Into The Wild Essay
Professor Russell Potter
English 261: Northern Exposures
3, May 2012
Not All Who Wander Are Lost:
My Thoughts on Christopher McCandless
You can sit for hours and ponder the meaning of life. You can write novels, poems, and short stories on the topic but you’ll never truly understand the beauty of life until you experience it for yourself, until you immerse yourself in it. Every person has their own set of wants, needs, and desires. But it isn’t until you go out and do the things that you’ve imagined, that you really discover what you love. Every person has a unique mind; every person has the capacity to share different views. If you asked every person in the entire world what they believe the meaning of life is, you would receive several answers. Many would be different, but most would say something to the effect of “living a happy, healthy life.” Because we’re all so different, our own definitions of happiness are bound to differ from the next person. I believe Christopher McCandless’ definition of happiness would have been simple. He wanted to find himself, who he really was deep down. He didn’t want to be the person his parents wanted him to be, he most certainly didn’t want to be the person society expected him to be, he wanted to be Alexandar Supertramp. He wanted the rawness of life itself, the beauty of nature surrounding him, independence from what society has told us we “need” to survive. When Chris left everything behind and ventured to Alaska, he was not crazy, he was not ‘lost’, seeking attention, unintelligent, or suicidal. “McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large, but rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul.” (Krakauer, 183)
Since freshman year of high school, I have been fascinated by the twenty-four year old whose body was found in an abandoned bus off of the Stampede Trail in Alaska. His death and the debate surrounding his two year journey to Alaska has become something I am very passionate about. I have read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, I have watched the film Into The Wild by Sean Penn numerous times and still I don’t think they completely captured just much of an amazing person Chris truly was. Although I was only two years old when Chris died, I can’t help but admire Chris for what he did, and I wish I had the pleasure to know him. There are many people who find the admiration many have developed for Christopher McCandless foolish. He didn’t write a best-selling novel, or create an award winning film, he didn’t find the cure to cancer; he traveled to and died in Alaska. Many people will never understand why his life matters so much to complete strangers. It saddens me that people tend to only appreciate the obvious. So easily people lose sight of what it really important in life. Going on a journey to find yourself is more important than any realize. Without the people who have found themselves and their passions, there would be no life changing discoveries made. Those who have previously made a difference in the world would all be sitting in their homes thinking about the what-ifs and dreaming of the things they could accomplish, instead of going out and doing them. The world needs more people with the passion that Chris had.
Even though Chris has admirers, he also has critics. In the eyes of many, he was a man who was ‘lost’ in every sense of the word. Many thought that he was not going in the direction his life should have been headed. Instead of getting a job with his college degree, getting married, doing ‘normal things’ at his age, he chose to donate the money that remained in his college fund to a charity called Oxfam, assumed the name of Alexander Supertramp, deserted all his family and began a journey all over the country that would ultimately lead to his great Alaskan adventure. Chris’ death led to much media attention, which in turn, led to some strong opinions about the boy who called himself Alexandar Supertramp. “Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity- and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received.” (Krakauer, Author’s Note) If you type “Christopher McCandless” into google various types of sites will appear with various opinions. Some are in memory of Chris, others list all the ways Chris could have survived if he just used common sense, brought a map, and knew more about Alaska. So many people believe that Chris threw his life away for no reason, and that perhaps his greatest sin was how badly he hurt his family.
Not only was Chris careless in critics eyes, he was also seen as inconsiderate to his family. The fact that Chris never bothered to let his family, specifically his parents, know where he was when he was gone for two years stirred up emotion in the public. I don’t believe that he did this to intentionally hurt his family in anyway. Chris was a person who was very kindhearted. Although I believe he clearly had to have had been at odds with his parents in some way to venture out on this journey, he didn’t hate them or want to hurt them. I honestly believe he just wanted a clear mind, one that wasn’t filled with thoughts of his parents. The film Into the Wild, I believe, places too great an emphasis on the relationship with his parents. During the film there are flashbacks to Chris and his sister hiding as his parents are loudly arguing and frequently fighting. Although it is possible that his parents had an unhealthy relationship, I don’t believe their relationship played any role in Chris setting out on his journey at the time he did. He did so because he was finally done with college, and it was the right time for him to embark on his adventure because he now had numerous hours of free time. He didn’t contact his parents because he knew that it would worry them, and that they would go out and find him and force him to come home. Chris clearly didn’t want any relationship with any person getting in the way of him discovering his true self, even if it was his family. Some would classify this as extremely selfish, but he had completed college like his parents had expected him to and had been an almost model son. He had followed society’s rules and guidelines long enough. His decision to exclude his parents from his plans wasn’t to hurt them, but to be able to be able to better himself and finally find his own happiness- not the happiness others tried to force down his throat.
