Existentialist gone wild: not always a happy ending

People are still talking about Christopher McCandless, the young adventurer who wandered into the Alaskan bush never to return. Love him or hate him, you can’t resist contemplating his motives or pondering his ideologies. Whether you’ve read John Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild” or have seen the movie by the same name, Christopher’s backward stance on life will leave you with an odd feeling.
To make a long story short, Christopher burned his meager stash of money and set off to explore the great unknown. He never disclosed his whereabouts to his family, who didn’t know if he had run away or was abducted. Nor did he stick around one spot for too long. In the spirit of all great adventurers before him, Christopher wandered the West solo with his earthly belongings stowed on his back. Alaska seemed to beckon him, as if the Last Frontier was the final, epic challenge of a lifetime.
Alone and in need of company, Christopher eventually tried to leave the bush. All isolationists experience a certain hunger for casual conversation over cold beers. Unfortunately for him, the Teklanika River, only a lazy watershed just a few months before, was swollen with snowmelt. He was essentially trapped.
Nobody knows what he experienced emotionally and physically as he trudged back to camp, lonely and defeated. Having been there before, I can postulate that he yearned for a warm bed, a hot meal, and a bear hug from mom.
Christopher died of starvation in an abandoned bus near Denali National Park. In a desperate state, he mistook a poisonous plant for its edible brethren. His attempt at living off the land ultimately failed, but he made an undeniably decent go of it.
Call him an idealist. Call him a mooch. Call him crazy. Alaskans chastised his lack of wilderness experience. Outdoorsmen criticized his survival instinct. Critics say sympathizers romanticize Christopher’s journey through life. Even the weekend warriors called him a neophyte, a rookie playing ball in the big leagues.
I feel he lacked proper preparation, having no map, compass or basic survival equipment. In a sense, he was unbelievably naïve to take on the Alaskan frontier as a willing minimalist.
But what he stood for was in direct opposition to the creature comforts of the American lifestyle. He pursued his dream of living in harmony with Mother Nature. I can respect that.
I’ve oscillated between feeling a tinge of anger toward the guy and admiring his freewill spirit. No good man would leave his mother in the dark. She deserves a phone call. I’ll always pen a simple courtesy note for a loved one before my departure in to the woods, even if it’s just for the day. From a safety perspective, it makes sense.
Those of us glued to a desk often daydream of those quiet, starry nights, wrapped snuggly in a sleeping bag near the heat of the fire. The primordial call of the wild will drag even the hardened city slicker to her doorstep. All of Christopher’s misguided philosophies aside, I believe when people feel angry or irritated with his story that they long to be set free from the trappings of Western civilization. Or perhaps they just don’t care for the kid.
There exists a nervous tick in some of us, a wild urge to leave it all behind. The concept is lost, however, upon death by exploration. To lose yourself in the great outdoors in hopes of finding a higher calling is admirable. To die is another story.


larry h. February 27, 2009 at 11:09 am

this kid was an idiot.

your mom February 27, 2009 at 1:10 pm

He obviously was NOT a good son!

osidenative February 28, 2009 at 8:48 am

He might have went about it all wrong, but at least he was livin’ it!! A lot of people dont have the balls to do what he did. Nice article.

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