Into The Wild - Felix Stern        

Into The Wild Essay


Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Englisches Seminar


Making Wilderness Reality:
How Christopher McCandless Managed to Go Into the Wild


Paper for the Class

“Cultures of Ecology and the Rise of Climate Fiction”

WS 2016/17

Martin Walter


Submitted by


Felix Stern

Dewinkelstr. 37

44795 Bochum




1.                  Introduction

In May 1992, soon after Christopher McCandless, the tragic hero of Jon Krakauer´s non-fiction book Into the Wild, had found a stranded bus amidst the wilderness of Alaska, he inscribed a message on its inside, describing his reasons for coming there: “No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild” (Krakauer, 162). The bus and its immediate surroundings became McCandless´ home for the next three and a half months – and on August, 18th the bus became his deathbed (cf. ibid. 198). As Krakauer notes, the location of the bus “was sufficiently remote to cost him his life” (ibid. 164), to let him starve to death. Was it, however, true wilderness?

   Although the young American did not come across any other human beings in these three and a half months, humanity, especially for Alaskan standards, was still not far away. McCandless was camping in the middle of the famous Denali National Park, north of Mount McKinley (ibid. 6). Only sixteen miles away from him, there was a major road for tourists driving into the park – and within a walking distance of six miles, McCandless could have found at least four cabins owned by locals (cf. ibid. 164).

   The aim of this paper is to find out if (and if yes, why) Christopher McCandless did really go “into the wild” - or if he merely went camping for a few months. At the core of this lies the question if there is any real wilderness left on Earth. Going further, this paper needs to investigate what wilderness means, in the first place. Drawing on various environmental and ecocritical texts, it will be examined why - although the Alaskan tundra, like any other place on Earth, is no true nature anymore - Christopher McCandless did nevertheless live in the wild for three and a half months. This paper will argue that wilderness is not about the place itself – it is determined by the way humans live and act in a certain region. For a place to be truly wild, it must be “autonomous, with the ability to govern [it]self” (Mark, 32). During his months in Alaska, McCandless found a way to live in the wild, because he did not deprive the biosphere of its autonomy. Using Krakauer´s account of McCandless´ life in Into the Wild, it will be up to this paper to explain how the adventurer achieved this.


2.                  Making Wilderness Reality

 2.1. Life, Death and Afterlife of Christopher McCandless

    The whereabouts and circumstances of the beginning and end of Christopher McCandless´ life could not have been more different. McCandless was born into a wealthy family of Virginia´s upper middle class – in his hometown Annandale, Christopher´s father Walt, a former NASA engineer, was a well-regarded citizen (cf. Krakauer, 19).  Christopher grew up as a privileged child and, for the largest part of his life, lived up to the expectations these privileges put him in. In May 1990, when he graduated from Emory University (one of the leading private universities in the United States) and did so with only the best grades (cf. ibid. 20), no one in his family anticipated never to hear from him again. Instead of striving for a Master´s degree, however, McCandless vanished – donated his entire money to OXFAM America (cf. ibid.) and travelled through America for the next two and a half years. The final step of his journey – which led him through states like Arizona, California and even to the other side of the Mexican border (cf. ibid. 24) – would be Alaska and its vast wilderness. There, McCandless hoped to find “the final and greatest adventure” (ibid. 162). What he did find, however, was his own death – in a place which was much colder, lonelier and way more ruthless than the small town in the middle of Virginia, where McCandless´ life had begun.

   The part of the northern Denali region, where the bus is situated, is extraordinary for many reasons. First of all (and this has been said before), because it is part of the Denali National Park, there are many roads and cabins in relative proximity.  Secondly, the Stampede Trail, the little-known trail that McCandless took on his way inside Denali Park, leading him to the bus, is a former road built by an Alaskan construction company (cf. ibid. 10). This is why the bus is even standing in the middle of nowhere – and it can serve as another argument for the thesis that McCandless was nowhere as far away from humanity as he might have thought.

   Eventually, however, the traveler could indeed spend more than three months there, living off the land, encountering not a single human being (cf. ibid. 164). On the one hand, this was due to a peculiar characteristic of the Wolf Townships – the region including the bus and its surroundings, situated “on the northern margin of the Alaska Range” (ibid. 9): “Because this […] tract is surrounded on three sides by the protected acreage of the national park, it harbors more than its share of wolf, bear, caribou, moose and other game” (ibid. 11). Even for Alaskan standards, the wild life surrounding the bus is incredibly vibrant. On the other hand, the aforementioned Stampede Trail has a dangerous obstacle waiting for all hikers trying to get close to the bus: the Teklanika River. During summer (soon after May, when McCandless first crossed it), it grows from a gentle stream to a raging river (cf. ibid. 169). Therefore, McCandless stayed alone for the best part of the summer – and for the same fact, he could not return to civilization when he tried to in the beginning of July (cf. ibid.): He simply did not dare cross the Teklanika River again.

