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I Now Walk Into the Wild
Chris McCandless walked away from the world, drawn by a lethal
flirtation with the power to be free of everything.
By Chip Brown
The New Yorker
February 8, 1993
It would have been better to go on the ground, as the boy had gone
when he came in to the country in the spring, but it was a time
between seasons, and the rivers were just beginning to freeze and
could not yet be crossed on snow machines. It had been five weeks
since the police had removed the body of Chris McCandless from the
back of the old bus on the Sushana River, the makeshift hunting
shelter where he had spent the summer scratching for berries and
wild meat. Alaska’s brief autumn had flashed across the tundra,
and now the plains and mountains north of Denali (still officially
named Mt. McKinley) were knee-deep in snow.
So, a helicopter. We left from the mining town of Healy, on the
main highway, and headed west, up a sweeping valley. A thousand
feet below, sparse stands of spruce marked the course of the Savage
River; beyond it lay the winding depression of the Teklanika River
Valley, with its ice-bordered stretches of opened black water and,
on the far side, a string of beaver ponds that looked like a staircase
of frozen rice paddies. The Stampede Trail, an old mining road,
was still visible, zigging through forest, zagging over ridges.
Ten miles more and it entered a clearing where a green rattletrap
bus was incongruously parked at the confluence of two streams.
Butch Killian, a blue-eyed Healy coal miner and hunter, who was
riding in the back of the helicopter, had spent many nights in the
Sushana bus. As the newspapers had reported, he had been stalking
moose five weeks earlier along the northern boundary of Denali National
Park, and had arrived at the bus in his all-terrain vehicle at dusk,
intending to lay up for the night and make the twenty-eight miles
cross-country to Healy in the morning. A bad odor stopped him. From
the window he saw what looked to be a man in a sleeping bag on the
mattress inside. He got on the radio to the Healy Fire Department,
where he served as a volunteer: “Dispatch, this is Butch.
You might want to call the troopers. There’s a dead man in
the bus at Sushana.”
Now the chopper whirled down in a stylish spiral and landed in
the snowy yard near the faded green hulk of Fairbanks City Transit
System 142. The prop-wash blew the snow of the bus’s yellow
hood. The air was punishingly cold. Killian led the way to the door
at the back.
“The smell’s gone,” he said, stepping inside.
There was room to stand; good light; the air was much warmer. Apart
from a few items that the troopers had removed with the body, Chris
McCandless’s meager wherewithal was lying as he had left it:
on the front table, his frayed toothbrush and tube of Colgate, a
blue-handled knife, the crown of a molar; on a chair, his dungarees;
by a barrel stove, his Great Lakes boots; on a cot against the wall,
his blue pack with the foam pad still rolled and tied, and his little
library, including a coverless copy of “Walden.” One
of the windows of the bus had been knocked out to make room for
a fifteen-foot spruce trunk; one end of the log was stuck into the
mouth of the barrel stove like a tongue depressor. An experienced
outdoorsman would have an axe to piece up his firewood, not the
dull machete propped by the door.
The mattress of the bed was torn and stained and strewn with things
– a net that McCandless had worn over his head to keep the
bugs away, an open copy of “Doctor Zhivago,” a pair
of gloves, a black pen, Chap Stick, toenail clippers, iodine pills,
a green water bottle filled now with ice, and a pair of silver-framed
eyeglasses, neatly folded. He was nearsighted.
“I might have to put a tarp down before I sleep there again,”
Butch Killian said. We laughed; we were nervous, and the presence
in the room was so strong that it seemed rude of us to have barged
in uninvited. It was as if Chris McCandless had just gone down to
the stream to fetch water or were off collecting wood. We stayed
about an hour. We returned to the helicopter. Our breath fogged
the Plexiglas as the chilled engine shuddered to life.
Christopher J. McCandless, whose body was brought back from the
Sushana River bus last fall, was one of the many seekers drawn north
by the mythic Alaska – the Alaska that belongs as much to
the estate of the imagination as to the actual earth, and which
sustains the crowded parts of America with the sentimental idea
of a last frontier. What he had envisioned before he came was the
Alaska of shining mountains and immense herds and smoke curling
above archetypal cabins – a far cry from the base world of
insects, darkness, and death. During the fortnight that the state
troopers withheld his name while they canvassed the country for
his next of kin (even getting in touch with a Santa Barbara wrecking
company whose name was on the T-shirt he died in), the newspapers
referred to McCandless simply as “the hiker.” If the
authorities did not know whom he belonged to, they at least knew
some of what had happened. Along with the body, they had recovered
an SOS note, which he had signed and taped to a window of the bus,
and a terse journal, which he had kept on the back pages of a book
of plant lore. There were also self-portraits he had made with his
35mm. camera. One of the photographs was faxed to law-enforcement
agencies around the country.
The blue sleeping bag containing his remains was sent to Scientific
Crime Detection Laboratory, in Anchorage, where an autopsy was conducted.
The advanced decomposition of the skeletal figure made it impossible
to set a precise date of death. No sign of injury was found. The
large muscles of the arms and legs were extensively wasted and there
was a complete absence of fat under the skin. A five-foot-eight-inch,
twenty-four-year-old man who, it was later learned, had weighed
a hundred and thirty-three pounds when he got a driver’s license
from the state of Virginia several years before., weighed sixty-seven
pounds at the time of his autopsy. The autopsy findings concurred
with the conclusion the troopers had arrived at on the basis of
entries in the diary: the hiker had died of starvation.
