Into The Wild - Dave Korn Pt4          

Fairbanks Bus 142

The clouds thin just in time for sunset, and I find a poem copied into one of the journals. “If I went there a second time,” reads the smudged ink, “surely the sunset would seem no more than a daily scald of sky healed by nightfall…” I step outside and climb onto the roof of Bus 142 as the sun settles into the mountains, searing orange and crimson burns into the sky.

And as twilight begins to heal the heavens, I follow Stampede Trail just a bit further, down to the gravel bar at the confluence of the rivers. Deep green spruces border the edges of the wide clearing, an expanse of gravely islands strewn with tall yellow-orange shrubbery. This is where the blueberries would be. I fill my water bottles in one of the shallow gravely pools, and I collect some crumbling wood for the stove. Unlike the clearing above and the interior of the bus, I do not feel like I have some knowledge of this place from the book or the movie. But I bet Chris spent tons of time down here by the water.

I light a fire as the gray moon appears through darkened evergreens. Despite the broken windows, the bus warms up almost instantly. After cooking rice, I step outside for a moment. Sometimes I like to leave the fire just so that I can return to it. I stand out there in the deepening cold, under the gaze of the moon, and silvery smoke unfurls against the dark sky. The flickering firelight dances within Bus 142, and then I step back inside into the warmth and squeak the doors shut.

I brought two candles, and I light them and place them beside a large votive engraved with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I feed another log into the stove and I scoot closer, opening Carine’s journal again in the firelight. I’ve spent hours today reading literally hundreds of entries written by others who have made the journey to visit this place, people from all corners of the world (the journal contains at least a dozen different languages). Why have so many people come here? Why has this story captured so many hearts and imaginations so powerfully? As I read, I think I am slowly beginning to understand. So many of the entries, orange in the flickering light, express gratitude for the inspiration Chris’ story has provided. The courage to dream, the will to be free, the discipline to seek and question, the drive to push and test ourselves; quotes in the journals reference all of these things. It seems that hearing about Chris’ life has helped people tap into something essential but forgotten that exists within themselves.

Of course, we do not view the story from a detached and unbiased perspective; we do not take it for what it is. Instead, we take it for what it means to us, clinging to certain details that resonate with us and ignoring others. (Isn’t this how we respond to most everything that comes our way?) For those of us who have been inspired by Chris McCandless, our personal understanding of his story has little to do with causing pain to loved ones, “disrespecting” the wilderness, willful non-preparation—things that might be considered his faults. We ignore Chris’ faults and hypocrisies, just as Chris ignored the faults and hypocrisies of London and Tolstoy and the other figures who inspired him. Instead, our understanding of the story centers around the things it stirs within each of us, the ways in which we need to be inspired: grasping life, embracing our spirit of adventure, freedom, living in the most full, deep way we are humanely capable of—the things which we consider McCandless to embody.

We needed a modern seeker with whom to relate. We always need examples of people living life in a better way, or trying to, and we need to be able to personally identify with those examples. We have endless sources of inspiration (Thoreau, Tolstoy, and so forth), yet these great individuals lived in a different era. Their ideas remain poignantly relevant, yet the gap in time between our lives and theirs diminishes our ability to relate with them. Maybe we convince ourselves that it’s no longer possible to embody those ideals in this day and age. We needed someone to demonstrate that it is still possible, because sometimes we lack the courage to just go and do it ourselves. Of course, the millions of seekers have always been out there, but they are hard to identify in a world where billboards and commercials scream for your attention, consumption is the way, everything is LOUD LOUD LOUD NOISE, and the enlightened seekers among us are perhaps the ostracized vagrants we walk past on the street corners. Maybe we are drawn to the story of Chris McCandless because he fulfills our need for an example of someone who embodies the things we seek. That he made mistakes only deepens our ability to relate with him.

Ironically, though McCandless certainly did strive to live honestly, it’s doubtful that he considered himself the icon of freedom and idealism that we now see him as. It is difficult in the messy midst of one’s own journey to truly see the big picture of what one is doing. Each day was imperfect, so his accomplishments might only emerge in the larger context of his journey rather than in the visible, graspable substance of his day to day existence. So, perhaps it is Krakauer’s contextualized portrayal of McCandless that we identify with as much as the actual life of McCandless. Rather than presenting us with a haphazard agglomeration of moments as documented in the photographs and scattered journal entries that McCandless left behind, Krakauer delivered a narrative that communicated McCandless’ journey as a wholly developed concept. Krakauer put it all into words for us, articulating something that was not new but that instead fulfilled something we were already seeking. It was only naturally for us, then, to grab hold of the story and to imagine McCandless not as just another imperfect human on a spiritual journey but as an icon of this lifestyle. His flaws, though we (and Krakauer) readily acknowledge their existence, are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that McCandless had a dark side too, that we can criticize him and list his hypocrisies, point out that he was far from perfect at living this ideal life. The importance of the story to us lies not in the details of McCandless’ life and his human flaws, but in his relentless striving to embody the ideals we respect so deeply. Through Krakauer’s words, McCandless became the modern example we have been searching for.

And the other side? What is it that so deeply offends and angers people about Chris McCandless? As much as some of us idolize him, why are others of us just as quick to condemn him and his entire life and path? “He was a self-correcting mistake,” one furious Alaskan told me. “He was just a dumb fuck.” We are so keen to find a shortcut to understanding; it would be so simple to just write him off as stupid. But we know that in reality, Chris was highly intelligent (his grades at Emory are a simple enough demonstration of this). So we really can’t get a handle on the story by just dismissing it this way. So then we try to condemn him for his recklessness, but that falls short as well. “It probably misses the point…to castigate McCandless for being ill prepared,” as Krakauer wrote. “…he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake.” Of course, risk taking itself is not something that offends us. The more you risk, the more you stand to gain: this is a principle that we happily accept in relation to business, economics, gambling, and so forth, but not, apparently, when it comes to following our dreams. What disturbs us is the intensity of Chris’ devotion to what he sought. We can’t understand how his search could have been worth such a risk. But, if we acknowledge his intelligence and the highly intentional nature of his risk taking, then we have to accept that he was not just an idiot we can forget about—he was a highly devoted seeker who was looking for something of fundamental importance. And that unnerves us. Don’t we all have dreams stirring somewhere in our depths, untapped longings that are essential to our identity as human beings? Chris’ willingness to risk everything for these dreams exposes the hypocrisies that might gape in our own lives, the chasm between our dreams and our willingness to take them seriously. Considering Chris’ story forces us not only to question what forgotten dream within ourselves is important enough to risk everything for, but it also forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we have abandoned this thing. Maybe we try to dismiss Chris McCandless with simple labels like ‘reckless’ and ‘stupid’ because this is something we don’t want to face.

Yes, Chris probably needed to fine tune the balance in his life. We see his youth and stubbornness, we wonder how growing up might have softened his sharp corners a bit, whittled him into a wiser and more effective intensity. We see the hypocrisies in his life, and we are just as unwilling to forgive them as he was to forgive them in his father. Yes, we are offended and angry at him for the way he treated his family and friends.

Dave Korn Part 1

Dave Korn Part 2

Dave Korn Part 3

Dave Korn Part 4

Dave Korn Part 5

 


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