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1.INTO THE WILD
2.THE MOSQUITO COAST
3.HEART OF DARKNESS
WILDERNESS AND THE AMERICAN MIND
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1.INTO THE WILD
In most books, the "Author's Note" can be skipped, but I think that Krakauer does a good job of summarizing the story, the main themes, and unanswered questions in a few short pages. First, a quick summary of this story's plot.
pg. i-ii. "In April 1992, a [Christopher McCandless] man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters . . . He'd grown up . . . in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where he'd excelled academically and had been an athlete. Immediately after graduating, with honors . . . in the summer of 1990, McCandless dropped out of sight. He changed his name, gave the entire balance of a twenty-four-thousand-dollar savings account to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet. And then he invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society . . . His family had no idea where he was or what had become of him until his remains turned up in Alaska . . . He was an extremely intense young man and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence."
However, Krakauer found some broader themes, which we should focus on, that McCandless' story raises: 1) Wilderness & American Imagination, 2) High-Risk Activities and 3) Father-Son Dynamics.
pg. ii. "I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure of high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons."
Still, there are two major outstanding questions. The first is whether McCandless was a victim of his own recklessness OR fell victim to two mistakes / miscalculations. The second, related question is whether he is noble hero who pursued his dream or he was an irresponsible narcissist who injured many by his selfish actions. On the first question, Krakauer takes the latter view:
pg. ii-iii. "When [McCandless] headed off into the Alaskan bush, he entertained no illusions that he was trekking into a land of milk and honey; peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were precisely what he was seeking. And this what he found, in abundance. For most of the sixteen-week ordeal, nevertheless, McCandless more than held his own. Indeed, were it not for one or two seemingly insignificant blunders, he would have walked out of the woods in August 1992 as anonymously as he had walked into them in April. Instead, his innocent mistakes turned out to be pivotal and irreversible . . ."
The second question says more about us, the audience, than it does about McCandless and is reflected in the reaction to the original Krakauer article:
pg. iii. "This correspondence . . . reflected sharply divergent points of view: Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity--and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received."
CHAPTER ONE, The Alaska Interior
We meet "Alex" (McCandless) firs through the eyes of Jim Gallien, the truck driver/electrician who gives him the lift to his jumping off point on the Stampede Trail. The first impression Gallien has is that McCandless is signficiantly under prepared.
pg. 4-5. "Alex's backpack looked as though it weighted only twenty-five or thirty pounds, which struck Gallien--an accomplished hunter and woodsman--as an improbably light load for a stay of several months in the back country, especially so early in the spring. 'he wasn't carrying anywhere near as much food and gear as you'd expect a guy to be carrying or that kid of trip,' Gallien recalls . . . Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only .22 caliber; a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station."
Gallien tries several times to dissuade McCandless from his plan to hike the Stampede Trail. He figures he is just a naive young kid attracted to the seeming freedom of the "last frontier."
pg. 4-5. ". . . Gallien wondered whether he'd picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska had long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing. 'People from Outside,' reports Gallien . . . 'they'll pick up a copy of
magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin' 'Hey, I'm goin' to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.' but when they get here and actually head out into the bush--well, it sin't like the magazines make it out to be. The rivers are big and fast. The mosquitoes eat you alive. Most places, here aren't a lot of animals to hunt. Livin' in the bush isn't no picnic.'"
However, Gallien does also see the brightness and confidence of McCandless as he talked to him during their drive.
pg. 5-7. "The more they talked, the less Alex struck Gallien as a nutcase. He was congenial and seemed well educated. He peppered Gallien with thoughtful questions about the kind of berries he could eat--'that kind of thing.'. . .'There was just no talking the guy out of it,' Gallien remembers. 'He was determined. Real gung ho. The word that comes to mind is
. He couldn't wait to head out there and get started.' . . . 'I figured he'd be OK,' he explains. 'I thought he'd probably get hungry pretty quick and just walk out to the highway. That's what any normal person would do.'"
CHAPTER TWO, The Stampede Trail
This chapter describes the history and surroundings of the Stampede Trail, why there is a bus in the middle of the Alaskan bush and how Chris McCandless was found. The first thing to consider is the note found on the outside of the bus.
pg. 12. "S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS
. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU, CHRIS MCCANDLESS. AUGUST?"
Samel provides the first view of inside the bus. In an archaeological sense, it is important to note what McCandless kept to have a window onto what his life was in the wild.
pg. 12. "A peek through a window revealed a Remington rife, a plastic box of shells, eight or nine paperback books, some torn jeans, cooking utensils, and an expensive backpack. In the very rear of the vehicle, on a jerry-built bunk, was a blue sleeping bag that appeared to have something or someone inside it, although, says Samel, 'it was hard to be absolutely sure . . .'
The police give a slightly more complete inventory:
pg. 13-4. "The troopers made a cursory examination of the vehicle and its environs for signs of foul play and then departed. When they flew away, they took McCandless's remains, a camera with five rolls of exposed film, the SOS note, and a diary--written across the last two pages of a field guide to edible plants--that recorded the young man's final weeks in 113 terse, enigmatic entries . . . McCandless's signature had been penned at the bottom of the SOS note, and the photos, when developed, included many self-portraits. But because he had been carrying no identification, the authorities didn't know who he was, where he was from, or why he was there."
There is also the first speculation about his cause of death from the autopsy:
pg. 13. "The remains were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine exactly when McCandless had died, but the coroner could find no sign of massive internal injuries or broken bones. Virtually no subcutaneous fat remained on the body, and the muscles had withered significantly in the days or weeks prior to death. At the time of the autopsy, McCandless's remains weighed sixty-seven pounds. Starvation was posited as the most probable cause of death."
CHAPTER THREE, Carthage
This chapter shows us McCandless through the eyes of Wayne Westerberg, perhaps his best friend during his odyssey. Westerberg owned a grain elevator in South Dakota and did many odd jobs and befriended McCandless while working on a combine crew when McCandless was a hitchhiker. Westerberg's assessment was that McCandless was highly ethical and intelligent.
pg. 17-18. "'I've given jobs to lots of hitchhikers over the years,' says Westerberg. 'Most of them weren't much good, didn't really want to work. It was a different story with Alex. He was the hardest worker I've ever seen. Didn't matter what it was, he'd do it: hard physical labor, mucking rotten grain and dead rats out of the bottom of the hole--jobs where you'd get so damn dirty you couldn't even tell what you looked like at the end of the day. And he never quit in the middle of something. If he started a job, he'd finish it. It was almost like a moral thing for him. He was what you'd call extremely ethical. He set pretty high standards for himself. You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent,' Westerberg reflects, draining his third hard drink. 'He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of time I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. he always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.'"
As much as he was a drifter, Carthage was McCandless' home
pg. 18-19. "McCandless quickly became enamored of Carthage. he liked the community's stasis, its plebeian virtues and unassuming mien. The place was a back eddy, a pool of jetsam beyond the pull of the main current, and that suited him just fine. That fall he developed as lasting bond with both the town and Wayne Westerberg . . . The attachment McCandless felt for Carthage remained powerful, however . . . And McCandless stayed in touch with Westerberg as he roamed the West, calling or writing Carthage every month or two. He had all his mail forwarded to Westerberg's address and told almost everyone he met thereafter that South Dakota was his home."
