Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487
Summary 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...
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six months, but astoundingly, he neglected to make arrangements for his trip back to civilization. McCunn's writings reveal that he became aware of his mistake when no one arrived to pick him up, and that although on one occasion, a plane did fly overhead, McCunn inadvertently sent it away by raising a single arm and waving as it passed by, unknowingly signalling that all was well. Having waited until he was too weak from starvation to attempt to walk out on his own, Carl McCunn finally committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
In his continuing efforts to better understand the workings of the vagabond mind as exhibited by Christopher McCandless, the author turns finally to the case of Everett Ruess, a young man who "walked into the desert (in southern Utah) and never came out." Ruess was born in Oakland, California in 1914, to a family which was very "tight-knit," but which relocated frequently. Ruess attended high school in Southern California and went on to study at the Otis Art Institute, and throughout those years embarked on a number of solo trips, first hitchhiking up the California coast, and then tramping alone through desolate areas of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Through his writings, Ruess communicated a "craving for connection with the natural world," and an almost euphoric joy in the freedom to wander at will. He adopted a series of new names for himself, including the moniker "Nemo," and pushed his body to the limits of its endurance on his solitary ventures. He was last known to have been camped among the ancient Anasazi ruins in desolate Davis Gulch, Utah. There is much speculation about what happened to him then: some believe he fell to his death while climbing the canyon walls, while others suggest that he was murdered, or went on to live somewhere else under an assumed identity. Whatever the case, Ruess, for all intents and purposes, disappeared at the tender age of twenty and, as far as anyone knows for sure, was never seen again.
Analysis In these chapters, the author, Jon Krakauer, presents a rationale for his consuming interest in Christopher McCandless, the man he calls a "pilgrim." In trying to pinpoint exactly what impels individuals like McCandless to do the things they do, Krakauer examines the lives of others who pursued similar undertakings, only to come to similarly tragic ends. Gene Rossellini, the "wayward genius" that Krakauer actually was acquainted with at one time, was much like McCandless in his athletic and intellectual giftedness, his love for reading, and his insistence on pursuing knowledge solely for its own sake. He lived to a much older age, however, than McCandless, and his death was apparently purposeful rather than the result of a miscalculation of the risks he was taking. John Mallon Waterman shared with McCandless a "fascination with the harsh side of nature," as well as an impractical orientation in approaching it, but unlike McCandless, Waterman was clearly mentally unstable. Carl McCunn resembled Chris McCandless in that both "displayed a staggering paucity of common sense," but, like Rossellini, McCunn lived to a much older age, and, from the information given about him, it appears that his final foray into the wild was more of an isolated venture than the expression of a lifestyle.
It is in uncovering the parallels between Christopher McCandless's life and that of Everett Ruess that Krakauer seems to come closest to reaching an understanding of the driving force that compelled both men to forsake society and immerse themselves repeatedly in the natural world alone. Wanderlust was a part of both men's makeup from their mid-teen years on. Both were romantics, envisioning nature as sublime and becoming exhilarated in its proximity, and both cared little about their own physical comfort and well-being, as long as they were free to roam according to the dictates only they could hear. Both men adopted pseudonyms that were expressive of their life philosophies, with McCandless calling himself Alexander Supertramp in a salute to his vagabond life, and Ruess taking the name Nemo, Latin for "nobody," which might underline his awareness of his own insignificance before the vast majesty of nature. Finally, both men ceased to be, overcome or swallowed by the wilderness they loved so much, after living only a little more than two short decades.
Although in the end Krakauer cannot give a name to the restless fire that burned within the souls of McCandless, Ruess, and others like them, he does manage to illuminate its nature by examining and comparing its manifestation in an array of similar individuals. Krakauer closes this section by citing the case of a group of Irish monks from the fifth and sixth centuries, who, in small open boats, crossed the uncharted ocean in search of "lonely places, where (they) might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil...of the world." Risking life and limb, they traveled increasingly farther northward in order to escape the encroaching onslaught of civilization so that they might live in isolation and tranquility. Krakauer compares their "courage...reckless innocence, and the urgency of their desire" to that of Christopher McCandless and Everett Ruess, men who were "kind of different, but...at least...tried to follow their dream," no matter what the cost.