Who was Christopher McCandless? The young man whose life was chronicled in the book and subsequent film adaptation, Into The Wild, often seems more myth than man. After his untimely death in 1992, his story made McCandless a larger-than-life sensation and touted his philosophy of simplicity and detachment from material goods. His persona became something that armchair adventurers the world over would cling to and adopt as their own dogma; he’s often spoken of in the same breath as wilderness figures like “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell, who also lost his life seeking solace in the remote Alaskan wilderness.
McCandless advocated for the value of experience over regret or security, and preached an extremely minimalist flavor of subsistence, describing his own journey as “the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage.”
However, was Into The Wild actually based on a true story? Or was it just another romanticized account of an ill-prepared, big-hearted dreamer who ultimately died alone in the Alaskan wilderness after he realized it was too late to turn back? When it comes to McCandless, there are the facts, based on his own journal entries and family members’ accounts, but then there is also the speculation surrounding the truth, as often is the case when someone dies so young and mysteriously. Delve into the short, strange life of Christopher McCandless… or, as he preferred to be called, Alexander Supertramp.
Christopher McCandless Died In An Abandoned Bus In The Middle Of Nowhere, Probably From Potato Poisoning
In August of 1992, a moose hunter came across an abandoned bus numbered 142 off the Stampede Trail in a desolate part of Alaska. Inside, still in his sleeping bag, the hunter found McCandless’s decomposing body.
One of the more controversial conversations regarding Chris McCandless is what actually caused his death. When his body was first discovered, starvation was the official ruling. However, as his story became sensationalized around the world, more research pointed out that he had actually probably died of starvation resulting from the ingestion of wild potato seeds that contain an alkaloid known to prevent absorption of nutrients. Over time, the alkaloid also slowly paralyzes the body, making an already-weak McCandless unable to hunt or gather any sustenance. He was only 24 years old.
He Lived In An Abandoned Bus In The Middle Of Nowhere For Over 100 Days
However, when he reached the Teklanika River, (through which he’d fallen when it had been iced over while crossing on his way months earlier), he was shocked to find a raging river, swollen from glacier melts. Crossing was not an option, and defeated, he retreated back to the bus, where he would eventually meet his end.
He Entered The Wilderness Totally Unprepared
It’s unclear just exactly what McCandless had supplies-wise when he started off on the Stampede Trail, but if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that it was nowhere near a sufficient amount. This wasn’t the most forgivable planning error, and many argue that McCandless wasn’t just being naive, but rather he was being plain dumb.
McCandless may have been living resourcefully as a tramp for a few years on the road, but there’s a big difference between train-hopping and backcountry trekking. When his body was found, he had a few paperbacks, a camera, his diary, a book that identified edible plants, and a .22 caliber rifle. From his journal, it’s known that he had brought a sack of rice and a compass along, but no maps. There was, of course, the sleeping bag in which his corpse was found. But for somebody who lusted so strongly after adventure, he seemed to have overlooked the crucial element of such wild places: survival.
Before His Death, He Left Tragic Notes Of Farewell
ATTENTION POSSIBLE VISITORS.
I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU,
Apart from this note, he had taken a self-timer photo (a camera with film was included among his meager posessions), holding a note that said, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”
Among his last journal entries, he also wrote this final, sad line: “Happiness is only real when shared.” This note is especially tragic, because so much of his dogma was built on the ideology of self-sustainment, of adventure and passion. He had a few close relationships throughout his years on the road, but always tore away to fulfill this odyssey in Alaska. In the final days before his death, this note is basically saying that he realized what a huge mistake he had made by making a point to lead such a solitary, bare existence.
After His Car Was Washed Out In A Flash Flood, McCandless Destroyed The Rest Of His Belongings And Burned All His Cash
McCandless was inspired by legendary adventurers John Muir and Jack London, and had headed west from the east coast towards the strange grandness of the southwestern deserts. Deep in the desert in Arizona, where he had been living in his trusty yellow Datsun, a flash flood one night left it washed out in the mud. Instead of becoming discouraged, McCandless took it as a sign, and decided to abandon the rest of his belongings and burn all of the cash in his wallet. He allegedly left a note that read, “This piece of sh*t has been abandoned. Whoever can get it out of here can have it.”
This seemed to be the beginning of his hardcore vagabond days: from then on he simply hitchhiked, traveled by train (illegally bumming rides), bicycled, and even canoed.