Chris, in fact, comes from a large upper middle-class family from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. He attended a competitive university, making Phi Beta Kappa (equivalent to the high honor roll for all of high school). He had several thousand dollars and his college debts paid. However, he clearly has an issue with feeling dependent, including accepting gifts. He writes in a letter to his sister Carrine:
pg. 21. ". . .
they ignore what I say and think I'd actually accept a new car from them! I'm going to have to be real careful not to accept any gifts from them in the future because they will think they have bought my respect."
After his graduation, he sends his parents his final transcript with a seemingly ordinary letter. However, it is the last his family will hear form him until his death. He clearly tries to deceive his parents by asking the post office to hold returned mail for two months and he begins on his odyssey as "Alex Supertramp."
pg. 22-3. "By then Chris was long gone. Five weeks earlier he'd loaded all his belongings into his little car and headed west without an itinerary. the trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything. He had spent the previous four years, as he saw it, preparing to fulfill an absurd and onerous duty: to graduate from college. At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence. Driving west out of Atlanta, he intended to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience. To symbolize the complete severance from his previous life, he even adopted a new name. No longer would he answer to Chris McCandless; he was now Alexander Supertramp, master of his own destiny."
CHAPTER FOUR, Detrital Wash
In this chapter, we move one more step in McCandless' odyssey to find his yellow Datsun abandoned in the "detrital wash" in northern Arizona. It is good to inventory once again what McCandless has left behind to get a view into his life.
pg. 26. "When he looked inside, Walsh found a Gianini guitar, a saucepan containing $4.93 in loose change, a football, a garbage bag full of old clothes, a fish rod and tackle, a new electric razor, a harmonica, a set of jumper cables, twenty-five pounds of rice, and in the glove compartment, the keys to the vehicle's ignition."
The park rangers who found were easily able to jump-start the car and it is still used at the time of the book's writing as an undercover vehicle for law enforcement. Krakauer pieces together McCandless tale and infers that he abandoned it due to a flash flood that occasionally runs through the detrital wash. As someone who has lost a car due to flooding, I can understand McCandless' hasty reaction. You often assume it is a lost cause. McCandless quasi-anarchist philosophy left him in a lurch. He could recover his car if he was willing to ask for help from officials, but then he would have a lot of explaining to do. I think this is one illustration where the philosophy of independence is intellectually bankrupt. None of us is really self-sufficient, and we must depend on others and accept help. While McCandless might be highly ethical, he does not accept the legitimacy of others ethical claims on him.
pg. 28. "With the battery dead there was no way to get the Datsun running. If he hoped to get the car back to a paved road, McCandless had no choice but to walk out and notify the authorities of his predicament. If he went to the rangers, however, they would have some irksome questions for him: Why had he ignored posted regulations and driven down the wash in the first place? Was he aware that the vehicle's registration had expired two years before ad had not been renewed? Did he know that his driver's license had also expired, and the vehicle was uninsured as well? Truthful responses to these queries were not likely to be well received by the rangers. McCandless could endeavor to explain that he answered to statutes of a higher order--that as a latter-day adherent of Henry David Thoreau, he took as gospel the essay on 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' and thus considered it his moral responsibility to flout the laws of the state. It was improbable, however, that deputies of the federal government would share his point of view. There would be thickets of red tape to negotiate and fines to pay. His parents would no doubt be contacted. But there was a way to avoid such aggravation: he could simply abandon the Datsun and resume his odyssey on foot. And that's what he decided to do."
McCandless decides to make a clean break and burns his remaining currency -- remember he already gave away $24,000 to OXFAM, an organization dedicated to feeding needy children in disadvantaged countries. As Krakauer notes,
pg. 29. "Instead of feeling distraught over this turn of events, moreover, McCandless was exhilarated: He saw the flash flood as an opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage."
His first few attempts at going it on foot run into a few dead ends -- heat stroke, exploitative benefactors -- he is picked up by a couple in a Winnebago and they provide another snapshot description of McCandless.
pg. 30. ". . . they noticed a boy crouching in the bushes off the side of the road. 'He was wearing long shorts and this really stupid hat,'. . .'he had a book about plants with him, and he was using it to pick berries, collecting them in a gallon milk jug with the top cut off. he looked pretty pitiful . . . We got to talking. he was a nice kid. Said his name was Alex. And he was big-time hungry. Hungry, hungry,
. But real happy. Said he'd been surviving on edible plants he identified from the book. Like he was really proud of it. Said he was tramping around the country, having a big old adventure he told us about abandoning his car, about burning all his money. I said, 'Why would you want to do that?' . . . he was a really good kid. We thought the world of him."
I think that Krakauer picks a perfect quote from the novelist James Joyce to describe McCandless' state of mind.
pg. 31. "He was alone . . .he was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight."
I think you should question at this point whether McCandless' behavior is simple teenage rebellion and the desire for autonomy on steroids or is there something more unique to McCandless' quest / odyssey. McCandless buys a canoe and paddles down the Colorado River, hoping to get to the Gulf of California in Mexico. One interesting observation is what all the dams and reservoirs have reduced the lower half of the Colorado river to. We will be returning to these topics when we read Marc Reisner's CADILLAC DESERT, but for now.
pg. 32. "The lower stretch of the river, from Hoover Dam to the gulf, has little in common with the unbridled torrent that explodes through the Grand Canyon, some 250 miles upstream from Topock. Emasculated by dams and diversion canals, the lower Colorado burbles indolently from reservoir to reservoir through some of the hottest, starkest country on the continent. McCandless was stirred by the austerity of the landscape, by its saline beauty. The desert sharpened the sweet ache of his longing, amplified it, gave shape to it in sere geology and clean slant of light."
One passage from his letter to Wayne Westerberg from Yuma reflects McCandless' attitude -- the harder it is, the better.
pg. 33. "
Sometimes I wish I hadn't met you though. Tramping is too easy with all this money. My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to forage around for my next meal. I couldn't make it now without money, however, as there is very little fruiting agriculture here at this time."
He attempts to reach the Gulf of California, but is continually frustrated by canal cul-de-sacs. he eventually reaches the sea and spend a month on the beaches. This incident convinces him that he can survive in the wild.
pg. 36. "For that entire period he subsisted on nothing but five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea, an experience that would later convince him he could survive on similarly meager rations in the Alaska bush."
We get an update on McCandless' condition. Physically, he seems to be wasting away, but spiritually he seems never better.
pg. 37. "'Can this be the same Alex that set out in July, 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But spirit is
.. . . Thus the story has not picture book for the period . . .But this is not important. It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of
to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it's great to be alive! Thank you, Thank you."