   His miscalculation of the river´s growing force was one of the reasons why McCandless eventually died on August, 18th 1992 (cf. ibid. 198). Two and a half weeks after his death, three rangers found him lying in the bus (cf. ibid.) – and when McCandless´ identity had been determined after weeks of searching, Jon Krakauer was one of the first to report on the life and death of the young American traveler (cf. ibid. ix). At first, his reporting amounted to nothing more than a medium-sized article for the magazine Outside. For Krakauer, however, this article did not do McCandless justice (cf. ibid. x). Thus, Krakauer wrote a whole book about him: based on McCandless´ journal and many interviews, Into the Wild was published in 1996 and soon became an international bestseller. Eleven years later, Sean Penn released a film adaptation by the same name, starring Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless (cf. McGrath, 2007). After his death, the American traveler has posthumously become famous, idolized for his unconventional lifestyle, which led him out of the cities and into the wilderness. For the rest of this paper, the question what wilderness might actually mean in a post-natural world - and how McCandless has achieved to live in it - will be explored in greater detail. 

2.2 The End of Nature

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 climactic 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 civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.                                                                          [Krakauer, 162] 

   This is the entire message Christopher McCandless wrote down on the inside of the bus in May 1992. Looking at these lines alone might give the reader an impression of how McCandless himself defined wilderness. For many people, wilderness means something in the lines of true nature – was that, however, the same wilderness that McCandless pictured? When it comes to the term nature, it needs to be investigated if both his views, which he expressed in the note, and his actual life in Alaska match the common definitions brought up by scholars regarding this highly-contested concept.

   The first of these definitions of nature is remarkably broad. For some scholars, “nature is the sum total of the structures, substances and causal powers that are the universe. In this sense […], humanity is part of nature […] and even a radioactive waste dump is as ´natural´ as a snowdrop or a waterfall” (Clark, 6). Following this reasoning, Christopher McCandless spent the last three and a half months of his life in nature – and if wilderness were to be defined as true nature, then he did go into the wild in Alaska. But the same could be said for the more than twenty years of his life, which came before his final trip. If every place on Earth is nature – if every place is therefore wild – then Alaska is as good a place to go into the wildness as his hometown Annandale. But certainly, McCandless did not have this definition in mind when he declared that he became “lost in the wild” (Krakauer, 162) by “no longer [being] poisoned by civilization” (ibid.).

   Another definition of nature in the common academic literature is one as everything that is not culture, or, in other words, shaped or influenced in any way by human action (cf. Clark, 7). This sense of nature might be what McCandless was searching for. Walking the earth without phone, pool, pets or cigarettes (cf. Krakauer, 162), he tried to defy civilization and its technology – hiking instead of driving into the tundra, living among wild animals instead of keeping pets. But was he successful in leaving humanity entirely behind?

   For three reasons, Christopher McCandless did not succeed in that. First of all, civilization was all around him in the form of streets, cabins – and the bus he was sleeping in. Secondly, the traveler himself was, of course, a human and dispossessed the area around his bus of its non-human state by simply being there. Moreover, he took with him a ten-pound bag of rice, leather hiking boots and, among many other things, a .22 caliber rifle (cf. ibid. 5), which he used to kill animals in order to survive (cf. ibid. 182). All of these facts disqualify the place as nature in a non-human sense – but even without them, without McCandless himself, without all the signs of civilization surrounding the bus, even without the bus itself, the Alaskan wilderness is no true nature anymore.

   Actually, not a single place on Earth is – and that is the third, and most striking reason why McCandless did not experience true nature in Alaska. In 2000, the Novel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen conned the term Anthropocene, or the Age of Man (cf. Mark, 25) “as a way of describing the fact that human civilization is now the greatest evolutionary force on the planet” (ibid. 25f). Humans have heated up the atmosphere, altered the pH of the oceans, caused a mass extinction of both animals and plants (cf. ibid. 26) and, beyond that, partly destroyed the ozone layer (cf. Ghosh, 4). The change of the planet´s climate affects every single city, ocean, desert and jungle there is on Earth – it also affects Alaska to a high degree. There is no way, in this sense, for Christopher McCandless to have gone into the wild, because there simply is no true nature anymore.

