In 1990, twenty-four-year-old Chris McCandless left his upper-class neighborhood in suburban Virginia and set out on a two-year, hobo-style journey across the country in search of that illusive ghost we call freedom. He donated his college fund to charity, burned the cash in his wallet, and abandoned his car. Two years later, he died of starvation in the wilderness of Alaska. He found his freedom, but at a high price.
Author Jon Krakauer originally told the true story of Chris McCandless in an article for Outside magazine in 1996. The response was predictably unsympathetic. Many readers felt that Chris got what he deserved. Not only was he ignorant, many surmised, he had committed the more serious crime of arrogance by walking into the harsh Alaskan wilderness ill-prepared and unqualified for survival.
The criticism was understandable. Chris was wealthy. There’s little sympathy for the rich and their spiritual dilemmas. Furthermore, at twenty-four, he should have known better than to strike out into the wild without enough supplies or clothing. An angst-ridden teenager might have garnered some sympathy, but foolishness is unbecoming of a man.
From a literary perspective though, it’s totally irrelevant.
As Walter Bagehot once wrote, “All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality—the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.” McCandless’ story is a real-world tale of physical and spiritual escape, a tale of adventure, and a quest for something unseen. That search is something with which every reader can identify, regardless of their opinion of the method.
Jon Krakauer, an adventure-seeker himself, knew exactly where the story’s themes were buried. He begins each chapter with quotes from authors who have expounded on the virtues of nature and living on the edge of survival far from civilization. He offers examples of men who pursued almost identical paths as Chris McCandless. As the story progresses, we begin to feel that Chris was not a solitary quack, but rather one link in a long chain of individuals who decided that society’s comforts were unessential.
Of course, Chris’ journey would have faded into history long ago were it not for the journal and letters he wrote along the way. Notes made in the margins of books that he carried with him — books by Tolstoy, Jack London, Thoreau — also provided some insight into his thought process. Musings, such as the following paragraph, help readers view him more as a legitimate soul-searcher, rather than a self-absorbed drifter with a Jesus complex:
“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”
Krakauer’s book also has something now that it didn’t have when it was originally published — nostalgia. It would, after all, be hard to lose yourself in today’s world of smartphones and the internet. To close the Pandora’s Box of technology and shun contact with friends and family for two years would be a prison-sentence for most modern youths.
Into the Wild’s protagonist may have been naïve, rash, and even a little arrogant. He may, on the other hand, have been none of those things. It really doesn’t matter. Because who among us has not dreamed of shedding society’s chains and striking out into the unknown, to know the feeling at least once in a lifetime?
Chris McCandless may have done many things wrong in his search for freedom.
But at least he tried.