To McCandless and many others of his ilk, the wilderness has a very specific allure. McCandless sees the wilderness as a purer state, a place free of the evils of modern society, where someone like him can find out what he is really made of, live by his own rules, and be completely free. And this is not just naïveté; McCandless's journal entries show that he does find some answers, some keys to living the way he wants to live.
Yet, it is also true that the reality of day-to-day living in the wilderness is not as romantic as he and others like him imagine it to be. McCandless spends so much time trying to find food to keep himself alive that he has little time to consciously appreciate the wilderness, as is evidenced by the fact that his journal consists almost solely of lists of the food that he finds and eats every day. Perhaps this explains why many of his heroes who wrote about the wilderness, for example, Jack London, never actually spent much time living in it.
Forgiveness, and the danger inherent in the inability to forgive, are central themes in Into the Wild. Chris McCandless is shown to be a very compassionate person, who is unwilling to ignore the fact that so many people are starving or hungry around him, and feels a personal responsibility to help them. Yet his actions are ultimately selfish, and do great harm to those who love him most. Moreover, his inability to forgive his parents’ mistakes seems to be at the center of this seeming contradiction between his compassionate nature and his sometimes cruel behavior.
There is certainly more behind his odyssey than just anger at his parents, but his resentment of them does spread into the rest of his life, and seems to be closely connected to how isolated he becomes at Emory. This, in turn, adds to his revulsion against society generally, which is clearly a driving factor in his deciding to go into the wilderness. One is left to wonder if, had McCandless found a way to forgive his parents for their shortcomings, he would not have felt the need to go to such extreme lengths in his quest for answers.
McCandless describes what he is looking for on his odyssey, particularly on the Alaska trip, as “ultimate freedom.” It would seem that this largely represents, to him, freedom from other people’s rules and authority over him. Throughout his whole life he finds authority particularly oppressive, especially when exercised by anyone who he feels only has such power over him for arbitrary reasons. To live completely alone, in a world where the only laws he feels the need to follow are those of nature, is to him ultimate freedom.
Yet this level of freedom requires total isolation, for to be with others means to have obligations to them. Thus, McCandless’s quest for freedom becomes, also, a refutation of any and all intimacy with others. This kind of freedom is inherently selfish. By living only according to his own rules and those of nature, no matter how principled and deeply-thought, McCandless is implicitly living only for his own best interest. For example, he refuses to get a hunting license because he doesn’t think it is any of the government’s business what he eats; were everyone to act this way, animal populations would be destroyed, and food supplies threatened. McCandless's ultimate freedom is thus limited in scope, for on any larger scale it would be dangerous and potentially disastrous.
The allure of danger and high-risk activities is central to Into the Wild. Krakauer does not believe that this allure is significant to everyone, but it certainly is to a specific kind of young man -- one who is intense, passionate, driven and ambitious, but not satisfied with the opportunities or challenges society presents to him. These young men also always seem to have some kind of demon driving them, whether it is a troubled relationship with their fathers, as with McCandless, Krakauer, and John Waterman, or something else.
For Krakauer, at least, the risk in his activities brought him to a point of meditation—because he is often only one mistake away from death, he has to focus utterly, and this allows him to escape from those problems that would otherwise eat away at him. There is also the thrill of pure accomplishment, man against only nature and himself, which allows him to feel that he truly knows what he is capable of, that he doesn’t need to rely on others, or on society, to survive.
One of the primary qualities McCandless constantly exhibited, which in turn led many to respect him, was his adherence to principles. He does not simply preach that his parents are too materialistic, or state that he won’t be as greedy as he believes them to be. Instead, he lives by his anti-materialism completely, giving away all of his life savings to charity, only making the bare minimum of money that he needs to survive, and keeping as few possessions as he possibly can.
While this adherence to principle is admirable and, unfortunately, unusual, McCandless does seem to put his principles above people, which leads him to cause hurt without really intending to do so. For example, in college Chris decides that he has a moral problem with gifts, and so will no longer accept or give them. Although this decision is based on a sense of morality, it in fact causes McCandless to hurt those who care about him. This may be related to his intimacy problems, for as long as he doesn’t let people get too close, he won’t be put in a position of having to choose them over his principles.
