Review: Into the Wild

I had just finished writing about the movie 180 Degrees South when  Mark handed me his copy of Into the Wild.

“If you liked that movie, I think you’ll find this interesting,” he said.

Never underestimate how many points you score when you not only recommend a book to me, but give me a copy to read and discuss. As if BBM needed more points at the moment.

The book is written by Jon Krakauer and an outgrowth of a story he did for the magazine Outside about Chris McCandless. In 1990, after graduating college, McCandless in effect disappeared from his life. He sold most of his possessions and donated all of his money to Oxfam. A smart young man from a well-to-do-family in Virginia, he was on an inner quest of sorts and became your basic vagabond, traveling mostly around the West after changing his name to “Alexander Supertramp.” In the spring of 1992 he set out on his greatest adventure — to hike into the Alaskan wilderness and live off the land. He survived for over 100 days but his death but ultimately died, likely from starvation though the author makes a good case for death via poisonous mold among the seeds he consumed in his final days.

McCandless is a polarizing figure. You either find him a tragic hero or an arrogant fool. He wassearching for meaning, something we often write off as trite. The notion of going off to find yourself is seen as trivial compared with, say, getting a job, a house and a mate. But then again, is it really trite to follow your passion? As for the arrogant fool part, McCandless was smart but unprepared to survive in the wild in Alaska in several key areas and his eschewing of using any sort of maps both was part of his journey and an element of his demise.

In his writing, Krakauer offers a sympathetic portrayal of McCandless without ignoring the valid criticisms of his adventure. He admits, “I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless’s strange tale struck a personal note that made a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible.” Indeed, Krakauer interrupts the telling of the story to interject his own tale of a harrowing experience in Alaska during his own youth while weaving in stories of other explorer-adventurers who have been seeking more than just good stories in the wild. The interludes are handled flawlessly and actually add to the story rather than distract — a feat not easy in weaving together such a tale.

Krakauer uses journals and photographs of McCandless while interviewing his family, friends and the people he met and connected with on the road. The result is an artful piece of writing and reporting that allows for the author to be self-reflexive without being overbearing.

And what’s the takeaway on McCandless?

I find he falls somewhere between tragic hero and arrogant fool, clearly possessing qualities of both camps.

What struck me most, was the observation offered by Krakauer:

“Unlike [Sierra Club founder John] Muir and Thoreau, McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul. He soon discovered, however, what Muir and Thoreau already knew: An extended stay in the wilderness inevitably directs one’s attention outward as much as inward, and it is impossible to live off the land without developing both a subtle understanding of, and a strong emotional bond with, that land and all it holds.”

It’s one of the great contradictions of life that the more inward we go, the more we are connected to our surroundings. It may not happen at first or for a while, but the more you begin to understand yourself and your own nature, the more you begin to connect with the universe around  you — wether that be the Alaskan wilderness or your own backyard. I’ve noticed this through my own training, that the more solitude I have, the more I’m able to connect with what’s really important, not just inside myself but in my world as well.

I’m not sure I require the kind of adventure that McCandless sought out, but it does speak to the adventurous part of my soul — the part that loves to be in nature, to explore and to play. His is not an instruction manual nor cautionary tale. It’s a call to honor our own journey  and to know the difference between our own hubris and our authentic voice

Post script: In researching online for links for this post, I came across an article from earlier this month about a 29-year-old Swiss woman who drowned while attempting to cross the Teklanika River on the Stampede Trail — presumably trying to reach the famous Fairbanks bus from Into the Wild. From the tone of the story, hikers and seekers have been coming to hike this remote part of the trail since the book was first published in  1996 and even more since the movie adaptation came out in 2007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: