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Bourke’s Bookshelf: ‘I now walk into the wild’

This week's Nonfiction November feature is "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer.

Into the Wild
This week's Nonfiction November feature is "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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A $500,000 federal grant announced last month will help the University of Alaska Museum of the North preserve an old public transit bus.

Theresa Bourke headshot

Why such a significant amount of money on an 80-year-old, rundown bus? Because it’s the bus where 24-year-old Chris McCandless died in 1992 after adventuring into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land. Journalist Jon Krakauer wrote a 9,000-word article about the life, travels and untimely death of McCandless the following year in “Outside” Magazine. As contacts came out of the woodwork in response to the article, Krakauer continued his research on the young man, turning his findings into the 1996 book “Into the Wild.” The story came to the big screen in 2007, with Emile Hirsch playing McCandless.

‘Into the Wild’ by Jon Krakauer

Always an adventurous soul, Chris McCandless took to the road after graduating from college and didn’t look back. He left without a word to his family in 1990, and the next time his siblings or parents would receive any information on his whereabouts was two years later, when they were told Chris was found dead in Alaska.

His travels took him from his homebase of Annandale, Virginia, out west to California, Nevada and Arizona, up to South Dakota and eventually farther north to Alaska, the object of his desire. Krakauer pieced together McCandless’ movements during this time through personal journals and later testimony from those the traveler met and befriended on the way. Knowing all along he wanted to end up in Alaska, McCandless finally made it to the remote Stampede Trail in April 1992. From there, he did just what he said he wanted to do — he lived off the land.

After finding an old, abandoned Fairbanks City Transit bus that had been used as accommodations for a construction company in the 1960s, McCandless set up camp. His journals detail the game he hunted — from squirrels to porcupines and even a moose — and the plants he foraged.

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Notes in the margins show what books he read during the time and hint at how he was feeling about life in general.

Finally ready to re-enter civilization in July 1992, McCandless set out to leave the bus and the wilderness behind but found his path blocked by the Teklanika River, which had swollen with late-summer glacial runoff.

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The rest of his days are somewhat of a mystery, but Krakauer does his best to theorize what happened to McCandless in those final weeks of his life.

The last journal entry from “Day 107” reads simply “BEAUTIFUL BLUE BERRIES.” A photograph of McCandless from around that time was recovered, showing his thin self waving at the camera with a smile on his face and a note that read “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL.”

On Sept. 6, 1992, a group of hunters came upon the bus and discovered McCandless’s decaying body inside. He was believed to have died sometime in August from starvation.

Krakauer’s most plausible theory has McCandless suffering from starvation by burning more calories than he was taking in each day. He then appears to have eaten the seeds from Hedysarum alpinum, a plant known as wild potatoes to the natives in the region. While the seeds themselves weren’t necessarily harmful to McCandless, Krakauer posits they had grown mold after being stored in a plastic bag and essentially poisoned him.

Other writers have theorized that McCandless could not have survived on his food supply and simply starved to death.

I enjoyed “Into the Wild” not only for McCandless’s story, but also for the parallels Krakauer draws between the young traveler and others before him who suffered similar fates while chasing adventure. Even Krakauer, an accomplished mountain climber, sees bits of McCandless’s thrill-seeking nature in himself.

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After the book

Regardless of the exact circumstances, McCandless’s story is a sad but intriguing one. The peculiarity of his story drew curious adventurers out to the Stampede Trail to visit Bus 142 and see exactly where McCandless met his tragic demise.

For two hikers in 2010 and 2019, the trip across the Teklanika River to the bus proved fatal. The site was eventually deemed a public safety hazard, and the Alaska Army National Guard flew the bus out via helicopter in 2020 to prevent further incidents.

But visits to the bus weren’t the only outcomes of Krakauer telling McCandless’ story. While the writer includes interviews with Chris’ parents, Walt and Billie McCandless, and his sister Carine, in an effort to understand the desire to leave without a word, it appears there was a little more to the family than he found.

Carine McCandless, Chris’ younger sister with whom he shared a close relationship, became outspoken about her upbringing in the years since the book and movie came out. In her 2014 memoir, “The Wild Truth,” Carine tells of the physical abuse she and Chris endured at the hands of their father and many public lies their parents told.

While Carine’s writings appear to shed a little light on Chris’ motives, it sounds like his story takes an even more depressing turn.

I haven’t read “The Wild Truth” yet, but it’s now on my list, and if I can trust the majority of reviews I’ve seen, it promises to be another enthralling read.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: BOOKS
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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