Christopher McCandless: A Journey into the Wild


Christopher Johnson McCandless, known by his alias Alexander Supertramp, embarked on a remarkable and ultimately tragic journey into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992. His adventure, chronicled by Jon Krakauer in "Into the Wild" and later adapted into a film by Sean Penn, has captivated the imagination of many. McCandless's story is one of self-discovery, idealism, and the relentless pursuit of freedom. However, it is also a story that has sparked controversy and debate, with some viewing him as a heroic figure and others as a naive and reckless young man.

This essay delves into the life of Christopher McCandless, exploring his background, motivations, travels, and the circumstances surrounding his untimely death in the Alaskan wilderness.

Early Life and Influences

Christopher McCandless was born on February 12, 1968, in El Segundo, California, to Walter "Walt" McCandless and Wilhelmina "Billie" Johnson. He had a younger sister named Carine. The family later settled in Annandale, Virginia, where his father worked as an antenna specialist for NASA, and his mother was employed as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft.

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Despite the appearance of a stable family life, tension and conflicts, including thoughts of divorce, were not uncommon in the McCandless household.

McCandless's family history was complicated by his father's unresolved previous marriage, which he discovered during a summer trip to Southern California in 1986. This revelation left a deep-seated bitterness towards his father and may have played a role in shaping his critical views of society. McCandless displayed early signs of strong-willed determination and idealism, traits that would define his future adventures.

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His high school years at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, revealed a young man who not only excelled academically but also demonstrated an unyielding sense of idealism. As the captain of the cross-country team, McCandless encouraged his teammates to view running as a spiritual exercise, a means to combat the darkness and hatred he saw in the world.

In June 1986, McCandless graduated from high school and embarked on one of his first major journeys. He traveled across the country in his Datsun B-210, eventually arriving at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His upbringing in an upper-middle-class family and his academic achievements fueled his disdain for what he perceived as the shallow materialism of society. Influenced by the writings of authors like Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, W. H. Davies, and Henry David Thoreau, he rejected conventional notions of success and honors, even declining an invitation to join the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

McCandless graduated from Emory in 1990 with a Bachelor's degree in history and anthropology. His vision was to disconnect from organized society and embark on a Thoreauvian period of solitary contemplation. The stage was set for his remarkable travels.

Travels and Philanthropy

In May 1990, Christopher McCandless made a selfless and unconventional decision. He donated the remaining $24,000, intended for his law degree, to Oxfam International, a charity organization dedicated to hunger prevention. This act of philanthropy marked the beginning of his extraordinary journey.

McCandless adopted the name "Alexander" during his travels and later embraced the moniker "Supertramp," likely inspired by the Welsh author W. H. Davies and his autobiography, "The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp." His travels led him through states such as Arizona, California, and South Dakota, where he even worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. His experiences were far from conventional; he survived a flash flood and relinquished his car, which was later used by the local police.

In 1991, McCandless embarked on a daring adventure, paddling a canoe down remote stretches of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. His approach to survival was minimalist, relying on his resourcefulness and limited funds. He took pride in his ability to thrive with minimal gear and little preparation.

The Alaskan Odyssey

For Christopher McCandless, the ultimate dream was an "Alaskan Odyssey." He yearned to live off the land in the rugged Alaskan wilderness, far removed from civilization, and seek a deeper understanding of himself. This desire to explore the untamed wilderness and find inner peace was a driving force in his life.

In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Enderlin, North Dakota, to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he began the fateful leg of his journey. His encounter with Jim Gallien, a local who gave him a ride to the head of the Stampede Trail, is a critical moment in his story. Gallien, concerned about McCandless's lack of supplies and experience in the Alaskan wilderness, tried to dissuade him from proceeding. He offered assistance and even offered to drive him to Anchorage to purchase proper equipment, but McCandless declined, opting for a pair of rubber boots, sandwiches, and corn chips.

McCandless's journey into the wilderness led him to an abandoned bus near Lake Wentitika in Denali National Park and Preserve. This bus would serve as his shelter and base of operations. Armed with 10 pounds of rice, a rifle, books on local plant life, and camping equipment, he believed he could sustain himself by foraging for plant food and hunting game.

