Summary Christopher McCandless carried no identification when he ventured into the wild for the last time; when his body was found, no one knew who he was. A front page article about his discovery was published in the Anchorage Daily News, and was seen by Jim Gallien, who stepped forward, identified pictures of McCandless, and told authorities that the young hitchhiker had mentioned he was from South Dakota. Wayne Westerberg then heard of the tragedy on the radio in Carthage, and provided Alaska State Troopers with a social security number McCandless had written on a W-4 form he had filled out in order to work at the grain elevators. McCandless was traced to his permanent residence in Virginia with this information; although his parents had moved to nearby Maryland, authorities were able to contact Chris's half-brother Sam, and his identity was finally established.
Chris's father, Walter McCandless, is an imposing, authoritative man. Intense and highly intelligent, he is a leader who is "accustomed to calling the shots." Born in Colorado, he was hired by Hughes Aircraft and eventually settled in Southern California, marrying and fathering five children in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When his marriage to his first wife failed, Walt began dating Billie Johnson, a secretary at Hughes. On February 12, 1968, Walt and Billie had a son, whom they named Christopher Johnson McCandless.
From the time he was a toddler, Chris McCandless exhibited the precociousness and independence that would characterize his later life. His sister Carine remembers him as being "very to himself;" he was well-liked by everyone, but had a tendency to go off alone for hours on end. When Chris was six, the family moved to Virginia. Although Walt and Billie sometimes fought, the McCandlesses had good times together too, and especially enjoyed taking long trips around the United States. When Chris was eight, his father took him on his first overnight backpacking trip, and a few years later, the whole family attempted to climb Longs Peak, the highest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park. Walt, Chris, and one of Chris's half-brothers reached a point about a thousand feet from the top when Walt judged that it would be prudent to turn around. Chris was angered by this, and Walt realized that, had he been just a little older, there would have been no stopping him from continuing on his own. Walt remembers Chris as being "fearless even when he was little." The boy "didn't think the odds applied to him," and Walt and the rest of the family had to be constantly vigilant in keeping him from the edge in dangerous situations.
Chris was a good student, and excelled at anything that interested him. He played the guitar, piano, and French horn, and had a strong, pleasing singing voice. He tried a variety of sports, but lacked "the patience for learning the finer points of any of them," and resisted any attempts to coach him or help him refine his technique. Chris had "extraordinary energy" and always met a challenge "head-on." He found his athletic niche in the sport of distance running and became one of the top competitors in the region.
As a teenager, Chris began to think deeply about life and the state of the world. He was always questioning, and he took society's inequities to heart. In particular, Chris could not understand how people could be allowed to go hungry in a country as affluent as the United States, and in a personal attempt to alleviate the situation, he would go down to the seedy areas in town, bringing food and hanging out with the homeless. During his...
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senior year in high school, Christopher announced to his parents that he had no intention of going to college, but his parents vehemently opposed this idea. Surprisingly, Chris acquiesced to their wishes in this regard, enrolling at Emory University in Georgia. Before the beginning of his freshman year, however, Chris embarked on the first of a series of solitary road trips, packing up his car and heading across the country to California.
Chris was gone that entire summer, and although his family had made him promise to phone home every three days, his calls quickly became less frequent, until they ceased altogether. After departing from home in Virginia, he drove south to Texas, and then west through New Mexico and Arizona until he reached the Pacific Coast. On his way back, Christopher became lost in the Mojave desert and almost died of dehydration. He arrived back at his parents' home two days before the start of the fall semester, scruffy-looking and gaunt, having lost thirty pounds.
Chris adjusted to life at Emory unexpectedly well. He made nearly perfect grades, started writing for the school newspaper, and even talked about pursuing a law degree after matriculation. At the end of both his freshman and sophomore years, Chris returned home to work, first at his parents' company, and then at a pizza joint. Despite his professed disdain for money, he was amazingly adept at accumulating it; he was a natural entrepreneur. During these years, Chris's relationship with his parents was uncharacteristically cordial, but during the summer before his junior year, he became increasingly angry and withdrawn, and their relationship deteriorated markedly.
