Into the Wild

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Into the Wild
Cover of paperback, depicting the bus McCandless stayed at before his death.
AuthorJon Krakauer
ReleasedJanuary 20, 1997
ISBNISBN 0385486804

The purpose of Jon Krakauer’s book is to address the matter of young Christopher McCandless and his odd seclusion from society and a lifestyle that was all most people could ask for. Coming from a well to do background in the Washington D.C. area, McCandless always had privileges that few can claim. McCandless was just entering society, having graduated from Emory University, with more than $25,000 in savings and a family that loved him. The question of why he would completely break contact with all that he knew, give away everything he owned, and disappear to the Alaskan wilderness as a homeless man for two years drives Krakauer’s work.

Throughout the many years he spends on the road, McCandless meets and affects many people, though never long enough have a lasting impact or be lured away from his wandering. Citing classic hermits and renouncers of society such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, McCandless decides to live in the wild, without the advents of human society. Living in a bus in the midst of the Alaskan wilderness with nothing more than some basic supplies, McCandless keeps a careful diary of his time, his thoughts, and his reasons for fleeing from society.

Eventually, he makes the decision to return to society, but is unfortunately forced to return to his bus by a swollen river. In his final days, McCandless is weakened by hunger and the cold. He spends a little more than 100 days in the wild, all the while being suspected of causing damage on local cabin owners’ land, and finding himself stuck in his situation. He writes often of his reasons but eventually decides that nature is only a refuge for a short while, that true happiness can only be shared with others. In 1992, moose hunters in the Alaskan wild found McCandless’s body partially decomposed in his bus, the diaries and meager supplies still nearby. Initially, many thought he died from confusing potato seeds with a poison type of pea.

Alaskans derided the foolishness of his endeavor, thinking he could possibly survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness with nothing but his wits. There were many who spoke out adamantly against anyone who was foolish enough to try and survive in such conditions without survival equipment. Alongside the heartbreak of his parents and the public disdain for his ignorance, many try to make an example of him in a negative way.

The author though believes he has lived a similar life and undergone similar instances as McCandless. With that belief, he offer his own personal story and attempts to parallel what has happened in his life with McCandless’s. In the process, he touches on many themes that cross everyone’s lives. There is the matter of the parent-child conundrum, and in it Krakauer manages to maneuver enough perspective into McCandless’s story to make it more about the general condition of youth than about McCandless’s individual situation and decisions.

Into the Wild Characters - People

Christopher Johnson McCandless

After his body’s discovery in the Alaskan wilderness, Jon Krakauer wrote a short article for Outsider magazine about Chris McCandless and how he ended up in Alaska. The story remained with him though and he eventually revisited the story, eager to defend Chris from those that sought to speak negatively of him. A great deal of people have spoken out angrily against Chris and his foolish youth who threw away his advantages in life and died in the wild. Krakauer tries to draw out the similarities between the brash youth of most people and McCandless’s odd decisions. McCandless himself is a young and successful college graduate with a good job and money in the bank who one day decides to up and disappear in response to his father’s indiscretions, giving away his money and becoming homeless. With a father who constantly pushed him to perfection and a paradigm shift that saw Chris completely disillusioned by his father’s hubris in expecting such perfection, Chris could no longer deal with life and spitefully left everything he knew. He eventually ends up in the wilds of Alaska, living in a bus, only to pass away before he has a chance to return to civilization.

Wayne Westerberg

After Chris runs from his father and severs ties with his family, he runs across Wayne who becomes a close friend and a father figure. Because he does not judge Chris, Wayne acts an inspiration to Chris. He represents the middle class and the opposite of everything that his father represents, seeking material wealth at every step. Chris revels in their deep friendship but never stays long enough in Carthage to get to really know him, instead wandering off again whenever he gets the chance. As he discovered his father to be an imperfect human being, Chris might have discovered the same thing with Wayne had he stayed with him for too long.

Samuel Walter McCandless, Jr.

As Chris’s father, Walt (as his friends call him) becomes the root of Krakauer’s theories on why Chris ran off as he did. Walt himself is a rich man, self-made through hard work and education, landing himself a job with NASA and Hughes aircraft. First married to Marcia, Walt fathered five children. He later fathered Chris and Carine with Billie, their mother. For much of his life, Walt holds his son to very high expectations, which Chris attempts to live up to. Eventually, Chris discovers that his father was still married to Marcia for seven years while with Billie, attempting to maintain a home with both women. The two women discover what he’s done when Chris is only 2 years old, forcing Walt and Billie to move. It takes four more years before Walt divorces Marcia and marries Billie, and during their relationship frequent fights can be remembered by their children. In high school, many years later, Chris learns of what his father did and grows angry at the hypocrisy of his father’s expectations. After five years of dwelling on his anger, Chris decides that he cannot stand human hypocrisy and disappears, attempting to teach his family a lesson as well.

Billie McCandless

As Chris’s mother, Billie is only briefly touched upon in the book by Krakauer, speaking on her relationship with Walt as a catalyst for Chris’s eventual rebellion. Chris includes her in his angry rejection of society, holding her responsible with his father for his father’s deeds. Though she isn’t often shown or mentioned, her grief is a display of what Chris’s actions have done.

Carine McCandless

As Chris’s sister, Carine is very close to him and he is able to share his feelings with her, the only member of his family he feels comfortable doing so with. Chris writes letters to Carine throughout the five years after he learns of his father’s indiscretions. The two share angry words about their parents though Carine tells the author that she has a much better relationship with her parents now, having forgiven them. Carine is smart like her brother and very opinionated. She has grown to be very much like her parents in adulthood, married and running her own business, but still remembers her brother and his actions always.

Jan Burres

As a drifter herself, Jan meets Chris as he arrives tired and hungry by the side of the road. Along with her boyfriend, she takes care of Chris, attempting to nurture his desire to live free of society, but also to warn him of the dangers in his actions. She tries to convince him of the errors of his ways and send him back to his mother as she is estranged from her own son, though she fails. She likes him though and though frustrated, is intrigued by him and decides that he will eventually grow out of his youthful woes. As a motherly figure in his life, Burres is a key individual in his journey.