CHAPTER FIVE, Bullhead City
McCandless spends more time in Bullhead City than any other place, including Carthage, South Dakota. It is an unusual selection for him and he takes a job (McDonald's) for minimum wage. This seems out of character for him and we should consider in contrast to the other choices he makes. In addition, the people here have a distinctly different impression than we have received from Westerberg, Burres, etc. Krakauer attempts an explanation for McCandless' choice of residence.
pg. 39. "Bullhead City doesn't seem like the kind of place that would appeal to an adherent of Thoreau and Tolstoy, an ideologue who expressed nothing but contempt for the bourgeois trappings of mainstream America. McCandless, nevertheless, took a strong liking to Bullhead. Maybe it was his affinity for the lumpen, who were well represented in the community's trailer parks and campgrounds and laundromats; perhaps he simply fell in love with the stark desert landscape that encircles the town."
One of the assistant managers at the McDonald's notes he passive aggressive behavior in terms of dress code. He was required to wear socks to work at the McDonald's, but would defiantly shuck them at the end of his shift. The other manager had a much more critical impression.
pg. 40. "'Frankly, I was surprised he ever got hired,' she says. 'He could do the job--he cooked in the back--but he always worked at the same slow pace, even during the lunch rush, no matter how much you'd get on him to hurry it up. customers would be stacked ten-deep at the counter, and he wouldn't understand why I was on his case. He just didn't make the connection. It was like he was off in his own universe. He was reliable, though, a body that showed up every day, so they didn't dare fire him . . . I don't think he ever hung out with any of the employees after work or anything. When he talked, he was always going on about trees and nature and weird stuf like that. We all thought he was missing a few screws.'"
She also commented on his personal hygiene
pg. 41. "When he first started working, he was homeless, and he'd show up for work smelling bad. It wasn't up to McDonald's standards to come in smelling the way he did. So finally they delegated me to tell him that he needed to take a bath more often. Ever since I told him, there was a clash between us . . .That made him mad--you could tell. But he never showed it outright. About three weeks later, he just walked out the door and quit.'"
Charlie, who finds him a place to stay, also has a more nuanced view of Chris. It is not just the "idealistic, stubborn young man" that we have heard from others.
pg. 42. "'Didn't like to be around too many people, though. Temperamental. He meant good, but I think he had a lot of complexes--know what I'm saying? Liked to read books by that Alaska guy, Jack London. Never said much. he'd get moody, wouldn't like to be bothered. Seemed like a kid who was looking for something, looking for
thing, just didn't know what it was. I was like that once, but then I realized what I was looking for: Money! . . . Alaska--yeah, he talked about going to Alaska. Maybe to find whatever it was he was looking for. Nice guy, seemed like one, anyway. Had a lot of complexes sometimes, though. Had'em bad.'"
We get a little insight into his literary choices, and, considering that several paperbacks were found with him when he died, they bear more attention.
pg. 43-4."'. . . Alex was big on the classics: Dickens, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Jack London. London was his favorite. He'd try to convince every snowbird who walked by that they should read Call of the Wild.' McCandless had been infatuated with London since childhood. London's fervent condemnation of capitalist society, his glorification of the primordial world, his championing of the great unwashed-- all of it mirrored McCandless's passions. Mesmerized by London's turgid portrayal of life in Alaska and the Yukon, McCandless read and reread
The Call of the Wild
White Fang, "To Build a Fire," "And Odyssey of the North," "The Wit of Porportuk."
He was so entrhalled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London's romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he'd died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print."
Burres gives us a counter-portrait of McCandless to Charlie who noted that he did not like to be around people. Burres notes
pg. 44. "Burres makes it clear that he was no recluse: 'he had a
time when he was around people, a
good time. At the swap meet he'd talk and talk and talk to everybody who came by . . .He needed his solitude at times, but he wasn't a hermit. he did a lot of socializing. Sometimes I think it was like he was storing up company for the times when he knew nobody would be around.'"
Once again, McCandless seems to reject gifts, even from people he cares for and likes. When Burres tries to give him money or clothes he resists.
pg. 46. "He accepted Burres's offer to drive him there, but when she tried to give him a little money for helping out at the swap meet, she recalls, 'he acted real offended. I told him, 'Man, you gotta have money to get along in this world,' but he wouldn't take it.' . . . After an extended argument Burres got McCandless to accept some long underwear and other warm clothing she thought he'd need in Alaska. 'He eventually took it to shut me up,' she laughs, 'but the day after he left, I found most of it in the van. He'd pulled it out of the pack when we weren't looking and hit it up under the seat."
Burres concludes with an endorsement of McCandless's journey to Alaska.
pg. 46. "'I thought he'd be fine in the end,' she reflects. 'He was smart. He'd figured out how to paddle a canoe down to Mexico, how to hop freight trains, how to score a bed at inner-city missions. He figured all of that out on his own, and I felt sure he'd figure out Alaska, too.'"
CHAPTER SIX, Anza-Borrego
In this chapter, McCandless' conflicts with his father are hinted at by his relationship with Ronald Franz, an elderly man he befriends while he lives near the Salton Sea in southern California. This chapter explores the reciprocal impact that Franz had on McCandless and McCandless had on Franz. It seems that McCandless opened up to Franz in a way that he did not with the others he befriended during his journey. They both carry hurt: Franz because his wife and son were killed in an auto accident, McCandless because of abuse and family strife. Both isolate and insulate themselves in response. Franz's first impression of McCandless is positive, and like many others, he feels a need to help him, help which McCandless turns down.
pg. 51. "'He seemed extremely intelligent . . . I thought he was too nice a kid to be living by that hot springs with those nudists and drunks and dope smokers.' After attending church that Sunday, Franz decided to talk to Alex 'about how he was living. Somebody needed to convince him to get an education and a job and make something of his life.' When he returned to McCandless's camp and launched into the self-improvement pitch, though, McCandless cut him off abruptly. 'Look, Mr. Franz,' he declared, 'you don't need to worry about me, I have a college education. I'm not destitute. I'm living like this by choice.'"
Under Franz's tutelage, McCandless crafts a leather belt with many of the totem's of his journey.
pg 51-2. "McCandless produced a tooled leather belt, on which he created an artful pictorial record of his wanderings.
is inscribed at the belt's left end; then the initials
(for Christopher Johnson McCandless) frame a skull and crossbones. Across the strip of cowhide one sees a rendering of a two-lane blacktop, a NO U-TURN sign, a thunderstorm producing a flash flood that engulfs a car, a hitchhiker's thumb, an eagle, the Sierra Nevada, salmon convorting in the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to Washington, the Rock Mountains, Montana wheat fields, a South Dakota rattlesnake, Westerberg's house in Carthage, the Colorado River, a gale in the Gulf of California, a canoe beached beside a tent, Las Vegas, the initials
, Morro Bay, Astoria, and at the buckle end, finally, the letter
(presumably representing north). Executed with remarkable skill and creativity, this belt is an astonishing as any artifact Chris McCandless left behind."
For the first time we see a dark, angry side to McCandless.
pg. 52. "Not infrequently during their visits, Franz recalls, McCandless's face would darken with anger and he'd fulminate about his parents or politicians or the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life. Worried about alienating the boy, Franz said little during such outbursts and let him rant."
