Into The Wild - Dave Korn Pt1          

Fairbanks Bus 142

As I strap my pack together beneath the unfurling gray Alaskan sky, sheets of wind billow across the marbled taiga into which Stampede Trail disappears. After lacing up a pair of new waterproof boots, I shoulder the load and hit the trail with five days of food and a four pound inflatable raft added to my normal collection of gear. I’ve got twenty miles to hike, two rivers to cross, and a lot of reflecting to do.

And why did I come here?

I, too, hope that visiting this rusting hulk of metal, seeing this place for myself, might yield a shred or two of clarity. I want to understand why Chris McCandless came here, what he was feeling at the culmination of his journey, what he found in the heart of the Alaskan bush. I don’t even bother to hope for answers, but I crave the details; the elk prints and bird songs, the night skies and the way the streams taste and the other fragments of this place that can’t be gleaned from the book or the movie or the online discussion forums. I need to connect with Chris’ story on my own, outside of the Into the Wild painted by Jon Krakauer or Sean Penn or Ron Lamothe. I hit the road after graduating from college too. I’ve been traveling for nearly a year, and like so many others, the story resonates with me in a peculiarly powerful way. There are similarities (and differences) between myself and McCandless, and I find myself confronted by the issue that all seekers must reconcile: I must walk the path for myself, even though so many have come this way before me, yet perhaps, in some cases, I can learn from the mistakes that others have made instead of making them myself. I remain fascinated by the intensity of the passions aroused by the McCandless debate, the slew of messy questions that refuse to be reduced to simple and dismissible black and white answers. But also, I am here because I want to better understand my own reaction to the story. What within me has been touched so deeply, and why? So, I am making my own pilgrimage out to the bus.

My heart started beating faster when I saw the sign for STAMPEDE RD an hour and a half out of Fairbanks. I bounced through eight miles of potholes and then tucked my car into a prickly thicket of buckbrush just above Eight Mile Lake. When I step out of my car into the gray cold, buffeted by the wind, the excitement and tranquility that usually accompany a hike into a remote place are strangely absent. Instead, I feel a nagging anxiety. Is this because I know what took place here? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’ll be calling out “HEYYYY BEAR” every thirty seconds as I walk. For one reason or another, I just feel on edge as I begin the hike.

The trail is actually more of a muddy creek, and I carry a walking stick to keep from slipping. Wind tears over the hills and sweeps strong and full across empty plains of ruffled burgundy flecked with scrawny evergreen. Early on, I pass a handful of hunters plowing through puddles on four wheelers. “Where you guys coming from?” I ask a pair of Australian hikers. They nod to me as we pass each other. “Probably the same place you’re going.”

The trail closes in on itself, and I walk through dry streambeds of smooth river rock cradled beneath archways of yellowing aspen and alder. Peeling black and white trunks press against a gray expanse of sky. I hear branches snapping and I freeze; something big goes stomping off into the bush.

In other places, the landscape opens. Waist high grasses sprout from the center of the trail, and their feathery tips brush against my arms as I pass through. In clearings, red and white lichens form a chalky, bloodstained blanket beneath spruce boughs. A long hill peaks and falls away to reveal a sweeping panorama of the mountain folds into which the trail buries itself.

The loneliness of the landscape deepens as I walk into the bush. Is my perception of this place excessively influenced by my awareness of its history? Or am I simply seeing the terrain for what it really is? That the bush is utterly indifferent to our intentions is axiomatic to most Alaskans. “Every force of nature out there is trying to kill you,” one Fairbanks woman bluntly told me. Yes, as critics have been quick to point out, McCandless was never more than thirty miles from the highway. Stampede Trail isn’t far from a major town, nearby cabins marked on topographic maps are supposedly stocked with supplies, and the entrance to Denali National Park is just over a dozen miles over the hills to the south. Neither this knowledge nor the fresh ATV tracks braiding at my feet do much to offset the wild emptiness out here. I feel as insignificant as I do when I stand beside the sea.

Whenever the trees give way to the sweeping muskeg, the wind rips through. The trudge keeps me warm, but when I drop down onto my pack to rest, the bitter indifferent wind tears at me and forces me to keep moving. I’m constantly aware that McCandless once walked this terrain. I try to imagine what he was thinking and feeling as he rounded a particular bend, stood at each overlook. I feel I’m starting to get the details I asked for, the things that were impossible to glean just from the book or the movie. For one, I think I’m starting to understand the day of Chris’ journal entry “TERRIBLE WIND.” My scraps of paper almost blow away as I write this.

Muddy humps and pools push me from the trail, and I walk into the foliage, following worn passageways that circumvent the brown water. When I do step into a puddle, my foot sinks down and the mud smacks as I pull against the suction. I wince as I feel the skin on my left pinky toe separating from the flesh. My first mistake of the trip: not breaking in these new boots. A week earlier, I’d met a French traveler who was intently rereading his copy of Into the Wild. When I asked him what he liked about the story, he said to me, after a short pause, “He made mistakes. I have too.” Even plenty of Alaskans have allowed that it was perhaps sheer misfortune that McCandless’ mistakes happened to cost him his life, while many of their own close calls have ended up as nothing more than good stories. My blister will grow and burn each day as I trudge through the miles, a self-asserting reminder of how easy it is to make mistakes, how debilitating even the smallest ones can be.

Dave Korn Part 1

Dave Korn Part 2

Dave Korn Part 3

Dave Korn Part 4

Dave Korn Part 5


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