Summary The story opens with the introduction of Jim Gallien, a union electrician who was the last person to see Christopher McCandless before he embarked on his fateful journey into the wild. Gallien was on his way to Anchorage, Alaska, when he picked up a hitchhiker a few miles out of Fairbanks. The hitchhiker was small and wiry, said he was from South Dakota, and was twenty-four years old. He gave his name only as Alex, and asked for a ride up to the edge of Denali National Park, where he proclaimed his intention of walking into the wilderness to live off the land for awhile.
The two men talked on the two-hour drive to Denali Park. Alex struck Gallien as an intelligent, educated individual, but his plans were disturbing to the older man. Alex's gear seemed "exceedingly minimal" for the harsh conditions Gallien knew he would encounter; he carried only a ten-pound bag of rice, a rifle too small to be of much use in killing large animals, "no ax, no snowshoes, no compass." The only navigational device the young adventurer carried was a tattered state road map, and when the two men crossed a bridge over the swollen Nenana River, Alex admitted to being afraid of the water, having almost died once when he was caught in a storm while canoeing on the ocean. Even so, Alex brushed off Gallien's concerns about his readiness to deal with the difficulties he would almost certainly encounter on his quest. Alex insisted that he would be able to handle any situation that might arise, and when Gallien generously offered to take him to Anchorage and buy him the equipment he would need to better ensure his survival, Alex politely but firmly declined. When they reached their destination, Alex gave Gallien his watch, comb, and some loose change, declaring that he did not care to know the time, date, or his location during his sojourn in the wilderness. Gallien in turn convinced the youth to take his old work boots and the lunch his wife had packed; Alex then happily embarked on foot onto the Stampede Trail, on Tuesday, April 28, 1992.
The Stampede Trail was blazed in the 1930s by an Alaskan miner, Earl Pilgrim. Thirty years later, in the 1960s, a Fairbanks company was contracted to upgrade the trail, and three old buses, outfitted with bunks and barrel stoves, were hauled into the wilderness to house construction workers. No bridges were built over the many waterways intersecting the trail, and about fifty miles of roads were completed before it was discovered that they would be regularly rendered impassable by rushing rivers fed by thawing snow and seasonal floods. The project was halted after two years; the Fairbanks company took back its equipment, but left one bus behind to serve as a shelter for passing hunters and trappers. The bus lies beside the Stampede Trail just beyond the eastern boundary of Denali Park. The Stampede Trail itself is a route that is seldom traveled, and on the majority of state road maps it is not even marked.
On September 6, 1992, three moose hunters set out for an area in Denali Park known to be flush with game. They crossed the dangerously swollen Teklanika River, which they described as spanning "seventy-five feet across and (being) real swift." Utilizing heavy-duty vehicles, they switched to ATVs on the trail to the bus. It is not unusual for months to pass without a single human being visiting the vicinity of the shelter, but on that day a number of passersby happened to gather. When the three hunters arrived, they found a couple from Anchorage standing near the shelter "looking kinda spooked," and...
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noticed "a real bad smell" coming from inside the bus. A handwritten note was taped to the door, which was ajar. The note was a neatly written plea for help, signed by Chris McCandless and dated in August. As the young couple, who were first on the scene, were too upset to look inside the bus, one of the hunters took on the task. He discovered the young adventurer's badly decomposed remains in a sleeping bag; he had been dead for approximately two-and-a-half weeks. An autopsy showed that the probable cause of death was starvation; there were no signs of massive injury but "virtually no subcutaneous fat remained on the body, and the muscles had withered significantly." At the time of examination, McCandless' body weighed only sixty-seven pounds. Chris McCandless had no identification on his person when he died. Aside from his name, authorities had no idea who he was or why he was there.
Analysis In Chapters 1 and 2 of Into the Wild, the author, Jon Krakauer, describes the beginning and the end of Christopher McCandless's venture into the wild, setting the stage for his exploration into the strange life and death of the young man. The chapters serve as the first part of a framing device; the narrative begins and ends with McCandless's death by starvation, alone in the deepest isolation of the Alaskan wilderness. In between the twin tableaux which focus on McCandless's last journey, the author will examine the young man's background and relationships, and provide analyses of his character by drawing parallels between his persona and that of other men, including the author himself, who, throughout history, exhibited the same inexplicable yearning to wander and experience the challenge of taking on the natural world alone.
Jim Gallien, who shares his insights in Chapter 1 on the affable young hitchhiker he picked up in April 1992, gave McCandless a ride from Fairbanks to the point in Denali National Park which was the starting point of his fateful final journey. In the short time that he knew McCandless, who called himself Alex, Gallien was able to pinpoint the unique elements of the young man's personality that compelled him to undertake such a monstrous challenge, as well as those deficiencies which made it almost inevitable that he would not survive. Gallien found Alex to be "congenial and well-educated," and although he considered his plans to be "foolhardy" and thought that he was woefully unprepared for such an undertaking, he really believed that, when Alex realized the reality of his situation, he would just do "what any normal person would do," and walk back out of the bush to the highway. Alex's approach to his venture evidenced a complicated mixture of pragmatism and idealism. He asked Gallien "thoughtful questions" about the type of game he might encounter in the area and the kinds of berries he could eat, but on the other hand, he expressed a vitriolic disdain for government and other authority, as well as an unshakable resolve to cut himself off from society and its conventions, and strike out completely and unequivocally on his own.
Gallien tried mightily to point out the dangers inherent in Alex's plans, and repeatedly attempted to talk him out of proceeding, at least until he increased his level of preparedness. Exhibiting the single-minded determination which characterized his behavior throughout his short life, however, Alex "had an answer for everything," and stubbornly refused to be dissuaded even a little from pursuing his objective. The traits Gallien noted about Alex's character, particularly his high-minded but impractical idealism and his obsessive drive to do things on his own terms, will later in the narrative be revealed to have manifested themselves repeatedly throughout his life and to have caused many of his enterprises to end in fiasco. Gallien portrays Alex in these beginning chapters as a thoughtful dreamer whose unique vision compelled him to exceed his capabilities and clouded his ability to see clearly and rationally. Considering the amount of time he actually spent with Alex, Gallien's depiction is remarkably astute; the more in-depth examination of Alex's life which is presented in the body of the book will show that the impression Gallien drew from his brief encounter with the young hitchhiker was essentially right on target.
In addition to providing an introductory portrait of Christopher McCandless in these opening chapters and outlining the vagaries of his personality, the author vividly describes the setting where Alex met his demise. Isolated and undeniably pristine, the Alaskan wilderness which was so seductive to the young adventurer is naturalistically presented as "an unforgiving place...that cares nothing for hope or longing." The beauty of the wild is based on its unspoiled vastness and grandeur, but its allure is not necessarily a welcome, and human life is insignificant and ultimately powerless in the face of its majesty.