"McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well—relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arm’s length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. And now he’d slipped painlessly out of Ron Franz’s life as well."
This passage illuminates McCandless’s deep problems with intimacy, which are very central in his ultimately fatal two-year quest for meaning and peace. During these two years, McCandless doesn’t contact his sister, with whom he was very close, and while he meets many people and becomes close to a few, he always makes sure to maintain a certain distance.
In this passage, he is just leaving Ron Franz, who spends the next year or so waiting for his return, living by his tenets, while McCandless ignores the responsibilities and bonds of intimacy by going into the wilderness, where he only has himself to account to. In allowing himself to forget about the responsibilities one has in any close relationships, he ignores the harm done to those who love him when he risks his safety and his life.
“Please return all mail I receive to the sender. It might be a very long time before I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again, I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.”
This passage consists of McCandless’s own words, written on his last postcard to Wayne Westerberg before he goes into the Alaskan wilderness. The fact that he acknowledges the chance that he might not survive has been used as evidence that his trek was suicidal in intent, but this seems highly unlikely. Instead, this acknowledgment of the risk, and of what is truly at stake, shows that his arrogance and hubris are not as extreme as many imagine—he does not want to die, but he knows very well that he is embarking on a dangerous adventure, and that his margin for error is very slight. He feels this is worth it, however, for the real experience of living completely independently and freely, and his excitement can be seen in the final, terse sentence of his postcard to Westerberg.
“A trancelike state settles over your efforts; the climb becomes a clear-eyed dream. Hours slide by like minutes. The accumulated clutter of day-to-day existence—the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes—all of it is temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by an overpowering clarity of purpose and by the seriousness of the task at hand.”
This passage describes Krakauer’s feelings while climbing the Devils Thumb, and is, essentially, his explanation of the allure of mountain climbing, or of high-risk activities in general. It becomes clear, here, that it serves as a kind of escapism, for him at least. The intense focus required to survive such activities means that the mundane problems of daily life cannot intrude, and Krakauer can reach a kind of meditative state.
McCandless’s treks are also clearly escapism on some level. He seems to be trying to escape from the responsibilities and bonds of human relationships; by going into the wild, alone, with no way to contact the outside world, and by having to focus his full attention on keeping himself alive, he cannot be called on to participate in relationships with those who care most about him.
“Seven weeks after the body of his son turned up in Alaska wrapped in a blue sleeping bag that Billie had sewn for Chris from a kit, Walt studies a sailboat scudding beneath the window of his waterfront townhouse. ‘How is it,’ he wonders aloud as he gazes blankly across Chesapeake Bay, ‘that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain?’”
This passage is emblematic of the problem at the core of McCandless’s story. From what Krakauer learns about him, he seems to have been a deeply compassionate person, and a significant part of his two-year quest was fueled by his sense of injustice at how selfishly and greedily most Americans lived. His risky behavior over this time is, however, deeply selfish, in that it causes pain to all those who love him, and especially his family, who for two years do not even know if he is alive. And indeed, this is not just a side effect of his quest, but part of its aim—he explicitly wanted to cut his parents out of his life, and his anger at them seems to have been a large part of the source of his need to be always on the move. And thus the question that Walt McCandless poses in this passage, and which Krakauer tries to find an answer to throughout the book—how could such a caring, compassionate person act so selfishly?
“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.”
This passage is illustrative of Krakauer’s feelings about McCandless. He does not think McCandless is so naïve or arrogant as many, especially in Alaska, do, but he does see that he was young, and had many of the common misperceptions of the young, and claims that that was really his main flaw. The implication of this passage is that, had McCandless survived, he likely would have ended up maturing—learning to be close to people, to forgive flaws in those he loved, to interact with society and the world in less extreme ways. Because he dies, however—which is certainly not any more deserved than if Krakauer had on Devils Thumb—he will never have that opportunity, and instead is blamed for his ignorance and hubris.
“Two years he walks the earth, no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure, the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. – Alexander Supertramp, May 1992.”
This passage shows how McCandless feels about his journey so far, right after he walks into the wilderness. He is clearly proud of himself, and proud of what he has accomplished, and deeply excited for the Alaskan “greatest adventure.” It also shows, however, that he probably intends to rejoin civilization, even though he describes it as poisonous, for he calls this his “final” adventure, which will “conclude the spiritual revolution.”
