Into The Wild - Doug Thomson          

Into The Wild Essay

Doug Thomson
Of the many questions people asked upon discovering Christopher McCandless’ decomposing body along the Stampede trail, probably the greatest and most profound one was: What motivated the youth to go on his wilderness escapade in the first place? Many immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was just some nut job, merely a fed up lunatic with contempt for both people and greater society. I however disagree with these simplistic assertions and can easily refute them with facts. For one, there is significant evidence that McCandless enjoyed the company of others (based off the numerous accounts of people he met along the way) and two, in regards to his attitude towards society as a whole, his journal indicates that he had actually intended on returning to society upon completion of his Alaskan adventure, thus implying that he wasn’t done with it forever. I do not mean to assert however that McCandless had no problem with modern society at all; he had a lot of problems. However the primary concept that motivated him to disappear off the radar was not absolute contempt for what he had left behind (he was not an individual consumed by hate), but rather Chris went into the wild out of his dream desire for freedom. To McCandless, this meant freedom from all sources of authority, whether they be his parents or entire societal beliefs.

To begin, McCandless’ romantic views of the wild were not unorthodox. In fact, the wild untamed corners of the earth have long been associated with a sense of freedom. In these remote and far off places, a person can be whoever he/she wants to be and can do whatever they want to do without pressure and judgment from manmade entities. Therefore the wilderness not surprisingly makes a good laboratory for “finding oneself.” As author Wallace Stegner said in The American West As Living Space, “It should not be denied…that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west.” Therefore it is not surprising that over the course of McCandless’ two year pilgrimage (which freed him from, in his mind, twenty two years of oppression) he was brought to Alaska.

There was never a question that Chris was an idealist. The inequities of life really bothered him, whether they be big or small, local or abroad, or personal or not. Put off by local poverty for example, on Friday and Saturday nights during high school, instead of going off partying like most of his peers, McCandless went around buying food for homeless people. Aside from desiring a more equal world, McCandless was also a fundamental believer that everyone ought to follow their own dreams. In short, this entails that people do what they want to do, not what others want or what society deems as good (or normal) for them. Being the idealist that he was, McCandless passionately adhered to his convictions, and therefore naturally his ideals regarding realizing one’s own dreams clashed with the opinions of others, namely his parents.

For good or bad, from a young age McCandless came to see any form of guidance as an interference on his independence. His ultra- idealistic nature was the cause of this. As his father Walt McCandless said in an interview after his son’s death, “Chris had so much natural talent, but if you tried to coach him, to polish his skill, to bring out the final ten percent, a wall went up. He resisted instruction of any kind.” This was the primary reason he was at odds with his parents. He didn’t like how they had a plan for him (for example to go on to Harvard law school after college and to pursue a career) and in time came to resent this as an attack on his individuality and independence. Therefore he ceased communication with them to get back at them. I disagree with Jessica Robbins who said that, “I don't believe that he did this to intentionally hurt his family in any way.” Actually Chris had quite a malicious plan towards his parents. As he said in a letter to Carine prior to departing for good, “I’m going to let them think I’m coming around to their side of things and that our relationship is stabilizing. And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life. I’m going to divorce them as my parents and never speak to either of those idiots again…” I agree with Rebecca LaMarche one hundred percent, that Chris saw the world in black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. As such, he never attempted to think about what his parents wanted from their point of view in attempt to try and reconcile their differences. As his sister Carine said, “nothing was more important to Chris than truth,” and like so he thought there had to be an answer to everything, including who was right and who was wrong. There could never be a grey area.

As he grew older, McCandless came to equate his relationship with his parents with his relationship with society as a whole. More than anything, Chris was not a conformist. Bent on his independence, he came to be bothered by societies’ expectations. These expectations were what Wallace Stegner was referring to when he said that man sought the wild to rid himself from “oppression, law, and irksome obligations.” Famous American, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said in his essay, Self Reliance, that society was a “conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” I believe McCandless would have agreed with this statement. As he grew up, his boyish desire to be independent spawned his dream to live free. This was what led him to Alaska after college.

His political affiliation explained his beliefs well. Despite his seemingly left wing (even Marxist) attitudes, it turned out McCandless was a big supporter of Ronald Reagan and Republicans. Though he often lamented over social issues like the condition of the poor, the widening wealth disparity, and civil rights, all of which would place him closer to the Democratic camp, given that he didn’t like to take instruction from anyone, it only makes sense that he was a strong supporter of Reagan’s idea of limited government. As his hero Henry David Thoreau said, “that government is best which governs the least.” As his father had said, Chris didn’t like to be told what to do or to be pressured into doing something by anybody, whether they be his parents, the government, or society as a whole. What McCandless said to Jim Gallien in response to whether he had a hunting license summed up his attitude perfectly, “Hell no, How I feed myself is none of the governments business, fuck their stupid rules.”

My point for writing this is not to comment on the merits of his actions or express what I feel he should or should not have done, but instead try and explain the crucial question, why. The quest for freedom, the idea McCandless sought embodied in the Alaska Wilderness is an idea man has searched for for a long time. Though in one respect Chris’ endeavor was unsuccessful in that in that he inadvertently died, in many ways it was successful for he finally reached the thing he had long been looking for.

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