Channeling Christopher McCandless
how I almost ended up going "into the wild"
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. — Jack London
IN LATE 2007, while working at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, I visited the town’s little movie theater to watch a new release: Into the Wild. I knew nothing about the story except that my mom loved the Jon Krakauer book on which it was based.
The theater was virtually deserted on this quiet weekday afternoon, permitting me to lose myself fully in the story of Christopher McCandless: a bright young man who, upon finishing college in Atlanta, donated the remainder of his college fund to charity ($24,000) and drove across the country without informing anyone of his plans. He abandoned his car in the desert and burned his remaining cash. He spent the next two years roaming the mountain west, embarking on a variety of outdoor adventures, from the sensible (hiking for a week on the Pacific Crest Trail) to the insane (solo-kayaking the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon to the Gulf of California). He took odd jobs, hitchhiked, read voluminously, and purposefully lived on the margins of society for weeks at a time. His ultimate goal—as he frequently informed those he met in his travels—was to reach Alaska and walk “into the wild,” seeking a glorious crescendo to his years of soul-searching.
You probably know what happened next.
In late 1992, four months after McCandless entered the Alaskan bush, a moose hunter found his decomposing body in the abandoned bus that had become his temporary home. McCandless had successfully survived his summer in the bush (however calorie-deprived), but when he had attempted to return to civilization—just 20 miles away—the river he’d easily forded in the spring had transformed into a raging, snowmelt-fueled torrent. Unable to cross, he returned to the bus to continue living off the land, an increasingly challenging prospect as game disappeared. Then he made his fatal mistake: ingesting some sort of plant that intoxicated, weakened, and ultimately drove McCandless to starvation.
As the movie ends, McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, lies huddled in his sleeping bag in the back of the bus. After taking his final breath, the camera pulls away from his gaunt, ashen face, zooming out to show the the bus, the bush, the river, and the beautiful Alaskan landscape.
My heart dropped into my stomach.
Leaving the theater, sun bouncing off the snowbanks of the Heavenly Shopping Village, all I could think was: That could have been me.
McCandless perished at 24. I had just turned 25. Though we were fifteen years removed, I immediately identified with whatever drove McCandless to cut loose, reject society, seek adventure, and pursue transcendence in the wilderness.
The next day I purchased and devoured Krakauer’s book to make sure I wasn’t baselessly associating myself with a movie character. On the contrary, my beliefs were reinforced. The details of McCandless’ childhood, influences, and cherished beliefs matched many of my own.
Christopher McCandless and I shared a philosophy of life—he had just implemented it more thoroughly.
AT 22, JUST AFTER COLLEGE, I’d landed a job at Astrocamp, an outdoor education center in Southern California where I got paid to take 5th graders on hikes, swing them on ropes through the forest, weave stories about the evolution of the universe, and conduct mad-scientist experiments in which I'd freeze pennies with liquid nitrogen and smash them to bits with a hammer.
As someone who loved science, nature, and working with kids, I was sure I'd found my dream job. Yet after just a few months, the repetitiveness wore me down. As soon as I memorized the names of one group of students, a bus whisked them away and another took their place.
My gaze drifted toward the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, the famed walking path from Mexico to Canada, which had been on my mind for years. I had the guidebooks. I had the gear. And now, as spring turned to summer and the paychecks piled up in my bank account, I had a reason to jump ship. I gave a week's notice, said goodbye to my co-workers, and hitched a ride to the Mexican border.
I'd never quit a job before. Part of me felt terrible. But a bigger part felt relieved. I had escaped the first hint of monotonous drudgery in my adult career, and now I was pursuing a higher calling: hiking for five straight months across the deserts, forests, and mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. Transcendent wilderness bliss, here I come.
Yet after just two weeks of hiking, I quit the Pacific Crest Trail. The physical challenge was manageable. What I couldn’t handle was the loneliness, disconnection, and feeling that I wasn't contributing anything to the world.
Thus began my new life as an unreliable employee and confused vagabond.
I started quitting almost everything that I started. Returning to the mountains in September to hike the John Muir Trail with a friend, I got discouraged halfway through and convinced him to bail out with me. (His aching achilles tendon gave us an honorable discharge.) I then committed to working a full year at a café in Lake Tahoe, only to leave two months later to teach snowboarding. I quit the snowboard job after just three days, realizing that I would spend the next five months on the same handful of beginner runs.
My impulses to quit arrived like tsunamis: calm seas receded as a towering wave of emotion appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and swept away my carefully laid plans and commitments. When I left the ski school, I didn't even warn them. I simply turned off my phone and drove the length of California, returning three days later after sleeping in the back of my Honda Civic at a gas station in Los Angeles and making a haphazard attempt to hike Mount Whitney: a foolish prospect in November, with its short days and icy switchbacks.
When I returned to Lake Tahoe, my roommate Morgan hugged me and cried.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I don't know," I replied, shaking my head. "I just had to go."
I'd always been the good boy. The smart student. The hard worker. Now, less than a year into full-blown adulthood, I was becoming a full-blown flake. I wasn't even sticking to the things I thought I wanted most, like teaching snowboarding or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The only commitment I consistently fulfilled was to summer camp employment—because it was only 2 months. Driving through the forests of Northern California, I daydreamed of leaving my car in some pullout, walking into the woods with a bunch of food and books, and living out my tent for some months in order to make sense of life.
