Date Finished: August 8th 2017
I’ve always wanted to try the work of Jon Krakauer. An acclaimed writer, the blurbs of his books, written on myriad topics, have repeatedly piqued my curiosity, from the account of mountain disaster in Into Thin Air, to murder and Mormonism in Under the Banner of Heaven, to Missoula – a chilling expose of campus rape.
Unfortunately, I’ve never got further than the blurbs. Until now. I came across a battered hardback copy of Into the Wild, perhaps Krakauer’s most famous work, in a charity shop and decided to finally take the plunge.
The book reconstructs the final months of Chris McCandless, a graduate who gave up his worldly possessions and began to live as a drifter, roaming the American West with the works of Tolstoy and Jack London guiding his newfound freedom. His body was discovered in Alaska in August of 1992 in the deep wilderness.
Krakauer, fascinated by the story, decided to try to uncover the life and times of the enigmatic McCandless, following the boy’s journey across America, attempting to unravel the mystery behind his motives, and uncover the people whose lives McCandless – at this point using the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp” – touched during his travels. In the process, he looks at McCandless’ home life, his family dynamics, and also the reasons why adventurers find themselves compelled to immerse themselves in the wild.
What could have been a compelling tale of throwing off the shackles of the workaday world to pursue a Thoreau-esque dream of freedom in the natural world, is instantly and irrevocably tainted forever by Krakauer opening on the discovery of McCandless’ starved corpse. It’s from this point that he decides to go back and trace the young man’s journey, using the tragedy of his death as a locus to understand the events that led to this final point.
Krakauer writes with a rare flare combining a prudent journalistic style with novelistic flourishes and a real sense of passion for the topic and the boy at the heart of this tale, and the way he structures McCandless’ journey is carefully orchestrated for maximum affect. He is sympathetic towards McCandless, but not afraid to criticise him on the frequent opportunities that arise.
McCandless may come across as a somewhat naive, but intrepid survivalist, a man following a dream of oneness with nature, rejecting materialism, following the open road and his heart, and it would be wrong to say he wasn’t those things. But the way in which he religiously follows his philosophy to the repeated detriment of his health and often bringing him close to death, is reckless. After so many near-misses and lucky breaks, he seemingly became arrogant about his own survival abilities, which were certainly lacking. Without wanting to sound callous, one can pinpoint many other moments in the work where McCandless could have died had he not been blessed with a combination of luck, and remarkable meetings with kind strangers.
And in a sense, these kind strangers are the true stars of his story. McCandless seemed to leave an indelible mark on almost all the people he met during his travels. Many of these people took pity on a lean hitchhiker, only to find a passionate, sensitive and incredibly intelligent young man following a dream with such ideological zeal that it was hard not to be swept up by his passion. Many of these people tried to help him out, found him work, gave him supplies and a bed for a night, as well as a few days or a week of companionship. McCandless would never hang around for long, but he kept in touch with letters and phone calls, and, despite having rejected money, he would always try to find a way to repay these people for their kindnesses.
And in that way, Into the Wild becomes doubly disturbing: firstly as a warning against hubris in the face of the indifferent wilderness that will swallow the unprepared, and second as a vision of the aftermath: the damage that a charismatic person who won’t allow anyone close can wreak on the people who can’t help but love him. One particular chapter recounts McCandless’ short friendship with an elderly, reclusive widower who grew to love him like the family he had tragically lost, and the old man’s account is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Krakauer has written something timeless in Into the Wild. At turns biographical, philosophical, adventurous, he dives into McCandless’ story with a combination of zeal and respect. He paints a portrait of a young man whose vigour and relentless pursuit of purity are inspirational but speak of deeper troubles. That McCandless was reckless is obvious, but that he lived a fuller life than many of us ever will is undeniable. This is a haunting, inspiring, demanding, reverential, sorrowful, and extremely effecting work with a lot of wisdom and heart underlying its every sentence.