And so Chris McCandless took his place in the long line of travelers
whose last days in some far corner of the world resonate in poignant
words. Starvation, the prosaic horror of every age, has a kind of
evil poetry in the literature of misadventure, and what we remember
is not the deaths of the sixty thousand people who succumb to hunger
daily but the fate of Scott and his party, who perished of starvation
and exposure on their way back from the South Pole, eighty years
ago – an ordeal preserved in Scott’s diary with the
famous closing line “For God’s sake, look after our
people.” Or the trials of the first Franklin party, whose
members began to starve on their return home from the far north,
in 1821; before they died, they made suppers of old shoes, lichen
deer bones left by wolves. Or the plight of the emigrants of the
Donner party, snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846,
nearly half of them to die, and their accounts to emerge afterward
describing the descent into cannibalism.
Alaska has its own shelf of tales: stories of the downed airman
who survived after parachuting into mountains at fifty below with
only a Boy Scout knife and some matches; of seal hunters stranded
on pack ice in the Bering Sea, snapping fingers off their frozen
Chris McCandless chose his adventure; it was not compelled by a
malfunctioning engine or a shift in the pack ice. But, beyond the
immediate questions of what happened and why, there is the enigma
of motive itself. What sent him into the wilderness? What was he
seeking that was worth dying for? What does anyone seek who travels
beyond the plae in the name of gold dust or the glory of God or
the clutch of penguin eggs? Given the risks, most rationales seem
pretty thin; perhaps they can be understood only as pretexts for
something incommunicably personal, as the cover stories that license
the action of the spirit.
McCandless himself wrote that he was waging a spiritual revolution
to “kill the false being within.” His method of battle
was a kind of willful asceticism. It was as if he could pare away
whatever was false of superficial, and, as he got more adept at
it, he seemed almost to revel in the power of doing without, the
euphoria of dispossession. In its thrall, he would have understood
Nikos Kazantzakis, who once wrote, “in hunger I am king.”
Chris ignored the advice of his teachers, frustrated the expectations
of his parents, and rejected the conventions of his class. He preferred
hitchhiking to driving. He dispensed with four-food-group meals
in favor of rice, and when the rice ran out, he foraged and even
fasted. He discarded his given name, his Social Security number.
“EXEMPT EXEMPT EXEMPT” he scrawled across a W-4 form.
At one point, he set fire to the last of his money. He pared away
contact with his friends, with his mother and father and his sister,
Carine. In the end, whether by tragic miscalculation or unknowable
design, he pared away himself.
His adventure in Alaska capped a series of epic journeys that began
in 1986, the year he graduated from W.T. Woodson High School, in
the Washington D.C., suburb of Fairfax, Virginia. But in some sense
he had been rehearsing for the road all his life. At two, he once
trotted out of the house before sunrise to raid a candy drawer at
a neighbor’s house down the street. At ten, a skinny boy with
spidery lashes and his mother’s enormous brown eyes, he took
up cross-country running; he ran with the family dog, and won his
age group in competitions. Roger Miller’s “King of the
Road” was one of his favorite songs. What Chris lacked in
talent, he made up for in will. He ran all through high school and
trained with masochistic regimens and spur-of-the-moment marathon
runs into Washington. In his junior and senior years, he was captain
of the Woodson cross-country team and the leader of the Road Warriors,
a group of friends who lit out on “suicide runs” through
swamps and back yards and culverts. They tried to get lost.
At the end of the road was wilderness. Almost every year, Chris
had gone with his father, Walt, to the Blue Ridge Mountains to climb
Old Rag. “The Call of the Wild” was one of his favorite
books. The family house, in Annandale, had a closet full of camping
gear. His father gave him the pack he carried to Alaska; his mother,
Billie, sewed him a blue sleeping bag, the sleeping bag he died
in. There were summer trips to Colorado with Carine to visit their
six half siblings from Walt’s first marriage. When Chris was
twelve, he climbed high on Longs Peak with his father. Chris wanted
to continue after Walt tired out, wanted to go through the formation
known as the Keyhole and on to the dangerous summit stretches on
the other side. “He had a tendency to over-estimate his abilities,
but only a little bit,” Walt McCandless says. “He was
fearless; he didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were
always trying to pull him back from the precipice.”
It’s hard to know to what extent Chris’s estrangement
from his family in his late teens and early twenties reflected something
other than the normal conflicts of adolescent rebellion –
wounds that might have healed with time and maturity. After Walt
and Billie went into business for themselves as engineering consultants
– Walt had been an aerospace engineer at NASA who designed
radar for the space shuttle – Chris looked askance at what
he considered his parents’ “materialism.” He didn’t
cotton to rules. He talked of wanting to fight apartheid by taking
guns and ammo to South Africa himself. He entertained doubts about
the value of a career. Careers were to him dubious “twentieth-century
Walt and Billie were impressed by their son’s outrage over
apartheid and hunger; he went into Washington to roam the streets
buying hamburgers for homeless men and women. But they wanted him
first to get the “leverage” of an education. “I
don’t think we understood the depth of Chris,” Billie
McCandless says. “And I’m not sure he understood how
deep he was. He wanted to find out.”
