I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out there

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ronlamothe
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I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out there

Postby ronlamothe » Thu Aug 18, 2011 7:34 pm

While I am here, and on the subject of Chris McCandless (and on the anniversary date of his death no less), I thought I might as well share with the forum a few new and interesting bits and pieces of the story that I have come across in the years since my documentary was released, or that I haven’t spoke much about publicly. No, I’m still not going to tell what I know about the muddled truth surrounding Wayne Westerberg’s relationship with Chris—told to me firsthand by Gail Borah’s son and based on something specific that Chris once said to him (it is what you think…it is not what you think…in fact, it exists somewhere in between, I suppose); I still don’t feel it’s a topic I am comfortable going public with (for the uber-curious, talk to people in Carthage—they know enough to head you in the right direction). In any case, there are a number of other things I want to share that are perhaps far more relevant to the story.

Before I start, however, I want to say a word in defense of both Will Forsberg and Dermot Cole, not that either of these good souls needs me defending them. I couldn’t help but notice some of the wild ideas that have been put forth regarding Will and his relationship to the story (posted in the “IS THERE MORE TO THE CHRISTOPHER MCCANDLESS STORY” topic). Although I respect every person’s right, especially on a forum such as this, to put forth a new hypothesis, to me, the suggestion that Will may have had something to do with Chris’s death makes no sense whatsoever—both logically, and based on everything I know about Will Forsberg. I don’t want to waste any time and space herein getting into the specifics as to why, but I did feel it necessary to mention that I found Will to be one of the best people I met up in Alaska, and with a truly nuanced and insightful view on McCandless. Based on my experiences with him, and what I know about the story, the idea that he was some kind of vengeful villain in the tragedy seems like the most unlikely of all unlikely scenarios.

As for Dermot Cole, although I know that his column (which he writes to sell papers and hook in Alaskan readers) might sometimes rile McCandless devotees, I actually think his feelings about Chris are far less strident than they may appear on the surface. He seemed to me like a really decent guy, and what he said when I interviewed him strikes me as closer to the ambivalence he actually feels toward the story: “I think McCandless really was, from what we know about him, was a young man who was, you know, trying to find out something about himself. And his story to me is really a tragedy. And I feel bad for his family and his friends. I am, though, very wary of glorification of him. Many people are like him. When you're young you're trying to find out something about yourself. And in doing so you'll test yourself in different ways. Part of the problem is when you do that in Alaska without being well prepared, you very well may end up, you know, hurting yourself or dying. And the margins there get pretty slim.”

Anyway, one person that I did not include in the documentary, although I interviewed him on camera, was an Alaskan climber named Jeff Benowitz. I am sure most people have never heard of him. To make a long story short (if possible), according to Jeff, back in the winter of 1992, after getting himself in over his head out on Stampede Trail, he sought shelter in the bus one dangerously cold night (some three months before McCandless would stumble upon it). Benowitz claims that among the books he left at the bus the next morning when he departed were a copy of Walden, a book of Tolstoy short stories, Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Dr. Zhivago, and O Jerusalem, most of them having been picked up by Jeff at the Fairbanks Salvation Army before he set out, and brought out there on the sled he was dragging. If true, sadly enough, this story removes yet another brick from the edifice that is the McCandless legend (and, ironically enough, part of what first drew me to the McCandless story, and what made him such a romantic figure for so many of us—or foolish according to others—was that he brought all these books out there with him in lieu of more food or supplies).

Why didn’t I include him in the documentary? Well, it basically came down to two things: first, even during the interview, my instincts were telling me that there might be more to the story (or perhaps less) than he was letting on; and second, when I did some further digging while in post-production, I was given info that contradicted his story. According to Roman Dial, whom I had asked about Jeff’s story (everybody up in Fairbanks knows about it), at Benowitz’s urging he had told the Penn movie producers, who were up in Alaska filming, about the possibility that Jeff, rather than Chris, had brought the books out to the bus. They told Dial that it wasn’t true, and that they had “pictures of the books from McCandless’s camera from before Alaska.” I don’t think they showed Roman any pictures, however. In any case, because at one point in my interview I had gone book-by-book with Benowitz and asked him specifically if he had brought out each one, to which he had said yes to all, taken with Roman’s new information, for me it was enough to undermine his overall credibility, and I pulled the sequence.

