In January 1993, Jon Krakauer published an article in Outside magazine about the death of Chris McCandless, a young Emory graduate who had donated all of his money to charity, gotten rid of all his belongings, changed his name, and, in April 1992, after two years of itinerant living, walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness with few supplies, intending to live off of the land. His body was found about four months later, in September 1992.
The article in Outside magazine garnered a great deal of attention, and Krakauer found himself obsessed with the question of what led McCandless to this extreme end. He also saw many parallels between McCandless’s personality and behavior, and his own as a younger man. He thus decided to do significantly more research and to make a book out of the tale, and spent nearly three years researching the story in an effort to discover what exactly happened to McCandless.
Krakauer interviewed McCandless's family, friends, and as many of those as McCandless came across in his two years on the road as he could find. He also had access to McCandless's books and journals, all of his photos, and the letters he sent to people like Wayne Westerberg and Jan Burres. Using this information, as well as information about McCandless's childhood and time at college, Krakauer pieced together much of what drove McCandless to his rootless existence, and what he did during that time.
Into the Wild was the result of this research, and was published in 1996. The book, in trying to discover what exactly led McCandless to his mysterious end, and what happened once he was alone, also discusses Krakauer’s own history, and the stories of many other famous or infamous figures who met their ends in the wilderness.
Into the Wild was published to great success, spending more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also made into a movie in 2007. One of the questions Krakauer tried to answer in his research was what exactly had killed Chris McCandless. In the Outside magazine article, he posited that McCandless had mistaken the poisonous wild sweat pea for the nearly indistinguishable edible wild potato, and thus had inadvertently poisoned himself. This was what almost all journalists at the time also believed.
While continuing to research for the book, however, Krakauer found it hard to believe that McCandless had made that mistake, after successfully distinguishing between the two plants for weeks, and he decided that instead, the wild potato was poisonous, but only in the seeds. Analysis eventually showed this not to be true, however, and it was only long after the first edition of Into the Wild came out that Krakauer came up with his final theory--that McCandless's seeds had developed a poisonous mold when he stored them, and that that was what poisoned him.