Chris McCandless, a twenty-four year old man, college educated and from a well- to-do family, walked into the Alaskan wilderness. He left a hundred or so days later in a body bag. Chris was a wanderer and adventurer. He apparently wanted to test himself by living completely off the grid, without modern (or even old-fashioned) conveniences. He survived for nearly four months, hunting and foraging for berries. He would have made it out of the wilderness but for a few mistakes. In Into the Wild Jon Krakauer recounts McCandless's life and death.
Krakauer first wrote about McCandless in a magazine article. The article generated a lot of strong feelings with many concluding McCandless was foolish, arrogant or worse. It is easy to see why people feel so strongly about McCandless. Trotting off into the Alaskan wilderness without a good map, a compass, or knowledge of the particular demands of the Alaskan landscape (apparently the climate makes preserving meat in Alaska a different challenge from preserving meat in another climate). But then how many stories are there of young people going off on foolhardy adventures? How many of us have done foolish things that could have ended in disaster but didn't?
Krakauer peppers Into the Wild with stories of other men who went on crazy, solo treks into the wilderness. They were often ill prepared or they miscalculated in some small way that ended up having fatal consequences. Krakauer's examples are all of men but McCandless's story reminded me of Cheryl Strayed solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail as described in her book Wild. Strayed's journey could have ended badly. She made some mistakes (the over-packed backpack, the ill fitting boots) but with a little luck and the kindness of strangers, she survived those mistakes. It seems to me that the big difference between Strayed's hike and McCandless's wilderness jaunt was a little bit of luck. (He was aided by many kind strangers on his way to Alaska.) For that reason, I neither see McCandless as an idiot deserving of scorn or as a courageous hero. He was a just a guy who tried something and failed. Unfortunately, his failure was fatal.