What do I think the truth is? I think it is, as is often the case, somewhere in between. I actually think that Jeff Benowitz did spend a night out in the bus that winter before Chris arrived (he has photographic and documentary evidence that appears to support this). And I also think that Jeff did drag out some of the books that were found with Chris in the bus that September. Did Jeff bring out all of the books? I don’t think so. Did he bring out the Thoreau and Tolstoy? I don’t know, but I suspect not.

I am curious, however, about the McCandless pictures that show these very books before he came to Alaska. Unfortunately, if they do exist (as you may remember from the documentary, I am ever wary of the truthfulness of Hollywood producer-types), these images are not included in Back to the Wild. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they do not exist. They probably do. However, I truly doubt that there are pre-Alaska pictures of every single book that we know was found out in the bus. Again, I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. Reminds me of my Dr. Seuss film, when I would dig the details on some of the best stories about Theodor Geisel—most of the time it turned out they were based on something real (like Jeff’s bus story, or Chris’s literary predilections), but inevitably they were adorned or exaggerated a bit for dramatic effect.

Speaking of photographs not published in Back to the Wild, I also wanted to mention a series of three pictures that were given to me following a screening of my film up in Alaska a few years ago. They were taken inside the bus, probably in August, and show Chris sitting on his mattress in long underwear, shirtless, and in one of the photos with his long johns pulled just below his knees (his private parts covered with something, perhaps the corner of his bed sheet). Out of respect for Chris and his family, I have no intention of ever releasing or reproducing these photos (though I do believe that quite a few people up in Alaska have already seen them), and as such I don’t really want to go into any further detail describing Chris’s extremely emaciated state in them, but I mention it for two reasons: one, for the sake of the historical record, and for it to be known that they do exist; and two, in so doing, letting it also be known that they provide further evidence in support of the BMI analysis that we conducted, and in support of the conclusion we reached that Chris died of starvation and not from a plant he ingested.

Lastly—and again I apologize for the length of these posts today—I wanted to chime in on the discussion that was taking place at one point on this forum about whether or not people in Healy knew Chris was out there prior to his body being discovered (in particular, the statement attributed to a Victor Hopka, who said, “I know that people knew that there was somebody in the bus that didn't have much of anything”). And, of course, as somebody else mentioned, this directly contradicts the long-held notion that Chris’s presence was unknown by the locals. Anyway, I have received a lot of interesting e-mails over the past four years, but one of the most intriguing in terms of the possibility that others were out on Stampede that summer, and may have been in close proximity to Chris and/or the bus—and that locals knew Chris was there—came from a guy who wrote to me that he “was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out there.” His continued: “After my 1st trip, a local from Healy, upon my inquiry, told me nothing was out there, except for that kid that Jim dropped off back in the spring, and he’s probably dead by now (just an off-hand comment). He wasn’t, that was near the 1st of July. I went back out there, alone this time. Got out, hiked around 8 mile lake. Thought about what it would be like to just walk out there. I was 22, up there for similar ‘reasons,’ and planning on staying the winter in a rented cabin alone…Planning on making a return trip this year, to gauge how close we were on the 1st trip, late June. I’ve always thought we were probably the closest to him and the bus, that summer. We crossed several braided sections of the river, in my Toyota Tercel. Saw the 1st bus on the way in and out. I’ve been trying to find the friends that were with me on that 1st trip, fellow employees @Harper Lodge-Denali.”

If this account is true, then the “1st bus” they saw was indeed Fairbanks 142—it was the only bus still out there according to all the sources. Sort of mind boggling, isn’t it? Not only did several people in Healy know all spring and summer that Chris was out there, but at some point in late June this guy and his friends actually drove right by the bus in a Toyota Tercel! Where was Chris during this? Was he at or near the bus? Did he see or hear them? Try to make contact with them? Try to avoid or hide from them? And I can think of a dozen other questions that this story raises in my mind (and also related to questions surrounding where he was in late June), as I’m sure it does for others of you who are deeply invested in the details of that summer. In any case, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m wiped out.

erikhalfacre
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby erikhalfacre » Fri Aug 19, 2011 2:34 am

You make a lot of interesting points here... but one thing you said really seems like a stretch.

