GUEST POST – Surly Joe
SYNOPSIS – In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.
Immediately after graduating from college in 1991, McCandless had roamed through the West and Southwest on a vision quest like those made by his heroes Jack London and John Muir. In the Mojave Desert he abandoned his car, stripped it of its license plates, and burned all of his cash. He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and , unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw the maps away. Leaving behind his desperate parents and sister, he vanished into the wild.
“Freedom from everything… That is the main point.” – Zen master Shunryu Suzuki
REVIEW – There’s a derelict shell of a seventy-year old bus sitting empty in the Alaskan bush. Over the last twenty years, it has become a destination, the end goal of a pilgrimage for anti-establishment dreamers, drop-outs, hard-core wilderness lovers and curiosity seekers who want to honour an intriguing, complicated and, depending on the point of view, either an unintentional hero or a naive narcissist named Chris McCandless. At the age of 22, after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, McCandless burned all his identification, donated his life savings to charity, and disappeared from his upper middle-class family without a word. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he wandered alone to Alaska, where his body was eventually found rotting in Fairbanks Bus No. 42.
“I’m absolutely positive I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own,” McCandless wrote early in his journal, one of the main sources of information author Jon Krakauer used for Into The Wild, his fascinating examination of McCandless’ short life. Even in the first phases of his wandering in California, Mexico and Nevada, when he was malnourished, dirty, and living under bridges or sleeping in the desert, he was in his element. “God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you,” his journal reads. In a letter to a friend he met on the road, he explained “nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.” And written on a sheet of plywood discovered near his Alaskan bus, he described himself as “an extremist, an aesthetic voyager whose home is the road”, who rejected society “to kill the false being within”. He was living his life his way, away from a corrupt, crushing establishment. He was free.
To many native Alaskans, however, and other readers of Into The Wild , Krakauer’s portrayal of McCandless is irresponsible and romantic. To them, McCandless wasn’t a heroic figure at all, just “one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitos and a lonely death”.
One of the last entries in his journal gives credence to this opinion. Desperately sick, knowing that he was near the end, McCandless wrote an SOS letter to the world. “I need your help. I am injured, near death…I am all alone. This is no joke.” Ironically, he signed it with his real name. He was reaching out to the society he had rejected, victim to his ultimate freedom.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Janis Joplin
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Krakauer is a preeminent writer of narrative non-fiction. His numerous bestsellers include Where Men Win Glory, Under the Banner of Heaven, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air. He is editor of the Modern Library Exploration series.
In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom. His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side. After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, circumstance led to a career back in Toronto. He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.
- Why are we still talking about Chris McCandless? – Laura Moss
- Does ‘The Wild Truth’ Tell the True Story of Chris McCandless? – Alex Heard
- Taking Risk to Its ‘Logical’ Extreme – Christopher Lehmann-Haupt