Home Editorials What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About Chris McCandless

What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About Chris McCandless

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Magic Bus. Photograph by Laurent-34. Published under CC agreement.
Magic Bus. Photograph by Laurent-34. Published under CC agreement.

On September 12, a short article appeared in the New Yorker blog, regarding the recent discovery that the seeds of the plant Hedysarum alpinum contain an amino acid called Oxalyldiaminopropionic acid, or ODAP–a neurotoxin that induces a debilitating paralytic condition called lathyrism.

The article provoked lengthy and contentious debate in the New Yorker’s comments section and on its Facebook page was much reported-on by other media outlets, and even drew three grumpy article-length responses in the Alaska Dispatch (which themselves were responded to contentiously by the original author). This seems unusual for an article about biochemistry, so it will help to know that the author was Jon Krakauer, and that H. alpinum is the Alaska plant that in the late summer of 1992 may (or may not) have poisoned Christoper John McCandless, subject of Krakauer’s famous book Into the Wild.

The forensic question “Were the seeds poisonous?” is of interest only because it sheds light on broader, more contentious question, expressed bluntly as “How stupid was Chris McCandless?” If, like Alaska Dispatch reporters Dermot Cole and Craig Medred (and again), you think McCandless was a clueless, crazy knucklehead, arrogant in his disdain for wild nature and its perils, then you want to think the seeds weren’t poisonous; the kid just died of starvation because he was too stupid/crazy/arrogant to make it to safety.

But if, like Jon Krakauer (and, in the interest of full disclosure, like me), you have some level of empathy with or sympathy for McCandless, you want to think the seeds were poisonous—he was doing his best to survive a difficult enterprise and was done in because he consumed something that was not known to be poisonous until two decades after his death. Questions of McCandless’ motivation, level of competence, and general worth are complicated and subjective, and so subject to probably unsolvable debate.

But all this only raises another question: Why do people have such strong opinions about all this? Why do we care?

Millions of people have died before their time since 1992–why does this one particular death continue to excite strong emotion in so many people? The answer is, people don’t really care about Chris McCandless, the young man from Virginia who died on the Stampede Trail; they are invested in Chris McCandless as a symbol. The rancor comes because he symbolizes different, conflicting things for different people, and because what we read into McCandless has much to do with the way we perceive Alaska and its future.

Look at the pro-McCandless comments in the New Yorker article. They refer to him as “Chris,” as though he were kith or kin, suggesting the strangely intense emotional and spiritual bond some people form with this long-dead man. To readers like this—who tend to be sensitive, melancholy, and maybe even disaffected– McCandless represents freedom, purity of spirit, and rejection of the bourgeois conventionality of modern American life. They see Into the Wild as a paean to a Great Soul, someone who was able to rise above the grubby reality of daily existence achieve a sort of wild sainthood.

For the most extreme holders of this view, McCandless’s death itself was less tragedy than transcendence, the ultimate exercise in liberating oneself from this petty world.

In this reading, the Alaska wild is the place you go to transcend bourgeois society, the church where you achieve sainthood. It follows from this world-view that the sacred wild must be preserved and protected from tawdry and shallow enterprises like development and resource extraction.

Now, read through the anti-McCandless comments and note the severity and mean-spiritedness of tone. Those prone to dislike him suggest he got exactly what he deserved, as though making mistakes while living in back-country Alaska as a 23-year-old renders someone forever unworthy of the most basic human sympathy. The tone is always of the Wise Sourdough, the pragmatic, commonsense Alaskans (and it is mostly Alaskans) who Just Know Better, like the old men in Jack London stories.

For people like this, deriding McCandless is a way of nourishing their own sense of self-regard: If McCandless is stupid and incompetent then I am smart and competent; I have lived in Alaska for many years and perhaps traversed its back-country, and I am not dead; I have survived the Darwinian struggle and have been deemed fit to survive. This is attributable to having “real respect” for nature, which means not mystifying and venerating it.