THIS...
Image
is a Toyota Tercel.

Fourwheelers have difficulty getting across the swampy fields between Fish Creek and Savage River (not to mention clearance issues.) How could you even get a Tercel up and over the banks of the Savage, much less the Teklanika.

I grew up in Alaska and though most of my hobbies were in the woods, one of my first cars was a Ford Escort. I made that thing go places it was never intended to (Fern Mine, Jim Creek, countless fourwheeler trails.) That said, I can honestly say that no matter what the conditions, there is nowhere between April 28 and Aug 18 that I could have ever gotten it to Bus 142.

I'll stop short of saying the feat would be impossible, but I will propose an alternate theory. East of Savage River, there was a Dodge Van a ways off the main trail in a clearing that looked like it had been there a while (70s era van.) Could someone have mistaken THIS for the 'first' bus? I could see this being a drivable destination in a Tercel.

PS. Before somebody else mentions this (and after originally posting the above) I did remember that there are 4WD Tercels and that they are actually quite capable given the right tires. I've never ridden in one, but I have done a fair amount of riding in my friends jacked up 80s era Subarus and was quite impressed with what they were capable of. That said, I think given favorable conditions, it might be possible to make the trip in a 4WD tercel. They are still very low clearance vehicles though, and if were done, it would be no small feat.

Image
Erik Halfacre - Moderator
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SteveSalmon
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby SteveSalmon » Fri Aug 19, 2011 3:58 am

~SS
Last edited by SteveSalmon on Thu May 03, 2012 7:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.

nickparis
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby nickparis » Fri Aug 19, 2011 4:11 pm

Mr Lamothe,

Having never had an opportunity before I wanted to congratulate you on your documentary which I enjoyed very much, oddly enough I had planned to watch it again tonight as it was handed back to me from a friend who wanted to see it and I haven’t watched it for some time.
I too am enthralled with the Mccandless story and am an avid reader of all things related to the subject including this board although i am not often a contributor.
I am in the process of making my own plans to go to the bus next spring, your work and writings only make the trip more inspirational.
Your theories are compelling and interesting and although I have an open mind with regards to what happened along Chris’s journey I feel that we have the right to know, I don’t mean just what happened at the bus but all the other unexplained and missing weeks/months of his story, somebody must have been involved with him other than the people we already know about right? Perhaps if you have some spare time you could make another documentary and show us the story parts of the story that haven’t been told.
I too was a little disappointed with the new book, I suppose my expectations were impossible to fulfill, I am not being critical of the people who put it together because they did the best job they could with the material they had but I wanted to see a deeper insight into what went on over the period of his adventure and unless there is more evidence out there that is being held back then I suppose we shall never know.
It does seem a little strange to me that all there alternate theories out there without one of them being published into the public domain.
Do you ever consider that he may have injured himself whilst trying to cross the Tek on his way out and thus injured his shoulder, scaring him into not tyring again?
Do you suppose during the missing days, weeks in his journal that he may have been off at the other cabins, or perhaps he was hiding from the guy who claims to have driven past the bus?
I am also interested to know what this relationship he is supposed to have had with Wayne Westerberg if you are willing to divulge any further information or for that matter anything else which isn’t publicly known that may be interesting to someone curious in the bigger picture of Chris’s story.
Id like to add that I have the upmost respect for all opinions, stories, movies and books etc and am just someone who resonates with the story and thus has an interest in all information available.
One further note, Krakaeur whom I respect as an author and story teller has been proved wrong in his account of events in past books, it is unlikely he will change the story even if presented with the correct information.