The elusiveness of identity, or of truly understanding someone’s identity, is a theme both explicitly and implicitly present throughout Into the Wild. Krakauer spends about three years putting together first the article on Chris McCandless, and then this book. He talks to almost anyone who met McCandless, even fleetingly. He follows McCandless's trails, reads his journals, even reads the articles he wrote for the student paper at Emory. Krakauer also feels he has an extra level of understanding, because he was much like Chris when he was in his twenties.
Yet even with all of this, at the end of the book, Krakauer acknowledges that McCandless’s presence remains elusive. As closely as he may have studied him, as well as he has come to “know” him, there are a few fundamental questions which no one, not even Chris’s parents, can find a satisfactory answer to. Most important of these is how someone so compassionate, kind, and intelligent could have ended up devastating his parents, and all of those who loved him, so profoundly. The ultimate inability to truly know another person is thus at the heart of Into the Wild.
The father-son relationship, and the potential for dysfunction within it, is an important theme in Into the Wild. Both Krakauer and McCandless are highly ambitious, and have highly ambitious fathers. The problem arises in that their fathers’ ambitions for them are very different from their own, and their strong wills and passion for their own kind of ambition—in Krakauer’s case, mountain climbing, and in McCandless’s, the wilderness and anti-materialist living—cause great rifts between father and son.
For both McCandless and Krakauer, the combination of trying to please a difficult-to-please father, resenting authority, and discovering their fathers’ own great failings leads to an almost insurmountable rift. Krakauer was able to forgive his father only once he was no longer the same man. McCandless died before he had the opportunity to grow out of his anger.
Into The Wild - Colter Jones Robinson
Into The Wild Essay
Noble Journey or Mindless Death
I approached a patch of pine trees as the meadow came to a dead end. Just about fifty yards beyond these trees was a large hillside running down into a valley where I would find a river supplying my water for the next 48 hours. As I entered the forest I was relieved to see that it was not as dense as I had previously thought, providing me with the opportunity to see the sun shine through and set up a perfect camp with plenty of room for my makeshift tent, some rope and a large tarp. I found two trees about ten feet apart and tied the rope from one tree to the other. I then proceeded to drape my tarp over the rope, making a tent you would imagine seeing in an old children’s movie when they make a tent from the sheets drying on a clothesline. I seemed to be the furthest away from basecamp in comparison to my few other classmates who were also scattered about the woods. I began to wander the forest that I was to call home for the next two days, making a cairn (a stack of rocks) every once in a while to mark my way to make sure I can find my way back to my tent. While I walked the seemingly empty forest I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I were actually to be stuck in this wilderness for a long period of time. How would I eat? What would I eat? Could I start a fire? Most importantly, could I survive?
This was a high school backpacking trip for a week that my school called “Experimental Education”, in which students had the ability to choose from thirty trips around the country to go on for a week out of the year. During my fours years of “ex-ed” I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to the Bronx, NY to volunteer in a soup kitchen for a week, visit the grand canyon, go on a rafting trip through Utah, and finally go on a week long back-packing venture through the backcountry of Colorado in the fall. Although all these experiences were able to teach me something new, this backpacking experience holds a place in my heart when it comes to survival and really being in the wilderness as it relates to Chris McCandless and Into The Wild. With this being said I realize that my experience doesn’t relate to the magnitude of the experience that McCandless experienced in Alaska, but it still did give me a perspective of what it is like to be alone in nature for several days with just a water bottle, a rope, a tarp, my backpack, and clothing. McCandless died after roughly 100 days in the harsh wilderness of Alaska, I can humbly say I would have been lucky if I were able to survive just a couple of weeks if I were stuck in my location, as I am nowhere near skilled enough to be able to survive in the wilderness alone and underprepared.