McCandless, at least to the “sourdough Alaskans,” symbolizes fuzzy-headed, tree-hugging liberalism of the sort that wants to cavort in—and preserve from development—Wild Nature. It’s the attitude that’s right now trying to shut down Pebble Mine and keeping ANILCA “locked up”; the attitude of dumb-ass Outsiders who don’t really understand the way it really is. The cult of personality that has accrued around McCandless must be frustrating for Alaskans like these: the more people buy into it, the more the “Alaskan way of life” comes under threat from hippies and environmentalists.

Both of these understandings of McCandless-as-emblem are missing an important point and, perhaps, misunderstanding the book. Into the Wild is not actually a book about Chris McCandless—it’s a book about one complicated, interesting, troubled guy (Jon Krakauer) trying to understand and process the early death of another.

Krakauer is constantly injecting his own thoughts and ideas into the narrative—most tellingly, the long narration of his own nearly-fatal ascent of the Stikine Ice Cap. In certain points, there is a hint of desperation about his inquiry: Krakauer needs to know what happened, because he looked into the dead face of McCandless and saw his own. He felt empathy, and needed to understand the circumstances—psychological and physical—that caused McCandless to die and himself to live and grow grey.

Seen this way, McCandless is not an emblem of anything, and that’s the way it should be–because in the real world, people aren’t symbols.

McCandless was not a transcendent saint, nor was he a bumbling, arrogant dis-respecter of nature, and to press him into service as an emblem of anything is a mistake. If we examine the life of another and don’t see them as a fellow-person—if we don’t look into a dead face and see our own–we’re missing something important. Chris McCandless was deeply kind and supremely selfish; tremendously brave and jaw-droppingly foolish; impressively competent and staggeringly inept; that is to say, he was hewn from the same crooked timber as the rest of us.

Ivan Hodes is a public school teacher in the Anchorage School District, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

24 COMMENTS

  1. I like your analysis. It’s okay to acknowlege the guy was selfish and foolish without having to go so far in the other direction you call him a “poacher” who deserved to die.

  2. Well, I’m sorry, but lumping Dermot Cole in with the mean-spirited people is, I’m afraid, pretty mean-spirited in itself. Yes, excessively mean-spirited people exit, but I don’t know that this is a case where we want to be balanced in the face of evidence of all sorts of agendas on all sides. Medred obviously has an agenda and doesn’t hide it. I suspect he’s also secretly jealous of Krakauer’s success as an outdoors writer. Krakauer seems to be quite keen on self-promotion and doesn’t hesitate to just conveniently neglect to mention aspects that don’t fit his goals.

    I’ve been very interested in this story including its scientific aspects. Were those seeds poisonous? I don’t know. They might have been. Krakauer has however a terrible track record coming up with convincing explanations: his first two have been wrong. He also doesn’t address the contention made by credible people that whether they were poisonous or not, McCandless was on the path to starvation. Also, eating unknown legume seeds is a pretty reckless thing to do — quite a few are at least somewhat harmful especially raw. (As was taking cheese melt sandwiches into bear country.) I’m as much a liberal tree hugger as they come, but this doesn’t look good for him. Wondering about his mental state, as Medred to his credit does, isn’t without empathy.

    And calling him a poacher is, I’m afraid, a simple truthful label: he killed a moose out of season and then let it go to waste. That’s not a good thing. It’s disrespectful of the people, Native and white, who’ve been living in a relationship with this wild land for a good while.

    Last, you also seem to be conveniently leaving aside the real harm that inspiring new generation of unprepared romantic wilderness explorers does. Someone died in 2010. And as others more bluntly point out, rescuing hikers from Stampede Trail isn’t free.

  3. This summer I hiked the Chilkoot Trail–not exactly a journey through the darkest boreal woods, but sufficiently removed from civilization that people can run into some trouble there. At one of the camps, a hiker was boiling some water for tea and spilled some on his foot. I met him at Bennett (the train station at the end of the route) two days later. It turned out the blisters had gotten so bad that he’d been assisted over the pass by rangers and then been evacuated by boat, at some small but non-trivial cost to the American taxpayer.

