Summary Christopher McCandless arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, on April 25, 1992, courtesy of an Indiana man, Gaylord Stuckey, who was delivering a new motor home to an RV dealer in the city. Stuckey enjoyed McCandless's company immensely; Chris shared with him his plans to spend the summer alone in the bush, saying he "wanted to prove to himself that he could make it...without anybody else's help." McCandless also spoke about the bitterness he felt toward his father. Sensing that the young man came from a "nice family," Stuckey pleaded with him to call his parents to let them know where he was, but Christopher would not give him a definitive commitment. In Fairbanks, Christopher McCandless bought a ten-pound bag of rice, and asked Stuckey to drop him off at the university so he could do a little research on the kinds of plants he could eat. McCandless stayed in the area for three days, bought a field guide to the region's edible plants, then began hiking west to George Parks Highway. There he was picked up by Jim Gallien, who took him the rest of the way to the Stampede Trail.
Chris McCandless entered the wilderness with little more than a rifle, some ammunition, a bag of rice, a lunch contributed by Jim Gallien, and nine or ten paperback books. On his second day of hiking, he crossed the Teklanika River, which, in the early spring, was low enough to cross without difficulty. When he reached a point about twenty miles from where he had been dropped off by Gallien, McCandless came across an old bus abandoned by a construction company almost thirty years earlier. The bus was outfitted with a bunk, stove, and other crude amenities, and although he had originally planned to remain on the move during his time in the bush, Chris decided, for whatever reason, to make the bus his base camp for the remainder of the summer. Ironically, geographically speaking, the bus was relatively close to civilization, but for all practical purposes, Chris McCandless was cut off from the rest of the world, completely alone.
According to his diary entries, McCandless was "elated" to be in the wilderness. After a difficult start, he discovered rose hips and ligonberries, which he ate copiously. He also became successful at hunting small game. On one occasion, he killed a moose, but, after much effort, he found he could not preserve the enormous quantity of meat it provided. Forced to allow the majority of the carcass to go to waste, he was filled with remorse, and vowed not to violate his moral principles by engaging in such purposeless killing again. Except for the incident with the moose, McCandless seems to have enjoyed a period of relative contentment from the time he arrived in the wilderness at the end of April, until early July. At that time, his writings indicate that he had decided to end his sojourn and walk out of the bush. Christopher packed his belongings and headed back the way he had come two months previously. When he arrived at the Teklanika River, however, he found that the snowmelt from glaciers on the surrounding ranges had rendered the river impassable. McCandless chose at this point not to attempt to find a way to ford the river, and returned to the bus.
The author, Jon Krakauer, made his own pilgrimage to the bus in an attempt to understand how and why McCandless died. He surmised that, in all probability, Chris planned to wait until August, when the turbulent waters of the Teklanika would subside to a level at which it could be crossed. Whatever the...
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case, he settled back into his routine, biding his time. Although small game remained plentiful and edible plants were abundant, McCandless was burning more calories than he was consuming, and snapshots he took of himself show that he was extremely gaunt. Then, in late July, Chris McCandless made an error in judgment that, in his malnourished condition, he could not overcome. McCandless had been reading Boris Pasternak'sDoctor Zhivago at this time; a number of passages in the text had been highlighted, especially those that spoke of the purity of nature, and, surprisingly, the beauty of human relationships. Although it might be concluded that McCandless's "long, lonely sabbatical had changed him" and that he had discovered a new appreciation for intimacy and the company of others, the world will never know for sure. Doctor Zhivago was the last book Christopher McCandless would ever read; two weeks after he finished the book, there is an "ominous entry" in his journal, in which he described himself as having become "extremely weak," to the point that simply standing up was "much trouble." He placed the blame on potato seeds and stated that he was in "great jeopardy."