Ronald Franz

Ronald is an eighty year old widower, whose son and wife passed away forty years earlier while away in Japan for the military, leaving him an empty man. Because of his grief, Franz becomes a kind soul trying to find meaning in life, adopting Okinawan orphans and sending two of them to medical school. When he meets Chris, he immediately feels the desire to offer his advice. In the end, Franz becomes a foil for Chris which shows him that if he does not change his ways he will grow old and lonely. McCandless convinces Franz that he is lonely himself and has him sell all of his worldly possessions and join him on the road. Franz agrees, hoping to keep McCandless as his friend and not be lonely again. In the end, Franz is alone, on the road and hoping for death.

Everett Ruess

As a case study, Ruess’s story is used to compare to McCandless’s. His story however is considered more understandable by the author, even though he also renounced his life and exited the world. He is bored by civilization though like McCandless and wants to pit himself against nature. As a youth, his life was filled with traumatic instances, constantly moving, never feeling like he had a place in society. He continues to reject a place in society as an adult and becomes an outdoorsman and lover of nature. He similarly dislikes his parents and is close to his sibling and ultimately dies in the wild at age 21.

John Mallon Waterman

Waterman is yet another case study, though he was mentally ill rather than disillusioned like McCandless. He considers Waterman’s actions as crazy, while McCandless’s are just poorly informed. The question of mental-illness is never quite answered though as Krakauer’s own knowledge on the subject is not sufficient to make a final judgment. He does however list a variety of reasons for considered Waterman insane. He includes the wearing of a cape on campus, a self check-in to a mental facility his run for the presidency on an outrageous platform. However, his actions are still debatably sane, possibly only eccentric, and possibly more informed than McCandless’s.

Jon Krakauer

As the author of Into the Wild, Krakauer makes himself a character by comparing his own youth to that of McCandless. He compares his father and his own high expectations for Krakauer with McCandless and his father. Always set up for failure in his father’s eyes, Krakauer feels the pressure to succeed and the desire to rebel. He eventually makes the choice to become a carpenter and climber, rather than attend college, to spite his father. He eventually attempts to climb a mountain that is beyond his ability so as to show his father he can do it, revealing in the book his thought processes during the climb. He eventually comes to the conclusion that his method of thinking could have killed him, something that ultimately happened to Christopher McCandless.

Into the Wild Chapter Summaries

Author's Note

Krakauer begins the book by describing the story behind Christopher McCandless. In April, 1992, the young McCandless hitchhiked his way into Alaska and took up residence in the wild nearby Mt. McKinley. Later, in August of that year, a group of hunters found his body, prompting Outside magazine to request Jon Krakauer to write a story about McCandless’s life and times. He describes McCandless’s college education at Emory University and the events that followed directly after he graduated. He gave away all of his money to charity, left his things, and took to being a drifter and explorer.

The article arrived in Outside magazine in January, 1993, but Krakauer’s interest in the story did not die with the story’s publication. Rather, he was personally attracted to the aspects of McCandless’s life, the outdoors attraction and rocky relationship with his father. He compares himself to McCandless to give a little perspective, and describes the reaction many people had to McCandless’s actions, so many labeling him young and foolish. Krakauer does not agree though and states that McCandless would still be alive if he had only kept from making one or two crucial mistakes. He ends his note by announcing he hopes to allow the reader to form their own opinion of McCandless and his actions.

Chapter 1, The Alaska Interior

Opening chapter one is a postcard from McCandless to Wayne Westerberg, back in Carthage, South Dakota. Using the name Alex on the card, McCandless describes how much respect he has for Westerberg and how he is afraid he might not survive his time in the Alaskan wilderness. Every chapter, starting here, opens with a quotation established to set the tone for the rest of the chapter.

It is near Fairbanks that Jim Gallien encounters “Alex” for the first time. Alex is hitchhiking north with a rifle in hand and Gallien offers him a ride. With no last name, Alex describes his plans to live in Denali National Park for a few months on his own. Gallien mentions how rich people from the city often come to the area to do just that, hoping to escape their hectic lives. Many times, these people are underprepared and seem unintelligent, but Gallien sees Alex as brighter than the others.

Despite his intellect, Alex has no food with him except for a bag of rice and his boots are poorly insulated and lacking waterproofing. He only carries a .22 rifle, which will only succeed in killing smaller game, and he lacks any compass or means of navigating his gas station bought map. Intending to go via the Stampede Trail, Alex causes Gallien to worry, wanting to stop Alex from taking such a journey. He offers to buy him gear but Alex refuses and doesn’t listen to the advice of Gallien in his excitement. Before leaving him, Gallien offers a nicer pair of boots and a bagged lunch, opting out of notifying any authorities, believing Alex will display some intelligence in the matter.

Chapter 2, The Stampede Trail

The chapter opens with a mention and quote from Jack London’s White Fang, referring to the cold hard winters of the wilderness and small chance of survival in such circumstances. The Stampede Trail is described as a fifty mile stretch between Mt. Healy and Mt. McKinley. It was originally used in the 1930s to reach mining claims in Stampede Creek and later became a road in the 1960s to haul grabs from the mines. The construction workers were housed in converted buses parked alongside the road, each fitted with beds and a stove. The road was never finished due to problematic weather and one of the buses was left behind for hunters to use if lost.

The area itself is oft frequented by moose hunters due to its proximity to local protected lands and every year, numerous hunters make their way to the bus. In September of 1992, three separate groups of hunters reach the bus. Krakauer describes how the hunters ford the rivers in pickup trucks, dynamite beaver dams, and drive ATVs through the terrain. The rivers themselves are more than 75 foot crossings and extremely dangerous.

When the hunters arrive, a couple stand nearby, reading a note on the bus from McCandless describing how close he is to death, with a horrible smell emanating from the bus. When they enter the bus, they find McCandless’s decomposing body and send a hunter, Butch Killian – a volunteer firefighter – to get help by contacting State Troopers at a radio outpost over five miles away.

