Last month, the rusting chassis of a 74 year-old bus was airlifted by the US Army from the Alaskan wilderness. Seeing this reawakened my own feelings. 13 years after the film, at 44 and a Father myself, I wanted to see if I could find new meaning in the story Chris McCandless.
In 1990, a young man from a well-to-do family, gave away his savings and spent the next two years as ‘Alexander Supertramp’, drifting through the American Southwest, on his way to find freedom and truth in the wilderness of Alaska. After a few days hiking into the Alaskan interior, he found an abandoned bus and made camp there. The bus had originally been fitted out with a wood-burning stove and bunks to accommodate construction workers along the Stampede trail. When the Stampede Mine ceased operations in the 1970s, Bus 142 was left behind as a backcountry shelter for hunters, trappers, and other visitors. After 66 days, the young man attempted to return to civilisation. Unable to cross the fast-moving Teklanika river, he returned to the bus to wait for better conditions. Over the next month, he slowly starved to death.
I first came to this story through the soundtrack recorded by Eddie Vedder. A musical hero of mine, Vedder is renowned for his passion for nature, who better to write songs for this film? The entire album shows the greatest empathy, and for me, sums an important element of the way his story has been told. That Alexander Supertramp and Chris McCandless were equally powerful, but different people. I was privileged enough to see Vedder perform the album in full in June 2017 at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. The first ten songs, from the optimistic ‘Setting Forth’ through the defiant ‘Hard Sun’ to the lonely ‘Long Nights’ are sung in the first-person, this is Alex’s voice. The final song, ‘Guaranteed’ is beautiful and poignant. It is through this that we hear Chris speak from beyond with such wisdom. “I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me, guaranteed.” I had to see this film.
The 2007 film, ‘Into the Wild’ was written and directed by Sean Penn and stars Emile Hirsch. It gives a slightly romanticised aspect of the story, but some truly beautiful portrayals of the relationships Chris formed, his struggles against society and the sheer force of nature. It is much more open about Chris’ relationship with his parents because Carine, Chris’s younger sister, worked closely with Sean Penn on making it. It is careful to leave the viewer to find their message own meaning in Chris’s life.
This is such a powerful story, it seems to polarise those who hear it – and that fascinates me. People conclude that either that Chris was mentally ill, suicidal, reckless, just plain stupid or that he was a fellow traveller seeking truth, beauty and answers on a very challenging path. Having survived travelling so deeply ‘into the wild’ myself in the last couple of weeks, I wanted to share my insights.
Who guided me on this journey?
I re-watched the film, reread the novel that inspired it, and read the account of Chris’s home-life by his younger sister, Carine, and some of the works of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. I read scientific articles, online pieces (and their comments) and watched several documentaries.
The best-selling book, ‘Into the Wild’ (1996) by Jon Krakaur inspired the film. It faithfully tells the story, but adds context and balance missing in the film. We are so fortunate that a journalist of Krakaur’s calibre retold the story. Based on his 1993 article ‘Death of an Innocent’ which first reported Chris’ story to the world, Krakaur explains the very American romanticism of the wild frontier, looks carefully at similar incidents through history and tells us about his own Alaskan wilderness experience that almost killed him as a young man. He obviously understands, but applies his own passion and determination to ensure Chris’s story retains the meaning and respect it deserves. It gives him the air of trust and of someone clearly able to tell this story. Krakaur hints at problems in the McCandless home, but it becomes clear in his introduction to Carine’s book that he was aware of, but asked not to mention, the scale and severity of these problems.
The Wild Truth (2014) by Carine McCandless, promises to give the real reason that Chris McCandless went into the wild. And it does. Both parents perpetrated horrific mental and physical abuse, especially in the early years and childhood of both children. Expert manipulators, his parents made it clear to the young Chris that it was his fault. In every family photo, someone looks uncomfortable. Chris and Carine were pressurised and controlled through their teens. Chris’s later discovery that his Father had been fathering children with his with another woman at the same time he was born fuelled his disappointment and rejection of his Father. Carine shares personal letter from Chris explaining why he was leaving: “Once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock [our parents] out of my life. I’m going to divorce them as parents… I’ll be through with them once and for all forever.”
Was Chris on the Autistic Spectrum?
This is never mentioned explicitly, but I believe there are many suggestions across the entire story. Chris’s social behaviour, gaps in logic, deep love of reading and detailed recording of his life remind me of behaviour typical of people on the autistic spectrum.