Franz has a deep concern for McCandless, but like so many other people in his life, McCandless flees the embrace of friendship and intimacy.
pg. 55. "McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well--relived thathe ha again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. he had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. he'd successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arm's length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. And no he'd slipped painlessly out of Ron Franz's life as well. Painlessly, that is, from McCandless's perspective--although not from the old man's. One can only speculate about why Franz became so attached to McCandless so quickly, but the affection he felt was genuine, intense, and unalloyed."
In several ways, Franz gives us a glimpse into what McCandless might have become if he had lived; they share many personal characteristics.
pg. 55-6. "Franz had been living a solitary existence for many years. he had no family and few friends. A disciplined, self-reliant man, he got along remarkably well despite this age and solitude. When McCandless came into this world, however, the boy undermined the old man's meticulously constructed defenses . . . their burgeoning friendship also reminded how lonely he'd been. The boy unmasked the gaping void in Franz's life even as he helped fill it. when McCandless departed as suddenly as he'd arrived. Franz found himself deeply and unexpectedly hurt."
McCandless's letter to Franz is informative, not because of what it says about Franz, but because it can read as an explanation for the choices McCandless has made and the life he has chosen.
pg. 56-57. "
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy."
McCandless's point about human relationships is interesting because his last journal entry suggested something entirely different.
pg. 57. "
You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. it is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual life style and engage in unconventional living."
Ron takes McCandless's advice and lives an "on the road" lifestyle, but when he finds out that McCandless has died, his faith is broken and the hurt lingers.
CHAPTER SEVEN, Carthage
We return to Carthage, and we receive a slightly different view of McCandless from Westerberg. He notes McCandless' difficulty working with machinery (remember his car) and his lack of common sense, which should be compared with his facility in natural, organic environments.
pg. 62-3. "Westerberg attempted to teach him to operate a front-end loader: 'Alex hand't had been around machinery much,' Westerberg says with a shake of his head, 'and it was pretty comical to watch him try to get the hang of the clutch and all those levers. he definitely wasn't what you'd call mechanically minded.' Nor was McCandless endowed with a surfeit of common sense. Many who knew him have commented, unbidden, that he seemed to have great difficulty seeing the trees, as it were, for the forest. 'Alex wasn't a total space cadet or anything,' says Westerberg: 'don't get me wrong. But there was gaps in his thinking. I remember once I went over to the house, walked into the kitchen, and noticed a god-awful stink. I mean it smelled nasty in there. I opened the microwave, and at the bottom of it was filled with rancid grease. Alex had been using it to cook chicken, and it never occurred to him that the grease had to drain somewhere. It wasn't that he was too lazy to clean it up--Alex always kept things real neat and orderly--it was just that he hadn't noticed the grease.'"
Westerberg's girlfriend, Gail Borah, notices the two sides of McCandless's shyness and loquacity.
pg. 63. "'He was kind of shy at first,' says Borah. 'He acted like ti was hard for him to be around people. I just figured that was because he'd spent so much time by himself . . . Alex talked a lot when we got together,' Borah recalls. 'Serious stuff, like he was baring his soul, kind of. He said he could tell me things that he couldn't tell the others. You could see something was gnawing at him. It was pretty obvious he didn't get along with his family, but he never said much about any of them."
We begin to learn more about McCandless's family background. First, from one of McCandless's letters to his sister.
Since they won't ever take me seriously, for a few month after graduation I'm going to let them think they are right, I'm going to let them think that I'm 'coming around to see their side of things' and that our relationship is stabilizing. And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I'm going to completely knock them out of my life. I'm going to divorce them as my parents once and for all and never speak to either of those idiots again as long as I live. I'll be through with them once and for all, forever."
Westerberg thinks McCandless has lost perspective on this. He reflects:
pg. 64. "'. . . If Alex were here right now, I'd be tempted to chew him out good: 'What the hell were you thinking? Not speaking to your family for all that time, treating them like dirt! One of the kids that works for me . . . he don't even have any goddamn parents, but you don't hear him bitching. Whatever the deal was with Alex's parents, but you don't hear him bitching. Whatever the deal was with Alex's family, I guarantee you I've seen a lot worse. Knowing Alex, I think he must have just got stuck on something that happened between him and his dad and couldn't leave it be."
pg. 64. "Both father and son were stubborn and high-strung. Given Walt's need to exert control and Chris's extravagantly independent nature, polarization was inevitable. Chris submitted to Walt's authority through high school and college to a surprising degree, but the boy raged inwardly all the while. he brooded at length over what he perceived to be his father's moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents' lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love. Eventually, Chris rebelled--and when he finally did, it was with characteristic immoderation."
Krakauer also notes the resonance between sexual chastity and the attraction to the wilderness.
pg. 65-6. "Chastity and moral purity were qualities McCandless mulled over long and often . . . McCandless's apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with a single minded passion--Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently--to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact. McCandless may have been tempted by the succor offered by women, but it paled beside the prospect of rough congress with nature, with he cosmos itself. and thus was he drawn north, to Alaska."
As this is another transition point, it is telling to inventory what McCandless takes with him and what he leaves behind.
pg. 68. "His pack was heavy. He had approximately one thousand dollars tucked in his boot. He left his journal and photo album with Westerberg for safekeeping and gave him the leather belt he'd made in the desert."
I think McCandless's mental state is also different from his other partings, where leaving was a relief, this time, he seems pent up with emotion. For the first time, someone who knows him expresses doubt about his ability to survive Alaska
pg. 68. "'I noticed he was crying. That frightened me. He wasn't pla ning on being gone that long; I figured he wouldn't have been crying unless he intended to take some big risks and kenw he might not be coming back. That's when I started having a bad feeling that we wouldn't never see Alex again.'"
CHAPTER EIGHT, Alaska
In this chapter, we leave the McCandless narrative and start to engage broader themes and issues. This chapter details the reactions of native Alaskans and retells the story of several individuals who tried to brave the Alaskan wilderness and what fate they befell.
It opens with the critical letters to the editor regarding Krakauer's original magaine piece. They are unimpressed with McCandless's motives and generally describe him as irresponsible or unprepared. A sampling
pg. 71. "'Alex is a nut in my book . . . The author describes a man who has given away a small fortune, forsaken a loving family, abandoned his car, watch and map and burned the last of his money before traipsing off in the 'wilderness' west of Healy.'"
'Personally I see nothing positive at all about Chris McCandless's lifestyle or wilderness doctrine . . . Entering the wilderness purposefully ill-prepared, and surviving a near-death experience does not make you a better human, it makes you damn lucky.'
'Why would anyone intending to 'live off the land for a few months' forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain.'
'Krakauer is a kook if he doesn't think Chris 'Alexander Supertramp' McCandless was a kook . . . McCandless had already gone over the edge and just happened to hit bottom in Alaska.'
