Into The Wild - David Allen          

Into The Wild Essay

“A Glimpse of Nature Dreaming”:
The Very Short Life of Alexander Supertramp
Into the Wild
Community and Social Change – Prescott College
David C. Allen – Summer 2011

Into the Wild is an R rated feature length film released in 2007. The film is an adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book of the same name and was written, produced and directed by Sean Penn. The film is a biographical drama intended for English speaking audiences over the age of 17 who are drawn to themes of social justice, deep ecology, community and adventure. The film is also a gratifying experience for those drawn to the story of Chris McCandless, the self-described “aesthetic voyager”, who starved to death in the summer of 1992 near the Stampede Trail in Alaska. The film is a powerful exploration of the protagonist’s odyssey after graduation from Emory University in 1990 until his death in Alaska in 1992. The film details his rejection of materialism and his exploration of external and internal wilds. Penn’s treatment of McCandless’ character is sympathetic and ignores several subsequent discoveries regarding the cause of his death. These details, absent from both the film and the source book indicate a strong likelihood that McCandless suffered from mental illness (Medred, 2007). Penn, star Emile Hirsch and score composer Eddie Vedder take the viewer on a truly aesthetic voyage into the heart of a “visionary seeker” (Power, 2007, p. 160).

The opening shot of the film quotes The Dark Blue Sea by Lord Byron:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is rapture in the lonely shore:
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and the music in its roar:
I love not the man less, but Nature more…

The love that McCandless had for wild places is obvious in the film. Less obvious is his true love of the human spirit. McCandless was a sensitive, vulnerable explorer. The film opens with Chris being dropped off by Jim Gallien near the Stampede Trail in Alaska.

The shot shows his utter lack of preparation for any serious travel in the backcountry. McCandless hikes across the early spring landscape towards the bus that will become the scene of his self-discovery, personal triumph, tragedy and eventual death. The film swings through portals in time-space in order to illustrate the formative events of McCandless’ early life and portions of his odyssey. These flashbacks detail McCandless’ intricate character including his excellent academic standing at Emory. His popularity within the student body at Emory is shown; a cheer goes up from the crowd as he mounts the stage at his 1990 graduation. His fascination with social justice themes in college led him away from the comfort and affluence into a “willful asceticism” (Brown, 1993). McCandless’ fascination with nature spurred his drive for adventure and solitude like a modern day Everett Ruess. Glimpses of McCandless’ travels across the US are also interspersed with details of early childhood traumas. In a later interview McCandless’ father, Walt McCandless speaks of his wild spirit; “Chris was fearless, he didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were always trying to pull him back from the precipice” (Brown, 1993). The film explores the McCandless family’s failure to understand and embrace the wildness within him.
The pangs that drove McCandless on crisscrossing adventures of the Western United States are presented in an elegant and heroic tone throughout the film. His lonely death in a derelict bus in the Alaskan bush is surprising in light of the deep effect on those he met along his journey. “He left a deep impression on the people he met, but he was drifting away from social entanglements toward the solitude of wild places” (Brown, 1993). In his encounters with fellow seekers McCandless creates bonds that endure to the present day for those he touched. Yet something drove McCandless to continue his

exploration, to push his personal boundaries closer to the edge. This film explores the major elements of the journey that ended in Bus 142. These elements continue to fascinate audiences who continue to find reasons to celebrate the mystery of McCandless. In exploring the complexities of McCandless, people find elements of their own journey. That is why the story and its implications, regardless of one’s take on the details, endure. There is a little McCandless in all of us.

McCandless traversed the western US, not in search of the American dream but in honor of something more elusive. It was the depth of this belief that motivated his search, finally ending in Alaska, the “mystic repository of American notions of wilderness” (Power, 2007, p.155). His life had been normal by most standards. In college things began to change. McCandless became more introspective (Brown, 1993). The change in him was noticeable. A lover of the writing and the life of Tolstoy, McCandless began to deepen his convictions through a new lens; “In college McCandless began emulating Tolstoy’s asceticism and moral rigor to a degree that first astonished, and then alarmed, those who were close to him.” (Krakauer, 1993, p.4) In deeply personalizing his search for meaning McCandless took more than dreams and a “headful of Jack London and Thoreau” (Power, 2007, p.155) into the Alaskan bush. He carried years of inner turmoil. He nursed doubts about materialism, the values his family had instilled in him, and the injustice of the world. He carried a deep empathy for those who lived simply in order to merely survive. Most devastatingly, McCandless carried another being inside him that was slowly winning the battle to express itself (Medred, 2007). Although McCandless was fascinated by natural history he came to Alaska for other specific reasons. “Unlike Muir and 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” (Krakauer, 1993, p. 125). This exploration began to spiral further out of his control as McCandless descended into starvation and mental illness.
Alexander Supertramp, McCandless’ alter ego had resided inside him during college. The words of Tolstoy, Thoreau and Pasternak had trickled through McCandless’ consciousness, nourishing Alex until McCandless had fulfilled his commitment at Emory. In pursuit of “the raw throb of existence” (Krakauer, 1993, p.6) McCandless began to give Alex freer reign in charting a path. As McCandless left Atlanta in 1990 for his odyssey, “no longer would he answer to Chris McCandless; he was now Alexander Supertramp, master of his own destiny” (Krakauer, 1993, p.18). The question remains, whose destiny? The books that McCandless took with him into the bush provided a sense of comfort and indeed some served as his journals. Evidence collected by the Alaska Highway Patrol shows these books were pored over and annotated in the margins. It is this written evidence that shows the war that was being waged within him. Another item found at the bus made clear who had the upper hand. Plywood covering one of the bus’ windows was inscribed with Alex’s manifesto:

