|McCandless sitting in front of the now-famous Bus No. 142.|
When he died, McCandless was known by no one except his family (who he had effectively cut off) and the few who he had crossed paths with during his trek. Today, he's viewed by many as a hero and modern-day Thoreau and his life story has been told in a best-selling book and major motion picture. (Only Chris, unlike Thoreau, doesn't seem to have been self-indulgent.)
There are many theories about McCandless. I'm only beginning to understand his story and the details of his life and death. Some say he was "crazy" or, at best, arrogant, misguided and just plain stupid. Some say he had a death wish and sought his own demise when he entered the unforgiving Alaskan backcountry. And yet others claim he was just an idealistic young man full of passion who was willing to take the great leap few of us would ever dare. Krakauer's book, Penn's film and other accounts have their own variations of what exactly happened. The net effect is that we're left with a story riddled with fill-in-the-blanks, but yet enthralling enough to capture our imaginations and force us to take a good, hard look at what it means to exist in today's world.
|The last picture of Chris McCandless before his death. He's holding a|
message that says, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK
THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!"
McCandless was a history and anthropology major at Emory. I, too, majored in history, as well as political science. It's clear he, like Thoreau, was idealistic and disenchanted with the world. My suspicion is that, sometime while at Emory with law school looming, he took a look at the world and didn't like what he saw. Or maybe he had rejected the world much sooner than that and during the Emory years was just going through the motions. He couldn't bear the thought of being a working stiff, caught in the rat race and traffic jams so many of us are stuck now in. He knew he couldn't live in that world, and so he escaped. He burned his money (literally) and ditched all of his worldly possessions and hit the road. His dream was Alaska, and, by God, he was chasing that dream.
Few among us haven't been guided by idealism at one point in our lives. In college and graduate school, I saw the world through the lens of John Locke, Socrates and Lincoln. There were definitive moral lines that easily distinguished morality from license and defined the way forward. I saw the world not as it was, but as it should be, and I believed that truth was all I needed. I wanted not to be a high-priced lawyer, but rather a small-liberal arts college history professor who taught, researched and wrote for the love of knowledge and in pursuit of truth. I collected books, because I thirsted for knowledge even if it came from the dusty pages of a seemingly irrelevant, long-forgotten work.
And then one day the realities of life set in. I had a mortgage to pay, a future to plan, a job to worry about, an employer to whom I was accountable. It was the slow-boil effect. I landed in the real world still an idealistic young man. But, just as water can be boiled on low, life slowly, gradually distracted me from idealism to the point that living had become a daily grind. Before I knew it, hours I had spent at the library were now spent on the interstate commuting to and from work. Books about Lincoln or Socrates were now books about corporate success. Dollars I had spent on books were now spent at Jos. A. Bank on suits and ties. I look at my wife and our son and they're all I need to be happy. And yet existence today is rigged so that we spend more time in the grind of work than with those who matter most in our life.
McCandless, I believe, saw the grind in his future. He saw a world that would eventually consume his life and he rebelled against it. While most of us dream but never do, McCandless illegally rafted the Colorado River, traveled by hopping trains, hiked beautiful trails, touched the lives of virtually everyone he met and set off for Alaska to live his dream. Along the way, he held down a few jobs--one as a grain worker and the other as a burger flipper.
What exactly happened before his death we may never know. It appears McCandless reached the point where he was ready to leave, but was trapped by a raging river that he crossed only a few months earlier when it was still iced over. Unaware that the river was crossable only 1/4 of a mile upstream, McCandless decided to bide his time and live off the land a bit more, remaining stationed in Bus No. 42. Only he made the mistake of accidentally poisoning himself, rendering himself too weak to hike out or seek help beyond an SOS message on the bus where he stayed...and died.
We are left with our own vision and perception of McCandless--a story that speaks to the human condition and the calamity of modern-day life. Some day he was crazy. Others day he was idealistic and a hopeless dreamer. Labels and judgments abound. Me? I say he was Christopher Johnson McCandless, a man unlike any other today.