Here’s a shining example of my distractibility. I found myself reading a bunch of articles about Christopher McCandless, a young man who in 1992 went to Alaska to live off the land and died there. There are many articles because Jon Krakauer wrote a book, then Sean Penn made a movie and all the while Alaskans are writing articles about what a dope McCandless was and you should not do this. Do not go unprepared into the Alaskan wild, they say. Can’t say they’re wrong. If you’re all romantic about Nature and simple living, but don’t want to die, probably better to take a few safety precautions. Like a good map and a radio. McCandless wasn’t that far from civilization when he died, but there was a raging river between him and it. So after reading a bunch of articles on how exactly he died (Krakauer has believed since the beginning there was more to it than pure starvation) and another bunch on what a damn-fool thing it was to do and people should stop comparing him to Thoreau and Muir, because people keep following him to the ‘magic bus’ and one drowned in the river. They won’t build a bridge because that would just encourage people. I find that thinking a lot like when they take the trash cans out from the park to make people carry out their own trash. They don’t. And they aren’t going to stop pilgrimaging to the magic bus, so build a bridge already. Maybe that will take some of the excitement out of it.
So, after all this article reading castigating and defending Krakauer and McCandless, I finally said to myself, “Just read the book.” That will probably scratch this itch better than finding another article and it did. It’s a good book. I think Krakauer paints quite a good picture of McCandless, both his wildly underprepared and overconfident side and the nature that drove him to this project to begin with. It follows McCandless as much as possible for the two years after he graduated from Emory and essentially lived rough travelling around the American west. McCandless was a decidedly odd duck from early on. He went on long road trips before he even graduated and apparently loved it despite losing 30 pounds and almost dying in the desert. I’m pretty sure that would have put me off for life, but as soon as his parents had gone home, he had his mail held and lit out for the territories. By the time he got to Alaska almost two years later, he had survived quite a lot, which probably contributed to his overconfidence. Krakauer seems to have done a great job tracking down the people McCandless became friends with on the road, where he went and how he lived. He seems to have only gotten regular work a few times. He’d work a month or two and then head out again. He didn’t worry much about food or clothes or shelter. He could live for a month off rice. This is my idea of Hell, but for McCandless, this was just the overture for the main event — surviving in the Alaskan wilderness.
It’s no spoiler to tell you he didn’t. It’s the first sentence of the book. It’s even on the cover. But you should read the most recent version to get Krakauer’s final take on what really went wrong. Also there’s a – and this is a minor spoiler and a speculation, so stop reading if you don’t want to know – small mystery about some cabins in the area that were not just damaged by a vandal (or vandals), but destroyed. Not just food stolen, but lamps smashed, carpets and mattresses dragged outside, windows broken, all three cabins rendered uninhabitable. Some Alaskans think Chris did it. It happened while he was there. Krakauer thinks he would not have been able to resist bragging in his ‘journal’ about it, which is a fair point given what we know of McCandless’ character, but this journal is little more than a list. A ship’s log is more detailed. If you had an assignment to keep a diary that was 3 words or less a day, this is what this ‘journal’ was like. I think he did it. And I think he did it, not because he was anti-government (one of the cabins belonged to the Park Service), but because he didn’t want to cheat. If those cabins were there, full of bedding and food and light and relatively warm, he might not have been able to resist holing up there when the going got tough. So, he destroyed anything that made them appealing. Now, this is just my theory, maybe someone else tramped through there and had their own reasons for destroying three cabins, but nope. I don’t buy that. He might have done it before settling in the Magic Bus. Because the argument against my theory is that he sheltered in the man-made bus. Didn’t destroy it. I think he ended up having to shelter in the bus because otherwise he would’ve died of exposure. He had a tent and a sleeping bag his mom sewed for him, but when he got up there in late April it was still below freezing at night. He did not have equipment to deal with that from the sound of it. At any rate, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. If this story interests you at all, Krakauer’s book is a good, fast read, and really, the only game in town unless you want to Google all the articles you can find.