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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

This story overflows with vivid descriptions of the country McCandless traversed, and a reader can easily trace his peregrinations by pencil on an atlas of the continental United States, although some smaller or more obscure place names may prove elusive and tricky. This account also travels back and forth through time as Krakauer includes sharp descriptions of the forbidding Alaskan terrain that McCandless battled in his doomed bid to survive and the ice-locked mountainside that nearly claimed Krakauer himself as a young man. These Alaskan depictions are especially graphic, striking, and thrilling—probably because this land and the bus that became his home on the Stampede Trail constitute the cold and mysterious heart of Krakauer's haunting narrative.

Descriptions of Chris's middle-class upbringing are full of references to a bustling blended family and the kind of high school and university activities that many young people will find comfortably familiar. He was always a precocious little boy with a gift for making money, competing athletically, and excelling at just about anything he attempted. His parents had come from humble backgrounds and grew affluent as they raised their family in a comfortable Virginia suburb. This picture of middle-class comfort contrasts sharply with one story about a teenaged Chris dragging a friend into a destitute Washington, D.C. neighborhood, armed with good intentions and a bag of hamburgers for the homeless. More starkly different yet are the descriptions of his largely bohemian lifestyle on the road.

His ill-fated journey began in the Mojave desert where, startled by the flash flood from a sudden storm, McCandless just managed to escape, though his beloved Datsun automobile was abandoned to the mud. His travels began in earnest after this adventure, as he subsisted on charity from others, on what he could scavenge, and on rice, the unfailing standby. He traveled through the western states from Washington to California and points between, with stopovers in Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada, the Pacific Crest Trail, a scruffy dirt ranch in Northern California, and the Idaho Panhandle, to name only a few.

Terse descriptions resplendent with telling detail make the countryside spring to life, and many locations are brought into powerful relief through the author's detailed portraits of the people who live there. McCandless bought an aluminum canoe in Arizona and paddled down the lower Colorado River, through an ascetic landscape filled with cacti, serene desert, and shimmering salt flats spread before mountains. That voyage took him all the way to Mexico, where he nearly drowned in rough water in the Gulf of California. He later celebrated New Year's Eve here by watching the moon rise over the Great Desert. Wending his way north again, he was caught sneaking back over the United States border and was forced to spend a night in jail.

McCandless now lived off the wiles of a hobo during peregrinations through Texas, along the Pacific Coast, and through cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where he lived on the street and hated the feeling of confinement. Especially pertinent are honest and realistic descriptions of places like Carthage, South Dakota, and sprawling Bullhead, Arizona, where he tried to settle down for a while, first camping outside town and then squatting in a trailer. He seemed briefly happy here while holding down a job in a local fast food restaurant, but he still could not bring himself to conform—only wearing socks under duress and annoying management with his casual hygiene. On another occasion, McCandless visited friends at an old abandoned Navy airbase called the "Slab," which had become the site of a mobile freetown of wildly assorted vagabonds whose only common denominator was that they were footloose and traveling on the same road. Here Chris gave an impromptu concert on a portable electric organ at a flea market and dazzled listeners with his musical talent. He even rode...

(The entire section is 1,762 words.)