Into The Wild - Bridget Ringer          

Into The Wild Essay

Bridget Ringer
March 29, 2010

The Story behind Extremists

In April 1992 a 24-year-old man walked into the Alaskan wilderness alone. His name was Christopher McCandless. In August that same year, his dead body was found in an abandoned bus where he had set up camp.

Christopher McCandless is referred to as an extremist. He was a man who thought material items, money, jobs, and the duty of a getting college education, were trivial. Therefore, he decided to leave everything and everyone he knew in order to pursue his dream of anonymously living in the wild. Extremists are regarded “extreme” once they put themselves in immense risk (Clemmitt). This means one is an extremist the moment they intentionally or unintentionally put themselves in a situation where the possibilities of dying are higher than usual. Christopher McCandless’ story describes one of the countless ways extremists choose to live their lives. Although extremists come in various types ranging from sports extremists to drug extremists, their initiative(s) to begin living the way they want to live come from the same probable reasons.

A common misconception between extremists and “regular” people is that extremists are tremendously needy. In reality, however, both types of people are needy. Extremists and the average person both have the same amount of needs but either or may sometimes call for more of one specific need than the other, or a different need overall. One need extremists have, unlike the average person, is the need for adventure. A dose of adventure allows them to feel emotionally and mentally fulfilled. Another need for extremists is the need of accomplishing their goal. Though not always guaranteed, self-satisfaction and feeling of success are the overall purposes of an extremist’s lifestyle. While these are just a small number of differences between extremists and the average person, they are important to know because extremists like others to know they take pride in the way they live. Despite this divide, extreme living has become more fashionable (as well as admired) over the years since extreme sports were introduced in the 1960s.

You may wonder why extreme living has become increasingly popular. Ohio Athletic Commission’s executive director, Bernie Profato, says that “The public is drawn to [extremists] …because of a craving to witness risk and violence…” (Clemmitt). Profato is saying that people cannot help but be amused by those who put themselves in such risky positions. It makes them wonder what would happen if they were to do such a thing. This unavoidable thought process, along with the popularization of extreme living, is also caused by television broadcasters that choose to publicize extreme images; mainly images of extreme sports. Not only are there many sports stations on cable, but the stations air extreme sports while shining a light on them. An example of a “flashlight holder” is the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). Every year since 1995, ESPN airs the X Games competition where professional extreme sports athletes compete for medals and money. Since the X Games are a televised event and the majority of households across America owned a television in 1995 and still own one now, the competition had and has many viewers varying from teens to adults. These viewers see the medals and money athletes win as incentives to begin practicing an extreme sport which triggers more people to get athletically involved over time (prepared or not), with each year providing a new year of X Games.

Although competing for medals and money appeals to extreme sports viewers and is also a good source of drive for active participants, many extremists (not only sports extremists) live extreme lives due to the personality they have ultimately developed since birth. Psychology professor at Temple University, Frank Farley, says there are certain types of people known to have Type T personalities (one being Christopher McCandless) (Clemmitt). Type T personality is part of a broader personality label known as sensation seeking personality. Sensation seekers, therefore Type T persons, do not like predictable results so they refrain from anything with a repetitive process. McCandless lived by the philosophy “…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 endless changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun” (Krakauer 57). This is blatant proof that McCandless was one of the many considered to have a Type T personality. It also shows his life required adventure (one of the needs for extremists) for him to feel right. Sensation seekers, specifically Type T individuals, tend to look for exciting activities as well as challenges where they can be creative but also risky. “Research suggests that those who participate in extreme [living] have a greater need than others to engage in high-risk behaviors. These people seem to have a high tolerance for risk and can continue to function at high physical and mental levels in dangerous situations” (Tagler). The reason they can sustain “high physical and mental levels” is because sensation seekers tend to have lower levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO) than the typical human. MAO is an enzyme in the brain so as a result, a person with low levels of MAO is satisfied when put in risky situations because their brain is stimulating proteins which help balance their brain’s chemicals. “Research has shown that MAO levels are at their lowest point during adolescence”; which is why most sensation seekers are in their early 20s – which might account for why McCandless left home at the age he did; age 22 (Swickert). Thus, in addition to sensation seekers wanting an “endless changing horizon”, they feel best when they are in high-risk environments.

