Chris McCandless, a young man with a fiery intellect and strident health, lived and died by his dream of Alaska. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer tells the story. Graduating from college, McCandless donated the last of his $24,000 savings to Oxfam, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger. He left behind his dysfunctional parents, his ID, and his car. He wandered America, by foot, kayak, and train. Sometimes he hooked up with people he met along the way for a meal or a job. Ultimately he made it to the wilds of Alaska. It is clear from his notes and photos that he lived a remarkable hundred days in the wild, feeding himself and contemplating nature and life. A few mistakes trapped him out there, and he starved to death. It is easy to condemn his foolishness. For some of us, it is hard not to envy his courage.
Dreams like this are always fueled by literature. McCandless read Tolstoy, London, and Thoreau. For a long time I collected back-to-the-land books, my “Scratch” collection. Scratch is the best word I can come up with for a cluster of ideals, starting with going back-to-the-land, simple living, and self-reliance, stretching to authenticity, personal sovereignty, and absolute enlightenment. Mind you, I am a complete amateur outdoors and a living example of the mundane. For a few years I lived with my family on a rural property, trying my hand at country skills. I called it my Scratch collection, after Carl Sagan’s well-known quote, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe”. It was not so much about the land as the freedom. Being alone in nature, we lose track of our ego. It is a hint of enlightenment.
Sean Penn made a movie adaptation of Into the Wild, with a compelling performance by Emile Hirsch, and a haunting soundtrack by Eddie Veder. I had watched the movie before, but have watched it twice more since reading the book. The story of McCandless on its own leaves the viewer aroused but fearful, hungry for insight. The book goes deeper, offering the perspective of other perilous adventures, including Krakauer’s own insane winter climb, the one that later compelled him to follow McCandless’ trail.
Near the end of his short life, McCandless underlined this line from Doctor Zhivago:
… Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name …