   Christopher McCandless himself must have been aware of the contradictions, when he, on his quest to “become lost in the wild”, shouldered his rifle, walked on a trail that was built by an Alaskan construction company, spent his nights in a bus owned by the same company and, by day, watched the sun shine through the altered ozone layer many miles above him. However, for McCandless – and for the argument of this paper – these contradictions did not appeal. They were no contradictions, because wilderness, other than nature, can still be found on Earth. Under certain circumstances, it still exists in the Alaskan tundra.

   Wilderness cannot be defined as true nature, because it is not everywhere, like nature in its broadest definition. Moreover, unlike nature in the sense of a non-human world, wilderness can coexist with civilization. Wilderness is not about a place alone – it is about the way humans do or do not act in it, it is about the way they respect and protect the biosphere´s autonomy (cf. Mark, 32). In the further course of this paper, the question will be answered, how humans, even in the Age of Man, can guarantee this autonomy – and how Christopher McCandless was thereby able to live in the wilderness.  

 2.3 The Concept of Wilderness

    The concept of wilderness, is, of course, entirely man-made. Humans have defined what it means to be wild, the same way they have defined other concepts like, for example, nature. Tracing the idea of wilderness back to its roots, however, reveals that there is something “natural” behind it – a notion of something that humans lost on their way to modern age. In his non-fiction book Alaska: The Sophisticated Wilderness, Jon Gardey notes that “[w]ilderness is a creation of modern sophisticated men […] The early Eskimos didn´t think of themselves as inhabiting a wilderness. They merely lived on a land and fished in a sea” (Gardey, 211). Gardey claims that it was European men during the industrial period who “define[d] Alaska as wilderness and use[d] it as an antidote for the pain of [their] technological life at home” (ibid.). In other words, the concept of wilderness evolved during the age of the industrial revolution, when people lost the direct and intimate relationship with nature that had defined the agricultural age before it (cf. Wakefield, 354).

Men became specialists, participants in a fragmented world, and even a man who remained on the farm had to specialize in a single crop for cash […] [T]hey lost the work that corresponded to an inner, natural need. […] [They] felt out of touch with something real, true and vital […] and [Ralph W.] Emerson gave them the term for what they were losing: self-reliance.


    Thus, what can be found at the core of the concept of wilderness is not a place itself but a mode of engagement with its biosphere. As humans lost touch with nature during the industrial revolution and the emergence of a capitalist lifestyle centered around money and the division of labor, they created the concept as a way of re-entering into a more natural relationship with nature. In wilderness, they sought to find “a stable settledness, a locally focused pre-capitalist lifestyle that may endure for an indefinite period of time without destroying the resource on which it depends” (Clark, 19). What was it, however, that defined this pre-industrial, intimate relationship with nature and thus guaranteed human self-reliance and men´s stable settledness?

   Another important idea embedded in the modern concept of wilderness has to do with the relationship of humans and animals in a given environment. The reason why Arctic natives did not see their home territory Alaska as wilderness, is that they did not feel separated from nature – they felt that they were a part of it (cf. Gladden, 60). In the same way, a human engagement with nature enabling it to be considered wild, must respect its autonomy from humans, must not interfere in its biosphere more than any other animal belonging to it.

   The quality of being wild has been attached to life long before it has been connected to places, with the concept of wilderness. The key characteristic of wild animals and plants is their autonomy from human action, which makes it (nearly) impossible for humans to domesticate or cultivate them (cf. Mark, 32). As Jason Mark points out in his book Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man, “[i]f wild is a quality of being, then wilderness is that place where wildness can express itself most fully” (ibid.). In the wild, people are part of the biosphere, not separated from it. In order to make sure that a place does not lose its autonomy – or, in another sense, lose its resources for humans – people should only affect the wild life in it (like every animal does, unintendedly), but never control, or worse, destroy the wild life by intention (cf. Mark, 34). Keeping the biosphere intact, people can reclaim what they lost during the industrial age and what Emerson set out to be the most important human characteristic of his time: self-reliance. 

2.4 Wilderness in Practice

    So far, this paper has developed a concept of wilderness that is defined by a direct and intimate relationship of humans to their direct environment and its natural life. In the wild, men are “members of a surrounding community of plants and animals” (Gladden, 56) – like other animals, they affect the wild life without controlling it. On the one hand, this way of life enables the environment to be autonomous, beyond human control. On the other hand, it fosters human self-reliance due to a sustainable flow of resources. These are the key components of modern wilderness – is the modern man, however, able to fulfill them? Did Christopher McCandless succeed in living a wild life during his days in Alaska – or does his death suffice as a testament of his deficient self-reliance?