In addition to Type T people looking for new adventures and ways to test themselves, they also use their time to express their emotions. President of New Jersey’s Action Sports Association, John Ricciardi Jr., says “a lot of kids have problems and home, and [extreme living] can be their salvation” (Clemmitt). So, Type T personalities are not only seen in already developed men and women, but in the beginning developments of personalities in children as well. This possibly explains the reason Christopher McCandless left home as soon as he could. Although McCandless went to college and graduated with honors, he attended the university to spite his parents because he felt resentment towards them. Chris’s sister Carine claims his resentment towards their mother and father was the result from finding out when he was a boy that he and Carine were bastard children (Krakauer 122). Consequently, Chris’s own interest (or lack of interest) in money and material dependencies, mixed with his Type T personality and incapability of never settling things with his parents, caused him to withdraw from his family relations and began his voyage to the North.

While Type T personalities are the most common personalities of those who make up the percentage of extremists, anyone can be active in extreme living simply for the enjoyment or rush of adrenaline it brings regardless of the type of personality they have. As previously noted, the media glamorize those who are serious extremists. Accordingly, this causes the public to fail to realize that those who are involved with extreme living (specifically sports athletes) constantly practice and did not just begin perfecting their specialized sport recently. “Inexperienced participants are at highest risk. Between 1951 and 2000, 2,350 fatalities were reported among North American mountain climbers, and more than 50 percent of the deaths were among climbers with less than three years’ experience” (Clemmitt). So, televised extreme sports can cause the ill-informed viewers to feel as though they can do what the professional athletes on television do; ultimately creating more risks for when or if they decide to participate in an extreme sport, in addition to not realizing professionals are qualified because of years of practice.

In Christopher McCandless’ case, his “glamorized media influence” came from the books he read. “He was an extremely intense young man and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence. Long captivated by the writing of Leo Tolstoy, McCandless particularly admired how the great novelist had forsaken a life of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute” (Krakauer n.p). McCandless chose Alaska because as far as he was concerned, the Alaskan wilderness was one of the only places he envisioned society had not already corrupted. So, McCandless attempted to live off of the land alone and test his individual strength to weigh himself against the authors for which he had high regard. Not realizing that his personal drive and beliefs took him to encounter nature in a far less experienced and more in-depth way than his favorite authors, his Alaskan journey consequently cost him his life as a result of being ill-prepared.

Even though Christopher McCandless’ adventure proved fatal, he accomplished what he intended to when he first entered the wild in April. As stated before, he fulfilled one of the needs for extremists; the need for adventure. Towards the end of his journey, he also achieved the main goal of extremists, the feeling of success and satisfaction with one’s experience(s). McCandless’ attainment of satisfaction is obvious in his last written statement: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all” (Krakauer199). He wrote this after he accepted the fact that he was going to die in the very place that made him feel included in something meaningful.

Despite the hazardous situations in which Christopher McCandless placed himself, and all extremists in general place themselves, the benefits from doing so are rewarding and worthwhile, even if they ultimately end in death. Many people look down upon extremists and stereotype them saying they are crazy and foolish but what person would pass up the opportunity to act in a way which makes them feel best? “[McCandless] demanded much of himself – more, in the end, than he could deliver” but fortunately, he died with a feeling of serenity (Krakauer 184). It is clear that extremists expect a lot from themselves but everyone sometime in their life must measure themselves (Appleton). Extreme living is merely one way to create your own trajectory and stretch yourself as far as your mind and body can take you.

Works Cited

Appleton, Josie. “What’s So Extreme about Extreme Sports?” Spiked-online.
30 August 2005. Web. 24 March 2010.
Clemmitt, Marcia. “Extreme Sports.” CQ Researcher 19.13 (2009): 297-320. Web. 17 March
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: First Anchor Books Edition, 1996. Print.
Levinson, David. “Extreme Sports.” Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport 2 (2005): 539-543.
Web. 17 March 2010.
Swickert, Rhonda. “Sensation Seeking.” Encyclopedia of Human Development 3 (2006):1141
1142. Web. 21 March 2010.
Tagler, Michael J. “Sensation Seeking.” Encyclopedia of Social Psychology 2 (2007): 855-856.
Web. 21 March 2010.

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