It had been about eight hours my stomach had begun to churn and a slight headache cast what like a painful blanket across the top of my head. I hadn’t eaten for a while now and I had drank the little I had remaining in my water bottle. I gazed down at the valley below my campsite, watching the river run by, causing me to smack my dry lips against one another. With the little moisture I had left I could feel my mouth begin to salivate at the thought of water. After a minute of looking back and forth between my water bottle and the river I decided to journey down the hill and fill it up. I knew that because we were at such a high altitude, much of the water flowing through the stream was just fresh snowfall, we were in the deep backcountry, nobody was back there polluting the water. Getting water was a vital step to me being able to keep both my health and energy up throughout this 48 hour solo period, but the fact that I had no food bothered me. I knew that I wasn’t going to die because of no food for two days, but I was painfully hungry. The bothering part about it though was coming to the realization that if I were lost, stuck in this situation with no apparent way out, I would not know where to begin my search for food. I didn’t have the tools or keen outdoor knowledge to successfully hunt for a meal, nor were there many options in the first place in the forests of Colorado. By the time the second day had arrived I was weak. The simple act of standing up made me short of breath, but my spirit stayed high knowing that it was over soon, and although it was painful because I had no food, the purpose of the experience was quite obvious. Through this experience we were supposed to gather an appreciation for the simplicity and beauty of nature, as well as the ability for us to exist and enjoy solidarity without any form of communication or connection to the outside world. This aspect of the experience I absolutely loved, being able to reflect on my life, think about the future, the past, think about the joys of life as well as the hardships. Being alone for 48 hours despite having no food was ultimately sobering. This is why people like Chris McCandless seek to escape the society that we live in. Through my experience I was able to form my own outlook on what I believe my personal life journeys should be like, differing from that of McCandless quite dramatically, which leads me to ask the question, did Chris McCandless have a noble journey or a mindless death?
Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, highlights the story of Christopher McCandless, the recent college graduate who drifts away from his family and society, deciding to give away all his money before making his way all over the country for a couple years. Eventually, McCandless decides to escape to the Alaskan wilderness, where he planned to simply live off of the land as long as he could. No twenty four years, we have read the book that was also made into a critically acclaimed movie about the journey of McCandless, unfortunately neither will ever be viewed by their subject. While some may hold the belie that it was noble for Chris to flee to the Alaskan wilderness and give up the possession of material things, I on the other had find it to be mindless. When I say “mindless”, I don’t mean that it was necessarily selfish or absolutely wrong for him to do that, I simply mean that it was an error made from what seems to be an ego that felt invincible, almost as if he were living in a fictional book with no rules. The greatest survivalists in the world would struggle to live off of the Alaskan wilderness when prepared properly, McCandless was not a great survivalist, nor was he remotely prepared for what he had ahead in Alaska. Through further evaluation, I am going to break down the flaws that occurred in the demise of McCandless, while analyzing his journey as a whole. I will attempt to show the mindlessness of his death and journey by comparing and contrasting his story to that of two other men. One man by the name of Timothy Treadwell, who also lost the battle against the Alaskan wilderness, maybe for reasons similar to those of McCandless. The second person that I will use in this evaluation is Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke. Proenneke on the other hand is someone that experienced success living by himself in Alaska, living a life that he completely built from scratch just like McCandless attempted to do.
To begin, from the story of Chris McCandless we have learned that when it comes to the Alaskan wilderness it doesn’t take regard for your personal quest or for your attempt to escape a society that you don’t see to be worth living in anymore. The travel and overall journey across America done by McCandless is one that I find to be valuable and worthy of praise, as he was able to build relationships and experience the country in a way that most people don’t do. He was able to let life take him on a journey before he went to Alaska, but the reasoning behind that journey in my mind is not very noble. Everyone has their personal conflicts, sometimes requiring them to take a step back and reconsider the way they go about their lives. This is what Chris seemed to do, as he wanted to remove his parents from his life and escape society as a whole (Krakauer 2013). In my mind though I see this as a cowardly way of running from your problems. You don’t have to have a relationship with your parents to find happiness, nor do you have to live in crowded society, but you must find a sustainable way of life that makes you happy. To me it seems that McCandless was running from life. You run from life, and what is next? What happens when you cant live on a bus in the woods any longer? Being a star athlete, student, and being someone that people want to be around, just like Chris was, doesn’t guarantee happiness by any means, but those are things that one should be able to acknowledge and be grateful for. Chris may have realized how fortunate he was, but did this subconsciously get to his ego? Did these things drive him to believe that he could beat the rules of life, becoming a fictional character of sorts? I believe so, and it is also something that proved to be the downfall of Timothy Treadwell, who I relate in many ways to McCandless.
A few years following the death of McCandless, Timothy Treadwell, aka the “Grizzly Man,” pursued his need of attention and absence of formal training into a death sentence for both him and his girlfriend. For thirteen summers Timothy Treadwell decided to flee life in California where he wanted to become an actor, fleeing for the Alaskan wilderness where he set up camp amongst the largest and most dangerous brown bears in the world. Treadwell documented his life in Alaska, clocking in with more than 100 hours of footage of him up close and personal living with bears (Timothy Treadwell Incident--A Full Report and Examination). This was until the bears that he brought him fame for “protecting” decided that her and his girlfriend would prove to be a better snack that friends.
