Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487
Before he authored Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer wrote an article about Christopher McCandless for the magazine Outside, a work which generated a good deal of vitriol in the form of communication condemning McCandless's demise as "a foolish, pointless death." These correspondences, many of which were sent by Alaskans, railed against Krakauer for glorifying an imprudent young man whom they believed simply "overestimated (him)self, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble." Krakauer responds by examining a sampling of "marginal characters" who have, throughout history and for various reasons, felt compelled to challenge the Alaskan wilderness alone, only to be found wanting. The author himself was acquainted with one of these individuals while camping near the Prince William Sound in 1981. The man's name was Gene Rossellini, and he was the son of a wealthy restaurateur and a cousin of a former governor of Washington State.
Like Chris McCandless, Rossellini was a very gifted young man, "a good athlete and a brilliant student" who "read obsessively." He maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average in both high school and college, and, again like McCandless, exhibited a disdain for conventionality and extrinsic rewards. Rossellini accumulated "hundreds of credit hours" in various subjects while in college, but never earned a degree; the joy he experienced in the pursuit of knowledge was reward enough for him. Upon leaving academia, he embarked on an "ambitious anthropological experiment" of his own design. Intent on discovering if it was possible for the human species to live independently of modern technology in his day and age, he purged himself of all but the most primitive of accoutrements, and set off in 1977 for Alaska, alone, to live off the land. Rossellini served as his own subject for his experiment for more than ten years, and ultimately concluded that it was not possible for human beings "in their present state of evolution" to survive in primal conditions. Switching course, he declared his intention of walking around the world while living out of a backpack, but before he could embark on this new endeavor, he was found dead on the floor of his cabin with a knife through his heart. Although the cause of death was determined to be suicide, Rossellini left no note, and his reasons for ending his life will most likely never be known.
Another character who exhibited a similar intensity in personality and an inexorable inclination to test the limits of his own endurance was John Mallon Waterman. The son of a freelance writer who authored speeches for United States presidents, Waterman was an avid mountain climber who at age sixteen became the third youngest person to successfully conquer Alaska's Mt. McKinley, which he called Denali. In 1978, he managed to accomplish the spectacular feat of scaling Alaska's Mt. Hunter's southeast spur, an undertaking in which he spent one hundred forty-five days on the mountain alone. Upon his return, he launched a political campaign for the United States presidency, and to publicize his candidacy, resolved to climb the southern face of Denali by himself, in winter, with a minimum of food. Waterman, whose mental stability had long been tenuous at best, was devastated when a series of attempts to fulfill his agenda failed. In March 1981, run down and discouraged, he tried to scale the mountain one last time, and did not return.
Carl McCunn was another quirky individual who was drawn to challenge the Alaskan wilderness alone. In March 1981, McCunn, a thirty-five-year-old amateur photographer, arranged to be dropped off at a remote lake by a bush pilot so that he could shoot pictures of the wildlife there. McCunn's plan was to remain in the wilderness for six months, but astoundingly,...
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