One more composed criticism came form an Alaskan teacher.
pg. 71-2. "'Over the past 15 years, I've run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there's quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they're almost a collective cliche . . . Such willful ignorance . . . amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez spill--just another case of underprepared, over-confident men bumbling around out there and screwing up because they lacked the requisite humility . . .McCandless's contrived asceticism and a pseudoliterary stance compound rather than reduce his fault . . .[they] read like the work of an above average, somewhat histrionic high school kid . . .''"
The rest of the chapter details the stories of several men who had similar experiences to McCandless. In way of a list, they are
Gene Rossellini -- Well-Educated; Proving a point; Critical of Modern Society; Planned to live simply without assistance.
John Watermann -- Grandiose, Mentally Ill; Climber; Poor Father-Son relationship; Copious Documentation; Eccentric
Carl McCunn -- Didn't arrange to be picked in the wild; cultivated "fantasies"; organized, but impulsive. Details in a diary the descent into hunger. Provides insight into what McCandless was experiencing toward the end.
Krakauer gives us a nice "compare-and-contrast" among these individuals and McCandless at the end of the chapter.
pg. 85. "There are similarities among Rossellini, Waterman, McCunn and McCandless. Like Rossellini and Waterman, McCandless was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature. Like Waterman and McCunn, he displayed a staggering paucity of common sense. But unlike Waterman and McCandless wasn't mentally ill. And unlike McCunn, he didn't go into the bush assuming someone would automatically appear to save his bacon before he came to grief. McCandless didn't conform to particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype. Although he was rash, untutored in the way so of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn't incompetent--he wouldn't have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn't a nutcase, he wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't an outcast. McCandless was something else--although precisely
is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps."
CHAPTER NINE, Davis Gulch
In this chapter, Krakauer takes a different tack. In the previous chapter Krakauer put McCandless's experience in comparison with the "most similar" cases of individuals who perished in Alaska while chasing a vision similar to McCandless. In this chapter, he takes a "most different" approach and looks at the case of Everett Ruess who disappeared in Davis Gulch in the American Southwest. The comparison with Ruess builds up the "attraction of wilderness" thesis to explain McCandless and also suggests how intrepid explorers can befell chance misfortune while in the wild. In some ways, Ruess was like McCandless: the both were highly educated, they both had a wanderlust at an early age, and both had trying relationships with their parents. Both liked "roughing it." I think it is helpful to look at the snatches of Ruess's correspondence provided us by Krakauer:
pg. 91. "'I had some terrific experiences in the wilderness since I wrote you last--overpowering, overwhelming . . . But then I am always being overwhelmed. I require it to sustain life.' . . . '
I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness. God, how the trail lures me. After the lone trail is the best . . . I'll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I'll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.' 'The beauty of this country is becoming part of me. I feel more detached form life and somehow gentler . . .I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly.' 'In my wanderings this year I have taken more chances and had more wild adventures than ever before. And what magnificent country I have seen . . .'"
We could easily imagine McCandless writing something similar in his journals or his postcards. He also adopts a pseudonym, just as McCandless does and is influenced by the literature he reads that encourages a distancing from normal society and an embrace of nature. Everett also shared McCandless's love-hate affair with people. At time gregarious and loquacious, but other times he just needed to get lost. Krakauer quotes Ken Sleight explaining:
pg. 96. "'Everett was a loner, but he liked people too damn much to stay down there and live in secret the rest of his life. A lot of us are like that--I'm like that, Ed Abbey was like that, and it sounds like this McCandless was like that: We like companionship, see, but we can't stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again. And that's what Everett was doing. Everett was strange,' Sleight concedes. 'Kind of different. But him and McCandless, at least they tried to follow their dream. That's what was great about them. They tried. Not many do.'"
CHAPTER TEN, Fairbanks
This chapter is mostly about the detective work to identify McCandless's identity and how they made contact with the people in his past. Not much for discussion, mostly human interest here.
CHAPTER ELEVEN, Chesapeake Beach
In this chapter we look back at McCandless's early family life. For the most part, there is nothing surprising here that we have not encountered elsewhere: McCandless is an intelligent, strident, highly ethical, stubborn individual who "fight authority" in its many forms. Perhaps the most important figure is his father, Walt McCandless, who in many ways seems like an adult version of his son:
pg. 105. "Walt is accustomed to calling the shots. Taking control is something he does unconsciously , reflexively. Although he speaks softly in the unhurried cadence of the American West, his voice has an edge, and the set of his jaw betrays an undercurrent of nervous energy. Even from across the room it is apparent that some very high voltage is crackling through his wires. There is no mistaking whence Chris's intensity came. When Walt talks, people listen. If something or someone displeases him, his eyes narrow and his speech becomes clipped. According to members of the extended family, his moods can be dark and mercurial, although they say his famous temper has lost most of its volatility in recent years. After Chris gave everybody the slip in 1990, something changed in Walt. His son's disappearance scared and chastened him."
There are some details here about the divorce, affair of his parents that is important to keep in mind as background information. We also learn about his maternal grandfather, who had a naturalist knack and a sensitivity to plants and animals. His grandfather lived at the edges of society
pg. 108. "'Billie's dad didn't quite fit into society,' Walt explains. 'In many ways he and Chris were a lot alike.' Loren Johnson was proud and stubborn and dreamy, a woodsman, a self-taught musician, a writer of poetry. Around Iron Mountain his rapport with the creatures of the forest was legendary. 'He was always raising wildlife,' say Billie.
McCandless's sense of independence, as his tensions with authority, started at an early age.
pg. 107. "His teacher pulled us aside and told us that 'Chris marches to a different drummer.' She just shook her head.' 'Even when we were little, says Carrine, who was born three years after Chris, 'he was very to himself. He wasn't antisocial--he always had friends, and everybody liked him--but he could go off and entertain himself for hours. He didn't seem to need toys or friends. He could be alone without being lonely.'"
Another theme that emerges is that McCandless does not like to lose and he does not aim at perfection, relying more on natural talent than on practice and refinement. Psychologist Carol Dweck has argued that this illustrates a "fixed" (as opposed to "growth") mentality and has argued that individuals who see achievement as a result of talent and aptitude tend to lag and have trouble adjusting to setbacks. Perhaps McCandless is a case of this. The first example is that he quits band when he younger sister proves better than he at French Horn. However it doesn't seem to be limited to this
pg. 111. "'Chris has so much natural talent,' Walt continues, 'but if you tried to coach him, to polish his skill, to bring out that final ten percent, a wall went up. He resisted instruction of any kind . . . By the time he was fifteen or sixtee, he was beating me regularly. He was very, very quick and had a lot of power; but when I suggested he work on the gaps in his game, he refused to listen. Once in a tournament he came up against a forty-five-year-old man with a lot of experience. Chris won a bunch of points right out of the gate, but the guy was methodically testing him, probling for his weakness. As soon as he figured out which shot gave Chris the most trouble, that was the only shot Chris saw, and it was all over.' Nuance, strategy, and anything beyond the rudimentaries of technique were wasted on Chris. The only way he cared to tackle a challenge was head-on, right now, applying the full brunt of his extraordinary energy. And he was often frustrated as a consequence. It wasn't until he took up running, an activity that rewards will and determination more than finesse or cunning, that he found his athletic calling."