The next morning, the police arrive via helicopter and evacuate the body and McCandless’s possessions from the bus site, including a diary and a handful of used camera film. Because of the partially decomposed body, the coroner cannot discern why or when McCandless died, though all the extra fat in his body had been used, prompting the cause of death to be named as starvation. There is no ID on the body either, forcing the police to hunt down his identity and discover who the body is.

Chapter 3, Carthage

A quotation from Tolstoy about loving danger opens the chapter, having been highlighted by McCandless in one of his many books, Family Happiness, which bridges to Krakauer discussing McCandless’s family.

Back in Carthage, South Dakota again, the author sits down with Wayne Westerberg to discuss how he met Alex, also known as McCandless. He originally offered him a ride as McCandless was hitchhiking and immediately took to him, offering him a meal and a job when he couldn’t drive him as far as he was going. He originally stayed for only three days, but did return a few weeks later to work some more. Westerberg comments on how hard Alex worked and how intelligent he was, how it might have caused him more pain than good. Eventually Westerberg learns that Alex’s real name is Chris and that he has problems with his family. Westerberg never questions him further, but offers Alex a place to stay and a surrogate family in Carthage. Alex likes the small town and enjoys the sense of community but eventually Westerberg is sent to jail for four months for illegal satellite boxes and Alex leaves town. He continues to consider Carthage his home town though having his mail sent there.

McCandless’s real story and home town takes the story to Annandale, Virginia though where his father Walt works as an aerospace engineer, having spent time with NASA before starting his own firm. Chris has a sister, Carine, and five half-siblings from Walt’s previous marriage. Chris is intelligent in college, working for the student paper and asked to join the honor society. An inheritance pays for his schooling, and he eventually donates the rest of the money, a sum of twenty-four thousand dollars to OXFAM America to feed the hungry.

Chris is very much against the materialism of his parents and refuses their offer for a new car when he graduates, venting to his sister in letters that they are trying to buy his respect. The Datsun he drives was bought with his own money in high school and when he tells his parents he will “disappear for a while”. The last contact he ever has with his family is a thank you note to his family for his graduation ceremony.

For a long time, Chris has created distance between himself and his family, living off campus with no telephone. After a while though, his parents become worried and drive to Atlanta to check on him. They find in August of 1990 that he moved out of his apartment in June and find that his mail has been held for two months to keep them from knowing he disappeared. He changes his name on the road and heads west as Alexander Supertramp.

Chapter 4, Detrital Wash

In October of the same year, 1990, an Arizona National Park Ranger finds McCandless’s car in a ditch with a pile of odd possessions. Written on the windows is a dedication of the car to whomever can extricate it from the ditch. It’s still used today by the Park Service for Undercover stings.

It turns out that the abandonment of the car is due to a flash flood that caught McCandless in a flash flood zone – unbeknownst to him. He barely had time to evacuate his things, let alone grab his car, and so it is flooded and he drains the battery trying to get his car started again. He does not call the authorities though as he has no paperwork and was camped in an off limits area. Instead, he decides to leave the car and burn the remains of his cash, setting himself free of material possessions.

He buries his rifle and starts hiking around Lake Mead. However, with the extreme heat of July he finds that he is slowly becoming delirious from dehydration. Some boaters carry him to the west side of the lake where he resumes his hitchhiking ways for the next two months. He meets many other hitchhikers and eventually finds a job in California. When that job does not pan out, he steals a bicycle and leaves.

In time, McCandless meets two drifters, Jan Burres and Bob, her boyfriend. They feed him and Burres recognizes him as the same age as her own estranged son. She shows her worry for him and his burning of the money, despite his pride in having found edible plants in the wild to keep himself alive. Eventually he leaves them, but stays in touch via postcard.

McCandless is issued a ticket in Eureka, California for hitchhiking on August and the ticket is sent to his parent’s in Annandale, a rare lapse on his part of telling the arresting officer his parents’ address. After such careful attention to not give his parents’ address, he intentionally gives out the right one to give his parents an idea of where he was and how he has decided to “punish” them.

When they receive the ticket, McCandless’s parents hire Peter Kalitka, a PI to search for him. It isn’t until December that the PI discovers anything, the donation of his college fund to OXFAM. They are entirely confused by his behavior, hitchhiking without his car, giving away his money, and not contacting them.

After Westerberg is jailed in Carthage, Chris heads back out west to, hitchhiking back to Needles, California and walking through the desert to Arizona. He goes so far as to buy a canoe and paddle his way down the Colorado River. By November he reaches Yuma, Arizona where he mails a postcard to Westerberg thanking him again for his assistance. He actually complains about the money he made from Westerberg as scraping by for food was much harder than simply paying for it.

On December 2, Alex makes his way into Mexico where he begins having trouble maneuvering his canoe due to the marshlands. His diary entries become odd in this section, referring to himself in the third person as Alex and very sure that he can find a river route to the Gulf of California. He meets many Mexican folks who he notes are friendlier than Americans and follows their directions along the Wellteco Canal, until it dead ends into more swamp land. Eventually, he must turn to local hunters for a trip back to the ocean.

While camped by the sea, a great storm arrives and pulls his canoe back out into the ocean. He writes in his diary of how the storm angered him to the point of destroying one of his oars. He manages to steer the canoe back to shore with a single oar though, and because of the storm he decides to head north without the canoe in tow. He has lived off only rice and food from the sea for two months at this point, a note the author points out as a reason he thinks he could survive in Alaska in the same manner.

McCandless makes his way back into the United States, but is caught on the way by immigration, who take his handgun away. This takes place on January 18 and for the next six weeks he travels the immediate southwest. For a short while he gets an ID and job in LA, but soon decides against society again and leaves for the Grand Canyon. He writes that he feels much better since leaving back in July. When he finally returns to where he left his car, he finds it gone but is able to retrieve the few things he buried, including his rifle.

