12. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

3 Apr

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In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.

Thus begins the Author’s Note to Into the Wild, one of Jon Krakauer’s greatest books and a harrowing true story. Like Into Thin Air (Krakauer’s eyewitness account of his disastrous 1996 expedition to Mount Everest), Into the Wild started as a magazine article. The young man found in Alaska’s name was Chris McCandless (his real photo, above), and two years earlier he’d given 25k in savings to charity, abandoned his family and friends, burned the money in his wallet and set out on an itinerant project to live off the land, adopting the name “Alexander Supertramp.”

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There was a movie version of the book a few years ago, which I remember vaguely finding macabre without knowing much about the story. I think I’d thought it was a camping trip gone awry, and not the much more interesting tale which it turns out to be. McCandless deliberately rejected society, severed all his ties, abandoned his property, security, loved ones, food and shelter, for the allure of nature and the experience of pure unfiltered existence. Here’s a passage from a letter he wrote to a friend before the Alaska trip, urging him to adopt a similar lifestyle:

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. 

In the service of this idealism, McCandless went into the woods in Alaska without food and with little research or preparation. Krakauer reconstructs the story from his diary, letters, photographs and exhaustive research and interviews with people who encountered McCandless along the way. Once he got into the woods, his path out was cut off by high spring floods. In his attempts to live long-term feeding himself off the land, he poisoned himself to the extent that he became too weak to gather food. He starved to death a few weeks before anyone happened by the area.

Krakauer reconstructs the events with precision and insight, and his sense of narrative  is like liquid crack.  He has to be the best writer of reportorial nonfiction working today. It was only after a few chapters that I realized that the book was about how we as a society relate to such stories. Krakauer relates that his original Outside Magazine article provoked a storm of spite and outrage from ordinary people, many of them wilderness lovers, who felt that McCandless was a fool, disrespectful of the mountains and of nature, and deserved to die. I felt that way a little bit myself reading the story, especially concerning how cruelly McCandless rejects and abandons his parents and sister, and the many people who came to love him along his travels. In some ways he has the vibe of a sociopath, and seems like the kind of idealist who becomes a terrorist.

Krakauer doesn’t think so, though. He writes movingly of how he related to McCandless. Krakauer is a mountain-climber, has taken his own terrible risks with his life for the ephemeral rewards of adventure. He keenly feels McCandless’s youth. In a great chapter about one of his own young adventures, an attempt to climb a never-before-climbed face of an Alaskan mountain called the Devil’s Thumb, Krakauer writes “I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality—the idea of my own death—was still largely outside my conceptual grasp.” He views it as a tragedy that this by all accounts talented, honorable, hard-working and life-loving guy died so young. At the same time, he paints a balanced portrait of the family, the people hurt and the moral complexity of McCandless’s tale.

One of the most interesting parallels between McCandless’s life and Krakauer’s is that both men had brilliant, autocratic fathers who, while trying to force their sons to achieve got more than they bargained for. I’m going to close with a wonderful Donald Barthelme quote that Krakauer uses to lead the chapter about his attempt on the Devil’s Thumb. It’s not exactly about mountain climbing or starving to death on a bus, but it is about fathers and sons, and maybe that’s the same thing, right?

But have you noticed the slight curl at the end of Sam II’s mouth, when he looks at you? It means that he didn’t want you to name him Sam II, for one thing, and for two other things it means that he has a sawed-off in his left pant leg, and a baling hook in his right pant leg, and is ready to kill you with either one of them, given the opportunity. The father is taken aback. What he usually says, in such a confrontation, is “I changed your diapers for you, little snot.” This is not the right thing to say. First, it is not true (mothers change nine diapers out of ten), and second, it instantly reminds Sam II of what he is mad about. He is mad about being small when you were big, but no, that’s not it, he is mad about being helpless when you were powerful, but no, not that either, he is mad about being contingent when you were necessary, not quite it, he is insane because when he loved you, you didn’t notice.

It’s important to notice.

13 Responses to “12. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer”

  1. brontespageturners April 3, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    Great post. I found this book such a painful read, but a powerful one. The observation about the father complex is an interesting one. Bronte

    • Ivalleria April 4, 2016 at 3:39 am #

      So curious how specifically you found it painful. I did too, mostly because I empathized with his mom. And now actually seeing this photos of him online makes it much more real and sad. Thanks for reading!

  2. Grab the Lapels April 6, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    I saw the movie and read the book. In the movie, he was an adventurous scamp. In the book, he was almost scary; psychopath I’d the right word. He didn’t even want to take winter books that an Alaskan man gave him, a man who knew this stupid kid would die, if I remember correctly. The shit part was he was only about a mile away from people–not exactly super wilderness like he thought. And he was LUCKY he found an abandoned bus.

    • Ivalleria April 6, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

      Yeah, I was wondering how they’d portray the complexity in the movie. (Answer: not!). I felt like you did for most of the book but then very near the end Krakauer makes some better arguments that he did have amazing wilderness skills and he did have everything he needed, and that he almost made it….it wasn’t so arrogant and suicidal as it seemed. Definitely a troubled guy in any case though. I found it so frustrating how everyone who meets him loves him and wants to help and how he didn’t appreciate how special that was/ he was. It does make one think he got what he deserved.

      • Grab the Lapels April 6, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

        It’s been a number of years since I read this book. I just recently read his book Missoula. *EXTREME RAGE FACE*

        • Ivalleria April 6, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

          Lol, I have not read that one. I am actually curious, since I think he’s such a good reporter. But I have not heard good things.

          • Grab the Lapels April 6, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

            No, it’s this book about all these college students at a Montana university known for its football team who get raped. The author does a fair job of presenting a variety of rape cases, such as ones that people in the U.S. find difficult to believe (i.e. why did she invite a strange guy into her room and then change her mind) but also rapes that are like something out of a horror movie. None of it ends well. I felt messed up for days after I finished.

  3. White Mom May 4, 2016 at 4:05 pm #

    It just irks me how much attention this story gets, given the kid isn’t much of a hero. Maybe I’m missing something!

    • Ivalleria May 5, 2016 at 12:51 am #

      What I discovered reading the book is that most people are annoyed by this story, and that’s why it gets so much attention. I think the most common response is “this kid is NOT a hero at all.” Jon Krakauer disagrees, but he says in the book that the original magazine article was, like, the most-hated in Outside history. He wrote the book to explain why he sympathizes with the kid despite common sense like yours! Thanks for reading my blog! Keep commenting!

      • White Mom May 5, 2016 at 2:31 am #

        There definitely seem to be two camps with regard to the hero/dumbass thing! Cmon by my blog when you get a chance – I also posted about this book;)

        • Ivalleria May 5, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

          These stupid gravatars don’t link to a person’s blog, or maybe I’ve never been able to figure out wordpress correctly. Give me your URL!

          • White Mom May 5, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

            I’m in the same boat- trying to fix that! Whitemom.com


  1. 17., 18. & 19. Two Books About Climbing Mount Everest | An Anthology of Clouds - April 22, 2016

    […] entirely relevant since he’s shown the same virtuosity and moral reasoning in Into the Wild, the story of a young man who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer wasn’t there for that one, but he recreated it as if he were. And, in fact, he […]

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