   Before McCandless started his trip, he frequently talked about Alaska and “his intent to spend the summer alone in the bush, living off the land” (Krakauer, 158). One of his prime goals for the adventure was not to get closer to nature or enjoy the beauty of the landscape but to “prove to himself that he could make it on his own, without anybody else´s help” (ibid.). Long before he even went to the most northern American state, McCandless knew that self-reliance was his key to the Alaskan wilderness. Thus, the only proviant he brought with him was a ten-pound bag of rice (cf. ibid. 5). From the beginning, McCandless strongly relied on the game he killed with his .22 caliber rifle (cf. ibid.) and the plants he gathered with the help of a guide for edible plants of the region (cf. ibid. 159). Although the Alaskan tundra eventually took his life, he nevertheless survived for nearly four months by simply living off the land. For this period of time, he was successful in proving his capability to live in a self-reliant way.

   One reason for McCandless´ long-lasting success was that, for a hunter-gatherer in Alaska, the region surrounding the bus proved to be as good as it gets. As stated above, the biosphere of the Wolf Townships was exceptionally vivid due to the proximity to many national park areas (cf. ibid. 11). When, in May, summer started to defrost the soil and awaken the animals from their hibernation (cf. ibid. 163), McCandless took advantage of the region´s unique situation. In a single week in June - according to McCandless´ journal - he ate a duck, fourteen squirrels, three porcupines, five gray birds and a giant Canada goose (cf. ibid. 165). Christopher McCandless did not, however, kill all these animals for fun – he was eager to kill the game only for the purpose of nutrition (cf. ibid.). In doing so, he did not rot out entire parts of the biosphere. He acted like a member rather than a ruler of the wild life surrounding him.

   Like most pre-industrial societies, McCandless lived in accord with nature and adapted his eating and sleeping habits to nature instead of following man-made concepts like, for example, time. Right before entering Denali Park, he gave Jim Gallien, the man who drove him there, his watch - claiming that he did not want to know “what time it is […] what day it is […] or where I am” (ibid. 7). For McCandless, these pieces of information simply did not matter.

   Moreover, Krakauer himself points out the seemingly strange fact that McCandless´ “journal is little more than a tally of plants foraged and game killed” (ibid. 182). Instead of describing the landscapes he had seen on his trips or the thoughts that had went through his mind while walking, McCandless enlisted what he ate – no more, no less. As an explanation for this, Krakauer quotes Paul Shepard. The cultural ecologist has studied the life of nomadic Bedouins and found out that they are so deeply entangled with the nature surrounding them that they simply cannot abstract it from their own life. Their natural environment is not there for amusement, but for survival, which makes their relationship to it all the more intimate (cf. ibid. 182). His journal is proof for the fact that McCandless, too, has engaged in this very direct and intimate relationship with the biosphere surrounding him in the weeks and months before his death.

   The last question that has to be answered is whether Christopher McCandless really was an equal member of the surrounding community of plants and animals – or if the modern technology he used by killing with a rifle and the fact that he killed animals for survival stand in the way of wilderness. Many scholars argue that technology itself does not destroy the conditions of wild life. After all, “[t]echnologies have always defined and changed the human – consider only the prehistoric inventions of clothing, fire and the conventions of sign-making […] To be human is from the first a matter of engagement with technics” (Clark, 64). Thus, McCandless´ man-made rifle, his leather hiking boots (cf. Krakauer, 5) or his book about plants have not hindered him from going into the wilderness by their existence alone. To live in the wild means protecting the wild life´s autonomy – this is why it is not technology itself, but the way it is used, which define whether or not humans live in the wilderness.

   McCandless has used his technology to the effect that he affected, but never controlled the wild life of the region – even though he has killed dozens of animals. As James N. Gladden notes in his article Bioregionalism as an Arctic Wilderness Idea,

[t]he idea that humans have rights in as well as duties towards nature suggests […] [that they] do not act in ways that undercut the vitality of plants and animals they share it with. […] This does not mean that animals possess moral rights that prevent people from hunting and killing them for food.

                                                                                                           [Gladden, 56]

Because McCandless only killed animals for food and never even wanted to waste a single bit of flesh (cf. Krakauer, 165), he respected the biosphere´s autonomy and, at no point, undercut or endangered its vitality.