He travels to Las Vegas and takes a job in a restaurant, once again burying his things outside the city. For a few weeks he again lives on the street with the homeless until he once again hits the road on May 10, full of joy for the life he is leading.

Chapter 5, Bullhead City

After burying his items outside of Las Vegas, McCandless’s camera is ruined. He stops writing in his journal as well and all information as to his travels is cut significantly following May of 1991. We learn that he spends the summer months of July and August in Oregon from a letter he sends to Jan Burres and that he returns to California because of the fall rain. Eventually he arrives in Bullhead City, Arizona in October where he stays for a while, a little more than two months.

He starts a job at a local McDonald’s and opens a savings account, using his real name and social security number. Despite his horrible hygiene –related to his homeless status – his hard work ethic keeps him on at McDonald’s. He was constantly teased about his body odor though and his former manager believes this is the reason he eventually quit. He ends up living in an empty mobile home during his stay in Bullhead City, offered to him by Charlie. Charlie is described by McCandless as a lunatic, though Charlie largely describes to have liked McCandless.

In a postcard exchange between Jan Burres and McCandless, Jan decides to visit McCandless in Bullhead City, excited that he finally has an address. However, before she and Bob can leave, he arrives at their home, having left what he viewed as plastic people behind in Arizona.

Alex arrives in the Slabs, a drifter city in an old naval station, where Jan and Bob are staying for the winter. He helps Jan sell her paperback books at a flea market and goes on at length about the ideas and thinking of Jack London in The Call of the Wild, a lifestyle and mode of thinking he greatly admires. During his time in the drifter city, McCandless draws the attentions of seventeen year old Tracy. However, he is intent on remaining celibate during his journey, ignoring her attentions.

He has at this point decided to make his trip to Alaska and spends vast amounts of time readying himself for the trip, getting in shape and learning what he can. Burres speaks with him often of his enthusiastic plans, trying to convince him once more to call his mother, but to no avail.

Alex leaves the camp and heads for Salton City finally where he picks up his last check from the McDonald’s at which he worked. He rejects Burres’ offer to pay him for his help, though he does take a few knives she offers instead. He returns the warm clothing she offers him when she isn’t looking though, refusing any further assistance.

Chapter 6, Anza-Borrego

Krakauer receives a letter from a man named Roland Franz in January of 1993, after the article in Outside Magazine is published. He wishes to know more about what happened to McCandless and what Krakauer knows of him. An elderly man, Franz was greatly affected by his short time with McCandless.

After Burres and McCandless said their farewells once more, McCandless headed into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and set up a camp. He is camped only four miles out of Salton City and one day while in town for supplies he runs across Roland Franz and requests a ride back to his site. Though he’s lived there for six years, Franz is unfamiliar with the area.

Franz reveals that he is a long time army veteran, whose wife and son died in a car accident in 1957 while he was in Japan. After they died, Franz began adopting and caring for Okinawan orphans and paying for their college education, including medical school for two of them. A week later, after church Franz decides to talk with Alex about his lifestyle and the decisions he’s making, not wishing to see him waste his potential.

Alex explains however that he is educated and living in destitution by choice. The two spend a lot of time together, with Franz buying Alex dinner and driving him to dig up some of his possessions. He allows Alex to use his apartment for doing laundry and they barbeque together. Alex begins to speak against material possessions and tell Franz that at 80 years of age, he should renounce material things and go on the road.

Franz describes how Alex described at length his plans for his trip to Alaska and the adventure that awaited him there. Because he enjoyed Alex’s company so much, Franz took to teaching him leatherwork and Alex subsequently crafted a belt that displayed through pictures his journey. Franz’s own recollection of Alex is halting and tinged with sadness, seeping the emotion he feels for his lost friend, describing Alex’s brilliance alongside his rage and passionate ranting against all things social.

After turning down Franz’s offer of money, Alex decides to go to San Diego in February, 1992 to raise funds for Alaska. Franz gives him a ride to the San Diego water front and the two talk again in a couple of weeks when they each have celebrated their 81st and 24th birthdays, respectively.

In a postcard to Burres, McCandless describes being homeless in San Diego and listening to sermons in the missions. He is heading north and soon and plans to be in Alaska by May 1. He sends out more postcards in March from Seattle describing his use of the train system to travel cross country in style and escaping armed guards who throw him from the trains.

A week after receiving the postcard, Franz gets a call from Alex asking to be picked up from a nearby city in California. He picks him up and buys him dinner, returning him to his apartment in Salton City. Alex announces that he has a job lined up in Carthage and Franz agrees to take him back into Bullhead City to clear out his savings and his things from Charlie’s mobile home. Finally, he drives Alex to Colorado Springs, the farthest Franz is willing to go, and offers him some Arctic Gear as a gift before he leaves.

Franz describes his strong emotional attachment to Alex and how hard it was to see him go, having gone as far as to ask him to be his adopted grandson. Weeks later Alex sends word of his progress in Carthage, working for Westerburg. Alex makes the first allusion that he might not survive in Alaska – which he plans to leave for by April 15. Alex continues to tell Franz he should throw off the shackles of money and his possessions and enjoy life as a nomad, that you cannot be happy if you are with others, but only if you are free to roam.

Shortly afterward, Franz takes Alex’s advice and sells everything he owns, buys a camper and takes Alex’s former camping spot outside the city. Krakauer goes on to describe Franz as a healthy man who had spent the time following Alex’s death in nature, living in the desert near the Borrego badlands. The whole time, Franz waited for Alex to return until a hitchhiker finally arrived, having read of Alex’s death in Outdoor Magazine. He promptly drains a bottle of whisky in an attempt to die, quits his church, and denounces religion.

Chapter 7, Carthage

Krakauer, having traveled to Carthage while writing his article on McCandless’s death, describes Westerberg and his workers. They are short a hand, having waited for Alex to return only to find he had passed away. Alex was a very hard worker for Westerberg, always willing to do the work no one else wanted, though he didn’t have the mechanical aptitude to learn anything more complicated.