He enrolled in Emory University, in Atlanta, but even during his
last year at Woodson he seemed to know that his future lay elsewhere.
“Chris told me he thought he was going to be alone in his
life,” recalls his friend and fellow-runner Don Springer,
who now lives in Switzerland. “He had been drinking a bit,
and he got very emotional. It wasn’t a cry for help. I think
he just wanted to tell somebody.
The summer after high school, Chris set out on the first of his
adventures, a cross-country trek of conventional proportions. He
drove south in a yellow Datsun, then west to Texas and California.
He returned via Nevada, wide-eyed at the casinos, the show-girls,
the three-dollar steaks. He had his father’s Texaco credit
card for emergencies. He hated obliging his parents with call home
every three days, and in subsequent summers he added those phone
check-ins to the list of things he could do without. He logged more
than ten thousand miles on that first trip. When he came home a
few days before leaving for the start of the fall term at Emory,
he had a beard that made him look like Jesus, and a machete under
It was between his sophomore and junior years that his friends
and parents noticed a marked change in him. “I was talking
about parties, but he didn’t care,” his high-school
friend Gordy Cucullu says, recalling a time when he ran into Chris
in Annandale. “He didn’t drink anymore – he’d
settled into the pursuit of knowledge. It was strange. He was like
someone who was seeing things in a totally new way, almost like
a born-again Christian.”
Walt and Billie were concerned that Chris was living alone, working
too hard, and not having enough fun. There was something dangerously
innocent in the way he thought he could bend everything to his will.
Why didn’t he run for the Emory track team? He was a talented
singer and pianist, like his father; why didn’t he play more
music? He was majoring in both history and anthropology, and his
courses read like a catalogue of his social concerns: “The
Food Crisis in Africa,” “Apartheid and South African
History.” But he had grown disenchanted with the value of
an academic education, and toyed with the idea of chucking it. “He
was very bright and he had wonderful promise, but he never knew
where he was going to go with it,” his adviser, Peter Brown,
recalls. “He never did an honors thesis, and I found that
The summer between junior and senior years, he drove the Datsun
to Alaska and back. Now nothing seemed out of reach. His senior
year, he moved off campus to a monkish room with a mattress on the
floor and a Macintosh computer on a table. He had no phone, and
he seldom saw friends. He had a key to a carrel in the library.
His grade-point average was 3.7 good enough for Phi Beta Kappa,
but he had long since overcome any desire for honorifics. Something
bigger was at stake; he let drop fatalistic hints about his sense
of the future. “A couple of times, he said he didn’t
think he’d make it to thirty,” Joshua Marshall, a college
friend, says. “I think it was based on his desire to stay
away from convention. He had put himself in tenuous positions. He
used to talk about how he’d slept in his car, and how he would
just show up in towns and try to find a job. Most of us figured
once he’d get the desire to do that out of his system he’d
take one or two steps back to the conventional life.”
His parents thought he might go on to law school. “I misread
him,” his father says. When they came down with Carine for
graduation ceremonies, Chris told them he would be coming home in
August. They wanted to buy him a new car. It was Mother’s
Day; he bought flowers and candy for Billie. The weather was foggy.
Elizabeth Dole gave a forgettable address. Chris’s name was
called. His family watched him cross the stage. After they said
goodbye, they never saw him again.
Nobody who knew him a Chris saw him after that summer. He was through
the keyhole, like a wraith in flight. One of his parting acts set
the stage for the sharpest of the many ironies that attended his
death: he withdrew what remained of his college tuition fund - $24,
292 – and donated it to OXFAM America, in Boston, to fight
hunger. He took a new name, a sort of nom de vie – Alexander
Supertramp. In August after he’d got a ticket for hitchhiking
in California reached his parents, they grew frantic and hired a
private investigator. The search reached fruitlessly into Europe
and South Africa. Chris was determined to get lost. In the adventures
of the next two years, there are telling patterns and familiar themes:
will and wanderlust, the penchant for asceticism, the abiding anger
that enabled him to continue to shun his family. His confidence
grew as he mastered the hardships of the self-reliant life. He left
a deep impression on the people he met, but he was drifting away
from social entanglements toward the solitude of wild places.
In some sense, he was a character in the wrong century, born too
late for the age of discovery. He craved blank spots on the map,
at a time when his father was designing radar that could produce
maps from space – maps that could practically show the beaver
in the pond. Chris wanted to take nature unfiltered, unscreened,
alone, and he found a characteristic solution to the problem of
maps without blank spots: he threw the maps away.
In July, 1990, after his Datsun was drenched in a flash flood near
Lake Mead, Arizona, he abandoned it. He buried some of his belongings,
burned the last of his money – a hundred and twenty-three
dollars – and set out on foot to hike around Lake Mead. The
temperature was “in excess of 120°,” he later wrote
in a notebook; he became “delirious” and was lucky to
flag down a boat on the lake.
He hitchhiked his way northwest to Reno, then south to Lake Tahoe,
and from there he climbed further into the Sierra Nevada, intending
to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. On the seventeenth of July, he
ate the last of his rice and had to “fish/hunt/scavenge for
all meals.” Five days later, he came upon a cabin stocked
with emergency food. He broke in and loaded up his pack.