He Renounced His Upbringing To Become A Vagabond, And Donated All His College Money To Charity
McCandless attended Emory University in Atlanta, where he excelled in his classes and became highly interested in the South African apartheid. He graduated in 1990 with a 3.72 GPA, but held the belief that titles and degrees were decidedly worthless, and called university a “20th century fad.”
He showed vague kindness to his parents at his graduation, but shortly thereafter, donated his remaining college money, which totaled more than $20,000, to Oxfam, an organization that strives to end world hunger. He was from a wealthy, comfortable family, but he denounced them entirely, and left in his car with only a few belongings. When people on the road asked where his family was, he would reply that he no longer had one. The family reported that the last time they heard from him was in 1990.
McCandless Rechristened Himself With A Moniker Of The Road: Alexander Supertramp
“Alexander Supertramp” is the name signed on most of McCandless’s journal entries, as well on his final resting place, the bus. He took on this name after basically disowning his family and devoting himself to a life on the road.
The name reportedly comes from the book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by William H. Davies from 1908. The book chronicles the adventure of Davies, a Welsh “tramp” who denounced home and ventured forth to America, where he lived a footloose life on the road. The book was praised for its “primitive splendour and directness,” and it is clear why McCandless turned to the book when it came to naming his newfound persona.
He Had An Early Falling Out With His Father
McCandless had reportedly been a stubborn, hot-headed youth, but when he was entering college and found out about a secret from his father’s past, he was furious. He discovered that his father had an entirely separate family in California (complete with siblings he’d never met), and was still legally married to that wife when he’d had Chris and his sister with their mother.
McCandless felt that his life had been a lie, and this was the beginning of a rift that would later deepen. He cut off contact with his parents, and wouldn’t speak to them again until his college graduation, right before he disappeared out of his life for good.
He Shot A Moose, But Ended Up Calling It ‘One Of The Greatest Tragedies’ Of His Life
“Day 43: MOOSE!
Day 48: Maggots already. Smoking appears ineffective. Don’t know, looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.”
He Kept A Fairly Detailed Journal
“It is important in life not to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once. If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.”
However, it is this attitude that adventure is so easily-accessible that has raised concern among critics: must one need to march alone into the wilderness to find it?
A Posthumous Profile For Outside Magazine Propelled His Life Into The Spotlight
On a tight turnaround, Outside magazine asked writer and reporter John Krakauer to write a profile about the strange circumstances of McCandless’s death. The piece was published in January of 1993, and generated a lot of talk, both good and bad. Krakauer felt he had only scraped the surface of McCandless’s life, and began to develop the article into a book, through further research.
The result was Krakauer’s 1996 nonfiction novel, Into The Wild. An in-depth, biographical account of McCandless’s life from start to finish, the story all but exploded in popularity as well as criticism. When a movie under the same title was released in 2007, there became a clear divide: those who were inspired by McCandless, and those who saw a privileged, ignorant young man who walked willingly into his own death. As Krakauer put it himself,
“He’s this Rorschach test: people read into him what they see. Some people see an idiot, and some people see themselves. I’m the latter, for sure.”
Bus 142 Has Become A Mecca For McCandless Devotees, But Many Don’t Survive The Pilgrimage
The abandoned bus where McCandless took his last breaths still sits past the Teklanika River, and has become a shrine of sorts for those who identify strongly with McCandless and his philosophy. Though there are websites giving tips on ways to best reach the bus, they are all careful to state that they are in no way responsible for any harm that may occur.
Since McCandless’s story gained such large popularity, hundreds, if not thousands of fans have tried to retrace his steps on the Stampede Trail to the so-called “magic bus.” However, many have met with the same problems McCandless did: baffling unpreparedness and the underestimation of nature, not least of which is the powerful, dangerous Teklanika River.
Experienced hikers and swimmers alike have died in the river, yet state troopers and rescue teams are quick to roll their eyes at reports of another rescue call for McCandless fans who have been “stranded” on the wrong side of the river. It all goes back to what kind of risk-taking is deemed justifiable. According to a state trooper interviewed in a later Outside magazine article,
“In Alaska, it’s generally considered acceptable to invite risk while making a living on the land—fishing, hunting, logging, mushing, trapping. It is less acceptable to take chances in search of a more philosophical way of life.”