In his final visit in Carthage, Alex spends a lot of time with Westerberg’s girlfriend, Gail Borah. She is a divorced mother and takes to Alex quickly, treating him like one of her own and feeding him nightly. He speaks to her often, revealing his emotions and talking often of his sister, though never of his parents. Borah ponders the reasons for his silence after learning of his death and how he likely had some issues with his father that he could not overcome.

Krakauer then goes on to describe how both father and son McCandless were very much alike, stubborn and emotional. Walt’s controlling nature did not naturally mesh with Chris’s desire to be independent. He goes on to describe Chris’s vanishing act as a work of rebellion, having at one point described to his sister his plans to lull his parents into security before disappearing. He goes so far as to say he will never see his parents again in life in a letter to her.

Despite his hatred towards his parents, McCandless is a kind and gentle soul as described by all of his acquaintances on his journey. Closed up and with little experience, McCandless spent very little time with women, though he described to Westerberg his desire to raise a family one day. Carine describes how he never danced with girls in High School and only had relationships with two or three girls at most while she knew him. Krakauer draws parallels to McCandless’s chastity to Thoreau and his lifelong virginity.

According to Westerberg, Alex viewed Alaska as his final big adventure, that he was to return to Carthage and work in the fall and write books about his adventures. Westerberg attempts to get Alex to stay and help until May 1, even offering to buy him a plane ticket to get to Alaska on time, but Alex refuses, intent on the plan as he had outlined it. On his final day in Carthage, his friends gather with him in a bar to wish him farewell, learning that he can play piano in the process. He cries in his farewells, worrying again that he won’t survive. Postcards sent to Burres and Westerberg from Alaska before he enters the wild once again relay that he feels he might not survive his ordeal, and he says final goodbyes to everyone he knows, intent on never seeing them again.

Chapter 8, Alaska

Krakauer describes the angry responses he got for his glorification of McCandless’s story in Outside Magazine. The letters speak of McCandless’s lack of knowledge and hubris in his adventure into the wild, though the ones Krakauer chooses are often intelligently written and carefully worded. He begins to introduce a collection of men who underwent similar situations to McCandless, trying to prove his own point that McCandless was not merely a foolish man.

The First of these men, Gene Rosellini, Krakauer actually met in 1981. He was very much like McCandless in that he was born wealthy, intelligent, and athletic. He attended college for a long while but did not graduate, leaving in 1977 to live free of technology and society. He had a belief that humans today were becoming weaker because of that dependence and could not live off the land. He got rid of everything he owned, and carried with him no tools other than what he had made with his own hands and lived in the woods of Hippie Cove in Alaska, foraging for food. He carried on his experiment for a decade before deciding to end it, writing that humans could not survive in the wild before killing himself in his woodland shack. There was no suicide note.

The next case study in this chapter is John Mallon Waterman. He was also from the Washington D.C. area, the son of a musician and a speechwriter. He was constantly exercising and was an avid rock climber, and first scaled Mt. McKinley when he was only 16. He attended the University of Alaska and was a well reknowned mountain climber already when he started. He is described by those who knew him as odd, even manic-depressive, running around campus in a cape and singing about the wild.

Krakauer relates more information about Waterman’s childhood. His parents divorced when he was in High School and his mother had a severe history of mental illness. His brother, Bill, was severely injured in a train accident and eventually left without notice on a long trip, never to be heard from again. In his youth, eight climbing buddies were killed in accidents or suicide. In 1978, he took it upon himself to climb Mt. Hunter, an extremely difficult climb, by himself. The act made him a local climbing hero but also slightly more eccentric and compulsive. He started writing down everything he did and soon ran for the school board, then the Presidency of the United States on an ‘end-hunger’ platform. He decided to climb Mt. Denali alone and with very little food as a publicity stunt. He lost all of his journals and notes in a fire at the base of the mountain, resulting in what may have been a psychological snap, prompting him to check into a psychiatric facility for two weeks. A year later, he tried to climb Mt. Denali again.

He made to within 30 miles of the peak on that attempt but turned left again. Later, in March, he tried to ascend the mountain again, telling his friends he’d likely not see them ever again. A few people saw him on the Ruth Glacier nearby, acting very strangely and preparing for his climb. He had little food and was ill-prepared for his climb, with no radio to call for help. The last anyone saw of him was on April 1, 1981 and his body was never found.

Yet another man who people have compared McCandless to is Carl McCunn. As a worker on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 70s, McCunn was in Alaska already and in 1981 requested to be flown to a remote lake above the Coleen River. He forgot to request a flight back though and soon ran out of food in his cabin. Rather than ever attempt to walk back out of the wilderness, he wasted away in his cabin and eventually shot himself. Krakauer goes on to compare McCunn and McCandless’s lack of common sense and foresight in their planning. He also states that McCandless was not mentally ill, but that McCunn and Waterman both were. The argument of whether McCandless was in fact mentally ill is railed against by Krakauer, saying he knew he would likely not survive in the wild and did not think he would be saved as the other men did.

Chapter 9, Davis Gulch

Chapter 9 introduces Everett Ruess through a letter to his brother declaring his love for the outdoors and his life in the wilderness. Krakauer soon goes on to describe his life in the wild. Born in Oakland to Christopher Ruess, a Harvard Graduate and Unitarian minister, Everett Ruess grew up in the midst of Southern California excess. He attended art school and Hollywood High at one point before taking a trip alone through Yosemite National Park. He becomes an apprentice to a local photographer and after a brief stint back home to receive his diploma, continues traveling through the southwest. In his final sessions with the civilized world, Ruess attends half a year at UCLA, stays with his parents for a bit, and spends a winter in San Francisco with artist friends of his.

The rest of his life is spent backpacking and sleeping in the wild, stating that his friends and family will never understand his love for nature. He takes on many new names, including Nemo, in a carving at Davis Gulch. The reference to the Jules Verne character in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is similar to McCandless’s own Ahab reference at his death site.