In the film, ‘Into The Wild’ , Chris leaves a deep impression on the people he meets. I don’t know if this is intentional, but it provides a remarkably sensitive portrayal of an autistic young man, exceptionally aware of big social trends and happy to share his thoughts and feelings on life outside society, but not really understanding the lasting, deeper connections he was making. Unable to ‘read’ the people he meets, and totally focussed on his own journey, he moves on abruptly. The most touching of these meetings is portrayed faithfully in the film. Ron Franz, an elderly widower who is concerned for Chris’s welfare, ends up asking if he can adopt him.
Krakaur provides evidence that although these relationships formed on route were special, they were often challenging and at times frustrating as well. He describes how Chris and fellow vagrant and friend Jan Burres often generated friction because of Jan’s concern for his wellbeing.
Further key information Krakaur uncovers is that Chris had gaps in his everyday logic. Employer and friend, Mark Westerburg explains that upon investigating an odour in the communal kitchen, he found that Chris had been using a microwave to cook chicken, and just not realised that this would produce fat that would pool in the microwave and have to be cleaned after.
As often with victims of childhood abuse, Chris sought both refuge and company in books from an early age. He is often seen in the film reading. Several books were found with his remains with notes neatly scribbled in the margins and passages underlined. He was in the thrall of some heavy-weight writers. Boris Pasternak, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, who all wrote about the veneer of civilisation and its insignificance next to the power and beauty of nature.
Was Chris reckless or unlucky?
There were choices that undoubtedly would have saved Chris. There were critical gaps in his thinking and Chris showed a dangerously relaxed attitude to equipping himself and was overconfident. This left his fate wide open to chance, and that’s what killed him.
In a light-hearted moment in the film, Chris enters a Rangers’ office and asks where to launch his kayak along the Colorado River. He is told to apply for a permit which has a twelve-year waiting list. We want him to break the rules, and he does. But then the mood gets darker and we can see why access to the river is restricted to permit holders. Battling a fear of deep water himself, this is a brush with the sheer power of nature and Chris is fortunate to survive. H D Thoreau, one of Chris’s favourite authors, explains in Walden, how man needs to be constantly challenged by the power of nature to know he is alive. Krakaur explains that the kayak journey continues for thirty days with Chris surviving on his own wits and a bag of rice. This gave him the confidence that he could survive in Alaska with similar meagre provisions.
Chris had prepared enough to give him a reasonable chance of survival. Making the odds much better would have made the exercise pointless. I think Chris felt that over-preparing was like watching a magic trick too closely, it quickly loses its power to delight and amaze. He deliberately chose items that would be adequate, a battered State Road Map of the area, a .22 calibre hunting rifle, a reference book of local plants and 10lbs of rice. However, many key items of his survival kit: fishing pole, winter parka, machete, pocket knife, and waterproof boots were given to him by concerned people he met. I think Chris trusted something, Karma or God or fate would provide what he needed. Chris eagerly accepted that he was facing a challenge that could be too much for him. In Fairbanks, Alaska, Chris sent two postcards to friends, both question whether he would survive. These were practical, not dramatic messages.
There was a critical gap in his thinking. He didn’t consider that the icy river he waded through at the end of April would be a raging torrent of glacial melt-water when attempting to cross again two months later. How could someone unfamiliar with the Alaskan wilderness be expected to have known this? His lack of preparation cost him dearly. There was a disused geological station with a mechanical crossing device a mile and a half downriver and a couple of cabins nearby, had he bought a topographical map, he would have known that.
Chris was fatally unlucky. He tries and fails to butcher a moose he has killed before the meat is spoiled by flies laying their eggs in it. Krakaur explains that far from naïve and foolish, Chris was following advice he had sought from experienced by hunters in South Dakota – to smoke meat to preserve it. Chris could not have known that Alaskan hunters would air-dry meat.
Chris used this book to identify edible plants to sustain him. The edible root of the potato plant which grew all around the bus. In the Summer months this root becomes unpalatable, so Chris replaced them with the seeds of the same plant as a large part of his diet. After 16 days, Chris wrote: “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.”
Krakauer showed great persistence and determination to investigate and publish the truth. In an article entitled: Presence of L-Canavanine in Hedysarum alpinum Seeds and Its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless in the March 2015 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, Krakaur concludes that the seeds from the edible wild potato plant contain a toxin that was previously undocumented. Fatally weakened, the Lathyrism caused by the potato seeds meant that Chris could not metabolise what little energy he was able consume. Krakaur believes that without this twist of bad fortune, Chris would have been alive when Moose Hunters reached the bus and found his emaciated 33body two weeks later.
Chris wasn’t suicidal, he was counting on surviving and returning to civilisation. In the conclusion of Walden, Thoreau states simply that he concluded his time in the wilderness because: “… it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live and could not spare any more time for that one.” Chris’s rucksack, returned years later, contained Chris’s wallet with various forms of ID, library cards and three crisp one hundred-dollar bills. He broke a gold crown on one of his teeth and saved it.