   All in all, Christopher McCandless fulfilled all the criteria that define the modern idea of wilderness. He guaranteed the autonomy of the surrounding biosphere through his strict rules for hunting and engaged in an intimate, pre-industrial relationship with nature, where he played by nature´s rules and not vice versa. His death is indeed proof for his ultimate failure in being totally self-reliant. However, this failure was not the effect of an insufficiently wild life, but rather the effect of a life that was too wild, too non-human. There are ways for human communities to respect a biosphere´s autonomy the same way McCandless did while being on his own (cf. Gladden, 54). Moreover, if McCandless had used just a little bit more technology – if he had bought a better map of the region – he would have known that there were cabins only a few miles away from him and that the Teklanika River was not as fierce, and way easier to cross a few miles further along the trail (cf. Krakauer, 169). Under these conditions, McCandless would still have led a wild life in Alaska – but he would not have had to die because of it.

 3.                  Conclusion

    When Christopher McCandless, in May 1992, attached a note to the inside of the bus on the Stampede Trail – saying that he had walked “alone upon the land to become lost in the wild” (Krakauer, 162) – it was still unclear, if he would really experience wilderness in the following months. If wilderness were a place, McCandless could have easily picked a better one than the bus amidst the Wolf Townships, with all its nearby roads and cabins. Still, if wilderness were defined as a place where true nature still exists, another location would have made no difference. While some scholars define nature as everything that exists, some argue that nature is an environment that is untouched by human influence (cf. Clark, 6f). Since we live in an age of man-made climate change, this definition of wilderness would, of course, exclude every single place on Earth. Nevertheless, McCandless, the young traveler from Virginia, picked the Townships for his wilderness adventure - and he had all the best reason to do so, because for the next three and a half months, he made his dream of living in the wild come true.

   Wilderness is not a place. On the contrary, wilderness can be defined as a way of life – a certain way in which humans and other forms of life interact within a biosphere. If humans seek to control or extinguish the wild life of a place and disrespect its autonomy, then wilderness, too, is extinguished. If they, however, act like members rather than rulers of the “surrounding community of plants and animals” (Gladden, 56) and seek to engage in a “pre-capitalist lifestyle that may endure for an indefinite period of time without destroying the resource on which it depends” (Clark, 19), they can protect the wild character of their biosphere.

   Christopher McCandless can be taken as an example for this peculiar life style. He tried to embrace the wildness of the Wolf Townships by living in accord with nature and engaging in the resource-saving life style of a hunter-gatherer. In the end, however, he died in the Alaskan tundra. A further analysis of the character of wilderness in the Anthropocene could investigate other systems of human interaction with wild life – systems that respect the autonomy of a place and support its wild character without risking hunger and death in the human population. An example for such a system is bioregionalism – a concept of a resource-saving society brought up by the scholar Kirkpatrick Sale (cf. Gladden, 51). Among other aspects, a bioregional society “contains a largely self-sufficient […] scale-economy that enables its dwellers to adapt to their natural surroundings instead of forcing nature to adapt to their growing […] resource use demands” (ibid. 54). Most certainly, there are ways for humans to retain wilderness on Earth. By practicing such systems in communities, men might also guarantee their own survival on this planet - something that Christopher McCandless, in his solitude, could not accomplish.

                                                                                                                                    Works Cited


                Primary literature

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. 1996. London: Pan Books, 2007.


                Secondary Literature

Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment.
Cambridge: CUP, 2011.

Gardey, Jon. Alaska: The Sophisticated Wilderness. London: Wilton House Gentry
   Limited, 1976.

Ghosh, Ranjan. “Globing the Earth: The New Eco-logics of Nature.” Substance 41.1
   (2012): 3-14.

Gladden, James N. “Bioregionalism as an Arctic Wilderness Idea.” Worldviews:
   Environment, Culture, Religion
3.1 (1999): 51-67.

Grusin, Richard. “Remediating Nature: National Parks as Mediated Public Space.”
   Space – Place – Environment. Ed. Lothar Hönnighausen, Julia Apitzsch and
   Wibke Reger. Tübingen: Stauffenberg Verlag Brigitte Narr GmbH, 2004. 125-136.

Mark, Jason: Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man.
   Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015.

McGrath, Charles. “Mother Nature´s Restless Sons”. New York Times Online. 16 Sept.
   2007. <>.

Wakefield, Richard. “Thomas Eakins and Robert Frost: To Be a Natural Man in a
   Man-Made World.” The Midwest Quarterly 41.4 (2000): 354–369.


Honesty Declaration

 I hereby declare that the work submitted is my own and that all passages and ideas that are not mine have been fully and properly acknowledged. I am aware that I will fail the entire course should I include passages and ideas from other sources and present them as if they were my own.


Felix Stern                                                                   March 1st, 2017


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