In 1996, Jon Krakauer, a writer for Outside magazine, published “Into The Wild,” a nonfiction account of the cross-country journey of Christopher McCandless from the Los Angeles suburb where he was born to Alaska.
A good number of Californians have made the journey to Alaska. Usually they cruise the Inside Passage in the warmer months and take a side-trip to Denali, where if they are lucky they see a wolf or two. Not McCandless.
Hitchhiking his way across the U.S.A., he styled himself “Alexander Supertramp,” a young man on a quest to be fully himself and leave the materialistic world behind. He finally came to rest in an abandoned school bus near Healy, Alaska, where, unprepared for hiking or camping in an Alaska spring, he starved to death in 1992.
By the time Krakauer’s book came out, McCandless was on his way to hero’s status, at least for some. Here was the story of America, a young man lighting out for the empty territories, cursing society’s constraints, looking to be reborn as so many of us so often are.
He made a fetish of wilderness. He was a romantic figure.
But Alaska was not empty. Unforgiving as it can be, many people had come before McCandless and made lives for themselves, replete with food, wood stoves, and even forced-air heating (and then there were the Indians and Eskimos, who long predated whites in the Great Land and had made satisfying lives on the land). As McCandless’s fame grew, propelled by Krakauer’s compelling book, Alaskans saw not romance but foolishness.
In 2002, Sherry Simpson, a writer and naturalist then living in Fairbanks, visited the bus because she’d heard that people from around the world were trekking to it “like it was Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris.”
In a piece for the Anchorage Press entitled “I want to ride in the bus Chris died in,” she recounted what she found:
“The bus was littered with messages scratched into the rusted ceilings and walls referring to McCandless’s death, which seemed to bring out the earnestness of a Hallmark card in visitors: ‘Fulfill your Dreams, Nothing Feels Better’ and ‘Stop Trying to Fool Others as the Truth Lies Within,’ and ‘The Best Things in Life are Free.’ Also, ‘Keep This Place Clean You Human Pigs.’”
Last week, the Boulder Daily Camera reported that Krakauer, a Boulder resident, had filed suit to stop the use of his material in an adaptation entitled “Into the Wild: A New Musical.”
In it, McCandless is a hero, of course.
It was produced once, last year, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Conor Ryan, a New York actor who played McCandless, said, “I hope you’re able to watch somebody make mistakes, and instead of rolling your eyes and getting up to leave, you see your brother, your son or your friend. Because Chris is kind of all of us, I think.”
Perhaps. We like Simpson’s take better: “There’s a reason the Natives sometimes starved in the old days – and they knew what they were doing,” she wrote.
“There’s a reason we gather in cities and villages. So many people want to believe that it’s possible to live a noble life alone in the wilderness, living entirely off the land – and yet the indigenous peoples of Alaska know that only by depending upon each other, only by forming a community, does survival become possible.”