Saturday, April 30, 2016

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

When the film came out, an old friend from Connecticut gushed to me that I simply must see it -- she'd been engrossed, thinking of me the whole time. I was already familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, and I sat back in my chair and stared at her email. Great. She sees a movie about a reckless, feckless young man who meets his death of unpreparedness in Alaska, and all she can think of is me.  Years later, I got around to reading the book by Jon Krakauer, which he'd expanded from his initial article on McCandless' misadventures in Outside magazine (1993).

I admire Jon Krakauer as a writer, and with Into the Wild, as with his other books I've read, I find his research meticulous and his perspective balanced and fair. What's intriguing about this story in particular is the amount of fervor it's kicked up. People's reactions to it seem to run from one extreme to the other with precious little in the grey zone.
A surprising number of people have been affected by the story of Chris McCandless's life and death. In the weeks and months following the publication of the article in Outside, it generated more mail than any other article in the magazine's history. This correspondence, as one might expect, reflected sharply divergent points of view: 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 opens with the two years after his college graduation that Chris McCandless (who had renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) spent tramping around the western US. He interviews people who had encountered and befriended the young man. Invariably, he touched them. They did not describe him as a foolhardy, wild-eyed dreamer. He seemed to them thoughtful, intense, principled and well-read. He appeared to be competent.

In 1992, Alex/Chris decided to move farther from society by heading into the back of beyond, Alaska. An Alaskan electrician, Jim Gallien, picked up the young hitchhiker and, on their drive to the trail head Alex was seeking, Gallien tried to convince him that he was woefully ill-prepared.
Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station.
(Keep that roadmap in mind; it turned out to be significant.) As I read the passage above, my own alarm systems were going off. I've had enough experience in the New England forests in winter to know that this young man was not equipped for the environment. That was his ignorance. When Gallien questioned him about emergency contacts, his arrogance came out.
Alex answered calmly that no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn't spoken to his family in nearly two years. "I'm absolutely positive," he assured Gallien,"I won't run into anything I can't deal with on my own." 
Like so many of us who have gone on big, far, fantastic journeys of one sort or another, McCandless was inspired by books. The works of Jack London, in particular, drew him to Alaska. Krakauer, an outdoorsy adventurer himself, reminds us how important it is to separate the romance from the realities. London may not have been the inspiration McCandless was really looking for.
He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London's romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he'd died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print.
How many of us have survived one challenge in the outdoors only to extrapolate foolishly that we're now ready to survive another in a completely different environment? I managed to trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back, so summiting Annapurna should be no problem, right? Wrong.
As he trudged expectantly down the trail in a fake-fur parka, his rifle slung over one shoulder, the only food McCandless carried was a ten-pound bag of long-grained rice -- and the two sandwiches and bag of corn chips that Gallien had contributed. A year earlier he'd subsisted for more than a month beside the Gulf of California on five pounds of rice and a bounty of fish caught with a cheap rod and reel, an experience that made him confident he could harvest enough food to survive an extended stay in the Alaska wilderness, too.
But even as many readers are about to write McCandless off as a fool, Krakauer draws us back to his sympathetic qualities, the things that even his most virulent critics will probably relate to -- even the Alaskans who were most vocal about the fiasco. They, too, probably mourn the days when Thoreau could get away from it all by retreating to a cabin on Walden Pond, which is now in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, all too accessible.
Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless's friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris "was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today's society gives people." In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map -- not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.
In the end, of course, Alexander Supertramp died in Alaska, starving to death after a failed attempt to cross a rain-swollen river to get out. The irony? If he'd had a topographical map and a compass, rather than that tattered roadmap from a gas station, he'd have seen a place to safely cross the river just a bit farther downstream from where he was. I've had some near misses in the outdoors, and I cringe when I look back on them. But for a friend's mini-mag flashlight with which we'd signalled for help, I'd have been a casualty, too. (Note, she had the flashlight. I didn't.) I lived to learn from my mistakes, and Chris McCandless didn't. That may be the biggest difference between us, and so I, like Jon Krakauer, find it very difficult to damn him. Or to idolise him.  

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favourite books. I think I read it in 2000. Reminds me that you can be a dreamer and adventurer, but be a PRACTICAL and SENSIBLE one. Don't be an ass.


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