I resolved to take another outdoor education job in southern California and definitely not quit. Which I did. Until I returned the following season, worked for three weeks, and found myself engulfed by yet another wave of panic.
I left that job without telling a single person, with the exception of a handwritten resignation letter placed on my boss's doorstep, secured by a rock to prevent the desert winds from bearing it away. It read:
I quit. I'm sorry.
Speeding north on Interstate 5 to take refuge at my aunt's house outside Seattle, my heart raced with guilt, relief, and confusion. I was once again free—but to what end? What was the point of this freedom? To make yet another commitment from which I would walk away?
Whenever I spent too long in one place, the same feelings returned: I don't belong here. This is a trap. Flee, now! To ignore these impulses felt like settling, and to settle was some unthinkable sin.
At this moment, age 24, I was prepared to do something rash. I needed to do something rash. Nothing cleared my mind better than extended time outdoors. Walking into some remote landscape to find “the answers” was very much on the table.
Then a college friend invited me to meet him in Argentina. I said yes, and I extended the itinerary to give myself the opportunity to travel solo (for the first time in my life) through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia before we met, convincing a few other college buddies to meet up with me en route. Suddenly, I had a plan that included social safety nets. I found a way to scratch my itch to “do something rash”—by purchasing a one-way ticket to Ecuador without a return plan, to my mother’s chagrin—that would also take me to some wild and remote parts of Peru and Bolivia.
Returning to the US after three months of joyful South American adventuring, I worked another season of outdoor education (which I did quit early; old habits die hard), served back-to-back sessions of Deer Crossing Camp and Not Back to School Camp, and then convinced Heavenly Ski Resort to hire me for the snowboard marketing research position (despite the fact that I’d previously burned them as a snowboard instructor).
Settling in for the 2007/8 winter, relishing the fact that I was getting paid to snowboard five days a week (with permission to cut the lift lines, to boot), I felt like I could finally exhale. I’d survived something, something I couldn’t put my finger on. Then I watched Into the Wild—and the puzzle pieces began to assemble.
While my lust for adventure and aversion to settling never left me—with serious consequences for work, love, community, family creation, and other aspects of so-called “adulting” that I’ll continue to explore in these writings—I’m proud to report that I did survive my quarter-life crisis. By channeling my anxiety, restlessness, and need for a positive self-image into travel, friendships, summer camps, and shorter forays into nature, I found a balance that allowed me to move forward.
Tragically, the same was not true for Christopher McCandless.
CHRISTOPHER MCCANDLESS GREW UP in ”comfortable upper-middle-class environs,” wrote Jon Krakauer in his 1996 best-selling book.Chris’ father, Walt, was a talented aerospace engineer who went into business for himself with a successful consulting firm, assisted by his wife (and Chris’ mother), Billie. Chris had one younger sister, Carine, as well as an assortment of half-siblings from Walt’s first marriage. He was a straight-A student, a high school track star, and someone who could seemingly do anything he put his mind to.
A voluminous reader, Chris found special kinship with Thoreau, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Jack London. In college, he immersed himself in the study of racism, famine, apartheid and other African injustices, graduating with a double-major and high GPA.
Like Chris, I grew up in suburban comfort, participated in my elementary school’s program for gifted students, and was an introvert who could happily spend hours with books or computers instead of friends.
I witnessed a lot of parental arguing, the kind with consequences: three divorces before I finished high school, leaving me with a bevy of half-siblings. I never attempted to play “divorce attorney,” as Carine witnessed his brother do before ultimately giving up and separating himself from the turmoil. (That was my my approach from the beginning.)
I also have many wonderful memories of traveling and recreating with my family(ies), as Chris did, including road trips, ski trips, hiking, and a little international travel. I never excelled at a particular sport like Chris excelled at track, but I did take up trail running in early thirties and completed a few beyond-marathon-length mountain runs.
Also like Chris, I found a cause for justice in college: criticizing the mainstream school system, promoting alternative education, and recruiting other undergraduates to my way of thinking. I was also easily swayed by great books, leading me to seek spiritual redemption in nature (thank you, Walden), criticize American consumerism (thank you, Voluntary Simplicity), and embrace Taoism and Zen Buddhism (thank you, Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac). I soon believed, like Chris, that traditional careers were “demeaning ‘twentieth-century inventions,’ more of a liability than an asset.” But unlike Chris, my parents indulged my forays into these new ideologies, while his sat him down and lectured him on the necessity of traditional achievement.
McCandless and young Blake also shared a curious relationship to money. As Krakauer wrote, Chris “believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil—which is ironic, because Chris was a natural-born capitalist with uncanny knack for making a buck.” McCandless sold vegetables door-to-door at age 8 and ran a photocopy business out of his parent’s office at 12. I dreamed of starting a candy store as kindergartner and roamed the suburbs at 11, attempted to induct my neighbors into a pyramid marketing scheme, and eventually, in my teens, migrated toward more reputable ventures like tutoring math, selling trading cards online, fixing computers, and building websites. Chris and I were both good at making money and saving money, yet we both felt ashamed by wealth and conspicuous consumption. Outwardly, I relished my consumer privilege; inwardly, I suspected that behind every great fortune is a crime.
