“This is probably my favorite book of all time,” my friend says, practically jumping up and down in excitement as he hands me a paperback novel. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, is not the kind of book I would normally pick up, but seeing as it came with such a high recommendation, I decided to give it a shot. A true story, this book documents the short life of Christopher McCandless, a college graduate with a bright future who decides to give away his life savings and hitchhike across America. More than two years later his decomposing body was found in an abandoned bus off the Stampede Trail in the Alaskan backcountry.
So how did Chris go from a seemingly happy college kid to a frozen corpse thousands of miles away from home? Krakauer lines out the facts of the story in a straightforward, journalistic manner, but in the end the readers have to draw their own conclusions as to what exactly happened to Chris McCandless.
The way Krakauer tells McCandless’ story is different from any novel I’ve ever read. He uses a mix of diary entries, quotes and excerpts, firsthand accounts, and his own personal narrative to fill in the time McCandless spent roaming the country under his self-penned pseudonym Alexander Supertramp. As the book progresses, the reader learns not only about Chris’ life, but about the lives he touched and influenced along the way.
Throughout his journey, McCandless was constantly seeking a father figure, which is ironic considering his real father, Walt, was a caring and present figure in Chris’ life. He had very high expectations for his, but what parent doesn’t? However, when Chris was in high school, he discovered that his father was married to his first wife for seven years while still maintaining a household with Chris’ mother, Billie, as well. He found this to be a fault he could not forgive his father for, and this discovery rooted his hate of hypocrisy, and ultimately society as a whole. His unwillingness to forgive his father, however, became a hypocrisy in and of itself, because the men McCandless looked up to during his wanderings were certainly not without faults. He could forgive them their mistakes, but could not do the same for his own father, who loved him unconditionally.
Krakauer also tries to justify McCandless’ actions by comparing his story to other young men who took “soul-searching” quests similar to McCandless’. Krakauer portrays McCandless as an idealist and a Romantic, and like most people of his age, Chris perceived himself as invincible. Enthralled with the works of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau, he left behind pages of highlighted and annotated text in the rundown bus, which help us piece together what was going through his mind during those last days of his short life. “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED” is the phrase penciled into McCandless’ copy of Doctor Zhivago, and is one of the last commentaries he ever makes; it is also the most important. This is the moment Chris realizes that all his travels, all his adventures, have been for naught if he doesn’t have someone to share them with. After years of isolation and purposely distancing himself from those that love him, Alex Supertramp comes to understand that nothing can ever take the place of relationships with others. This is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of his story because he never has the chance to reenter society and put his revelation to the test.
McCandless has been praised as a Romantic martyr by his admirers and censured as a reckless and unprepared kid by his dissenters. However, I believe there is much that can be learned from McCandless’ 24 years on this earth, from both his mistakes and his successes. From his relationship with his father we can learn forgiveness, because you never know when a conversation with someone could be your last. From the way he lived his life we can learn selflessness. We can also see selfishness, and recognize that you must have each in moderation and balance. Finally, we learn that as much as we may crave solitude at times, we must treasure our relationships, because only when we share our lives with others can we experience true and unadulterated happiness.