersected with. In spring of 1994, he set off on his final journey and realized his dream of landing in the Alaskan countryside. For the better part of four months, he made his home in an abandoned bus before eventually starving to death.
It’s easy to dismiss McCandless as a naive dreamer and his death as the consequence of a reckless venture, and indeed, his story is commonly met with such response. Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer, however, himself an accomplished mountaineer, relates well to McCandless. He draws parallels between McCandless’s life and his own, concerning troubled parental relationships and grandiose cases of wanderlust, and threads this beautiful and tragic story together with thorough investigative research into McCandless’s great adventure.
Krakauer’s narrative is vibrant and endearing, written with a rare blend of clarity, analysis, and passion. His exhaustive research on the case vindicates McCandless against several claims of McCandless’s blatant naiveté (i.e., that he couldn’t tell the difference between a moose and a caribou), and his own experience in the wild gives him credibility as a defender of young McCandless. To give perspective, Krakauer devotes two chapters to a particularly perilous solo climb that he personally undertook at age 23, on the 6,700-foot northern face of Alaska’s Devil’s Thumb. He concludes by saying, “The fact that I survived my Alaska adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance.”
Because I once related – and occasionally still do – to young McCandless, I became engrossed in the book. During Krakauer’s description of his first attempt up Devil’s Thumb, I lay reading at night in silent solitude, enthralled, amazed at the fortitude such climbers exhibit. My heart raced as he painted the scene with rich, frigid prose. As he hung there, some 3,700 feet up a sheer face of ice and rock, held only by “two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water,” my bride entered the room to ready herself for bed.
She made a little comment, briefly breaking the spell at the precise moment Krakauer hit rock with his ice axe. His climb was in jeopardy, as was my reading. She asked a question as Krakauer struck again but only bent his axe on rock and was forced to recognize the climb was over. The climb and my reading session intersected ironically to end.
In a weird way, this brought me full circle. What if I’d left that night so long ago, when my car cried for me to stay? How far would I have made it, had I made the decision to go the harder road, by foot? And was it truly the harder road? Many have claimed McCandless was nuts. Twenty years later, some say the same thing about my wife and me for having five kids.
As I reflect, I realize that while my life might not be in Alaska or Montana, or even more than twenty miles from where I grew up, it is certainly lived “in the wild.” Married life and parenthood are full of dynamism, vulnerability, and sacrifice. But they are also full of humanity in the sharing of lives. Amid all his soul-searching and long, tiresome hours of surviving off the land, this sentiment did apparently strike McCandless during his time in Alaska.
He was an avid reader, and among the numerous books found beside his body in that bus in Alaska was Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. In it, next to a paragraph that read, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness . . .,” he wrote, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.”
A river guide interviewed in the book speaks about McCandless and a similar case, Everett Ruess, from the early 20th century. He admits that there is a strangeness about such individuals but says, “But [Ruess] and McCandless, at least they tried to follow their dream. That’s what was great about them. They tried. Not many do.”
In its own way, life tests us all, all the time. We all have paths left untrodden in our wakes and untold choices before us each day. Therefore, there is value in studying works that give us passion for “the now,” and Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a fine example of such a work.