True Stories: Christopher McCandless
Christopher Johnson McCandless, byname Alexander Supertramp, (born February 12, 1968 – found dead September 6, 1992.
Christopher Mccandless was an American adventurer who died at the age of 24 from starvation and possibly poisoning, while camping alone on a remote trail in Alaska.
When it comes to McCandless, there are the facts, based on his own journal entries and family members’ accounts, but then there is also the speculation surrounding the truth, as often is the case when someone dies so young and mysteriously.
How did it all go wrong?
You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against out habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.
In August of ’92, a moose hunter came across an abandoned bus off the Stampede Trail in a desolate part of Alaska. Inside, still in his sleeping bag, the hunter found McCandless’s decomposing body.
One of the more controversial conversations regarding Chris McCandless is what actually caused his death.
When his body was first discovered, starvation was the official ruling. However, as his story became sensationalized around the world, more research pointed out that he had actually probably died of starvation resulting from the ingestion of wild potato seeds that contain an amino acid known to prevent absorption of nutrients. Over time, the alkaloid also slowly paralyzes the body, making an already-weak McCandless unable to hunt or gather any sustenance. He was only 24-years-old at the time of his death.
At the peak of his multiyear pilgrimage, McCandless found himself on the desolate Stampede Trail in Alaska, located in the Denali backcountry. For the first 67 days, he managed to hunt and kill most of his meals, eating things like porcupines, ptarmigan, and squirrels. His journal entries were cheerful, for the most part, and after a little more than two months, he packed up his belongings, shaved his beard, and started to head back towards civilization, having supposedly satisfied whatever wild urge he was craving.
However, when he reached the Teklanika River, (through which he’d fallen when it had been iced over while crossing on his way months earlier), he was shocked to find a raging river, swollen from glacier melts. Crossing was not an option, and defeated, he retreated back to the bus, where he would eventually meet his end.
It’s unclear just exactly what McCandless had supplies-wise when he started off on the Stampede Trail, but if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that it was nowhere near a sufficient amount. This wasn’t the most forgivable planning error, and many argue that McCandless wasn’t just being naive, but rather he was being plain dumb.
Though McCandless lived resourcefully as a tramp for a few years on the road, there’s a big difference between train-hopping and backcountry trekking. When his body was found, he had a few paperbacks, a camera, his diary, a book that identified edible plants, and a .22 caliber rifle. From his journal, it’s known that he had brought a sack of rice and a compass along, but no maps. There was, of course, the sleeping bag in which his corpse was found. But for somebody who lusted so strongly after adventure, he seemed to have overlooked the crucial element of such wild places: survival.
When the moose hunter who found his body approached the bus, he found a page torn from a Nikolai Gogol novel taped onto the door, with this urgent message written all in caps:
ATTENTION POSSIBLE VISITORS.
I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU,
Apart from this note, he had taken a self-timer photo (a camera with film was included among his meager posessions), holding a note that said, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”
Among his last journal entries, he also wrote this final, sad line: “Happiness is only real when shared.” This note is especially tragic, because so much of his dogma was built on the ideology of self-sustainment, of adventure and passion. He had a few close relationships throughout his years on the road, but always tore away to fulfill this odyssey in Alaska. In the final days before his death, this note is basically saying that he realized what a huge mistake he had made by making a point to lead such a solitary, bare existence.
McCandless felt inspired by legendary adventurers John Muir and Jack London, and headed east to west towards the strange grandness of the southwestern deserts. Deep in the desert in Arizona, where he had been living in his trusty yellow Datsun, a flash flood one night left it washed out in the mud. Instead of becoming discouraged, McCandless took it as a sign, and decided to abandon the rest of his belongings and burn all of the cash in his wallet. He allegedly left a note that read, “This piece of sh*t has been abandoned. Whoever can get it out of here can have it.”
This seemed to be the beginning of his hardcore vagabond days: from then on he simply hitchhiked, traveled by train (illegally bumming rides), bicycled, and even canoed.
McCandless attended Emory University in Atlanta, where he excelled in his classes and became highly interested in the South African apartheid. He graduated in 1990 with a 3.72 GPA, but held the belief that titles and degrees were decidedly worthless, and called university a “20th century fad.”