With his own chapter, Krakauer gives Ruess’s story more credence as a suitable comparison to that of McCandless and draws numerous comparisons between them, their writings, and their eventually perspective on the world. Before his death, Ruess sends many letters stating that he might never return. After three more months, his parents receive a bundle of his mail and in 1935, search parties form to find him. The party finds the Nemo reference mentioned in Davis Gulch and remnants of Ruess’s travels in his donkeys. His body though was never found, and the debate rages on as to where he went and what happened to his body and possessions.

An author devoted to Ruess’s story, Ken Sleight has his own theory that Ruess drowned in 1935 after tying up his donkeys in the Gulch and taking the Mormon trail out of the area. He was likely on his way to visit friends across the river and drowned in the crossing.

With yet one more comparison, Krakauer describes the secluded Papar monks of Ireland. These monks moved to Iceland in the 5th century until Norwegians arrived and they headed off for Greenland. Because they so fervently sought seclusion, many of them lost their lives in the harsh conditions of Greenland. He compares the lives and ideals of both Ruess and McCandless to that of these Irish monks, seeking some sort of Spiritual seclusion.

Chapter 10, Fairbanks

Jim Gallien, the man who drove McCandless to the Stampede Trail in April reads an article about the unknown body found in the wilderness printed in the September 10 edition of the Anchorage Daily News. He initially calls the State Troopers but is rebuked because they have heard so many tips already. However, they finally believe Gallien when they find a reference to a “Galliean” in McCandless’s journal. They send the film to Gallien to identify the body and he confirms that it is the boy he drove out and that he stated he was from South Dakota.

Westerberg back in South Dakota hears about the unknown man’s death on the radio and calls the police to present his own information. The same State Troopers have received even more useless leads and initially ignore Westerberg. However, when he provides Alex’s social security number and real name they are able to contact officers in Virginia who are able to contact one of McCandless’s half-brothers, Sam.

Sam reveals that he originally read the article about the hiker but didn’t think it could be Chris. However, when he receives the description, it is familiar and so he is called on to identify Chris from photographs. Sam and his wife are left the duty of driving to Maryland, where Chris’s parents are, to inform them of what’s happened.

Chapter 11, Chesapeake Beach

In the home of Walt and Billie, McCandless’s parents only a few weeks after his death, Krakauer finds an emotionally ravaged family and a photographic memorial to his life. Walt describes how he spent so much time with his son and couldn’t understand why he would do what he did.

Walt has long been a powerful man, carrying with him high level security clearance for his work on radar systems and constantly being in charge. His intensity mellowed when Chris disappeared, though his attitude still reminds Krakauer of Chris when they meet. Walt’s wealth was entirely self-made, originally hailing from poverty himself, using his musical talents to support himself during college and starting his own aerospace consulting firm. He originally met Billie, Chris’s mother, while separated from his wife Marcia.

Walt took up with Billie and the two moved in together shortly before Chris was born. As a young child, Chris was always intelligent and strong willed. He was unwilling to do the excess work of a gifted student though and liked to keep to himself. At the age of 6, his family moved to Annandale when Walt began working for NASA. Carine was born and they lived a very strict lifestyle with their parents constantly working, trying to provide for his new family and the five children he had with Marcia before he’d even met Billie.

Despite the financial freedom that Walt and Billie’s consulting firm brought the family, there was high tension in their near constant arguments and threats of divorce. Walt reveals that the family often took long, outdoor trips and that a history of outdoors and wandering runs in the family. Chris’s grandfather, Loren Johnson was as trucker and never stayed in one place and was a lover of nature. He was a hunter, though he would often cry for the animals he killed. Chris and Loren grew very close while Chris was a child and the two spent a lot of time in the woods.

Walt describes how Chris received a single F in his years of High School for ignoring his Physics teacher’s formatting requirements for lab reports. Otherwise he was a straight A student. Chris was close to Carine throughout school and thoroughly enjoyed anything that was naturally easy. He, however, did not enjoy things like racquetball in which he could not quite improve.

Chris, as the team captain for the cross-country team was a grueling leader, constantly dragging them into the woods until lost, then forcing them to run until they were no longer lost. He was a convincing speaker and managed to convince his teammates to follow him with his spiritual motivation speeches. However, if Chris ever lost a race himself, he would be very harsh on himself.

As a single person in the world, McCandless constantly worried over things like racism and social injustice. He often spent time downtown feeding the homeless and took a homeless man into his family’s Airstream to stay. He was unwilling to attend college, though his parents badgered him until he consented. He never spoke highly of his family though, constantly deriding their financial independence.

Chapter 12, Annandale

High School graduation sees Chris grateful and emotional towards his parents, offering an expensive birthday gift and speaking highly of them. He takes his first trip during that summer, with his parent’s gas credit card in hand and instructions to call every three days. He eventually stops calling though and shows up on a couple months later, malnourished, apparently having been lost in the Mojave Desert and succumbing to dehydration.

Because they know he’ll only do worse if they try, Chris’s parents are careful not to speak too harshly against his safety. Chris decides not to keep his parents informed though. He does very well at Emory, writing for the school paper and speaking of law school often. He spends his summer at home with his parents working for them flawlessly and making his father very happy.

According to his friends from high school, Chris has become much more cynical while in college and studying often. Chris returns the next year and works as pizza boy, carefully managing his money and sharing with Carine his accounting methods. He becomes angrier and angrier over the course of the summer though towards his parents. It turns out that two years previously Chris had discovered that his father was still married to his first wife until after Chris was born. His father had been living with both Marcia and Billie for years until his wives found out when Chris was two, putting both families through terrible stress.

It wasn’t until he was six that Chris’s father finalized the divorce from Marcia, spending the next few years trying to mend the fences with Billie. Chris never reveals what he’s learned though, instead brooding and becoming angrier over the years. He decides to never reveal what he knows, but to express his rage silently, via withdrawal. He becomes more angry, not only at his parents, but at the world as well, pitting his idealism against all of society’s injustices.