So it went through the summer and into the fall. He left the mountains,
hitched on through Redding, Whiskeytown, and Arcata. He fell in
with an itinerant society, a life of temporary camps and plans that
never reached more than a week or two into the future. He made his
way up the Oregon coast, north into Washington, and then east across
the top of the country. In Montana, in mid-September, he met a kindred
spirit, a South Dakota man named Wayne Westerberg, who was harvesting
wheat there with his combines. Departing Bighorn Lake, Montana on
September 20th, Chris wrote, “Alexander decides to cease wandering
aimlessly and heads directly east for South Dakota and work for
Wayne Westerberg.” He did odd jobs for Westerberg during most
of October, but then set out again, hitchhiking to Idaho and down
to the Mojave Desert. In a December postcard thanking Westerberg
for his hospitality he wrote, “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t
met you though. Tramping is too Easy with all this money. My days
were more exciting when I was penniless and had to Forage Around
for my next meal… I’ve decided that I’m going
to live this Life for some time to come. The Freedom and Simple
Beauty of it is just too good to pass up.”
In Topock, Arizona, he bought a canoe with some of the filthy lucre
he had earned, and set out to paddle down the Colorado to the Gulf
of California. He slipped illegally into Mexico, running the open
floodgates of the Morelos Dam. He took pictures of tarantulas and
jackrabbits and wild mustangs. He made many self-portraits as well;
he always appeared as a small figure with arms flung wide in a grand
and desolate setting.
For someone so independent, he had an odd habit of counting on
miracles to bail him out of predicaments. He was paddling around
in the maze of canals into which the Colorado disappears, never
to reach the Gulf of California, when he met a fisherman who agreed
to tow his canoe to the ocean. He moved south down the western coast
of Mexico. He spent Christmas alone in a cave on a beach cliff,
and watched the full moon come up on the New Year.
Eleven days later, he nearly died when the gales and a powerful
outgoing tide seized his canoe. He decided to return north. He hadn’t
said a word to another person in more than a month. He was arrested
by the Border Patrol and released later that night minus his sidearm,
a prized Colt Python. “Can this be the same Alex that set
out July, 1990?” he wrote. “Malnutrition and the road
have taken their toll on his body. Over twenty-five pounds lost.
But his spirit is soaring.”
Seven months after he had abandoned his car in an outwash plain
near Lake Mead, he returned. The car was gone, but he found his
old Virginia plates, SJF-241. He headed into Las Vegas with no money
or identification, lived on the streets for several weeks, got a
job at a casino, and in May hit the road again, and wandered for
the summer. When his pictures came back, he laughed at the double
exposures that made it seem as if he were walking on water. He spent
the early winter working at a McDonald’s in Bullhead City,
Arizona, then left, in January, 1992, to return to the one place
that felt like home.
The town of Carthage, population 274, sits on the plains of eastern
South Dakota, where the tallest buildings are five-story grain elevators
and the roads run ruler-straight through crops of wheat and soybeans
and sunflowers. Wayne Westerberg’s grain elevator looms over
the eastern end of a drowsy main street lined with wood-frame buildings
and hundred-year-old cottonwoods; traffic is almost nonexistent,
and only out-of-towners brake for the stop sign.
In Carthage that winter, Alex went to work cleaning the bromegrass
dust off the girders in Westerberg’s warehouse. He put out
antifreeze for the rats to drink; their carcasses were soggy even
when it was forty below. He learned to handle a loader-tractor,
and in the spring he chopped weeds with his machete, pretending
he was Darth Vader. He painted Wayne’s house.
“He had kind eyes,” says Valera Anderson, who, with
her husband, ran the gas station in town. Gail Borah, who cooked
dinner for Wayne and Alex, noticed that Alex never left any food
on his plate or in the pan and that he always did the dishes. One
March afternoon, the three of them drove forty-five miles to Huron
to buy hamburger, chicken, pork chops, carrots, green peas, oranges
and apples. They loaded the grocery sacks into the back of Gail’s
Trans Am. There was barely room for Alex, and the sight of him peering
out over the cornucopia haunted her after he died.
Alaska, Alex said that spring, was going to be his biggest adventure,
his “odyssey.” Wayne offered to buy him a plane ticket,
but Alex preferred to hitchhike.
“I don’t think you should go,” Gail said.
“It’s time to go,” he said.
A couple of nights before he left, Wayne’s mother, Mary,
fixed him supper. She got out an atlas. “He wanted to go up
on the tundra of the North Slope,” Mary Westerberg says. “I
said, ‘What on earth would you do up there? There’s
no stores, no doctors, none of the things people need.’ He
He excused himself on a chilly afternoon, April 15th, when most
of the town was sweating its taxes. He had about a thousand dollars;
he often carried money in his shoe. One of Wayne’s drivers
was hauling a load of sunflower seeds to Enderlin, North Dakota,
and would drop him off not far from Interstate 94. He hugged them
all goodbye, Gail and Wayne and the crew. He had to fight back the
tears. He said he’d return for Thanksgiving. Later, a feeling
came over Wayne, and he said to his mother, “I don’t
think we’ll see Alex again.”
And then there was the ominous final postcard: “Greetings
from Fairbanks! This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived
here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon
Territory. But I finally got here. Please return all mail I receive
to the sender. It might be a very long time before I return south.
If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from
me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk
into the wild. Alex.” He sent a shorter version of the same
message to a couple he’d met in California.
Both were dated April 27th.