And though he writes "Thou shalt not return", the implication is not that he is walking into the wilderness to die, but that he will not go back to the East (since over his two-year journey he has fallen deeply in love with the American West). Finally, the passage shows how intertwined his need for independence and freedom is with his inability to let people too close, as he likens his entrance into the wilderness to fleeing and emphasizes that he is alone, and that only now can he enjoy “Ultimate freedom.”
“As she studies the pictures, she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow.”
This passage, about Billie McCandless after Chris’s death, emphasizes that no matter how well-intentioned Chris may have been, his behavior was deeply cruel to his parents and family. The passage is also interesting because of the meta-commentary it offers. Over the course of the book, Krakauer’s view of McCandless is largely forgiving, and Krakauer certainly understands the allure that high-risk activities held for him. Yet here he acknowledges that in the face of a parent’s devastation from the loss of a son, it is very difficult to defend McCandless’s behavior, no matter how well-intentioned or important it seemed to him at the time, thus implying that Into the Wild itself cannot defend McCandless when it comes to the pain his parents suffer.
“Roman, Andrew, and I stay up well past midnight, trying to make sense of McCandless’s life and death, yet his essence remains slippery, vague, elusive.”
This sentence is representative of one of the significant themes of the book—that it is impossible to ever really know another person’s story, what drives them, how they end up where they do, etc., and that this is a problem inherent in biography. It looms even larger over this specific biography because McCandless has died, and has left a fairly elusive trail. His journals are largely only descriptions of events and foods, and there spans almost a whole year during which he doesn’t leave any documentation. Krakauer does all he can to “make sense of McCandless’s life and death,” and he ultimately seems to come very close; yet a true, full understanding remains impossible.
“'I guess I just can’t help identifying with the guy,’ Roman allows as he pokes the coals with a stick. ‘I hate to admit it, but not so many years ago it could easily have been me in the same kind of predicament. When I first started coming to Alaska, I think I was probably a lot like McCandless: just as green, just as eager. And I’m sure there are plenty of other Alaskans who had a lot in common with McCandless when they first got here, too, including many of his critics. Which is maybe why they’re so hard on him. Maybe McCandless reminds them a little too much of their former selves.’”
This passage again emphasizes that it was McCandless’s death—caused by an innocent mistake though it might have been—that has made so many Alaskans look down upon him. Krakauer’s friend Roman is famous for having accomplished a similarly dangerous and perhaps somewhat misguided feat, but had he died he would have likely been seen as McCandless now is. And Roman makes the point that this anger is probably because he is not the only one who sees himself in McCandless. By reminding people who either have or who used to have similar tendencies just how much is at stake when they indulge in risky behavior, McCandless essentially is a reminder of their own mortality.
“It is hardly unusual for a young man to be drawn to a pursuit considered reckless by his elders; engaging in risky behavior is a rite of passage in our culture no less than in most others. Danger has always held a certain allure. That, in large part, is why so many teenagers drive too fast and drink too much and take too many drugs, why it has always been so easy for nations to recruit young men to go to war. It can be argued that youthful derring-do is in fact evolutionarily adaptive, a behavior encoded in our genes. McCandless, in his fashion, merely took risk-taking to its logical extreme.”
This passage underscores that McCandless’s behavior is not completely unique or unusual. Though he obviously lives in a way that very few do, and particularly very few who grow up with the opportunities he has, the driving force behind his behavior is not unusual. This also reflects the idea that, had he survived, he would have been looked upon with admiration, likely, and would have been considered a person who had accomplished something impressive. Because he died, however, many have vilified him, and have seen in his daring only arrogance and stupidity, when in reality it was probably mostly influenced by his youth.
Into the Wild Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Into the Wild is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Wayne Westerberg is the owner of a grain elevator in Carthage, South Dakota, who meets McCandless when he picks him up hitchhiking in 1990. Wayne hired Chris on as a grain worker. He really became fond of Chris over time,
I cannot say I was surprised. I think Chris had a lot of mixed emotions about what he was doing, regardless of his determination to do it. I also don't believe that Chris would have continued his estrangement from his family if he'd lived. Chris...