Arts and Entertainment

‘Into the Wild’ explores professional loner's thirst for adventure

By Andy Hobbs, Mirror book review

So what was it about Chris McCandless, the idealistic hiker killed by his own ignorance?

As the subject of John Krakauer's documentary-esque book "Into the Wild," McCandless's story has blossomed into full-blown folklore for adventurists. It's also a cautionary tale of underestimating nature's position as king.

McCandless took freedom to the extreme while lusting after a hobo's lifestyle. Upon finishing a four-year degree with honors at Emory University, McCandless crossed through society's fringes and onto a blank page. At least it was blank in his mind's eye. Ever the dreamer, McCandless lost himself in novels by John Muir, Jack London and Leo Tolstoy, treating their prose like gospel.

The symbolism found in these authors' stories became McCandless's doctrine for living in an intensely personal world where he served as both leader and antichrist. He could run from salvation but couldn't hide.

He burned all his cash in the Arizona desert. Then he ditched his car and anything else chaining him to mainstream civilization. He found solace in loneliness, holding acquaintances at arm's length but bonding with people who cushioned his bare-bones sojourn. His super-searching mentality embodied the ultimate free spirit attitude, but also the tragic naivete of youth.

He hoped to cap this two-year odyssey with a terribly difficult test of survival in the Alaskan wilderness. It would be the pinnacle of his life as a "supertramp," the last hurrah before returning to society as a changed man. Previously, on an expedition along Mexico's beaches, he found luck catching fish to supplement his self-imposed rations of rice. He always carried several pounds of rice to fuel his lean and withering frame.

Despite stern warnings from fellow tramps and experienced outdoorsmen, McCandless felt ready to enter the wild. He surely understood the magnitude of this risk, as he wrote friends to remind them that he may not leave the Alaskan bush alive.

Carrying a handful of supplies, a puny rifle and no map, McCandless embarked on the Stampede Trail outside of Fairbanks. Several miles in, he encountered an abandoned bus. This became home-base as he foraged for berries and endured the trials and tribulations of hunting.

After three months in the wild and a handful of critical mistakes, McCandless died. Just weeks later, hikers discovered his corpse, wrapped in a sleeping bag aboard the abandoned bus.

Of course, more details can be found in Krakauer's riveting book to fill in the blanks. But what strikes the heart about McCandless is that he indeed lived for the moment, in case the next moment was his last.

A young man from upper-middle class America ditched life's conventional path to blaze a trail of his own. His travels were coated with an idiosyncratic spirituality that worshipped the Earth and shunned mankind.

But armed with tunnel vision and something to prove, one must wonder whether McCandless would choose the same fate if given another chance.

In his quest to distill life's primal pulses into a pure product, he neglected one vital detail to the story he intended to share upon leaving Alaska and re-entering civilization: The end.

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