Outside Fairbanks, on the Parks Highway, Jim Gallien spotted a
hitchhiker; he pulled the Ford over. Chris McCandless threw his
pack in and climbed in after it.
“Where you headed?” Gallien asked.
“Somewhere around Healy.”
Gallien was headed all the way to Anchorage, a seven-hour drive.
Although Gallien has never been able to pinpoint the exact date,
it was most likely Tuesday, the twenty-eighth of April. They rode
out of the Valley of the Chena River. He asked his passenger what
his plans were.
“I’m going out in the woods for two or three months.”
Gallien had grown up hunting the Alaska backcountry. One glance
at a half-empty pack and low-powered .22 Remington rifle told him
that the woodsman wasn’t set up properly for any two or three
He had introduced himself as Alex – no family name. He said
he had been living in the woods on the edge of Fairbanks for the
last couple of days. He had seen an ad for the rifle in the local
newspaper and had also bought about four hundred rounds of ammunition.
“Does anybody know what you’re planning to do?”
“No.” Alex said. And that’s the way he wanted
“Do you have any friends?”
None that he let in on his plans.
He shook his head; he said he didn’t get along with his family.
The guy was obviously intelligent, and Gallien could admire his
ambition, but it was plain that he didn’t understand what
he was in for, or if he did he didn’t care. He was exited,
confident, certain he could hunt and gather what he needed to survive.
“I’ve got ten pounds of rice and that’s all I
need,” he said. That was half of what he carried on a trip
to Mexico, he added. He had a book about edible plants and berries,
“Tanaina Plantlore.” But he didn’t have rubber
boots, or waterproof gloves, or snowshoes, or an axe.
“Do you have a compass?”
“I don’t want a compass,” he said. “I don’t
have to know where I am.”
“What about a map?”
Nothing other than his road map of Alaska. “I don’t
want to know where I’m going,” he said.
He was set on the area around Healy and the broken line of a trail
leading west into the country north of Denali – the Stampede
“There’s a lot better place to go,” Gallien said.
“Where you’re going, there’s just going to be
tundra, and the mosquitoes are going to eat you up.”
“I’ve got a head net,” said Alex.
“Your feet are going to get wet.”
“I’ll build a fire.”
Gallien recalls that he tried to spook Alex with bear stories,
but Alex waved the cautions aside and began to grill Gallien about
the weather and the kind of game he might find.
“Look for rosehips and frozen high-bush cranberries,”
Gallien said. “If you don’t get any rabbits or spruce
hens or ptarmigan, sit down by a spruce tree and you night get a
Gallien asked him if he had a hunting license. No. A duck stamp?
No. “Why should the government tell us what we can hunt? Fuck
all those rules,” Alex said.
When they got to Healy, Gallien turned out of his way and drove
up a snowy gravel road that went past cabins scattered in sparse
woods. The Stampede Trail followed a horse and foot trail that had
been cut at the turn of the century to serve as a winter haul road
for the crawler-tractors that dragged sleds of kerosene and diesel
fuel to mines in the Kantishna Hills. Gallien offered Alex his lunch,
a grilled-cheese-and-tuna-fish sandwich and some chips.
“I won’t eat your lunch,” Alex said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Gallien said.
Alex wolfed the sandwich.
Past Eight Mile Lake, the road narrowed to a snow-machine track
leading west. Gallien gave Alex his rubber over-boots – a
size too big, but they would keep his feet dry.
“How much do I owe you?”
“You don’t owe me anything. If you make it out alive,
give me a call, O.K.?”
“You really think I might not make it?”
“There’s a good chance,” Gallien said, still
trying to scare him. As he would be away fishing that summer, he
gave Alex the number of a buddy in Anchorage.
“Do you want my watch?” Alex said.
“No,” Gallien said. “Why?”
“I’m just going to throw it away. I don’t want
to know what day it is, or what time it is.
And that was that. Gallien took a couple of pictures of Alex standing
with his pack and rifle. Alex thanked him. “I’ll give
you a call when I get out,” he said.
And so into the woods, trampling over the wet snow in a stranger’s
boots. The spring breakup came late last year, and it would not
have been implausible in two days’ walking to cover the ten
miles to the Teklanika River and to find on the first of May enough
ice to cross it without getting wet. If he found nothing noteworthy
about getting across the river he may not have appreciated its potential
to become a formidable obstacle after a day’s heavy rain,
or to vary in character even in the course of a sunny day when the
heat thawed the glaciers at its head. With no ice bridge, the numbingly
cold water would have come well up to his chest, and he would have
had to fight for footing and very possibly swim. Richard Larson’s
“Mountain Bike Alaska” describes the Teklanika as “deep
and swift” and says a raft is advisable.
Past the river, the trailed gained a couple of hundred feet of
elevation, and it afforded Chris a glimpse of the roof of North
America – his “Denali Day.” On the fourth day,
he found a second World War-era bus that had been outfitted with
a stove and beds and towed out to the Sushana River to house crews
working on the stretch of the Stampede Trail leading to an antimony
mine on Stampede Creek. For the last thirty years, the bus had served
as a backcountry shelter, used mostly in September, during the moose-hunting
season, and in the winter months, when mushers and trappers will
bless any place that is warm and dry. It was twenty-eight miles
from the main road. “Magic bus,” he called it.
There he stayed four days, the end of his first week in the wild.