Over the course of several months, McCandless's journal documented his daily struggles and triumphs as he encountered the forces of nature. He successfully hunted porcupines, squirrels, and various birds but faced challenges like the spoilage of a moose he had killed. As the days turned into weeks, he realized that returning to civilization would not be as straightforward as he had imagined.

In July, after living in the bus for three months, McCandless decided to leave. However, he found his path back blocked by the Teklanika River, which had become swifter and higher than when he first crossed it. Unbeknownst to him, there was a hand-operated tram nearby that could have facilitated his return to safety. Unfortunately, McCandless remained unaware of this option.

As McCandless's days in the wilderness stretched into August, he penned what would become his final journal entry on August 12, 1992: "Beautiful Blueberries." It was a poignant reflection on his connection to the natural world he had come to love. He was later discovered, lifeless, in his sleeping bag inside the bus on September 6, 1992, by a local hunter named Butch Killian. McCandless had succumbed to starvation, weighing a mere 30 kilograms (66 pounds).

Controversies and Theories Surrounding His Death

The circumstances of Christopher McCandless's death have sparked debates and theories. Jon Krakauer suggests two contributing factors to his demise. Firstly, McCandless may have been at risk of "rabbit starvation" due to his increased physical activity, which was not met with sufficient caloric intake from lean game he hunted. Secondly, Krakauer speculates that McCandless might have consumed toxic seeds or mold, particularly from the Hedysarum alpinum plant. This mold, known as Rhizoctonia leguminicola, produces the toxic alkaloid swainsonine.

However, it's important to note that extensive laboratory testing did not confirm the presence of toxins in McCandless's food supplies. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), conducted tests that found no toxins or alkaloids. In the absence of conclusive evidence, some argue that McCandless's death can be attributed to his inability to secure enough food to survive, combined with his isolation and weakened state.

Notably, the academic Ronald Hamilton proposed that McCandless died of lathyrism, a condition caused by ODAP poisoning from Hedysarum alpinum seeds. This theory gained traction when subsequent tests revealed the presence of ODAP in the seeds. Hamilton suggested that the toxic protein, which would be relatively harmless to a well-fed individual on a regular diet, proved deadly for McCandless due to his malnourished, physically stressed, and irregular eating habits.

Despite these theories and debates, one thing remains clear: Christopher McCandless's venture into the Alaskan wilderness was marked by a series of choices that placed him in a perilous situation. His lack of preparedness, failure to bring essential equipment, and absence of communication with the outside world were contrary to established principles of outdoor survival. As Peter Christian, an Alaskan Park Ranger, bluntly stated, "Chris McCandless committed suicide."

Criticism and Interpretations

McCandless's story has evoked mixed reactions from the public and experts alike. Some, like Jon Krakauer, view him as a courageous explorer, driven by a desire to venture into the unknown and escape the confines of a mapped world. According to Krakauer, McCandless's decision to discard his map was symbolic of his quest to keep a part of the world uncharted, at least in his mind.

On the other hand, many Alaskans and experienced outdoor enthusiasts criticize McCandless for what they perceive as recklessness and a profound lack of common sense. His failure to bring a compass, ignorance of the nearby hand-operated tram, and inadequate preparations are viewed as clear examples of his inexperience and naivety.

Sherry Simpson, in her piece for the Anchorage Press, shared the sentiment of many, oscillating between viewing McCandless as someone with a death wish or as a romanticized figure on a quest. The complexity of McCandless's character and choices continues to puzzle those who examine his life and legacy.


In conclusion, the life and journey of Christopher McCandless represent a unique and thought-provoking chapter in the exploration of human nature and the wilderness. His story raises questions about idealism, recklessness, and the pursuit of a life less ordinary. While opinions about McCandless differ, there is no denying that his journey into the wild remains a powerful and enduring tale of adventure and tragedy.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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Christopher McCandless: A Journey into the Wild. (2016, Mar 09). Retrieved from

Christopher McCandless: A Journey into the Wild essay
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