Book review: ‘Into the Wild’

‘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’. This is a quote from the book written by Jon Krakauer in 1996 entitled ‘Into the Wild’. This critically acclaimed work of non-fiction was adapted into a film of the same title directed by Sean Penn in 2007. It addresses the themes of isolation, identity, and rejection of societal norms, retracing the steps of Chris McCandless. On April 28, 1992, the intrepid explorer hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in Alaska and began his expedition down the snow-covered trail. With little more than a camera and a journal, McCandless survived 113 days in the harsh Alaskan wilderness before dying of starvation.  The dilapidated bus abandoned by a construction company that served as Chris’s shelter remains a symbol of youthful idealism and a relentless search for one’s identity.

‘He was now Alexander Supertramp, master of his own destiny’

Chris Johnson McCandless was born into a middle-class family living in an idyllic suburban town in Virginia. After graduating from the prestigious Emory University in 1990, he gave away the entirety of his savings to Oxfam, abandoned his car, burned the money in his wallet, and embarked on a journey across the United States. Early on into his odyssey, he changed his name to Alexander Supertramp and cut ties with the members of his family and his college friends. Free from his material possessions, having created a new identity for himself, he was ready to immerse himself in a new life and vanish into the wild.

‘Driving west out of Atlanta, he intended to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience.’

Jon Krakauer digs deep, searches for clues, and pieces together the mysterious story of Chris McCandless’s life and death. The book constitutes testimonials of people who the young explorer encountered and bonded with throughout his journey, including Wayne Westerberg – a rancher in South Dakota, Jan Buress who drove across the country selling knickknacks at flea markets, and Ron Franz who saw McCandless as the son he never had. Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the notoriously dangerous Alaskan peak of Devils Thumb, explores the similarities between the desires and motivations of Chris and his own. The author devotes a part of the book to the experiences of grief and disquiet of McCandless’ parents and sister Carine – the only person from his old life with whom the young man kept in touch throughout his journey.

‘That’s what was great about him. He tried. Not many do.’

‘Into the Wild’ sheds a light on the internal exploration of one’s identity outside of the societal ties and conventions. It raises the pertinent question of what drives some of us to risk more than we can afford to lose. Chris McCandless was inspired by American Transcendentalists, such as Emerson or Thoreau, who believed that people could only become their true selves when self-reliant and independent. The young man was eager to immerse himself in such unfiltered experience and give in to his desire and longing for something greater than his life from before. This exploration cost him his life which is why the story encapsulated in Jon Krakauer’s book is regarded by some as a cautionary tale of excessive recklessness and risk-taking. The bus which McCandless spent his last days in will soon become part of an exhibition at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


Featured image: Diego Delso, with license 

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