There are, in fact, a number of different types of potato seeds that are toxic if consumed in large quantities. The author examines a variety of possible scenarios in which McCandless might have mistaken a poisonous variety for a harmless one, and in the end, he concludes that McCandless was almost certainly killed by a particularly virulent species of mold that grew on a stash of potato seeds he had eaten before with no ill effects. Ingestion of this toxin would have prevented McCandless, in his already emaciated state, from processing anything else he ate into a source of usable energy; from July 30 on, Chris McCandless found himself in an inexorable slide toward death. On August 5, he triumphantly noted in his journal that he had made it to one hundred days on his own, but added that he was in the "weakest condition of his life...too weak to walk out." Although he managed to capture some small game in the succeeding days, the food was too little and too late to do any good. In his last journal entry dated August 12, McCandless wrote poignantly, "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all." He then crawled into his sleeping bag, slipped into unconsciousness, and died.
About a year later, the author returned to the bus with Chris McCandless's parents. Both Walt and Billie McCandless, taking in the beauty and serenity of the spot where their son died, were able to come to a better understanding of the forces that drew him. Billie examined Chris's meager possessions and reflected that he must have been "very brave and very strong, at the end, not to do himself in," while Walt admitted that although "there (was) much about Chris that still baffle(d) him," he was glad that he had come to see this place, and in so doing, had found a bit of solace. Billie left some supplies in the bus for anyone who might need them, along with a note urging whomever might read it to call their parents as soon as possible. Walt and Billie then took their leave of the site of their son's death, somewhat consoled, but with hearts heavy with the knowledge that Christopher was gone, and that they would have to live with that hurt for the rest of their lives.
Analysis The focus of the final chapters and Epilogue of Into the Wild are the last days of Christopher McCandless. Through a close examination of Chris's writings, as well as firsthand experience at the small patch of wilderness where he expired, the author, Jon Krakauer, seeks to piece together exactly what McCandless did in the nearly four months he spent alone in the bush. It is clear that McCandless tempered his original ambitions in the face of raw reality; whereas he had originally planned to walk five hundred miles to the Bering Sea, he instead ended up establishing his base camp a mere twenty miles from where he was dropped off by Jim Gallien. Although the place he chose for his great adventure "scarcely qualifies as wilderness by Alaska standards," it was isolated enough that he did not see a single human being during his entire stay there, and, in the end, it was "sufficiently remote to cost him his life."
Much has been said about the foolhardiness of McCandless's decision to challenge the Alaskan wilds in the manner that he did. Indeed, the author notes that had the young adventurer only thought to carry with him a topographical map of the area, he would have found that a half mile downstream from where he could not cross the swollen Teklanika was a gauging station which sported a thick steel cable spanning the river gorge, which could be crossed in an aluminum basket. Be that as it may, the author proposes that McCandless's oversight in not taking a map was in keeping with his objective: he wanted to explore "uncharted territory;" in the present-day absence of land that is truly unexplored, it made sense, in an inscrutably quirky way, for him to "simply (get) rid of the map." Chris McCandless's detractors deride him for what they perceive as his arrogance and incompetence; they believe he "lacked a requisite humility," and "possessed insufficient respect for the land." Krakauer counters that, although McCandless inarguably made numerous mistakes, he was far from incompetent, having survived for over a hundred days on his own. In the author's understanding, Chris McCandless loved the land intensely and found the greatest value in that which is not easily achieved. Challenging the wilderness, before whose power he stood in awe, McCandless "demanded much of himself—more, in the end, than he could deliver."
Jon Krakauer does not claim to have definitive answers to the questions raised by McCandless's death. In response to those who were so angered and offended by both the circumstances of his demise and the attention given to them, however, he presents a compelling alternative interpretation. To the author, Christopher McCandless, flawed and idiosyncratic though he was, was a seeker, and in challenging the wild on his own, he ultimately found fulfillment. Although no one will ever know what McCandless would have done had he emerged from the bush alive, it is evident from his writings that he was ready to return to civilization and had discovered an appreciation for the value of authentic human relationships which had always eluded him. In addition to writing his note of farewell, Chris, before he died, took one final photograph of himself. While his face is "horribly emaciated," his spirit is clearly at peace; he is smiling, his eyes are serene, and his hand is "raised in a brave, beatific farewell."