Fairbanks Bus 142
I hike for hours through the Alaska autumn. The clouds thin out
until sunlight spills through, and the trail winds ever on, bleak
and beautiful, orange and cold. “HEYYYY BEAR.” And then I emerge
into a clearing, and I’m suddenly faced with the twisting green and
yellow hulk of Fairbanks Bus 142. I immediately burst into tears.
I drop my pack and stand still for a while, taking it all in. The bus rests in a patch of grasses and flowers above a small slope tangled with spruce and fiery aspens. On the other side of the clearing, the sound of water trickles through evergreens that grow from a steep cliff. Below, bathed in sunlight, the Sushana flows over gray stones. At the far edge of the clearing, Stampede Trail disappears further into the bush.
It’s all how it should be. “FAIRBANKS CITY TRANSIT SYSTEM,” reads a strip along the side of the bus below a thick black “142.” The folding chair rests beneath cracked windows. This is the place. This is the chair where Chris McCandless used to sit. I see the blue oil drum on which he set his camera to take the photograph that would become known around the world. I walk slowly to the bus and I run my hand along the cold, rusted metal. The headlights are twisted into a strange grimace. A smoke stack sprouts from the roof, its rain shield crooked and rusting. I sit down in the chair and lean my head back against the side of the bus, and tears come again. I have given up on trying to understand or explain them at this point.
The doors squeak. They are connected; when I push one in, the other swings outward. I take the steps slowly. Another folding chair rests in the driver’s seat position, and I sit. How many times did Chris sit here, looking through this windshield? Inside, everything is in order. A wire bed frame abuts another frame holding a mattress covered with blue and gray blankets. Tarps are draped across broken windows. Someone has left a small pile of wood next to the rusting oil drum stove. The walls are covered with graffiti, but there are very few generic “NAME WAS HERE” inscriptions; instead, I find quotes of inspiration, messages to Chris, words of appreciation. A sign with an Emerson quote hangs from a rope strung along the ceiling. Above the wire bed frame is the plaque installed by Walt and Billie. “Chris, beloved son and brother, lived and died here,” it begins. I slowly read the rest of the inscription. Though I have seen pictures of this message, I have just glanced over them, waiting for this moment to read the words in person.
Two shelf units are stocked with clothing, blankets, and supplies—a head lamp, first aid items, pens, gas for a camp stove, soap, pots and pans, cutlery, rope, water purification tablets, carabineers, a cigar. In a suitcase, I find several books and notebooks, including a copy of the newly released Back to the Wild. I open a Ziploc bag and flip open a notebook. “…..from Carine McCandless…..My brother’s story is a very powerful one, as evidenced by your journey to this place,” it begins. I close the pages and set the book down for later this evening.
Gray rolls in again, and I step outside to gather firewood. There are no blueberries; it’s too late in the season, but there are no mosquitoes here either. There isn’t much wood nearby. Puddles of broken glass collect around the bus. Around back, I find a barrel filled with empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts. I’ve heard about the extensive vandalism that has been wrought upon this place through the years, but apparently others have worked hard to preserve it all. Aside from the broken windows, everything is neat and orderly.
When it starts to drizzle, I head back inside and lie down on the
bed. The gray cold seeps in through the empty spaces that used to be
windows. As many others have expressed, I can see why Chris decided
to stay here. This place is beautiful. “It’s an appealing setting,
open and filled with light,” Krakauer wrote. “It’s easy to see why
McCandless decided to make this his base camp.” Yet there must be
more to it than this. There was no shortage of strikingly beautiful
spots along Stampede Trail; why, after traveling so far to get away
from civilization, did Chris set up camp inside an old bus? On the
hike in, I found myself longing, fiercely, for the comforts of
culture. I wonder if Chris felt that same longing on his way in;
could this be what impelled him to stay at this abandoned relic of
society rather than seek out a place unadulterated by the traces of
human presence? Maybe his search for solitude wasn’t so callous and
misanthropic after all; maybe a small part of him clung to society
the whole time. Chris hurt people when he walked out of their lives,
but maybe leaving was painful for Chris as well. Perhaps ‘happiness
only real when shared’ was something that Chris knew the whole time,
even if this knowledge existed only in a visceral way that couldn’t
be rationally tapped until he was primed by three months alone in
the wilderness and then exposed to the right literature at the right
time. And then the rains return. Chris must have spent hours and
hours with this beautiful sound. I lie on the bed listening to the
soft pitter patter of rain on the tin roof, and tears come for a
The rain comes and goes through the afternoon, and I continue flipping through the journals. It’s hard to tell whether this bus is a pilgrimage site or a shrine. It’s strange to see so many conflicting messages in the same place. Pages that contain musings on dreams and idealism face others filled with grief and memories.