In my opinion, people today are petrified of everything that surrounds them, as well as the thoughts that veer us away from society’s standards. We as people are told what is good for us, what is bad for us, what smart decisions are, what awful decisions are, and what we should do with our lives. Generally, we conform ourselves to what society wants and expects us to be. We get so worried that we won’t fit in, or won’t be accepted. The average person doesn’t take major risks or chances in their lifetime, they simply play it safe and do what they think is right for them. Christopher McCandless wasn’t one of these people. He didn’t care what people thought of him. He was a truly unique soul. It takes a great amount of courage to set your mind to something, and to fulfill that goal no matter what the costs are, no matter what people will think of you. I obviously cannot be sure of what Chris’ exact thoughts and goals were, but I feel like I have a good idea of what they were. For years I have racked my brain trying to find the answers to what makes me happy and what I want to do with my life. So many possibilities have crossed my mind, and I have given myself so many headaches, that there have been days where I’ve just wanted to get away from everyone and immerse myself in complete silence. I feel like Chris could have not only related to my feelings but that he also experienced them. Chris’ motivation to find himself is unlike anything I have seen before. He was willing to risk everything he had for his great Alaskan adventure. I think the reason many people call him crazy for what he did is because they envied him in a way. They’re jealous because they’ve never had a passion for anything that strong in their entire life. As a teacher at Alaska Pacific University says, “ I’m sure there are plenty of other Alaskans who had a lot in common when they first got here too, including many of his critics. Which is maybe why they’re so hard on him. Maybe MCandless reminds them a little too much of their former selves.” (Krakauer, 186)
Over the years, through much research I’ve done online, it has come to my attention that Chris was in fact in possession of a map, identification, and money, all of which is omitted from the book Into the Wild, as well as the film by Sean Penn. Obviously this information would be omitted or altered in both to show viewers and readers just how serious Chris was about being alone and disconnected from society, and of course because it made much more of a statement. In the film, Chris not only burns all of his money, but he also cuts up his social security card, license, virtually every form of identification he owned- and later burned them as well. Chris apparently carried “a wallet with multiple sources of identification and $300 in cash, as well as a map.” Even with this information, I personally don’t see his story as any less stouthearted. It makes his story more tragic in my opinion. Because he was carrying various forms of identification on him, he clearly wasn’t abandoning society forever. He wanted to return someday. Perhaps he would have wrote a book about his journey and what he realized the meaning of life was while immersed in the wilderness. Maybe he would have explained to his parents why he never contacted them. Chris inspired so many people from his documentation of his Alaskan journey, I feel that he could have inspired so many more in his later years of life if he was given more time on this earth. But really if you stop to think about it though, no one would have known his story if he survived.
I believe Chris was very much aware of how lucky he truly was. I don’t think for a second that he took his life for granted. I also believe he was well aware of the risks. He knew that he was not an experienced hunter, and was also aware that he didn’t know if he would be able to handle everything that Alaska had to offer. He was an intelligent young man, not a careless one. People too often mistake courageousness for stupidity in my eyes. It takes a great deal of courage to travel somewhere you’ve never been before, on your own, with little provisions. I’m nineteen years old, and I cry when I get lost in Providence. Yes, everyone’s different, and has different fears, but being alone in a foreign area is one of the scariest experiences for me. Chris wasn’t scared in any way, because he wasn’t lost. He was home because he had found his happiness. If you read Back To The Wild: The Photographs and Writings of Christopher McCandless you can feel Chris’ smile emanating right off the pages. In every picture of Chris, he has a grin from ear to ear that can’t help but make you smile. Even in the last photograph Chris took of himself where he realizes he is starving and too weak to return home, he holds a hand in the air and has a giant smile on his face. “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord, goodbye and may God bless all!” is what reads on the card held in his free hand. There is something so painfully beautiful about that image to me. One of society’s greatest fears today is death. We’re so wrapped up in our fears of the unknown, and what we haven’t experienced in our lives. But Chris, on the brink of death, is not hiding in fear, but smiling. I firmly believe it is because he found his happiness, his passion, his meaning of life; living simply in nature, in the wild.
The Alaskans who live in the wilderness that Chris ventured to not only don’t understand his story, but find him incredibly stupid and disrespectful. They claim that he didn’t know enough about the land, didn’t bring enough with him to survive, and didn’t think anything through. What they don’t understand is that he was challenging himself. Of course Chris took things to an extreme, but what he was doing was not wrong in any way, shape, or form. He wasn’t hurting anyone, he knew the risks that he was taking, he had a good head on his shoulders, he researched the plant life of Alaska, and carried a rifle with him. Chris was trying his best to live as simply as he could. He wanted to be one with nature, and be able to appreciate every aspect of it. Back To The Wild: The Photographs and Writings of Christopher McCandless shows almost every meal that Chris consumed while he was in Alaska. In many photographs he took a picture of the animal prior to butchering and then again afterwards. I feel as though he was trying to document these moments of his transformation. He was becoming the person he had always desired to be. He was now able to live off of the land, despite having virtually no hunting experience. What everyone fails to remember, is that Chris was successful and survived on his own for months before he died. Just about a month before his death, Chris underlined a passage from Thoreau’s Walden “If the day and night are such that you great them with joy and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, that is your success…The greatest gains and values are the farthest from being appreciated.” (Back To the Wild, 220) Chris’ gains and values may not have been appreciated by all, but they were by many.
The life of Christopher McCandless has impacted my life and inspired me, like many others to write an essay about the man who called himself Alexandar Supertramp. Though I will never get the opportunity to meet him, I am so thankful to have known his story, his struggles, and his values. The risks he took, the words that came from his heart during his final days in Alaska will always be stuck in my mind. The fact that Chris went on a two year journey of self-discovery, almost makes me feel guilty for not doing the same. If more people took the time to discover their true selves, I believe the world would be a much more peaceful, happier, beautiful place. Christopher McCandless will always have his critics no matter how many years pass, but there will also be those like myself- those who recognize him as a courageous individual who touched the lives of many.