He saw a brown bear, a black bear, a hawk. He shot at some ducks
and missed. On the eighth day, he moved farther on, with his tent
and his rice. He noted “Weakness” on the ninth day,
and on the tenth - probably May 7th – he wrote “Snowed
in.” The entry the following day is enigmatic – simply
the word “Disaster” – but, though it sounds ominous,
Chris had not lost his penchant for melodrama. It is possible that
he was not finding much to hunt and was burning through his ten
pounds of rice.
His second and third weeks passed with terse notations about animals
(which led the troopers to surmise that he was a field biologist).
On Day 26, he climbed one of the gentle three-thousand-foot-high
mountains just north of the bus. The days went by – days of
squirrels, a duck, a gray bird. Now a month in the woods, he had
reestablished his camp at the bus. He tidied the place up. He gathered
berries in a colander and fried his wild meat in a pan; he set the
table in the kitchen before dinner. “Gourmet duck!”
he wrote on Day 31, “Small duck” on Day 34, “Goose!”
on Day 39. He photographed his meals with his Minolta, the breast
of some wild thing sitting on a plate beside his knife and fork
and camouflage napkin. He rested the camera on a turquoise fifty-five-gallon
drum to make a portrait of himself lounging blissfully in front
of Fairbanks 142, his arms wide open. The days were getting longer
and warmer; light was pouring into the world, the snow shrinking
back at last, wildflowers blooming in the taiga. Chris seemed to
be exuberant about his situation. He found a grizzly-bear skull
that had been in the bus for years, and on its cranium wrote, “All
Hail the Phantom Bear The Beast Within Us All. Alexander Supertramp
May 1992.” On the south wall of the bus he wrote, “All
Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too!”
Where previous visitors had been content to scratch their names
and the dates of their stay into the drab paint of the interior,
Chris scratched a biography into a plywood-covered window:
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. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou Shall Not Return, Cause
‘The West is The Best’ And Now After Two Rambling Years
Comes the Final and Greatest Adventure. The Climactic Battle To
Kill The False Being Within And Victoriously Conclude the Spiritual
Revolution! Ten Days & Nights of Freight Trains and Hitching
Bring Him to the Great White North No Longer to Be Poisoned By Civilization
He Flees, and Walks Alone Upon the Land To Become Lost in the Wild.
Around the ninth of June, the Aesthetic Voyager struck the subsistence
equivalent of gold. “Moose!” he wrote, underlining the
word twice. It was a major haul; cuts of moose have see many an
Alaskan through lean times. Chris dug a cave in which to smoke the
meat. The following day he noted, “Butchering extremely difficult.
Fly and mosquito hordes. Intestines, liver, kidneys, one lung, steaks,
get hindquarters and legs to stream.” He photographed himself
with the head of the animal. By the fourteenth of June, the end
of his seventh week in the wilderness, he was in despair. He had
a bounty of protein but no experience in preserving it. “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.” The next day, he wrote that he would
learn to accept his errors, and a day after that, he had given up
on preserving much of the meat and was returning to forage in the
berry fields. The incalculable whining mass of Alaska’s summer
insect bloom was forcing him to live in his mosquito head net.
The waste of the moose, which he had shot out of season, was one
measure of his inexperience. Hunters know that it’s imperative
to dry the meat, and that the smoke is only to keep the flies off
while you cut it into thin strips. Even meat blown with flies can
be eaten if it’s been dried right.
Chris began reading the copy of “Walden” he’d
bought, and by the end of June had finished it, having paid particular
attention to the chapter called “Higher Laws”:
I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound….
No morsel could have been too savage for me. “YES,”
Chris wrote in the margin. Our whole life is startlingly moral.
“EVERY ACT,” he wrote.
When I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they
seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and
unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. “THE MOOSE,”
Done with “Walden,” he turned to a collection of Tolstoy
short stories. He finished the last of the moose meat he had managed
to preserve. He read “The Kreutzer Sonata” and, two
days later, “Family Happiness,” underscoring passages
that must have reminded him of life in South Dakota:
I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is
needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with
the possibility of being useful to people.
Here is where the tragedy begins. With the moose gone, Chris, his
head full of Tolstoy, seems to have decided it was time to move
out – to exit the valley of the Stampede Trail. Maybe take
Jim Gallien up on his offer to show him some other parts of Alaska,
and then begin hitchhiking his way back to South Dakota, where he
was planning to spend Thanksgiving.
Around the third of July, he packed up his camp and hiked east.
He seems to have reached the west bank of the Teklanika River on
the fourth. The diary notes simply “beaver dam” and
then another unspecified “disaster.” The extent of his
jeopardy began to dawn on him. Without a detailed contour map, he
could not study the country up – or downstream on the Teklanika.
Such a map would have told him that there was a cabin on the Sushana
River, just seven miles south of the bus, inside the boundary of
the Denali National Park. Much was later made of the deliverance
this cabin might have offered; it had been stocked with twenty-five
pounds of rice, and with powdered milk, oat meal, peanut butter,
pilot bread, coffee, and tea. But that spring, for the first time
in memory, someone had broken in and vandalized it. Rangers who
discovered the vandalism in July were able to estimate that it had
occurred in the spring, from the stage of plant growth under the
mattress that had been tossed outside. Even if Chris had known about
the cabin, there was nothing he could have found there to eat. The
food was gone. Some rangers wondered if he had been the vandal,
but the Park Service doesn’t want for enemies, and , although
Chris had broken into the cabin in the Sierra Nevada to find food,
it doesn’t seem in his character to have wrecked the place.