McCandless became the captian of the cross-country team, but his approach to running is indicative of how he engaged other challenges.
pg. 112. "'. . .The whole idea was to lose our bearings, to push ourselves into unknown territory. Then we'd run at a slightly slower pace until we found a road we recognized and race home again at full speed. In a certain sense that's how Chris lived his entire life.' McCandless viewed running as an intensely spiritual exercise, verging on religion . . .'He'd tell us to think about all the evil in the world, all the hhatred, and imagine ourselves running against the forces of darkness, and the evil all that was trying to keep us from running our best. He believed doing well was all mental, a simple matter of harnessing whatever energy was available.'"
The next few pages show several ways where McCandless is more idealistic than realistic, whether it is raising money for South Africa, helping the homeless, or getting a college degree. Even though he is highly ethical, his approach is more about symbols and impulses than solutions to the problems of injustice or integrity. In addition, he does it in a way that is incredibly judgmental of those who do not approach it the same way or from the same point of view that he holds. One of his friends make an observation regarding his hostility toward authority and his parents.
pg. 115. "'My impression was that his parents were very nice people,' say Hathaway, 'no different, really, than my parents or anyone's parents. Chris just didn't like being told what to do. I think he would have been unhappy with any parents; he had trouble with the whole
McCandless was a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes as Krakauer notes:
pg. 115. "McCandless's personality was puzzling in its complexity. He was intensely private but could be convivial and gregarious in the extreme. And despite his overdeveloped social conscience, he was no tight-lipped, perpetually grim do-gooder who frowned on fun. To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham. Perhaps the greatest paradox concerned his feelings about money. Walt and Billie had both known poverty when they were young and after struggling to rise above it saw nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of their labor . . . Chris, Billie acknowledges, 'was embarrased by all that.' Her son, the teenage Tolstoyan, believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil--which is ironic because Chris was a natural-born capitalist with an uncanny knack for macking a buck. 'Chris was always an entrepreneur,' Billie says with a laugh. 'Always.'"
CHAPTER TWELVE, Annandale
Given his clear antagonism toward his father, the vignette Krakauer relates about giving his father an expensive telescope may seem out of character. However, another way to view it is that we can only hate those we love. Strong emotional reactions, whether positive or negative, are often characterized by sympathy-antipathy. In many ways, McCandless is like his father and seeing his Father in himself, may have ambivalent feelings: an attraction-repulsion. Sons may feel competitive with their fathers and be disappointed when they do not live up to their own ideals.
pg. 118. "'I remember sitting there when he gave Dad the telescope,' says Carine. 'Chris had tossed back a few drinks that night and was pretty blitzed. He got real emotional. He was almost crying, fighting back the tears, telling Dad that even though they'd had their differences over the years, he was grateful for all the things Dad had done for him. Chris said how much he respected Dad for starting from nothing, working his way through college, busting his ass to support eight kids. It was a moving speech. Everybody ther was all choked up. And then he left on his trip.'"
Krakauer continues on McCandless's relationship to his father:
pg. 122. "Children can be harsh judges when it comes to their parents, disinclined to grant clemency, and this was especially true in Chris's case. More even than most teens, he tended to see things in black and white. He measured himself and those around him by an impossibly rigorous moral code. Curioiusly, Chris didn't hold everyone to the same exacting standards. One of the individuals he professed to admire greatly over the last two years of his life was a heavy drinker and incorrigible philanderer who regularly beat up his girlfriends. Chris was well aware of this man's faults yet managed to forgive them. He was also able to frigive, or overlook , the shortcomings of his literary heroes: Jack London was a notorious drunk; Tolstoy, depsite his famous advocacy of celibacy, had been an enthusiastic sexual adventurer as young man and went on to father at least thirteen children, some of who were conceived at the same time the censorious count was thundering in print against the evils of sex. Like many people, Chris apparently judged artists and close friends by their work, not their life, yet he hwas temperamentally incapble of of extending such lenity to his father . . . Chris kept careful score. And over time he worked himself into a choler of self-righteous indignation that was impossible to keep bottled up."
I think there is a telling similarity between the faults McCandless sees in his father (and himself) and the type of heroes and friends he chooses. Many parents have trouble understanding the moodiness of their children when they reach their "rite of passage" ages. They know that they need to cultivate independence in their children, but they also want to remain involved in a caring way in their children's lives.
pg. 120. "Many aspects of Chris's personality baffled his parents. He could be generous and caring to a fault, but he had a darker side as well, characterized by monomania, impatience, and unwavering self-absorption, qualities that seemed to intensify through his college years."
Krakauer makes another observation about how McCandless treats money, especially relevant in light of his disdain for money or income during his odyssey. He sees money as a way of "keeping score." You want to be good at making money, demonstrating your personal virtue and prowess, but not be attached to material things. I am not sure that McCandless's perspective is particularly healthy or noble.
pg. 120-1. "'He made a pile of money. I remember he'd come home every night and do his accouting at the kitchen table. It didn't matter how tired he was; he'd figure out how many mile she drove, how much Dominos's paid him for gas, how mcuh gass actually costs, his net profits for the evening, how it compared to the same evening the week before. He kept track of everythign and showed me how to do it . .. He didn't seem interested in the money so much as the fact that he was good at making it. It was like a game, and the money was a way of keeping score.'"
It will be interesting to compare McCandless to characters that we will encounter later, such as Allie Fox, who seems obsessed with money and the cost of items even while disdaining materialism. Thoreau, in his opening chapter to
also is quite detailed about the cost of his supplies, his ability to save and "economize" on his lifestyle as well.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN, Viriginia Beach
One thing that struck me in this chapter was how devoted McCandless was to the family dog, Buckley. I have always been fascinated how some people are more humane to animals than they are to other humans. However, I think there is another point here: we take less risks when others may bear the harm of the risky behavior. I am not sure this is completely true. In our next book, Allie Fox takes many risks even though others in his family could be (and are) affected.
pg. 128. "'. . . My parents can't help wondering -- and I admit that I can't, either-- how things might have turne dout different if Chris had taken Buck with him. Chris didn't think twice about risking his own life, but he never would have put Buckley in any kind of danger. There's now ay he would have taken the same kind of chances if Buck had been with him.'"
This chapter has two purposes. The first is to show that Carine, who shared many experiences with Chris, did not turn onto the same path. The second is to show again how Chris's decisions impacted people he had left behind. We get another inventory of what possessions McCandless had when he died.
pg. 131. "At the coroner's office they were given the handful of possessions recovered with the body: Chris's rifle, a pair of binoculars, the fishing rod Ronald Franz had given him, one of the Swiss Army knives Jan Burres had given him, the book of plant lore in which his journal was written, a Minolta camera, and five rolls of film--not much else."
CHAPTER FOURTEEN, The Stikine Ice Cap
In this chapter, the author, Jon Krakauer, takes McCandless experience in comparison to his personal experience. In particular, his understanding of the motivations McCandless was under when he made his fateful decision. Krakauer would have us believe that they are more universal than personal.
pg. 133-4. "In the final postcard he sent to Wayne Westerberg, McCandless had written, 'If this adventure proves fatal and you don't ever hear from me again I want you to know you're a great man. I now walk into the wild.' When the adventure did indeed prove fatal, this melodramatic declaration fueled considerable speculation that the boy had been bent on suicide from the beginning that when he walked into the bush, he had no intention of ever walking out again. I'm not so sure, however. My suspicion that McCandless's death was unplanned, that it was a terrible accident, comes from reading those few documents he left behind and from listening to the men and women who spent time with him over the final year of his life. But my sense of Chris McCandless's intentions comes, too, from a more personal perspective.
Most of the balance of this chapter involves the detailing the similaritie of Krakauer to McCandless. The fascination with literature, the wanderlust, the abrupt decision, the dangers, the desire to "go it alone," etc. among others. In addition, Krakauer details the physical and emotional impact, blow-by-blow of his attempt at climbing the north face of Devil's thumb. We get a sense of both the exhiliration, fear, joy, and doubt of each step of the journey. Whether Krakauer is reading his personal experience into McCandless's story or not is to the judgment of the reader, but you also get a sense of Krakauer's bonafides to comment on McCandless, right, wrong, or indifferent.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN, The Stikine Ice Cap
Krakauer reaches a moment of decision camped out on the Stikine Ice Cap: should he continue his dangerous ascent or turn back and admit failure.
pg. 146. "Should I leave for the coast as soon as the weather broke, or should I stay put long enough to make another attempt on the mountain? In truth my escapade on the north face had rattled me, and I didn't want to go up on the Thumb again at all. But the thought of returning to Boulder in dfeat wasn't very appealing, either. I could all too easily picture the smug expressions of condolence I'd receive from those who'd been certain of my failure from the get-go."
I think people often project their own self-doubt and self-criticism on to other people. Others are far less judgmental, in my experience, than we perceive them to be. However, we all can be harsh judges of ourselves and believe that others view us the way we do. We put the responsibility (and blame) however on others because we cannot countenance the ego-crush that our negative rulings on ourselves would be.
We learn in this chapter of Krakauer's own struggles and rebellion against his father, providing another parallel with McCandless. However, unlike McCandless, Krakauer is able to come to wisdom and forgiveness in his relationship with his father.
pg. 148-9. "Two decades after the fact I discovered that my rage was gone, and had been for years. It had been supplanted by a rueful sympathy and something not unlike affection. I cam to understand that I had baffled and infuriated my father at least as much as he had baffled and infuriated me. I saw that I had been selfish and unbending and a giant pain in the ass. He'd built a bridge of privilege for me, a hand-paved trestle to the good life, and I repaid him by chopping it down and crapping on the wreckage."
We learn about the painful and lonely descent of his father to sickness and madness, but we also learn about how his father had instilled determination and stubbornness into his son. Krakauer returns to the ice cap and provides his own reflection on his own attempts to engage in risky behavior in nature.
pg. 151. "I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality--the idea of my own death--was still largely outside my conceptual grasp. When I decamped from Boulder for Alaska, my head swimming with visions of glory and redemption on the Devils Thumb, it didn't occur to me that I might be bound by the same cause-and-effect relationships that governed the actions of others. Because I wanted to climb the mountain so badly, because I had thought about the Thumb so intensely for so long, it seemed beyond the realm of possiblity that some minor obstacle like the weather or crevasses or rime-covered rock might ultimately thwart my will . . . it was no longer possible to ignore the fact that the Thumb had made hash of my plans. I was forced to acknowledge that volition alone, however powerful, was not going to get me up the north wall. I saw, finally, that nothing was."
However, this realization does not stop Krakauer from pursuing his goal, only to pursue it more responsibly. He reaches the summit and experiences the accomplishment, but trims his goals by going up a path he had earlier considered below his mien or challenge. Krakauer once again makes a comparison of his experience with McCandless.
pg. 155. "It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume taht if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, liek Chris McCAndless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I cam to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale. As a young man, I was unlike McCandless in mnay important regards; most notably, I possessed neither his intellect nor his lofty ideals. But I believe we were similarly affected by the skewed relationships we had with our fathers. And I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul . . . Eighteen years after the event, I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and appalling innocence, certainly; but I wasn't suicidal."
CHAPTER SIXTEEN, The Alaska Interior
In this chapter, we get the probable details of McCandless time in the Alaskan bush reconstructed as best as possible from his photographs and short journal entries. We do gain at least two statements of McCandless's quest in his own words and we should use this as a touchpoint to evaluate the many interpretations of his experience and story. It is vague enough to support many interpretations and we should ask how well does this fit other evidence that Krakauer has collected.
pg. 159. "'He said it was something he'd want to do since he was little,' says Stuckey. 'Said he didn't want to see a single person, no airplanes, no sign of civilization. He wanted to prove to himself that he coudl make it on his own, without anybody else's help.'"
pg. 163. "
TWO YEARS HE WALKS THE EARTH. NO PHONE. NO POOL, NO PETS, NO CIGARETTES. ULTIMATE FREEDOM. AN EXTREMIST. AN AESTHETIC VOYAGER WHOSE HOME IS
. ESCAPED FROM ATLANTA. THOU SHALT NOT RETURN, 'CAUSE 'THE WEST
BEST.' ANDNOW AFTER TWO RAMBLING YEARS COMES THE FINAL AND GREATEST ADVENTURE. THE CLIMACTIC BATTLE TO KILL THE FALSE BEING WITHIN AND VICTORIOUSLY CONCLUDE THE SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION. TEND DAYS AND NIGHTS OF FREIGHT TRAINS AND HITCHHIKING BRING HIM TO THE GREAT WHITE NORTH. NO LONGER TO BE POISONED BY CIVILIZATION HE FLEES, AND WALKS ALONE UPON THE LAND TO BECOME
LOST IN THE WILD
Wilderness is relative and in many senses, many Alaskans would not have considered McCandless decision to not complete the Stampede Trail and reside at the Magic Bus 142 as not really fulfilling his stated desire to rough it and test himself.
pg. 165. "Ironically, the wilderness surrounding the bus--the patch of overgrown country where McCandless was determined 'to become lost in the wild' -- scarcely qualifies as wilderness by Alaska standards . . .But despite the relative proximity of the bus to civlization, for all practial purposes McCandless was cut off from the rest of the world . . . In the end the Sushana River site was sufficiently remote to cost him his life."
I thought this passage about his ambivalent feelings about animals as a source of food was interesting. I think this indicates a connection to nature and his later remarks about the "holiness" and sacredness of food seems to indicate a sense of connection with nature.
pg. 166. "Although McCandless was enough of a realist to know that hunting game was an unavoidable component of living off the land, he had always been ambivalent about killing animals. That ambivalence turned to remorse soon after he shot the moose. It was relatively small, weighing perhaps six hundred or seven hundred pounds, but it nevertheless amounted to a huge quantity of meat. Believing that it was morally indefensible to waste any part of an animal that has been shot for food, McCandless spent six days toiling to preserve what he had killed before it spoiled."
