Into the Wild

Joe
Albert

Associate Editor

If 50 degrees on Tuesday didn’t give you a serious case of
spring fever, hooray for you. Me? All I can think about is warm
weather, green grass, and open water. Nevertheless, I spent Tuesday
night watching Into the Wild, the just released film that documents
the nomadic life and unsurprising death of Chris McCandless.

Basically, he graduated from college and set off on a journey
that led him to the Alaskan wilderness near Denali National Park,
where he spent about 113 days before his death in the summer of
1992.

I haven’t read the book about him, and my reaction before seeing
the movie (as written in a previous post) was this: “portraying
McCandless as anything more than, at worst, ignorant, and, at best,
an unprepared seeker of some ideal, is pure fiction.”

(Note: I’ve long been uncomfortable with the search for “deeper
meaning” in books and movies, and prefer to enjoy their offerings
without trying to connect dots that may or may not be there, or
trying to infer what an author or director may or may not have
meant. So, in a blatant example of hypocrisy, that’s exactly what
I’m about to do.)

After seeing the movie, I’ll still go with my original thoughts,
though I’d probably lean more toward the ignorant characterization.
The movie left me feeling far worse for the family he cut
communications with and left behind – despite their apparent
transgressions – than for McCandless, portrayed in the movie as a
hero undone at age 24 by a chance ingestion of a poisonous
seed.

As for the movie itself, the music is fantastic and the scenery
is stunning.

At its heart is McCandless’ urge for a simpler life and a
restlessness that many of us can relate to. He’s an extreme
example, but I’m sure we’ve all at some point wondered what it
would be like to shed most material possessions and, in the words
of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, “Just walk from town to town,
meet people, get in adventures.”

Still, if you search through McCandless’ history, I don’t think
you’ll find he was a martyr for some greater cause, or the
saintlike person the movie romantically portrayed him as. He was
just a regular guy whose death was tragic, yet probably avoidable
had he been realistic about the wilderness. In the end, he’s a guy
who went to the Alaskan wilderness, then starved to death in a bus.
This is a guy who shot a moose, but couldn’t figure out how to
preserve the meat; relied on a book to determine what plants were
edible, and which were not; and returned to the bus and died after
he was unable to cross a rising river, even though crossing was
possible not far upstream and down.

A look back.

Here’s the blog entry I wrote last fall, just before the movie
was released in theaters:

Until reading Rob
Drieslein
‘s column earlier this week, I’d never heard the story
of Christopher McCandless, the 24-year-old who went to the Alaskan
bush in 1992, lived about 113 days, and then died.

This week, the Sean Penn-directed movie Into the Wild brings to
the big screen Jon Krakauer’s book by the same title, which tells
the story of McCandless and how he came to perish in the Alaskan
wilderness.

In the few days since learning about McCandless, I’ve read a
number of articles about him and his journey to Alaska. Some have
painted him a hero, others as just another dumb guy who thought he
could best Mother Nature.

My initial reaction was that his story was a sad, albeit
compelling, one. Now, I’m in the camp of Peter Christian, a park
ranger in Alaska who’s about the same age as McClandess, and came
to Alaska about the same time.

Christian last year wrote an essay on his feelings about
McClandess. A telling line:

“I did not start this essay to trash poor Chris McCandless. Not
intentionally. It is sad that the boy had to die. The tragedy is
that McCandless more than likely was suffering from mental illness
and didn’t have to end his life the way he did. The fact that he
chose Alaska’s wildlands to do it in speaks more to the fact that
it makes a good story than to the fact that McClandess was heroic
or somehow extraordinary. In the end, he was sadly ordinary in his
disrespect for the land, the animals, the history, and the
self-sufficiency ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier.”

Indeed, McCandless walked into the bush near Denali National
Park with a rifle (he poached animals to eat, including a moose
that he all but wasted), a 10-pound bag of rice, some books, and
camping equipment.

Left behind were important provisions, like a map, which would
have come in handy when he came to a river he couldn’t cross.

Christian wrote about others like McCandless, who, he says, come
to Alaska, get into trouble, and then rely on others, like park
rangers, to get them out of trouble.

“When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly
see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid,
tragic and inconsiderate.”

Harsh words, yes, and the point here isn’t to stomp on the
memory of a kid who died 15 years ago. But to me, portraying
McCandless as anything more than, at worst, ignorant, and, at best,
an unprepared seeker of some ideal, is pure fiction.

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