And, as he was standing by the river, a detailed map would have
shown him that about half a mile north, where the Teklanika narrows
into a two-hundred-foot channel and rushes through a canyon, there
was a gauging station. If he had gone to investigate, he might have
discovered a cable tram spanning the river. Its existence is not
widely known, and you can’t see it from where the Stampede
Trail crosses the river. It was built by the United States Geological
Survey in 1970 and was decommissioned in 1974; the aluminum cab
hanging from the cable is supposed to be locked and chained to the
eastern side of the river, the side opposite Chris. Last fall, however,
the tram was being used unofficially, and at the time he was trying
to get across the Teklanika the cab was actually on the west side
of the river. A scant half-mile away then, lay the means by which
Chris could have hauled himself across the barrier that blocked
his passage out.
But he didn’t want to know where he was. And so, he waited
by the river, looking for a way to get across. It was raining on
July 5th, he wrote, “Rained in, river look impossible. Lonely,
Scared.” There was no entry for the next day, but the day
after, he wrote: “Squirrel. Gold Bird.” On July 8th,
he returned to the bus.
Had he given up on getting out? Did he believe then that the river
was insurmountable and he a prisoner on the wrong side? Or was he
merely returning to the bus intending to try again later? If he
was rattled by his predicament, it wasn’t enough to keep him
from jotting analytic comments in the margins of “The Death
of Ivan Ilyich,” which he read on his return to the bus: “Civilization
– Falsity – A Big Lie.”
High summer came to the taiga. He had a fishing pole but made no
mention of any fish. He had taken photographs of a wolf, and on
July 14th he shot at one, but missed. He did get two squirrels;
berries were ripening. Cryptically, he wrote “potato seeds”
and underlined it. It’s likely that he was referring to the
purple-flowered wildpotato plant, Hedysarum alpinum, which is also
known as the Alaska carrot. It grows in spruce forests and on gravel
bars. Traditionally, it was the most important plant harvested by
the Dena’ina Indians, who ate its long root raw or cooked
– but did not eat the seeds. As Crhis would have known from
Tanaina Plantlore,” the wild potato is closely related to
and very easily confused with the wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii.
The Dena’ina call wild sweet pea “brown bear’s
wild potato.” It’s believed to be poisonous, on the
basis of a report from a nineteenth-century arctic expedition of
Sir John Richardson, whose men mistook wild sweet pea for wild potato
and became ill.
“It’s very hard to tell the two plants apart unless
you’re an expert,” the book’s author, Priscilla
Russell Kari, says. “I myself would be careful. I’ve
only dug the plant when I was with a native person. The root of
the wild potato is longer, the sweet pea stubbier.”
The days were growing shorter. Around July 25th, Chris noted, “Many
mushrooms. Dream.” He finished Dr. Zhivago.” He was
getting weaker. By the end of July, he realized that his situation
was dire: “Woodpecker. Frog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato
seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great jeopardy.”
The first week in August, he mentioned his sightings of animals
and noted the weather. “Terrible wind, “ he wrote on
the second of August. The fifth was “Day 100!” –
a milestone he marked with a box around the date: “Made It!
But in weakest condition of life. Death looms as a serious threat,
too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild
– no game.”
What had he been thinking about all this time? It had been more
than a month since he stood on the west bank of the swollen Teklanika
looking for a place to cross. Had he been too weak to return for
another try? To improvise a raft? To throw caution to the winds
and swim for it? Chris was the epitome of headlong action, but on
the scant evidence of his diary he seems to have been afflicted
with an uncharacteristic passivity, which raises a host of questions.
His condition may have been gravely exacerbated by eating sweet-pea
seeds – but the fact that he may have been eating seeds and
not roots is itself a sign of his desperate hunger.
Much of what is known about the effects of starvation on the body
comes from the study of the survivors of concentration camps and
of famines like the one in Russia from 1918 to 1922, when the authorities
in one city banned ground meats because people were being murdered
and their flesh sold as sausage in markets. One of the first controlled
studies of starvation was launched in 1944, when researchers at
the University of Minnesota tracked the effects of a “semi-starvation”
diet on conscientious objectors. The sample group of men volunteered
to live for six months on two meals a day of whole-wheat bread,
potatoes, turnips, and cabbage. They lost dramatic amounts of weight;
their muscles atrophied; sex drives vanished. The skin on their
faces took on a brownish, tannish color. Their fingernails hardly
grew. They became faint, weak, and depressed. Their faces and ankles
puffed up with “famine edema,” as body tissue became
hydrated. They craved food.
There are important differences between people who are chronically
undernourished and people who have nothing to eat. The sense of
hunger often disappears in people who completely abstain from food.
After one day of fasting, blood sugar drops. The electrolytes in
the blood are thrown out of balance, and potentially lethal ketones
build up. Severe starvation causes the heart to beat more slowly.
There is a constant urge to urinate, a desire for sleep, physical
and mental exhaustion, sensitivity to cold, dizziness, backache,
a dulling of emotions, and, eventually what has been described as
a sort of gradual passage from life to death.
