Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Into the Wild

I just finished listening to Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. I liked it very much, even better than his other best-seller, Into Thin Air. Into the Wild is the story of Chris McCandless, who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992, 24 years old. Krakauer was assigned to write about McCandless by the editors of Wild magazine and became fascinated by this young man who reminded him very much of his younger self. McCandless was a privileged child of the Washington suburbs, his father a noted engineer who designed radar for NASA and the Defense Department. After he graduated from college he gave his $24,000 inheritance to charity and set off to wander the country alone. Many of the people he met loved him for his enthusiasm, his optimistic spirituality, and his determination to live out his own beliefs. He was a great reader who loved Thoreau, Tolstoy, Jack London, and other writers who exalted the pursuit of spiritual perfection over bourgeois comfort. He was determined to pursue a more pure kind of experience. As he wrote in a famous bit of graffiti:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road.
This anti-bourgeois stuff can get annoying -- there is something a bit off about people who travel around in cars, denouncing the civilization that built them -- but McCandless is such a sweet, open-hearted kid that I never minded much. This part of his story is fascinating mainly because he joined the great wandering horde of the American southwest, the people who live out of cars and campers in the desert, hanging around campgrounds and abandoned military posts just beyond the edge of civilization, buying, selling, and trading at swaps and flea markets, living out a dream of freedom. Some are retirees from the north who drive toward the sun when the snow starts to fall; some are deadbeats and small-time criminals on the run from their pasts; some, like McCandless, are spiritual seekers in search of a life that feels authentic.

Like so many other young men in search of adventure, including Jon Krakauer, McCandless eventually ended up in Alaska. He planned to head "into the wild," as he put it, and live off the land for three or four months. He took very little gear beyond his clothes, a .22 rifle with 400 rounds, and a book about native plant lore. After Krakauer's Wild article appeared, the magazine got many letters from people denouncing McCandless for a deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance. Krakauer does not think McCandless was much more ignorant or arrogant than many other adventurous young men, including himself. As he shows, McCandless was able to support himself in the wild quite well for more than three months, hunting, digging roots, and gathering berries. He made one effort to hike out, when he was still healthy, but his way was blocked by a river that was running much higher than it had been when he crossed it in the spring. If he had had a map, he could have found another route out, but maps were one of the things he refused to take with him. So he returned to his camp and eventually died, in circumstances that remain mysterious.

Krakauer's writing is assured, and the complicated way he structures the story works very well. His sympathy for McCandless shines through his spare story telling. McCandless is also a fascinating subject. Rather than just complain about the world he lived in, he set out to fashion his own world of freedom and raw experience. He lived bravely and died true to the code he lived by:
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 dangerous 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.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

I haven't read the book, but I thought the movie adaptation was lovely, with all the same emotional engagement that you describe for the book.