After his junior year, he leaves again for a road trip to Alaska, falling in love with the wilderness. He spends most of his time in the library when he returns, with the rest spent in his apartment away from his family. Carine tries to draw him back out of seclusion, but Chris replies by calling his parents anything but good parents.

His family sees him as happy during his graduation, but shortly afterwards, he cuts off all contact with them, donates his savings to OXFAM and disappears. Carine worries for her brother but thinks he is well and happy with his new found freedom. After his disappearance, his family grows worse and worse for wear, worrying about where he might have gone. They constantly leave notes on their door for him, should he return and stop for every young man they see on the side of the road, thinking it might be Chris. They continue to worry as such until they learn of his death in 1992.

Chapter 13, Virginia Beach

In this chapter, the author visits Carine McCandless in Virginia Beach and she shows him pictures of Chris at both seven and seventeen and describes how much she loved her dog, Buck. Carine had the same high level of intellectual thought as her brother and is highly opinionated but describes how she made peace with their parents. She now works with her husband Chris on their auto repair business, working almost constantly, finding irony in how much she disliked her parents for doing the same thing.

Carine describes how she cries every day over Chris’s death and how he grief persists. It has been ten months since she learned from her husband of Chris’s death, making her hysteric. When she finally calmed, she and her husband drove four hours to her parents’ home, and then flew to Fairbanks the next day to retrieve Chris’s body. She describes how Chris’s cause of death affected their diets, since he starved to death. She describes the extremities of her family’s grief, even nearly a year later.

Chapter 14, The Stikine Ice Cap

Krakauer describes again the final postcard that McCandless sent to Westerberg stating he believed he would die. Despite the wording though, he believes the death was an accident and begins comparing his own youthful indiscretions to those of McCandless, to show his insight into the matter. He describes his overbearing father and his obsession with climbing, desiring to reach new heights and prove to his father his own skills.

When twenty three years old, Krakauer climbed the Devils Thumb alone, also planning a thirty mile ski to reach the mountain, all the while reading the works of Nietzsche, Kerouace and John Menlove Edwards. He is enthralled by the prospect of his climb, carrying around a picture of the mountain that scares and excites him at the same time.

He quits his carpentry job, clears out his things and sets out for Alaska within hours. He leaves everything behind and drives to Alaska before hitching a ride as a crew member on the Ocean Queen to reach Petersberg. He jumps ship in Petersberg and takes dinner and a spot to sleep as offered by a local woman named Kai Sandburn. He decides he rather enjoys human contact but continues on his journey, hitching across another stretch of ocean to the mountain’s base. He describes how he has brought a pair of poles to keep from falling through a crevasse and dying.

He describes the emotional highs and lows of being alone in the mountains and how they affected him as opposed to being with other people. In his descriptions, Krakauer reveals more of his closeness to McCandless through their situations. After three days, Krakauer reaches the Stikine Ice Cap, where he finds the powerfulness of nature downright frightening. While there, he falls through the ice bridges twice, his poles saving his life. He realizes how easily he could die and becomes ill. He makes camp where his food is to be dropped and is thankful for the man’s persistence in flying up the mountainside. The next day he continues his climb up the mountain.

The farther he climbs, the more confident he becomes and the more excited he becomes that he’s successfully cheated death and the more he enjoys the climb. Finally he realizes that his climb is not as safe as he had thought and so he returns to survey the mountain, finally deciding that he can not finish the climb and descending the mountain.

Chapter 15, The Stikine Ice Cap

Krakauer stays in his tent at the base of the ice cap for three days, not quite willing to retreat in defeat yet. He smokes a bit of marijuana and decides to make oatmeal, somewhere in the process burning a hole in his father’s expensive tent again. He ponders how he will have disappointed his father once again. His father is a rash man who never admits when he is wrong. He taught Krakauer to climb, though he never knew he would become so adamant about the sport. Despite his love for his family and the rare gentle side, his father is a controlling man, expecting great things from his children – doctors and lawyers. His father started young, constantly expecting the best from his children and pushing him to reach medical school. It is this that Krakauer claims he rebelled against.

So it is that instead of going to college, Krakauer becomes a carpenter and climber and when his father’s weaknesses come to light, he becomes angry over such hypocrisy and high expectations. The rage from those days has faded away, claims Krakauer, replaced by familial love and affection. He realizes how stubborn and foolish he was being and that it took time for him to make these realizations. His father became ill at a certain point, dependent upon medication and even attempted suicide in front of Krakauer, completely shattering whatever illusion he might still have had of his father’s greatness.

After three days on the ice cap, Krakauer attempts once again to climb the north face of the mountain, quickly driven back down the mountain by weather and fear. He stays at the mid-mountain point and waits, unwilling to give in and return. However, when he returns, a storm buries him again and he decides to hide away in a snow drift.

After the storm, he finds the base camp and decides that he cannot defeat nature, considering the climb on the south wall instead of the north. So, he makes that climb and sleeps on the mountain again, watching the city and feeling lonely. He must race to beat a storm to the summit once again, taking an extremely dangerous route to the top so as to beat out an approaching storm.

After a series of near-deadly slips and close calls, he makes it to the summit, takes a few photographs, and quickly descends. Having beaten the weather to the summit, he quickly heads back down the mountain to ensure he survives. On his way down, he hitches a ride with a boater across the water and back to Petersberg. At first the boater doesn’t believe Krakauer’s story and is wary of the smelly, unkempt young man. He tells his story later than night to patrons at a bar who are hardly impressed by his climb, bursting his bubble of pride. He returns home a month later to his carpentry job, gets a better apartment and begins putting his life back together. He ends the chapter with reflections on how his climb of the Devils’ Thumb did nothing to change his life or who he was, comparing his revelations to what McCandless might have felt shortly before he died.

Chapter 16, The Alaska Interior

As planned, Chris McCandless leaves Carthage for Alaska on April 15, 1992. Along the way, he takes numerous photos of himself at different mile markers and hitches with a trucker named Gaylord Stucky for nearly a thousand miles in the state of Alaska itself. Alex describes for Stuckey his anger with his parents, his love for his sister and his dreams of living off the land in Alaska. Alex buys a great deal of rice in Fairbanks and stops off at the University of Alaska to research what he can survive off of while in the wild, which plants are safe and whatnot. Alex promises to send Stuckey a letter when he reemerges from the wild but will not commit to calling his parents.

