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This review was published in MOTiVE #55. Click Here to see selected quotes from the book.

Into the Wild: A Commentary

Given my comments on wilderness settings in Motive 44, I thought there was some tangency in a book review and commentary on Into the Wild by John Krakauer.

In April 1992, a young 20-something walked into the Alaskan bush to live off the land and experience Reality. His emaciated body was found four months later. Some of you may have heard about the incident; it was reported in an article in Outside magazine, and carried by some news services. Some lauded him as a new Thoreau, living life to the fullest and taking the consequences; others say he was a stupid, hopeless romantic, an example of what happens when suburbanites try to do The Nature Thing.

Who was Chris McCandless? He was na´ve. He was Immortal. Like many of that age, he thought that if he wanted something passionately enough, he was entitled to it. Many of us secretly envy his kind, the drifters who revel in "owning no more possessions than you can carry on your back at a full run," for whom each day is an adventure, an indelible experience. To paraphrase Monty Python, those who live free in the wilderness subsequently die free in the wilderness.

The author suggests that one of his flaws was that he refused to learn from others. He was native talent embodied, making him very good at anything he tried. But he wouldn't listen to the advice of experts, to realize his potential for excellence. Also, one friend commented that although he was a tireless worker even on the nastiest jobs, he didn't have much common sense.

He was independent, that's true enough. He as much as said he wanted to see if he could make it on his own. But it was also clear to me that he needed people for survival. While he survived some dangerous (if stupid) situations on his own, he needed people to pull his fat out of the fire on occasion. For example, in the beginning of his long journey, he ignorantly got his truck disabled in a flash flood; some motorists found him on the verge of heat stroke from traveling through the desert all day. When he was hopelessly lost in a Mexican swamp, Chris stumbled upon some duck hunters who towed his canoe to safety. In the last and terminal episode of his short life, his saviors showed up three weeks too late.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the guy. After all, he managed to last longer than most of us would. But his sin was naivetÚ, and Nature doesn't give a tinker's damn about our reasons for screwing up.

What killed him? A combination of things. Number one, he purposefully went into the bush without a quad map (lacking a "blank spot on the map" to go to, speculates Krakauer, he ditched the map so that "In his mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita"). When he had found what he had been looking for and began to hike his way out, he found his way blocked by a river flooded by glacier meltwater. With no map, he couldn't know that a 30 minute hike would have brought him to an abandoned hydrology station with a functional cable crossing. And so he was forced to wait out the summer.

The second error, more forgivable but fatal, was that he poisoned himself. Despite all his hunting and gathering, July found him scrawny and gaunt. Trying to improve his diet, he at the seeds of the wild potato, which at the time contained an toxin which blocks nutrient intake. I say forgivable because his plant books made no mention of this, although a botanist would have guessed this property of the potato family. If he was in good health, his body would have flushed the inhibitors from his system in time, but as it was he had no sugar or protein to spare.

Jon Krakauer, an outdoor writer, is fixated on McCandless. He draws on Chris' writings and photos along with interviews with family and people Chris met on his trek. In the book he relates the ends of others who braved Alaska for whatever reason, from arrogance to ignorance to insanity. He uses his own personal experiences, including his relationship with his father and a foolhardy, nearly fatal climb on a peak in (again) Alaska to bring some insight to Chris' mindset.

So is there a moral to this story? That Mother Nature doesn't suffer fools gladly? "Be Prepared?" As with most things, I suspect that the meaning found in this story will be personalized, unique for each one who reads it.