Chris now had less than two weeks to live. On Day 104, he shot
at a bear and missed. On Day 105, he killed five squirrels and saw
a caribou. On Day 106, he bagged a ptarmigan. On Day 107, probably
August 12th, he wrote what would prove to be the final words in
his journal: “Beautiful Blueberries.”
Sometime in those last two weeks, he composed an SOS note on the
back page of a novel by Gogol. It was found taped to the window
of the bus, beside a stick with a rag on the end of it: “S.O.S.
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.” Unsure of the date,
he wrote, “August ?” And poignantly, when he signed
his name he surrendered the bravura sobriquet of the road warrior.
He was Chris McCandless again.
If he wanted to live, why didn’t he set a fire to attract
attention? He wouldn’t have had to burn down half the state;
he could have found some open ground and, with the can of Coleman
fuel that was in the bus, burned a big SOS in the brush, which might
have been seen from the air. Was he really injured, or did he raise
the semaphore of injury only because it was something a passerby
It’s this apparent passivity in the face of emergency that
has bred the speculation about a death wish. Most people who knew
Chris reject that as a slander on his zeal for life. “It’s
the rare person who dreams,” Gordy Cucullu says. And yet when
someone who has as strong a will as Chris had dies of starvation,
can it not but hint at an impulse for self-destruction? Might not
more than a flare for grandiosity and drama lie behind those apocalyptic
postcards, and the masochistic cross-country running, and the asceticism
that embraced the difficulties and dangers of hitchhiking and at
time seemed bent on refining the spirit at the expense of the body?
The anger that drove the renunciation of his family, and animated
his views of injustice in distant countries, and fed his aversion
to authority of any kind, could well have been directed at himself
in the form of inhumanly high standards and stern self-criticism
– in a kind of imploded narcissism. And so he was probably
shocked when, for the first time in his short life, his body could
no longer obey his will.
No one can know when, or even if, there came a time when he was
resigned to dying. Or how long he held out hope of deliverance.
It’s that vain hope of rescue that seems most heartrending
in retrospect: the road warrior suing the spruce and the sky for
help. Somewhere in these days he made his last pictures –
a sunrise, a sunset, a portrait of a rhubarb plant, and the last
self-portrait. He sat before the camera waving with one hand and
holding up a brave blockletter note with the other: “I have
had a happy life and Thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All!”
The final entries in the diary are just a string of numbers, each
one circled and followed by a dash. Perhaps he entered the number
of the day in the morning and circled it when he went to bed at
night. Was he strong enough even to rise? He would have been cold,
as there was no fat left on his body. He was lying in the blue sleeping
bag, which his mother had sewn for him from a kit, bundled in most
of his clothes, his boots standing by the stove, the diary was on
the bed. Day 108 with a circle and a dash; Day 109, a circle and
a dash; Days 110,111, and 112, each with a circle and a dash. It’s
said that there is a languor at the end, a feeling of being far
from the world. He had come to day 113, most likely August 18th.
He drew a circle around the number and laid his glasses by his head.
The story of his death went all over the country. Wayne Westerberg
received dozens of letters from strangers who were moved to thank
him for the kindness he had shown the hiker and to tell him that
they were stuck in their lives and doing things they didn’t
want to do. After the police confirmed the hiker’s identity
with dental records shipped north by the family, Carine and her
half brother Sam went to Alaska to collect Chris’s journal
and his camera and his rifle from the coroner in Fairbanks. On the
flight home, she carried he brother’s ashes in her backpack
and compulsively finished every scrap of food on her tray. Walt
could not stop eating, either, and gained eight pounds; Billie could
not eat at all, and lost eight. For more than two years, Billie
had never left the house on a long trip without posting a note for
Chris in case he showed up. She had not looked at the faxed photograph
before the identity of the hiker was absolutely confirmed, and when
she finally did, filled with memories of the day her boy had graduated
from college, she found herself thinking, A man smiles back at me.
She wrote it in a journal she’d begun to keep: “A man
smiles back at me.”
On a rainy day in October, the family held a private memorial service
for Chris at Walt and Billie’s waterside house in Chesapeake
Beach, Maryland. They mounted the photographs from Chris’s
camera. Everyone remarked on how happy he looked, how in frame after
frame, his evident frailty notwithstanding, he seemed radiant, at
peace, his face lit with breakaway joy.
Up in Alaska, the fuss about the hiker struck many people as romantic
glorification of a death that had more to do with foolish inexperience
than with the calculated risks of a daring adventure. It hardly
need to be proved again, but the bumper crop of fatalities last
summer demonstrated that it is far more hazardous to climb Denali
than to camp in its shadow. The hiker didn’t die of starvation,
one outdoor columnist said bluntly’ he “was killed by
And yet his death was no less haunting. And remains so. It’s
not simply that he faced an awful fate alone so young, or that he
left a diary that only underscores the mystery of what detained
him. What makes his death so memorable is the narrative he was enacting:
it is an old story, the tale of the boy on the brink of manhood
who venture into the wilderness in a rite of passage. It is supposed
to end with his transformation and return – the new-made man
reunited with his community, a community that relies on his wise
new eyes to renew itself. And, true to form, Chris had often spoken
of writing a book about his travels. But this time the narrative
was broken, its promise cut short. There was no return. There was
no homecoming. There would never be a book. There would only be
the diary that is inevitably found later beside the body, and the
last words “God bless” and “goodbye,” and
one more name to add to the litany of travelers who never made it