McCandless spends three days in Fairbanks and mails out the post cards and letters to Burres and Westerberg. He buys a used .22 because it is light and durable and makes camp about four miles outside of town. On the morning of that fourth day, he gets a ride from the first person he sees, Jim Gallien, and in three hours he is standing at the Stampede Trail, covered in snow.

On his second day hiking the trail, he comes across the Teklanika River. In April, the river is tiny and easy to cross, not anywhere near the rapid it becomes in August when Alex tries to cross back over it. He travels 20 miles inland and comes across the bus with its hunting gear and remarks on it as the “magic bus” because of its miraculous appearance.

He tags the bus immediately, excited by his luck. Within days his journal reflects something different though, with worry over his weakness, the snow outside. He often references “disasters” becoming frustrated at nearly all interruptions to his goals. His hunting skills eventually increase though and when the snow melts he finds various plants that he can eat.

Alex leaves the bus on May 5 to head west, seeking game and hoping to hike 500 miles to the tidewater. Unfortunately, melting snow makes the hiking too hard and he returns to the bus for the summer. The bus is actually only 30 miles from the main highway, 16 from another road and within 6 miles of at least four other cabins. He never sees another human being though during the summer and goes about staying alive, gathering wood, and finding food.

His hunting skills continue to increase until he kills a moose on June 9. He feels bad for the kill though and when he fails to properly cure the meat because of his unfamiliarity with the weather and local assets, he is upset at wasting the animal’s life. Because of the failure, McCandless decides he will make every motion of life a deliberate, well thought out one, and to treat food as holy.

At some point in his diary, it is apparent that McCandless had decided to return, that happiness is only achieved when with other people. He decides to return on July 3rd but is stopped by the slew of Beaver Ponds blocking the Stampede Trail on which he hiked in. the river has exploded into a hundred foot torrent and so he decides to return to the bus, incapable of fording the river. As Krakauer notes, McCandless could have merely walked north a bit and found smaller fording points. However, he returns to the bus in what will eventually become a fatal move.

Chapter 17, The Stampede Trail

A full year after McCandless failed to cross the Teklanika River, Krakauer observes the same torrent of water. Only a half mile away there is a basket on cables and pulleys to cross the river, which McCandless had no way of finding without the kind of map McCandless has. Initially annoyed at the company, Krakauer remarks on how lonely the area seems and how much he would have disliked having been alone.

When they reach the bus, they find a variety of animal bones and the remains of the moose McCandless was unable to cure. Much of Krakauer’s hate mail regarding his Outside Magazine article was directly related to the fact that the initial moose hunters said the remains belonged to a caribou. However, Krakauer’s party finds that this is not the case.

Inside the bus, Krakauer finds books, supplies, and remnants of unmade clothing. There are remnants of his stay everywhere, including clothing, pots and pans, and the knife sheath given to him by Franz. Krakauer heads outside, disturbed by his discovery, later discussing the matter of McCandless with his companions, not understanding why so many people are so upset by the young man’s decisions. There have been comparisons to Sir John Franklin, a cocky British Officer who led 140 men and himself to death in the 19th century. Krakauer differentiates between the different kinds of arrogance though, with Franklin believing he could conquer the wild and McCandless trying to live with it.

Krakauer admits that the major mistake McCandless makes is that he didn’t first learn what most people learn before heading into the wild. He did however have the right survival skills to survive in the wild for the time he was there. He compares McCandless to the typical teenager who will take unnecessary risks to prove him or herself. He tries to confirm that McCandless found meaning in his adventures and that he wasn’t in fact a man lost in the wild like his critics have claimed.

Chapter 18, The Stampede Trail

On July 8, McCandless returns to his bus because of the river. He decides to wait for the river to go back down and returns to his previous routine of hunting and gathering. The animals he finds though are small and weak because of the weather and don’t offer much in the way of nutrition. He makes a revelation while reading Doctor Zhivago that he wants to re-enter society because he cannot be happy without sharing his happiness with others.

A couple of days later though, he reports that he is starving and can hardly move. He blames potato seeds, though some believe he confused a wild potato plant with a poisonous sweet pea. Krakauer reported originally in his magazine article that this was the likely cause of death, but later revised his statement in the book against such a conclusion. It had been months since McCandless started eating the wild potato plant and it was unlikely that he would make the mistake after so long. He had long been eating the rest of the potato plant and not gotten sick, so probably assumed the seeds were okay as there was no reference anywhere stating otherwise.

Krakauer tests the seeds at the University of Alaska and finds swainsonine alkaloid, a substance that stops the human body from turning food into usable energy. It cause starvation regardless of how much you eat. It’s possible to overcome the poison but because McCandless was already so low on necessary sugars and protein, he could not flush it free and likely succumbed to the seed.

On August 5, McCandless had been in the wild for 100 days and even though he is excited, he is also very weak and now unable to walk outside. Krakauer once again describes the nearby cabins and service stations that he could have found had he carried the right map with him. The cabins in question had actually been vandalized and when they found McCandless’s body, the owners assumed it was him.

There is no evidence that he did any wrong doing though and Krakauer believes he did not, though there is no true way to know. Many have argued that he would have edited his journals to not include any negative aspects of his stay, having previously noted he wanted to write a memoir.

In his final days, McCandless continues attempting to kill game but is unable to kill anything larger than a squirrel. With the poison, such game was useless to keeping him alive. He writes a plea for help on the bus door slightly before he dies on August 12, reverting to his actual name. In the final pages, Krakauer muses on the final moments of McCandless’s life, hoping he felt the euphoria of starvation that many have reported having. His last note is dated for August 12, saying goodbye and stating that he had a happy life. He takes one last photograph and is believed to have died on August 18.