(Image from Barnes & Noble)
At one time or another, all of us have no doubt felt the desire to sell all our worldly goods and head for the hills. The solitude and simplicity of an unencumbered vagabond life are undeniably appealing, especially when the pressures of life feel too heavy to bear. Few of us actually take the plunge, though, beyond say, a weekend camping trip or a rejuvenating hike in the mountains. That's what makes the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless so odd. And so intriguing.
McCandless—a bright, enterprising young fellow—grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The son of an aerospace engineer, he was used to a solid, upper middle class existence. As a young man, however, he grew disdainful of "the good life." After graduating from Emory University in 1990, McCandless renamed himself Alexander Supertramp and took to the road. Impulsive and hopelessly idealistic, the college grad sold most of his possessions, donated all his money ($25, 000) to charity, and set off to explore the country. Working odd jobs to take care of his scant personal needs, McCandless took pleasure in seeing new places, meeting interesting people, and finding enlightenment in his anti-materialism lifestyle.
As he wandered, McCandless dreamed of walking into a true wilderness, of experiencing total freedom in a land relatively untouched by human feet. He planned to disappear there, to live off the land, surviving by his own wit and instinct. The place? Alaska. On April 28, 1992, the 24-year-old realized that dream. He began hiking The Stampede Trail, near Denali National Park, toting along little more than his passion. Ill-equipped to handle the harsh Alaskan backcountry, Christopher Johnson McCandless lasted only a few months. On September 6, 1992, a hunter discovered his body—which weighed only 66 pounds—moldering inside an old, abandoned bus near the trail. Ironically, the man who donated $25,000 to feed the hungry starved to death—and not all that far from civilization.
McCandless' story fascinates travel writer Jon Krakauer, who made the young survivalist the subject of his first book, Into the Wild. In it, Krakauer explores McCandless' life from childhood to his death in order to figure out what made the unusual man tick. While doing so, the author ruminates on important topics like society's obligation to those who don't fit in; the foolhardiness of challenging nature unprepared; the dangers of romanticizing people like McCandless, whose tragic but preventable death inspires devotees to make their own pilgrimages to The Stampede Trail, often leading to stranded—even dead—hikers; and a person's right to live and die on their own terms, however odd they may be. Krakauer even explores alternative scenarios that could have led to McCandless' death. The fact that there are a lot of gaps and unknowns in the man's story doesn't make Into the Wild any less intriguing. Although I didn't find the book nearly as awe-inspiring as Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air, it's still a gripping man vs. nature story, haunting and memorable. It's a sad tale, but one I found very compelling.
(Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of anything. Can you?)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for strong language, depictions of illegal drug use, and scenes of peril
To the FTC, with love: Another library