After killing the moose, McCandless reads Walden and Tolstoy and seems to make some conclusions and peace of mind about his journey. He has achieved what his is looking for, in a sense, and can now end his journey, head held high.
pg. 169. "
He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others . . .I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor--such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps--what more can the heart of a man desire?"
McCandless seems to have achieved a spiritual peace and is able to now leave his wilderness and rejoin society and civilization. However, his plans are frustrated by the swelling of the Teklanika River. Acting prudently, he does not attempt to cross it, probably deciding that the level would drop as the snow melt slowed and he could retry the crossing again.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN, The Stampede Trail
The idea of "blank spots on the map" as a metaphor for nature and wilderness is a recurring theme and comes up in both of the subsequent books we will read. I think Krakauer's point that McCandless seems to emphasize the "incognita" over the "terra" is telling. It was a self-imposed handicap.
pg. 174. ". . . Chris 'was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today's society gives people.' In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map--not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the
would thereby remain
. Because he lacked a good map, the cable spanning the river also remained incognito."
Here Krakauer tries to debunk the comparison to Franklin, whose disrespect for his environment caused his demise. Krakauer argues that while Frankli's fault lay in not adapting to his environment, McCandless's mistake was not adapting enough.
pg. 181-2. "When McCandless turned up dead, he was likened to Franklin not simply because both men starved but also because both were perceived to have lacked a requisite humility; both were thought to have possessed insufficient respect for the land. Vihjalmar Stefansson pointed out that the English explorer had never taken the trouble to learn the survival skills practiced by the Indians and the Eskimos--peoples who had managed to flourish 'for generations, bringing up their children and taking care of their aged.' in the same harsh country that killed Franklin . . . McCandless's arrogance was not of the same strain as Franklin's, however. Franklin regarded nature as an antagonist that would inevitably submit to force, good breeding, and Victorian discipline. Instead of living in concert with the land, instead of relying on the country for sustenance as the natives did, he attempted to insulate himself from the northern environment with ill-suited military tools and traditions. McCandless, on the other hand, went too far in the opposite direction. He tried to live entirely off the country--and he tried to it without bothering to master beforehand the full repertorie of crucial skills . . .He was green, and he overestimated his resilience, but he was sufficiently skilled to last for sixteen weeks on little more than his wits and ten pounds of rice. And he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake."
Krakauer normalizes McCandless's behavior, comparing it to teenage rebellion taken to the extreme. While there is no doubt that many individuals go through this stage, it is measured in months, not years; it is reactive, not planned; and McCandless was in his mid-20s by the time he decided to take his odyssey up to Alaska. Most have tempered their rebellious, risk-taking urges by this point.
pg. 182. "It is hardly unusual for a young man to be drawn to a pursuit considered reckless by his elders; engaging in risky behavior is a rite of passage in our culture no less than in most others. Danger has always had a certain allure. That, in large part, is why so many teenagers drive too fast and drink too much and take too many drugs, why it has always been so easy for nations to recruit young men to go to war. It can be argued that youthful derring-do is in fact evolutionarily adaptive, a behavior encoded in our genes. McCandless, in his fashion, merely took risk-taking to its logical extreme. He had a need to test himself in ways, as he was fond of saying, 'that mattered.' He possessed grand--some would say grandiose--spiritual ambitions. According to themoral absolutism that characterizes McCandless's beliefs, a challenge in which a successful outcome was assured isn't a challenge at all."
This is a key passage. It makes the strongest case that the wilderness was merely a setting for a personal exploration that could have occurred in a variety of contexts. Krakauer argues that the pull of wilderness is irresistible and no matter what one's original rationale is, one eventually considers it and develops a relationship with it. If that is the case, I do not see it clearly in McCandless's account.
pg. 183. "Unlike Muir or Thoreau, McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul. He soon discovered, however, what Muir and Thoreau already knew; An extended stay in the wilderness inevitably directs one's attention outward as much as inward, and it is impossible to live off the land without developing both a subtle understanding of, and a strong emotional bond with, that land and all it holds. The entries in McCandless's journal contain few abstractions about wilderness or, for that matter, few ruminations of any kind. There is scant mention of the surrounding scenery."
Here, Krakauer puts his central point in his friend's mouth. McCandless should not be condemned because of a few simple mistakes that many people would have made in his situation. Most of his critics would not have been able to accomplish what he did for as long as he did. Ergo, do not criticize what one cannot do oneself.
pg. 185. "I bring up McCandless's hubris and the dumb mistakes he made--the two or three readily avoidable blunders that ended up costing him his life. 'Sure, he screwed up,' Roman answers, 'but I admire what he was trying to do. Living completely off the land like that, month after month, is incredibly difficult. I've never done it. And I'd bet you that very few, if any, of the people who call McCandless incompetent have ever done it either, not for more than a week or two. Living in the interior bush for an extended period, subsisting onnothing except what you hant and gather--most people ahve no idea how hard that actually is. And McCandless almost pulled it off. 'I guess I just can't help identifying with the guy.'"
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN, The Stampede Trail
Most of the final chapter is conjectural. Most students of McCandless's last days attribute his rapid demise in August to "eating potato seed" that McCandless notes in his journal. Most believe that he misidentified the wild potato with the wild sweet pea. One is edible, the other is toxic. Krakauer advances two other theses. The first is that while the wild potato's roots were edible, the seeds were not and concentrated with toxic alkaloids. The second is that there was a reaction of the seeds with a fungus to create a toxin due to the damp/wet weather of late July. These are all speculation, grounded as some may be, and one can believe any of theories and ground them on the foundation of the scant evidence on way or the other. There is better evidence that McCandless had achieved a sense of resolution, one grounded in nature AND human relationships.
, he notes two formulae: "NATURE/PURITY" and "refuge in nature". Here are the two passages he identifies
". . . took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name . . ."
pg. 189. "
Oh, how one wishes sometimes to escape from the meaningless dullness of human eloquence . . . [and] take refuge in nature, apparently so inarticulate . . ."
Next to the passage about "refuge in nature" McCandless wrote: "HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED." Krakauer gives us the obvious inference here.
pg. 189. "It is tempting to regard this latter notation as further evidence that McCandless's long, lonely sabbatical had changed him in some significant way. It can be interpreted to mean that he was ready, perhaps, to shed a little of the armor he wore around his heart, that upon returning to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community."
Krakauer notes the proximity of cabins to McCandless's camp where he might have found assistance. The cabins had been vandalized and some speculate that McCandless may have been the culprit in order to preserve his "blank spot on the map." Krakauer speculates he may have been able to start a forest fire to call attention to his location. Krakauer cites McCandless's sister to suggest that would have been out of his character.
pg. 198. "'Chris would never, ever, intentionally burn down a forest, not even to save his life. Anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn't understand the first thing about my brother.'"
McCandless's last note is a sort of goodbye and resolution
pg. 199. "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL."
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