In April of 1992 a young man named Chris McCandless, from a prosperous and loving family, hitchhiked across the country to Alaska. He gave $25,000 of his savings to charity, left his car and nearly all of his possessions. He burned all the cash he had in his wallet, and created a new life. Four months later, his body was found in an abandoned bus. Jon Krakauer constructed a journalistic account of McCandless’s story. Bordering on obsession, Krakauer looks for the clues to the mystery that is Chris McCandless. What he finds is the intense pull of the wilderness on our imagination, the appeal of high-risk activities to young men.
When McCandless’s mistakes turn out to be fatal he is dismissed for his naiveté. He was said by some to have a death wish, but wanting to die and wanting to see what one is capable of are too very different things. I began to ask myself if Chris really wasn’t as crazy as some people thought. Then I realized it was quite possible that the reason people thought he was crazy was because he had died trying to fulfill his dream. If he had walked away from his adventure like Krakauer, people would have praised him rather than ridicule. So I asked the question, “How does Krakauer’s life parallel Chris McCandlesses?”
Chris and Jon’s life have many parallels and contrasts at the same time. Both gave up most of their possessions to go after a dream they had. Ones dream was to live off the land in the remote regions of Alaska, the other too climb the Devils Thumb, a mountain peak that had never been scaled by man. Each man was aware of the risks, but were they equally prepared when each began their own adventure? I feel that Chris McCandless was at a disadvantage when he first started off. Raised by a wealthy family and just graduating from Emory University I feel he wasn’t as prepared as he could have been.
Fortunately his father had taken him on hiking trips so he was at least somewhat familiar with the wilderness but in no way was he prepared at all for the severity of the Alaskan wilderness. I think it would have been quite a feat just for Chris to have been able to live off the land in a local forest. To be fair to Chris I’m sure Krakauer didn’t start off by just one day deciding he would climb the Devils Thumb after he was inspired by making it up the climbing wall at the local county fair. Both men had to gradually work their way up to accomplishing their goals. Jon did this by many other smaller climbs and Chris worked his way up by studying nature books and roaming across the U.S. So in this way Jon and Chris were alike even though their goals were different.
Another way the two were similar was the fact that they both had family problems. Though his parents and sister loved him Chris secretly despised his parents for covering up the fact that his father had been raising two separate families. Just like Chris’s father Lewis Krakauer had already begun to prepare him for a career that he didn’t want to be any part of. I think both sons were consumed by a sort of blind rage when they found out that their fathers were less than perfect. This anger fueled them to rebel and go against their fathers wishes to make their own futures.
The biggest (and most obvious) difference between Jon and Chris is that one died living out his dream and the other lived to walk away from it. Most people would say that Chris failed because his goal was to survive in the wilderness. Others would say that Jon succeeded because he made it too the top and lived to tell his tale. However were the incidents really that different? Chris lived in the Alaskan wilderness almost a hundred days before his fateful mistake that cost him his life. Jon also had a few fateful mistakes that could have cost him his life but didn’t, like the time he caught his tent on fire or when his supply plane couldn’t come because of bad weather.
Most people wouldn’t even dream of doing either of these feats. When the risks are as high as either of these men faced, even the most simple of mistakes can prove fatal. I think that if Chris was seen as a failure then so should Jon. I think this because Jon’s original goal was to climb the unclimbed section of The Devils Thumb. When Jon could not accomplish this he backtracked and found an easier, already climbed path. However I think that both men were successful in their own ways. Chris survived for an extended period of time without the help of civilization but due to the poisonous potato seeds he ate he was too weak to hike back to civilization. Jon realized his limitations and knew he was forced to lower his goal or face death. If anyone was a failure it was Jon because he backed down from his initial goal.
Ever since I was a small boy I have been an outdoorsman. I love to go camping and go on hikes. At summer camp I would climb the rock piles and go exploring. I can relate to both Jon and Chris’s need for adventure. Even here at college I continue to love the outdoors. I use the climbing tower at the ARC, go snowboarding on the sledding hill, and go running on ROTC trails (during warm weather). But even though I love the outdoors I still don’t have what it takes to do what either of these men tried to do. I know my limitations and wouldn’t want to risk my life foolishly. I know its possible that I could learn how to but unfortunately all my life I have been taught that someday I’ll go to college, get a good job, get married, have kids and live a happy, uneventful life.
Which is why I admire Jon and Chris, both had the courage to go against the norm of society and just go do what they felt like. Don’t get me wrong I love my life but some days I wish I could do what they did, just throw away all my possessions and worries and just do what I really want to do. Bob Marshal put it best when he said “For me, and for thousands with similar inclinations, the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. To us the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness” (Outdoorclub).
Ever since man began to explore we have had a desire to conquer and know the unknown. In the days of the Wild West young men would move their families westward in search of adventure and opportunity “the wild ones, the men of the wild frontier” (Wayne 1). This drive, this manifest destiny, “the great pressure of people moving always to new frontiers, in search of new lands, new power, the full freedom of a virgin world, has ruled our course and formed our polices lake a Fate,” (Weinberg 1) is what compelled Jon and Chris to go against the grain of society and follow their dreams. With fewer and fewer “New Frontiers” these two were forced to resort to one of the last unconquered regions of the world, Alaska. It was there that they faced their fears and overcame hardships to succeed.
In conclusion I think that one of the reasons Krakauer decided to write about Chris McCandless is the fact that he found so many disturbing coincidences about his own life that he felt obligated to tell Chris’s story. I think it is quite possible Jon feels guilty about having survived when Chris died. Either way, I think both men were success full even though they both had very different goals and outcomes.
Outdoorclub. 01 Mar. 2005
Wayne, Bennett. Men of the Wild Frontier. Champaign: Garrard Publishing
Weinberg, Albert. manifest Destiny. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935.