    In Denali last summer, a guy was killed by a bear–the evidence shows he was being pretty foolish, but also suffered from some bad luck.

    Yet we don’t have people grumbling about the need to shut down the Chilkoot Trail or stop people from back-country hiking in Denali, right? But when anything goes badly on the route from the end of the Stampede Trail road to the bus, people tend to profess some combination of alarm, concern, and irritation and mutter darkly about Krakauer and/or hippies.

    Can’t argue with you about the poaching, though–one of the things that I, personally, found least palatable about McCandless was his contempt for regulatory regimes, as if he were above playing by the same rules the rest of us are supposed to. When you’re talking about illegally floating the Colorado on your own, it’s annoying but harmless and maybe understandable; when you’re talking about illegally hunting moose, the moral implications are a little more troublesome. But, of course, the whole premise of this article is that McCandless was not a saint.

  4. I also admit that I wrote this article more in response to the Medred article than Dermot Cole’s, which is certainly *less* grumpy. But I mostly wrote it in response to all the people in the comments sections.

  5. Thanks for your insights. It has become so popular to polarize issues to make ourselves feel better about our own position. My position is this: Chris McCandless’s life was his own, to live as he chose. What I think or feel about him has nothing to do with him or his choices. It has everything to do with how his choices reflect on ME, or how I project MYSELF into his choices. We all use people and issues to prop up our own identities, unless we are honest enough to look and see that is what we are doing. The more heated the debate, the less the self reflection involved by either side. I think this is what you are saying and its the only thing that explains the intense emotion about something that touched none of us personally.

  6. My thoughts have never really been against Chris McCandless, though I certainly believe he was an ignorant narcissist bent on self destruction, and without a single clue about the Alaska wilderness. My concern has always been the seeming glorification of that attitude by Krakauer. I ‘ve read most of what Krakauer has written, and love him as both a writer and as a wilderness adventurer. But to prop McCandless up as a soulful loaner in search of himself, succumbing to nature while living like a poor-man’s David Thoreau was just too much. I was living and working in Denali Park that same summer (and many others), and spent many, many days alone in the backcountry. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the dangers. Krakauer’s glorification of McCandless’ trials and tribulations has led many others to similar ventures, and many of them to their deaths. This is Krakauer’s failure. It has nothing to do with whether the seeds were poisonous, that’s merely an effort by Krakauer to provide some non-self destructive manner to McCandless’ demise.

    • You’re right, but McCandless has become a symbol to many people who dream of an escape from the demands of civilization. We don’t need to judge him. The untamed life in the wild punished him. He died a miserable death all alone.

  7. I envy McCandless, I too “dipped” from society, and emerged way before he “dipped”. I too was conflicted in trust. Trust nature, or trust people, as it seemed impossible to trust both. Nature is only somewhat predictable, and people in most respects, are equal in that analysis, except, I knew people. Whether it is the fringes of “society” or the fringes of “civilization” as we know it, McCandless tested both. I not only respect, but appreciate his story as nothing more than HIS story. I am glad I am exposed to it.

  8. I’m late to the party … sorry. I am not an adventurer myself. I came across this story because I like to read adventure books which led me to ‘Into the Wild’. I would just chime in that this is the most balanced post I’ve read as I have been surfing internet on this topic. The polarization is pretty extreme. The fans have a religious zeal about the McCandless story and accept nothing less than worship. The detractors go to great lengths to trash a man that they never even met. If Krakauer and Penn over romanticized this story then blame them!

  9. He was a hypocrite in the first degree: While transcendental are fair game. He failed to acknowledge his taking from civilization when ever it served his purpose.
    How exactly is it the bag or rice existed in a store in the first place, that’s right it grows on trees.
    Yeah and magic buses with chairs and oil drums are part of nature too.