Much like McCandless, Treadwell was looking for an adventure out of regular society. Treadwell knew that there was a risk of living with bears, just as Chris knew there was a risk living in a bus in the middle of Alaska. The thing that both men lacked though was the ability to acknowledge how real death was. McCandless came from a successful family, and had a history of excelling at everything he did, failure was something he had rarely experienced. Treadwell, lived a good life in California, but was obsessed with the idea of becoming famous, so much so that the fame he received from living with the bears blinded him from the reality of death. The similarity I find between the two is subsequently, both McCandless and Treadwell were living lives of fictional characters based off of their inability to accept real life consequences. The other similarity between the two was that instead of pursuing the life that made them truly happy, they were running from a life that they weren’t content with. The best of example of someone taking a lifelong journey, disconnecting from society and finding happiness and success is Richard Proenekke.
Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke, is a man whose journey to Alaska is an example of how one can live alone without society and be unconditionally content. Proenneke had a dream of living in solitude in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska (Alone in the Wilderness, the story of Dick Proenneke). The nearest town was forty miles by air, requiring him to fit all the supplies he needed to live on a small aircraft that he would occasionally fly back and forth. I’m sure he didn’t want to rely on society for all the supplies in life, but he was smart enough to realize that he needed to in order to survive. Through being prepared, educated, and genuinely in love with this way of life, Proenneke was abled to thrive in an environment that is as hostile as it is beautiful. He is a picture perfect example of a man as passionate about the environment as McCandless and Treadwell both claimed to be, but his passion was translated into patience, knowledge, and work ethic to make his dream of living in the wilderness a reality. I include work ethic in this because just like McCandless, Proenneke wanted to live in the wilderness for as long as he could without the help of society. The difference was that he was willing to put in the work to ensure that he could sustain a life there. This was shown by the fact that he cut down trees to build a fully functioning cabin. He made the floorboards by hand, fashioned door hinges from metal food tins, hunted and gathered his own food, ultimately giving him a solid and safe roof over his head and the diet necessary for survival (Alone in the Wilderness, the story of Dick Proenneke). McCandless living in an abandoned bus is extremely natural and shows his desire to be in nature, but the commitment shown by Proenneke to build his own cabin shows that he truly wanted to live there long term and had the willpower and knowledge to do so.
Overall, when comparing these three individuals I cant help but think that both McCandless and Treadwell sought to have wilderness as their backdrop for their personal fiction stories. Proenneke on the other hand wasn’t running away from life, rather simply living a dream that he had planned all his life. Proenneke was able to live in this wilderness for thirty years, eventually dying at the age of 82 from a stroke. His journey to Alaska was noble, and one in which people can learn to appreciate what it truly takes to be able to disconnect from society. No matter what life you want to live you must be prepared and also must fully acknowledge the consequences, this is what Proenneke did.
In conclusion, it can be easy to judge someone when you are not in their shoes, which is why I do have a respect for the journey that McCandless pursued. If he had come out alive he would be acknowledged as a hero of sorts, but with that being said I still believe it was more mindless than noble to run off into the wilderness of Alaska. My personal experience will never allow me to fully understand what it is like to stay alive in a hostile wilderness, but it has given me the ability to appreciate escaping society and experiencing our beautiful planet. Travel takes people to many different places, providing for a completely unique experience for everyone, unfortunately for McCandless his travel ended in Alaska, but his story has opened up the minds of millions of people, showing us that travel and nature can be unforgiving, but its always a journey.
"Alone in the Wilderness, the Story of Dick Proenneke, by Bob Swerer Productions." Alone in the Wilderness, the Story of Dick Proenneke, by Bob Swerer Productions. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.aloneinthewilderness.com/early_years.html>.
"Jon Krakauer Sean Penn: Back Into the Wild." Into the Wild. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/news/into-the-wild.html>.
Krakauer, Jon. "How Chris McCandless Died." The New Yorker. N.p., 2013. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-chris-mccandless-died>.
"Timothy Treadwell Incident--A Full Report and Examination." Timothy Treadwell Incident--A Full Report and Examination. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.yellowstone-bearman.com/Tim_Treadwell.html>.