Where was God?
There are fleeting mentions of a religious upbringing in Carine McCandless’ book. It is not unravelled fully, but consistent references to ‘Sunday School’. ‘Sunday Worship’ and ‘Congregations’ throughout suggest that religion was for show, not a significant part of McCandless family life. Living close to nature is not incompatible with Christianity. As Henry David Thoreau says at the end of his life when a friend suggests that he reconcile with God, “I didn’t know we had fallen out!” Chris may have distrusted organised religion, but had faith in the concept of God as a part of the world. In the scene in the film with Ron Franz, and his later letter to him, Chris talks enthusiastically about God and Creation.
Chris’s final note reads “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless you all!” In the film, Chris has signed it in his own name. This message was taken by his parents, to assure them that he didn’t regret his choices. However, in her book, Carine suggests that Chris was referring solely to his life since he had turned away from his parents, his last two years as Alex Supertramp. Chris took a picture of himself (above) grinning broadly holding the note with one hand and waving goodbye with the other. Painfully thin, he accepted his fate and is not afraid. H D Thoreau talks about the arrival of Spring as a turning point for all life, Chris must have realised the irony of the powerful change of season trapping him on the Stampede Trail.
Chris left a very practical final message pinned to the outside of the bus. It asks finders to remain until his return that evening “in the name of God”. God is not mentioned in any of the exuberant observations of Alexander Supertramp. I wondered if at the end, God had replaced him and Chris found some comfort in that.
What was Chris looking for?
I think Chris was searching for his own path into adulthood and the wisdom of self-discovery that comes with it. All of us can understand this through our own journeys. Perhaps crystallised by something we just knew we had to do, regardless of the risk, to prove our worthiness to ourselves. Something we can look back on as an adult, point out the flaws and shake our heads wisely. I think the pressure Chris felt from his parents to do materially well in life pushed Chris’s to find himself outside society and into the wild.
Did he find it?
I think Chris had grasped the truth he was searching for. On day 66, he wrote ‘Family Happiness’, a story by Leo Tolstoy, in his journal before attempting to return the next day. Chris habitually wrote the titles of the books he had read in his journal. However, his parents leapt on this as proof that Chris had decided it was time for him to return and seek happiness in the arms of his family. My reading of this story is different. The message is that we have to experience a callow society so that we can recognise happiness with our own family. Rather than go back to his parents, I think Chris was ready to come back to start his own family. Much as his younger sister, Carine, found so much happiness in her own children in the following years.
In the film, this realisation comes at the end, tragically too late, Chris writes “Happiness only real when shared.” in the margin of his copy of Dr Zhivago. According to his journal, Chris read Dr Zhivago for the final time on day 92 and seems to show his thoughts changing from the powerful resolve of the enlightened to the tragic regret of the lost. In her book, Carine explains that she was concerned by this, but over the page, another note Chris has written reads “With the right people.” I think this changes the mood subtly: Far from lament and loneliness, there is deep regret at not being able to go out and find those people. Carine ends her book by reflecting that she has grown and changed over the last twenty-two years, a process that she believes her brother was working through, in his own way, too.
Was he a hero?
The 1996 best-selling book and its 2007 film adaptation have brought Chris’s story to a massive audience, but quite rightly, it leaves people divided on whether they have just seen a cautionary tale or that of a tragic hero.
Christopher J McCandless was an exceptional person and often described as ‘intense’ by people who knew him. He had suffered domestic abuse as a child and it is possible that he had a neurodiverse mind. He had turned away from society was looking for truth and answers within himself. That is to be admired and respected and is an example for us all. Classical Heroes face danger head on, but have a fatal flaw that leads them to tragedy. Was Chris’s casual approach to risk his fatal flaw, was he just very unlucky?
Chris’s story inspires many who hear it. The inside of Fairbanks bus 142 is full of messages written by fellow travellers on the same very human journey. Recently, the bus had to be moved because just trekking out to it was placing these pilgrims in danger. It will now be looked after by The University of Alaska’s museum of the North.
Much of Chris’s story is peppered with quotes from the books he loved, the quotes seem to unlock his most private thoughts. I’ll end with one about growing up from one of my favourite authors. “We leave the unselfconscious grace of childhood behind and take our first faltering steps through the mire and complexity of life to whatever we can reach of wisdom, which it is our job to increase and pass on. – Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices . p325. We must learn that we are responsible for building our own happiness and choosing who to share it with. We must increase this wisdom and pass it on.
[update November 2020] Friends of Bus 142 was set up to support the restoration and relocation of the ‘Magic Bus’ as a permanent exhibition. The bus is now a part of Chris’s story. A very important story which you can ensure is kept alive by making a donation through their website.