He showed vague kindness to his parents at his graduation, but shortly thereafter, donated his remaining college money, which totaled more than $20,000, to Oxfam, an organization that strives to end world hunger. He was from a wealthy, comfortable family, but he denounced them entirely, and left in his car with only a few belongings. When people on the road asked where his family was, he would reply that he no longer had one. The family reported that the last time they heard from him was in 1990.
“Alexander Supertramp” is the name signed on most of McCandless’s journal entries, as well on his final resting place, the bus. He took on this name after basically disowning his family and devoting himself to a life on the road. The name reportedly comes from the book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by William H. Davies from 1908.
The book chronicles the adventure of Davies, a Welsh “tramp” who denounced home and ventured forth to America, where he lived a footloose life on the road. The book was praised for its “primitive splendour and directness,” and it is clear why McCandless turned to the book when it came to naming his newfound persona.
McCandless had reportedly been a stubborn, hot-headed youth, but when he was entering college and found out about a secret from his father’s past, he was furious. He discovered that his father had an entirely separate family in California (complete with siblings he’d never met), and was still legally married to that wife when he’d had Chris and his sister with their mother.
McCandless felt that his life had been a lie, and this was the beginning of a rift that would later deepen. He cut off contact with his parents, and wouldn’t speak to them again until his college graduation, right before he disappeared out of their lives for good.
As his journal recounts, on his forty-third day at the bus, McCandless managed to shoot a small moose (around 600 lbs). He was so excited that he even took a picture of the carcass. He tried to smoke the meat in order to preserve it, but it was a futile attempt, and within five days there were already maggots in the flesh. It was inedible, and he had to leave the carcass to the wolves.
He felt deeply guilty, but it’s hard not to wonder if this would have helped him survive, or only postponed his inevitable fate. In his own words from his journal, he describes the event:
Day 43: MOOSE!
Day 48: Maggots already. Smoking appears ineffective. Don’t know, looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.
McCandless’s journal allowed a lot of insight into his journey, especially in the months leading up to his death. Through the entries left behind, researchers and journalists have been able to piece together a better timeline and picture of what actually happened in Bus 142. He wrote the journal in a bizarre, dramatic, third person perspective and at times, his entries can read as almost prophetic, or borderline cult-y, depending on how you want to look at it. At the very least, they are easily and broadly inspiring, for example:
It is important in life not to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once. If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.
However, it is this attitude that adventure is so easily-accessible that has raised concern among critics: must one need to march alone into the wilderness to find it?
On a tight turnaround, Outside magazine asked writer and reporter John Krakauer to write a profile about the strange circumstances of McCandless’s death. The piece was published in January of 1993, and generated a lot of talk, both good and bad. Krakauer felt he had only scraped the surface of McCandless’s life, and began to develop the article into a book, through further research.
The result was Krakauer’s 1996 nonfiction novel, Into The Wild. An in-depth, biographical account of McCandless’s life from start to finish, the story all but exploded in popularity as well as criticism. When a movie under the same title was released in 2007, there became a clear divide: those who were inspired by McCandless, and those who saw a privileged, ignorant young man who walked willingly into his own death. As Krakauer put it himself,
He’s this Rorschach test: people read into him what they see. Some people see an idiot, and some people see themselves. I’m the latter, for sure.
The abandoned bus where McCandless took his last breaths still sits past the Teklanika River, and has become a shrine of sorts for those who identify strongly with McCandless and his philosophy. Though there are websites giving tips on ways to best reach the bus, they are all careful to state that they are in no way responsible for any harm that may occur.
Since McCandless’s story gained such large popularity, hundreds, if not thousands of fans have tried to retrace his steps on the Stampede Trail to the so-called “magic bus.” However, many have met with the same problems McCandless did: baffling unpreparedness and the underestimation of nature, not least of which is the powerful, dangerous Teklanika River.
Experienced hikers and swimmers alike have died in the river, yet state troopers and rescue teams are quick to roll their eyes at reports of another rescue call for McCandless fans who have been “stranded” on the wrong side of the river. It all goes back to what kind of risk-taking is deemed justifiable. According to a state trooper interviewed in a later Outside magazine article,
In Alaska, it’s generally considered acceptable to invite risk while making a living on the land—fishing, hunting, logging, mushing, trapping. It is less acceptable to take chances in search of a more philosophical way of life.
This post was originally published at Ranker