TWO YEARS HE WALKS THE EARTH. NO PHONE. NO POOL. NO PETS. NO CIGARETTES. ULTIMATE FREEDOM. AN EXTREMIST. AN AESTHETIC VOYAGER WHOSE HOME IS THE ROAD. ESCAPED FROM ATLANTA. THOU SHALT NOT RETURN, CAUSE ‘THE WEST IS THE BEST.’ AND NOW AFTER TWO RAMBLING YEARS COMES THE FINAL AND GREATEST ADVENTURE. THE CLIMATIC BATTLE TO KILL THE FALSE BEING WITHIN AND VICTORIOUSLY CONCLUDE THE SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE. TEN DAYS AND NIGHTS OF FREIGHT TRAINS AND HITCHHIKING BRING HIM TO THE GREAT WHITE NORTH. NO LONGER TO BE POISONED BY THE CIVILIZATIONS HE FLEES, AND WALKS ALONE UPON THE LAND TO BECOME LOST IN THE WILD.
ALEXANDER SUPERTRAMP MAY 1992 (Krakauer, 1993, p. 111)

An increasing number of people subscribe to the theory that McCandless may have been more a victim of his undiagnosed mental illness than the resultant starvation.

Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Cull, interviewed about the story said Chris was “probably schizophrenic” (Medred, 2007). Krakauer and Penn agree that something magical imbued the spirit of Chris McCandless. Other writers and filmmakers find fascination even though they disagree with the details of WHY Chris starved (Lamothe, 2007). Alaskans almost uniformly view the McCandless story with disdain, wondering why he made the mistakes he did (Power, 2007, p.156). McCandless is often said to have been “killed by his own stupidity” (Brown, 1993). People are still rescued trying to reach the bus. A visit to the bus as recently as 2007 records notebook filled with “hundreds of entries from pilgrims” (Power, 2007, p.156) that travel many miles to pay respects. A new book and film about McCandless largely told through his own journals and photos comes out this year. In Matthew Power’s 2007 interview for Men’s Journal, Penn deflects Alaskan’s criticisms of his portrayal of McCandless: “I’m not trying to romanticize him. There are very few people in Alaska who have done anything comparable to what Chris did… Did he make mistakes? Sure. A lot of people do. But however many miles he needed to walk to become a man was up to him. So I think he did very well by any standard including Alaskan” (Power, 2007, p.158). Twenty years have passed. Why do people still care? McCandless’ story speaks to so many people because he believed in beauty. He died trying to pare himself down to the barest essence. People cannot seem to let him go because he was so able to do just that… let himself go. McCandless appeals to our inherent desire to be free. He appeals to our communal need to retreat from the cacophony of civilization to hear our own heartbeat and KNOW that it must be shared with others to truly mean something. McCandless appeals to us in spite of his mistakes. He touches a part of us that transcends the disagreements over what led him to Bus 142. His story appeals to people because of his strength as well as his vulnerability.

McCandless lived his beliefs to the end. In the final artifact of his life he seemed to acknowledge the duality inside that led to his death. He penned his own epitaph on a page torn from Louis L’Amour’s posthumous 1989 autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man.

L’Amour quotes Robinson Jeffers’ Wise Men In Their Bad Hours:
Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to the centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened nor troubled
And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.

On the other side in his own hand McCandless bid farewell:

“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

Perhaps he had finally caught what Alaskans refer to as “a glimpse of nature dreaming”.

Cited Works

Brown, C. (1993). Now I walk into the wild. Retrieved from
http://www.chipbrown.net/articles/intowild.htm

Krakauer, J. (1996). Into the wild. New York: Villard.

Lamothe, R. (2007). The call of the wild: debunking into the wild. In Terra Incognita Films. Retrieved from http://www.tifilms.com/wild/call_debunked.htm

L’Amour, L. (1989). Education of a wandering man. New York: Bantam.

Medred, C. (2007). Into the wild: the false being within. In Far North Science: News, research and natural acts from Alaska. Retrieved from http://www.farnorthscience.com/2007/10/13/media-watch/into-the-wild-the-false-being-within/

Power, M. (2007) The cult of Chris Mc Candless. Retrieved from http://matthewpower.net/Matthew_Power/Mens_Journal_files/MJMcCandless.pdf



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