McCandless and I differed in our childhood struggles. While neither the film nor the book hides Chris’ strained relationships with his parents, the truth is grimmer than I realized. Carine McCandless’ 2014 memoir, The Wild Truth, lays bare the full story of the pressuring, bullying, verbal abuse, and physical assault that both siblings experienced, especially from their father. Like many fathers, mine was prone to the same “dark and mercurial” moods that plagued Walt McCandless, but he did a much better job of showing his love and support. My relationship with my mom was always strong. Chris “brooded at length over what he perceived to be his father’s moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents’ lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love.” In this, I find little with which to identify. McCandless’ parents were domineering, distant, and judgmental in ways that mine never were.
Also unlike McCandless, I enjoyed a vibrant community in college while he “pulled back from his old friends and got more heavily into himself” when social life at Emory began revolving around fraternities and sororities. (I fully share his distaste for greek life.) The close friendships that I formed in the Berkeley student co-ops sustained me through college, my South America adventure, and beyond. I also benefited from the mentorship of my camp employers, Jim Wiltens and Grace Llewellyn, and the friendship of the young adult staff they assembled each summer.
As far as I can tell, McCandless did not possess many genuine adult role models, and the ones he met in his travels, he kept at arm’s length. As Krakauer observed:
McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well—relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arm’s length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him.
THIS, THEN, IS WHAT I LEARNED from the story of Christopher McCandless.
Without the family, friends, and mentors that I enjoyed as a young adult, it’s very likely that I, too, might have withdrawn and plotted a more dramatic way to dispel my angst and express my freedom. I, too, may well have cut ties and ensconced “into the wild” to find the answers I desperately sought.
When I read about the other young men that Krakauer profiles in his book, each a suburbanite-turned-wilderness-wanderer, I see a vision of myself. This is especially true in the case of Everett Ruess, a 20-year-old from Southern California who, shortly before disappearing in a remote Utah canyon in 1934, penned these words:
God, how the trail lures me. You cannot comprehend its resistless fascination for me. . . . I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.
Ruess hailed from the San Francisco bay area but relocated frequently throughout childhood, as I did. He moved quickly in pursuit of his goals, wrote beautifully, and cherished wilderness asthetics. His extended outdoor trips were in a league of their own—more Muir than McCandless—and his philosophy might well encapsulate the western vagabond tradition. In another letter, Ruess wrote:
The beauty of this country is becoming part of me. I feel more detached from life and somehow gentler. . . . I have some good friends here, but no one who really understands why I am here or what I do. I don’t know of anyone, though, who would have more than a partial understanding; I have gone too far alone.
I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people life it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly.
Alone, disconnected, desiring intensity, and enamored with the wild: that seems to be the recipe for self-destructive outdoor romanticism.
But it is McCandless, again, who best captures the philosophy I espoused in my early twenties. In a letter to Ron Franz, an 80-year-old widower who gave McCandless a ride near California’s Anza-Borrego desert, Chris wrote:
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty. . . . Don't settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time, Ron, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.
There’s so much here that I agreed with back then—and continue to agree with—but the next paragraph is where McCandless and I took different paths:
You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.
The courage to flout habit? Check. Unconventional living? Check. Seeking goodness in hidden places? Check.
But believing that joy doesn’t principally emanate from human relationships? These are the words of someone who has been hurt—badly—by those he loves most.
They’re also words that McCandless, close to the end of his life, may have no longer believed.
Just days before his poisoning, Chris finished reading Doctor Zhivago. Recovered from the bus after Chris’ death, the book contains many notes penned in the margin. After one section of Zhivago that describes the appeal of escaping into nature, the author continues:
And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness. . . . And this was the most vexing of all.
Here, Chris noted in block letters (indicating “principal importance,” according to Carine): HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.
Whether this indicates that Chris was ready to return to society, accept the messiness of relationships, or attempt to mend relations with his parents, we’ll never know.
What I do know is: these five words have long haunted me, and they will forever serve as a reminder of what matters most. Without the happiness I’ve shared alongside others, I don’t know where I’d be.
Solitary adventures have their place. Sometimes we need to cut loose, escape civilization, and reflect in nature. But without the intention of returning to society, to relationships, to shared experience and shared struggle—truly, we are lost.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)
The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless (2014)
Does ‘The Wild Truth’ Tell the True Story of Chris McCandless? (Outside, 2014)
The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem (Outside, 2013)
The specific mechanism of McCandless’ death is still up in the air—and it may never be known. See How Chris McCandless Died: An Update (New Yorker, 2015) and Krakauer goes further 'Into the Wild' over McCandless starving to death in Alaska (Anchorage Daily News, 2016)
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the 1997 paperback edition of Into the Wild.
Another powerful Everett Ruess quote: “I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Philosophy and aesthetic contemplation are not enough. I intend to do everything possible to broaden my experiences and allow myself to reach the fullest development. Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.”