Best Regards

solovoyager
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby solovoyager » Fri Aug 19, 2011 7:44 pm

ronlamothe wrote:Speaking of photographs not published in Back to the Wild, I also wanted to mention a series of three pictures that were given to me following a screening of my film up in Alaska a few years ago. They were taken inside the bus, probably in August, and show Chris sitting on his mattress in long underwear, shirtless, and in one of the photos with his long johns pulled just below his knees (his private parts covered with something, perhaps the corner of his bed sheet). Out of respect for Chris and his family, I have no intention of ever releasing or reproducing these photos (though I do believe that quite a few people up in Alaska have already seen them), and as such I don’t really want to go into any further detail describing Chris’s extremely emaciated state in them, but I mention it for two reasons: one, for the sake of the historical record, and for it to be known that they do exist; and two, in so doing, letting it also be known that they provide further evidence in support of the BMI analysis that we conducted, and in support of the conclusion we reached that Chris died of starvation and not from a plant he ingested.


First of all I want to say that is some very interesting information you have added to the forum Ron! And I mean in all of your posts of yesterday. I am so glad you have joined in on the discussion while attempting to clarify some points about your documentary that had been discussed here.

In regards to the photos you have seen of Chris, emaciated and near naked in the bus - I have to say that is more than somewhat disturbing. I suppose Chris was documenting his physical state in the hopes that one day he'd have been able to look back at those pictures to see how perilously close to death he was.

That those photos were disseminated among some Alaskans is additionally very disturbing. I can only guess that they were wrongfully released by people in Alaskan law enforcement of questionable character? I would think the McCandless family would be upset to learn about that. I do not blame you at all for having these photos. You had after all, made a documentary on Chris McCandless and still trying to learn as much as you could about how he died and what caused his death. I think you are right not to show these photos. (And I agree with you, I do not think Chris was poisoned by the seeds or mold - but simply starved to death).

-Rich

ellisd
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby ellisd » Fri Aug 19, 2011 10:10 pm

Any chance of this unreleased interview being shared?

ronlamothe
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby ronlamothe » Sat Aug 20, 2011 12:45 pm

Thanks for sharing the picture of the Tercel, Erik. In terms of the possibility it was a 4WD Tercel, and other details of that trip, I just recontacted the individual who sent me the original e-mail. I will let the forum know if I hear back from him. I appreciate the note, Nick. Safe travels if you head out to the bus next spring. As for your questions: in terms of possibly injuring his arm on the way out, as he tried to cross the Tek, I suppose it is possible (the first tree branch I tried to grab on my "swim" back across the Tek nearly took my arm off from the momentum check), though it isn't the timeline and scenario I've been working with...and it certainly is conceivable that the missing time was spent elsewhere, such as one of the cabins. And Rich, I think you are probably right that Chris was trying to document his physical state with those pictures, whether for himself or others. As for the unreleased interview, I now wish I had had it transcribed, so I could share it. Maybe that's something I will try to do at some point (or publish the video somewhere).

p.s. I spent last night in the emergency room with my daughter Parker, who broke her arm (radial head, near the elbow) falling off the side of a chair. Before they put her in a splint and sling, and because she wasn't in much pain and seemed to have some degree of mobility, I couldn't stop myself (only half jokingly) from asking her to make a shaving motion with her bad arm. My wife Karen was not pleased. I must truly need help!

nickparis
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby nickparis » Sat Aug 20, 2011 7:58 pm

Ron,

Thanks, and nice to make contact with you. I am in the process of responsibly planning the trip up to the bus, and as we are coming out from England I was hoping someone could give me some advice or recommend other things that are worth doing or seeing whilst we are out there... Mccandless related or otherwise

I have dislocated my shoulder before when scrambling in a fast flowing river before so thought this could be a possibility.

Inacuricies or not I still very much enjoyed your film and how is showed the grittier side of the story without the hollywood gloss.

Best regards Ron,

Hope your daughter makes a speedy recovery

Nick Paris

SteveSalmon
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby SteveSalmon » Sun Aug 21, 2011 5:41 am

Quick and safe healing to your daughter Ron.

ellisd
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Re: I was on the Stampede Trail twice while Chris was out th

Postby ellisd » Sun Aug 21, 2011 1:24 pm

Ron- The same thing happened to my niece last winter. Wishing a fast and speedy recovery for you Daughter.


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