    • He started traveling with store bought goods, clothing backpack, food, knife etc.
    • He never killed a deer, turned it’s leather into his own clothing, nor a backpack
    • He did not make his own knife of wood and sharpened stone
    • He did not find a cotton field, make his own yarn and weave his shirts
    • He used modern weapons, not a bow and arrow.
    • He walked highways made by people and paid for with taxes
    • He hitched rides in cars, truck and trains he did not walk everywhere
    • He sent mail using the post office.
    • He used toilet paper
    • He brought books which use paper, ink and machinery both in production and transport to retail.
    • He brought a camera and film and developed pictures.
    • He used an aluminum canoe not a wood one made by him

    He stole and vandalized three cabins near the magic bus
    Park rangers checked on him three seperate times (it’s in the records)
    He espoused the pitfalls of “society” while drinking a cold bud in the other (made by man) South Dakota.

    • There is no proof that he vandalized three cabins near the magic bus that is all speculation and he would have bragged about it in his journal had he actually done that also why would he do something that could send people looking for him to make him accountable that would ruin his trip.

  10. “For people like this, deriding McCandless is a way of nourishing their own sense of self-regard:” have nothing to do…

  11. Krakauer is like that. In his story about the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air, he seemed obsessed about a guy he was convinced walked off the moutainside.

  12. RIP, Chris McCandless. I’ve been down stampede road and know well the lure of the nature. leave this dead man alone.

  13. This story has become a recent curiosity to me, I’m not sure why. I guess it’s part mystery story, part man vs. nature and part journey into the abyss. While initially I was enamored with Chis’s journey, I have, by my the end of my own journey, found the story less mystical and more moral. Chris certainly had a bizarre upbringing ( having a Dad with a violent nature, two families is not exactly Ward Cleaver stuff ) so his reasons to opt out from life/family/society are understandable. Yet, after bumming around in his beloved Datsun and travelling out west, by the climax to his journey his decisions seem less soul searching and more death-wish like. His going into such a hostile territory ( as many other more knowledgeable writers have pointed out ) was simply foolish on it’s face. This was not a planned venture into the wilderness like Dick Proenneke ( see ” Alone in the wilderness “)
    where there was a well thought out plan from a skilled carpenter and woodsman. His trip seemed ad hoc in nature, no real heavy equipment, no real skill in hunting or fishing, he only found shelter ( the bus ) by accident. Had he not stumbled across it how long would he have survived the cold and the bears ? The fact that he never took a map or knew there was a cable crossing on the river that trapped him 1/2 mile from his crossing point was foolish and his inevitable demise.
    This seems less a case of finding one self and more a case of running away from yourself, destined for a slow or tragic journey, indeed, into the abyss.

  14. Incredibly insightful analysis of the controversy surrounding Mr. McCandless. I love that you took into account the difficulty of interpreting anyone’s life outside of your own frame of reference. You’re absolutely correct, especially in your interpretation of what McCandless symbolizes to Mr. Krakauer. Beautifully said.

  15. I’m going on the Stampede Trail tomorrow. THERE’S A NATIONAL PARK about 20 miles from where the highway [3] meets the “CHRIS MCCANDLESS TRAIL” – – his goal to “live off the land” in “untouched nature” was just a self-righteous delusion. Theres a man-made crossing to aide your escape a half mile away? You never hiked a half mile up stream the whole summer? Emory has to be the worst college on the planet or this guy was suicidal.

    The Magic Bus was put there by local trappers as a halfway point to camp out, and the local VOLUNTEER rescue workers don’t seem to keen on rescuing the scores of troglodytes that seem hell bent on meeting the same fate as Mccandless. Stay away from the bus – it doesn’t mean anything.

  16. He was someone trying to figure things out. To figure himself out. He didn’t do what he did to impress, or because it was a trendy thing to do. He did it because it was inside of him. Why does his story keep standing out? Because it is unique, and it touched or in some way affected many people. I liken it to going on walkabout. This was a young man searching. Perhaps desperately so, and he doesn’t deserve the negativity many have directed towards him. How dare anyone speak ill of a person brave enough to do something you yourself never had the guts to do. I admire his determination, and I hope his memory and spirit live on. Rest in peace, Alexander.

What do you think?