I remember hearing about this story...about a young man, Chris McCandless, who died in the Alaskan wild...and I remember wanting to read the book. It wasn't hearing about his death in 1992 that piqued my interested. No, I was only 12 years old then...playing soccer, being a cheerleader for the basketball team, enjoying my friends and family. It was in 2007 when Sean Penn directed a movie by the same title. Yes, at 17 when I was still playing soccer, dancing during basketball's halftime, and still enjoying my friends and family that I was introduced to Chris McCandless's story. I couldn't imagine leaving everything to live on my own, off of the land like he did. It just seemed too scary, too...lonely. And so I was intrigued.
And in the midst of high school graduation and preparing for college, Into the Wild was just another book on my long list of "to read."
Two weeks ago I was approached by a high school student who needed help with an essay. The assignment was to write an essay about how Chris McCandless is the perfect existentialist. I thought it was a pretty heavy topic for a regular high school English class, but I helped him the best I could without reading the book. I explained existentialism a bit more, tried to clarify it's meaning as he kept getting existentialism and transcendentalism confused...and was again reminded of the fact that I just really needed to read this book. He left his copy of the book with me to read and return to the library.
Two days later, I began reading. And I couldn't put it down. This is the first book in a long time that I enjoyed reading this much. My student hated the book, frankly. He was annoyed at McCandless's carelessness and selfishness. He was annoyed and agitated at the fact that he was willing to throw so much potential away, and to hurt his family in the process. I understand that point of view. I truly do. To me, however, I felt such compassion as I read. I was sad. I'm not going to go into all the nitty gritty existentialist stuff here, because, really, that's all debatable if he's the perfect example of one, and I don't want to get into that. However, I appreciate Chris's search, his quest, and his willingness to sacrifice it all to find...truth?
I find great comfort and joy in my faith. It has carried me through some of my darkest and most difficult times. Chris McCandless believed in God. I never got the impression that he didn't. In fact, just before he died, he wrote: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless you all!” It was his last entry, August 12, 1992, before his body suffered from starvation. Reading these pages made me think about my faith, and faith in general. I'm not really the soul-searching kind of person to the extent that McCandless was. But I wonder if that is what grounds me...figuratively and literally. I wonder about those who feel like they understand life, the purpose of it anyway, why people can be jerks sometimes and make horrible choices (even when they are members of our own family like in McCandless's case) ~ maybe those people who can see life through a religious/faith-filled lens don't have the desire to go to such extremes? I don't know. I really don't. What I did feel like I understood though, was his desire for more. More out of life. Not the "more" of material wealth or keeping-up-with-the-Jones's, but the real, deep MORE. And I think he sort of found it. I hope so anyway. Otherwise, it's just a really sad story. I like to think of his life and death as an inspiration to others...even if that inspiration is to stay on the path they are currently on (though he would most likely argue with that statement).
According to Jon Krakauer, Chris McCandless wasn't an idiot who was wreckless and just wanted an adventure. And I agree. (Of course I did read his admittedly biased biography on McCandless.) There was more than just wander-lust. It was purposeful. Living in an abandoned bus, off the land, alone, was purposeful to him. And I wonder what he would be doing now had he lived, had he been able to cross the river when he had prepared all his gear to come back home, had he brought a good map...and had he not eaten those molded seeds, because it was only after eating some moldy seeds, his body became infected with disease and he could no longer keep nutrition in his already lean body. He was losing weight. He was weaker and weaker each day. And he knew his time was expiring. And yet, in the last picture found on his Minolta camera, taken only a day or two before death, he is smiling. I think he had peace, even knowing his fate.
|To me, this picture is especially haunting.|
Some hold McCandless on a pedestal, valuing his willingness to give his life to find his purpose or whatnot. I don't do that. Though I believe there was a purpose in his ways, I don't accept them to be the right way. He didn't talk to his parents for 2 years. He took off and never talked to them. He carried a grudge, which I believe was fatal. In his immaturity, he acted in a way that cost him his life. More questions I had while reading...what would have happened had he talked to his father about his earlier actions...if he had swallowed his own pride, been the bigger man, and addressed the issue instead of running off without a word? Would he have still gone to Alaska? Probably. Nevertheless...these thoughts rack my mind. In my opinion, he didn't go out there to die or be some kind of hero. He went out there to find something that was missing in his life...and I think he had every intention on coming back to civilization when he realized he had fulfilled that void. In fact, there is evidence of that in his journal entries and annotations in the books he brought. Someone who is planning on living off the land forever...or who is on a suicide mission...doesn't take pictures.
And that is one of the reasons I love the book and I love Chris McCandless. It made me think, constantly, and I can't stop. I made me feel such deep compassion for this young man, and it still does. And, I'm way past the point of rambling I'm afraid...
In terms of the writing, it was great. There are a few words that were unnecessary, but in all fairness, they were quotes from interviews. Krakauer didn't write them in himself, but still...
All in all, it's a tragically good read.