Into The Wild - Adam Donaldson          

Into The Wild Essay

Christopher McCandless
An Argumentative Essay by Adam Donaldson

Christopher Johnson McCandless was an American backpacker born on February 12th, 1968 in El Segundo, CA. His travels and death during his twenties characterized the philosophies of anti-modernism and raised the hearts of many and the eyebrows of others. His story came to be portrayed in many forms of media and a forum soon developed where the critics of McCandless’ decisions argue against those who would hold him a hero. When the subject receives a realistic and research-oriented approach, it can be seen how both camps argue their points. Truth straddles the middle ground and is occasionally open to interpretation when it comes to the story of McCandless.

In the spring of 1990 Chris graduated from Emory University in Georgia. During his college years, he had a habit of going on long summer road trips. The summer after graduation, he left his family, his money, and the future of his education and career; breaking away from society with “characteristic immoderation”. Driving west in an old but dependable Datsun, Chris eventually had to abandon his car and moved forward on foot, roving and hitchhiking around the west. He found work along the way, meeting many people and sharing his beliefs in each instance. His adventures brought him from the northwest coast to the Gulf of Mexico. He kayaked the Colorado River and hopped train cars, bucking authority at every chance. Eventually he developed a draw for Alaska, inspired by his beliefs to pursue the challenge of a lifetime.

Early in 1992, Chris left a small town in South Dakota and began hitchhiking north toward Fairbanks. Once he arrived he bought a couple of pieces of cheap gear, a book, a 10lb bag of rice, and thumbed a ride out to the head of the Stampede Trail hoping to live simply in the Alaskan wild. He hiked less than 50 miles west until he encountered an old abandoned public transit bus used originally by construction workers, and at the time hunters. As the summer was upon the place at the time, no hunters were using the shelter and Chris adopted it as his home. He survived for a little over 100 days into late August and was found about 19 days after his death, the cause of which was starvation. The events and decisions leading up to his death are a matter of debate and characterize Chris as either a noble American hero or as arrogant, mentally ill, suicidal, or simply fatally romantic and histrionic.

It can be easy to stamp and send the guy as an irrational dreamer, but McCandless’ ideology was sound. It is obvious that Chris grew restless with the dissonance that he felt in his family life and the injustices that he saw in the world (“Into the Wild”, pg. 123). As a result, it may have occurred to him that in order to maintain a rigorous set of principles he needed to be away from society; in a sense, to be free from interaction with others so that he might become a purer form of himself.

It would be wrong to assume that all Chris did was think. There was very little space between his mind and his actions. Chris carried out his ideology by always striving to challenge himself in the most fundamental experience possible. In his own words, he wished “to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. (“Into the Wild”, pg. 163)”. Chris was like any other human. He had regrets and an image of what he wished to be. The difference between him and others falls where he came closer to actualizing that image.

Though sturdy may have been Chris’ ideals, they were only ideal. Chris was hardly a realist. His desire to pursue his purer form of living insinuated that there was no cost too high in achieving his goals. It can be easy to mistake his strong will for the idea that he was suicidal or mentally ill, though perhaps not so easy as when compared to those such as William Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr., or the USA’s founding fathers.

Setting McCandless’ grand belief structure aside, he was incredibly careless with some of the most important things a man has in life including life itself. It can be easily said that Chris was a voyager of the raw wilderness, but to say that he took the time to make himself properly skilled, knowledgeable, and prepared would be incorrect. Chris lacked the skill to correctly extract and preserve the meat of the moose that he poached while staying at the bus. The man that gave Chris a ride to the Stampede Trail realized how underprepared Chris was and gave him a pair of boots and even his lunch. Chris’ gear was cheap and otherwise improper. The knowledge that Chris had of the Alaskan wilderness is represented by his simple blunder concerning the change in the river crossing from spring to summer. If he hadn’t found the bus stocked with bug dope or had the book on local flora and fauna, his likelihood of survival would have been even less than what it was.

Some might argue that risk is a very personal decision and that no one but Chris McCandless has a right to say that he was unprepared and careless. Perhaps this is the truth, although perhaps Chris didn’t realize all that he risked. The unfortunately realistic aspect of the risks that Chris took can be seen in his impact upon his family and those he encountered. Ronald Franz, a man Chris encountered in his travels, was profoundly affected by McCandless’ death. “… [O]n December 26, when I learned what happened… I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex. I... bought a bottle of whiskey. And then I went out into the desert and drank it. … [I]t made me sick. Hoped it’d kill me, but it didn’t (“Into the Wild”, pg. 60).” Chris’ death also had unspeakable impacts upon his family. Chris’ father Walt reflects, “How is it that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain? (p104 “Into the Wild”)”. It would appear that Chris conveniently overlooked the pain he instilled in others by comparing it to the personal sacrifices he was willing to make for his beliefs.

Altogether, there is much to learn from the story of Christopher McCandless. His mistakes throw into relief the reasons we should not blindly pursue our own passions, while his passion inspires us to indulge in great risks for the actualization our own ideals. To write him off as “stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate” as Peter Christian does in his short but popular essay would be inviting ignorance and sweeping a chance to learn something meaningful under the rug (Christian, 2006) Many criticize the mistakes McCandless made with ease yet refuse to learn something from them nor the compelling story that they form.

Christian, P. (2006). Chris McCandless from an Alaska park ranger’s perspective [PDF]. Retrieved from
Krakauer, J. (1997). Into the Wild. Knopf Doubleday. (Original work published 1996)

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