As it turns out, Chris had made an unwelcome discovery while visiting relatives in California on his road trip two years earlier. Christopher had learned from family friends that his father had continued his relationship with his first wife long after Chris was born, and had, in essence, been living a double life in secret, dividing his time between two households. Chris was devastated upon learning of this betrayal, and his rage smoldered unexpressed for two years before boiling to the surface that summer. Unable to forgive the deceitfulness of his father, he confided to his sister Carine that his "entire childhood seem(ed) like a fiction," but he never confronted his parents with the information he had uncovered. Instead, Chris grew more and more distant, until, by the end of his junior year at Emory, he was barely communicating with them at all. During the summer before his senior year, Christopher took off on another extended road trip, visiting Alaska for the first time. His parents saw Chris for the last time at his graduation; after that occasion, at which Walt and Billie thought that their son "seemed happy," he donated the remaining money in his bank account to charity, loaded up his car, and disappeared forever from their lives.
Carine McCandless was the one person who was "uncommonly close" to her enigmatic brother Chris. A year younger, she looks enough like him so that they were often mistaken for twins, and she exudes the same confidence and self-assurance that so characterized her sibling. Carine is much more steady in temperament, however, than Christopher ever was. Although she too clashed with their parents during her teenage years, she has since made peace with them, and they enjoy a good relationship. Carine loves the company of others, and her intensity of spirit is tempered by a level head and an essentially tranquil nature. Carine accompanied their half-brother Sam to Alaska to bring home Christopher's remains. Chris's passing affected Carine deeply, as it did his entire family.
Analysis In this section, the author offers a more extensive analysis of the character of Christopher McCandless than at any other point in the book. He illustrates McCandless's lifelong precociousness by describing how, at age two, he was able to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and navigate to a neighbor's house down the street to pilfer sweets from their candy drawer, and as a third grader, he independently negotiated his teacher and school administrators to be removed from a gifted program in which he had been placed. Small in stature, McCandless was extremely coordinated and active, and, when intrigued, singularly intense. His method of operation in approaching anything which interested him, whether it be a sport, a school subject, or a social cause, was to jump in and immerse himself completely in the experience, with little regard for learning intricate complexities of the discipline in advance. It is this orientation to life, evidenced from early childhood, that Christopher McCandless exhibited in embarking on his fateful journey into the Alaskan wilds.
The single element that repeatedly comes to the surface in examining McCandless's personality is the contradiction in his character. Social and well-liked, he was also a loner, an expert in cutting others out of his life when so inclined. He disdained school and artificial recognitions, but consistently earned high grades, and although he had an aversion to the concept of wealth, he was extremely adept at making money. Chris could be generous to a fault, but was most often unreasonably self-absorbed. Although his attitudes toward social inequity and the distribution of wealth were clearly liberal, he ridiculed the Democratic Party, and politically was an ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan.
It was inevitable that McCandless's quality of quirky inconsistency manifested itself most significantly in his relationship with his family. Although there is no doubt that his parents loved him, their relationship with their son was turbulent at best. Walt McCandless in particular spent a lot of time with Chris while he was growing up, and although they were bound to clash, given the fact that Walt had an imposing, authoritarian nature while Chris vehemently "just didn't like being told what to do," the extent of Christopher's alienation from his family is puzzling, as so many paradoxes highlight his behavior toward them. At his high school graduation, Christopher gave Walt an extravagant gift, punctuated with an emotional declaration of appreciation for all his father had done for him, then immediately afterward took off on the first of many solo road trips during which he essentially did not communicate with his family at all. Although he had stated unequivocally that he was not going to college, Chris gave in to his parents' wishes and earned a degree, excelling academically. It is significant that the last communication Chris shared with his parents was in sending them his final grades shortly after graduation; it was as if he felt compelled to do this one more thing for them, and, having fulfilled this obligation, was free to cut himself off from them forever. Chris admired many literary figures and was apparently able to overlook their personal weaknesses, but he but could not extend that same leniency to his father after learning of his infidelity to his family. When Christopher McCandless died, his parents had not heard from him in more than two years. There was no reconciliation and no good-bye; Walt and Billie were only left to wonder what drove their son to take the risks he seemed so compelled to take and abandon them so completely.