Review: Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into The Wild recounts the life and death of Christopher McCandless, whose decomposing body was discovered on 6 September 1992 in bus 142 on the Stampede Trail, a seldom travelled trail in the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley, Alaska. The cause of death was starvation. Krakauer begins his book with this incident and then attempts to answer the question what was Christopher McCandless doing alone in the Alaska wilderness and why did he die?

In order to answer this question he looks at Christopher’s background and the two years prior to his death. McCandless had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing in Annandale, Virginia. He displayed an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age and was a high-achiever academically, however, he was also wilful and was determined to live by his own rules rather than those imposed on him by his parents or society. After graduating from Emory University in 1990 McCandless donated his entire savings of $25,000 to Oxfam, cut off all contact with his family, and hit the road. He spent time in the Mojave Desert, canoed the Colorado River from California, through Mexico, and on to the Gulf of California, and worked for a time in South Dakota on a grain elevator. But these were just preliminary adventures, building up to his ultimate adventure in the Alaska wilderness.

On 15 April 1992 McCandless hitch-hiked from South Dakota all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. From there he hitch-hiked to the Stampede Trail and set out on foot. He had minimal supplies with him (the only food he took was a 10lb bag of rice), clothing that was insufficient and impractical for the conditions he faced, a .22 calibre riffle, which was too small for killing large animals such as moose, caribou, and bears, and (the heaviest item in his backpack) a library of ten paperback books. 20 miles along the trail he came across bus 142, which had been abandoned on the trail by construction workers in the 60s. McCandless spent four days in the bus before attempting to continue his hike. His original intention was to keep going west, and perhaps reach the Bering Sea. However, he soon discovered that, ironically, summer was the worst time to be crossing the Alaska bush, and so he returned to bus 142. After two months of living in the bus and eating what he could shoot or gather, McCandless decided that he had achieved what he’d set out to achieve and that he was ready to return to civilisation. However, on returning along the Stampede Trail he found that the Teklanika River, which he had been able to ford in April, was now a cold and violent torrent, swollen by meltwater. Seeing that he couldn’t cross the water, he decided to return to the bus and wait for the river to subside. Had he been able to wait it out until the end of the summer McCandless’s trip in the wilderness may have had a happy ending, but by then McCandless was already severely malnourished.

Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s untimely death is well-written and easy to read – it took me a day and a half, which for me is very quick. Krakauer is also a very sympathetic biographer who doesn’t simply dismiss McCandless as a foolish crackpot. Rather, he has tried to understand why McCandless was driven to do what he did. Through Krakauer’s sympathetic account I almost began to see the appeal of the itinerant life McCandless lived, particularly when he talks about the time McCandless canoed along the Colorado River and camped beneath escarpments of naked Precambrian stone. I can imagine the appeal of living close to a landscape so free and open it reveals its own origins.

Part of the reason Krakauer is so interested in McCandless is that he sees himself in McCandless, and he spends a few chapters talking about his own escapades as a young man. Krakauer provides a particularly gripping account of his ascent of the unclimbed north wall of the Devils Thumb, a mountain in Alaska. However, his writing does at times verge on the sentimental. One particularly cringe-worthy moment comes at the end of his account:

The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.

However, at the same time as being cringe-inducing, Krakauer is also making an interesting point. People are quick to judge McCandless and dismiss him as someone with a death wish, but, as Krakauer points out, there is a difference between feeling compelled to peer over the brink and actually wanting to die. When I went to Arran last year as part of my MA course we were warned extensively about the dangers of the cliffs that make up the island’s western edge, cliffs that reach 300ft at their highest point and which are slowly disintegrating into the Atlantic. We had been warned about them and told about the countless people who had died on them, to the point where I was convinced I would be too scared to go anywhere near the edge when we got there, but the lure of the brink was too much in the end. Several times I sat near the edge, or lay on my belly looking down at the waves that were splattering my face with spray. I felt compelled to look over and suddenly my own mortality seemed irrelevant. Other people may have lost their lives to these cliffs, but that wasn’t going to happen to me.

Still, there is a huge difference between looking over the edge of a cliff and going in to the Alaska wilderness unprepared. As much as I can see why McCandless might have wanted to live alone in the wild and as saddened as I am to think about his lonely, painful death, I still can’t help thinking that he took unnecessary risks. I went rock climbing and hiking a lot as a child and I had the mantra it’s better to be safe than sorry drilled into me. Even if we were going for a walk in the Peak District on a hot July day, my parents would pack waterproofs. Now when I go hiking, or even for an extended walk, I take more water and more layers than are necessary, but I’d much rather be prepared. McCandless ignored the advice of several friends and even refused the warm clothing they offered him. He was clearly an intelligent person and was someone who thrived on ideas. He read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and was inspired to live closer to nature and that included living off the land. I have read and was inspired by Walden, but my ideas about nature and wilderness have been tempered by a wider reading of the canon. What that reading has taught me is to look closely, that the landscape is in the detail. McCandless ignored the details. He failed to appreciate that the Teklanika would be swollen with meltwater in the summer. His view of the wilderness was too idealised and simplistic and it cost him his life. What’s more, despite telling his friends he was going into the wild:

…the wilderness surrounding the bus…scarcely qualifies as wilderness by Alaska standards. Less than thirty miles to the east is a major thoroughfare, the George Parks Highway. Just sixteen miles to the south…hundreds of tourists rumble daily into Denali Park over a road patrolled by the National Park Service. And unbeknownst to [McCandless], scattered within a six-mile radius of the bus are four cabins.

It may not have been wilderness, as defined by Alaska standards, but as far as McCandless was concerned he was in the wilderness. It met his ideal and that was enough for him. I find this fascinating and it is something I explored in my MA dissertation, when I looked at how myths shape our perception of certain places and landscapes. In a sense McCandless’s idea of the Alaska wilderness was shaped by a mythical notion of that landscape, it was shaped by books and not by hard, solid facts. McCandless thought he’d found what he was looking for, but the reality was much more brutal and had nothing to do with novels and ideas.

Since finishing Into The Wild it has stayed in my mind. I have been thinking about it a lot and pondering over the question was McCandless a foolhardly idealist who took unnecessary risks or did he in fact achieve something worth admiring? I think the answer is both. Krakauer’s friend, Roman Dial, who accompanied Krakauer when he visits bus 142, a year after McCandless’s death, points out:

Living in the interior bush for an extended period, subsisting on nothing except what you hunt and gather – most people have no idea how hard that actually is. And McCandless almost pulled it off.

Reading that made me see what McCandless did in a whole new light. I realised that had I been in his position I wouldn’t have been able to survive almost entirely off the land for four months. It is an amazing achievement. I’m also able to admire McCandless for having attempted to fulfil his dream. He wanted to go to Alaska and live alone off the land, and that’s exactly what he did. Recently I read an article in The Guardian called Top five regrets of the dying. Regret number one was I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. It would seem we are very good at talking ourselves out of fulfilling our ambitions. Even if I just can’t understand why McCandless didn’t want to prepare himself a little better, I can at least admire his drive and ambition.

All in all, Into The Wild is a well-written, engaging, and interesting book and I’d definitely recommend it (I can imagine it would make a good train read). Just don’t expect to be able to put it neatly on the shelf when you finish. Into The Wild is a book that will keep you thinking long after you stop reading.

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