On April 15, 1992, McCandless leaves Carthage and begins his hitchhiking journey to Alaska. After a few days he gets to the start of the Alaska Highway in Canada, where he takes a picture in front of the sign at mile zero—1,523 miles from Fairbanks. Although hitchhiking on the Alaska Highway is known to be difficult, McCandless manages to get a ride quickly. On April 21 he arrives at Laird River Hotsprings, a popular stop on the Alaska Highway, but after trying out the thermal pools, McCandless finds he can’t get another ride, and days go by.
McCandless meets Gaylord Stuckey, a sixty-three year old man who is driving an RV to a dealership in Fairbanks, in the thermal pools one morning. Although Stuckey’s job strictly forbids picking up hitchhikers, he takes a liking to McCandless, and offers to drive him at least part of the way. After a day and a half he has really come to enjoy his company, and so tells him he’ll drive him the whole way to Fairbanks.
Over the long ride, McCandless opens up to Stuckey, and talks mostly about Carine, but also how his father is a brilliant scientist, but had been a bigamist at one point, which McCandless couldn’t stomach. He tells Stuckey about his Alaska plan, and when they get to Fairbanks he buys a bag of rice at the grocery store, and tells Stuckey he wants to go to the University to study what kind of plants he’ll be able to eat. Stuckey tells McCandless that he’s too early, there’s still two or three feet of snow on the ground, but McCandless is too stubborn to listen.
In the campus book store, McCandless finds an exhaustive guide to edible plants of the region, and buys two postcards on which he sends his last messages to Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg. He finds a used gun and some shells to buy, and then after about two days in Fairbanks, packs up his bag and heads west, and camps for the night. The next morning, the first car he sees picks him up, and Jim Gallien takes him to the edge of the wilderness. When Gallien drops McCandless off, there is about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, and the high temperature is in the low thirties.
The only food McCandless has with him is a ten pound bag of rice and Jim Gallien’s lunch, but he believes this will be enough because of his experience surviving in Mexico for over a month with only a five pound bag of rice, and fish he was able to catch himself with a cheap rod. He carries about nine or ten books with him, but not a journal, so when he writes he just uses some blank pages in the back of his books.
After two days, McCandless reaches the Teklanika River. There is still ice, but nowhere does it span the whole river, so he is forced to wade across. Because of the conditions, this is easy, and there is nothing to hint to him that in a few months, after further thawing, it will be uncrossable. A few days later he stumbles across the old bus, which is stocked with some essentials, so he decides to stay there for a little while and take advantage of its comforts. He is ecstatic to be alone in the wild.
McCandless is quickly faced with reality, however. He has trouble killing game, and quickly becomes weak and very hungry. By mid-May, however, his luck turns, as the weather gets better, the snow melts, and he can start foraging for rose hips and lingonberries. He also becomes more successful at hunting, and regularly shoots squirrels, grouse, duck, goose, and porcupine. His original intention is to stay moving, so on May 5 he leaves the bus and starts traveling.
It quickly becomes clear that this will not be easy, as McCandless has to spend much of each day hunting, and the ground is boggy and marshy. After two weeks, he has only traveled fifteen miles, so he turns around and within a week is back at the bus, deciding to use it as a base camp for the rest of the summer. Although this is not actually that far from civilization, it is sufficiently isolated that for the four months he spends there, he never comes across another human.
McCandless has a few weeks of great hunting, and then manages to kill a moose. He believes it is morally necessary to use every part of the moose and not waste any of it, so he spends the next few days desperately trying to preserve all of the hundreds of pounds of meat. Alaskan hunters know that air drying is the best way to preserve meat there, but McCandless relies on advice he received from hunters in South Dakota, who recommended smoking the meat. He ends up having to leave almost all of it to the wolves, and he deeply regrets having wasted the moose’s life.
He comes to accept the loss, and based on a list he makes of things to do before he departed, it seems clear that he is preparing to return to civilization, and perhaps even join society. A photo he takes of himself at around this time, after shaving for the first time in the wilderness, shows him looking healthy, but already alarmingly gaunt. He packs up all of his gear and starts his hike back to the road that brought him here, but he comes across a three-acre lake covering the trail, where before there was only ice and small ponds. He manages to climb around this, but when he reaches the Teklanika River, he finds what was easily crossed in April is now a rushing torrent which would surely drown him, so he turns back, hoping if he waits it out it will again become crossable.
Throughout McCandless’s years on the road, when people meet him, they usually assume at first that he is uneducated and is an itinerant worker by necessity, not by choice. One of the ways in which McCandless is different from someone who lives that way by necessity is the ambition he exhibits, even in a rootless, anti-materialist life. This is evidenced when, although he has no deadline, no need to get to Alaska by a certain time, he becomes extremely impatient when delayed on the Alaska Highway, as though he has an important deadline to meet.
As we also saw when he tried to canoe to the Gulf of California, even when trying to accomplish something decided on a whim, he is incredibly persistent, and will not easily give up. Although he may not have ambitions to climb the ladder of capitalist American society, he certainly is ambitious. This parallels with Krakauer’s story in the previous section, for he realized that his own mountain climbing ambition, though not at all what his father wanted for him, was still ambition, and was as extreme as his father’s ambition, just in a different incarnation. This once again highlights the importance of perspective, for what is a valuable and ambitious goal for one person seems foolhardy and useless to another.
McCandless getting picked up by Gaylord Stuckey for the whole ride to Fairbanks is another example of someone going the extra mile for him. Stuckey agrees to drive him even though, with his work, it is expressly forbidden, and he could lose his job if he is caught. Yet, like so many others, he is charmed by McCandless, and so he agrees to give him a ride. This on the one hand emphasizes that there was something deeply special about McCandless, yet it also emphasizes that although McCandless was so insistent on independence, he very often relied on others, on the kindness of strangers, and almost everyone he came across did far more than the bare minimum to help him—like Jim Gallien, who gave him not only a ride, but also his lunch and his boots.
As Gallien drives McCandless to his drop off point, McCandless gets very excited, and his journal entries and photographs show that when he gets to the bus which will become his final home, he is ecstatic to be alone in the wilderness. The day to day effort of trying to find food and stay alive quickly sets in, however, and the reality of living this extreme way takes away from the romance of it. His notebook is almost exclusively about what he ate every day, for the effort to stay alive is so all consuming that there is little time for contemplating the serenity, for philosophizing on the wilderness. The difference between this, and for example, the writing of Jack London which he loves so much, shows that there is much more room for romance in literature than in reality. There is also a certain irony in this difference, especially as Jack London himself barely spent any time in the wild.
McCandless does seem to undergo some changes, though, beyond the physical losing weight. He is devastated when he kills a moose and then has to essentially waste all of it because he can’t preserve it successfully, yet he fairly quickly realizes that he has to let this disappointment go, which is a new and more mature reaction from the intensely passionate man. Similarly, his original plan is to spend the time in the wilderness on the move, perhaps hiking almost five hundred miles, but when after a week or two of trying to move every day, he realizes this is much more difficult and slow going than he expected, he heads back to the bus, and doesn’t seem nearly as upset with having to give up or change his plans as he would’ve been in the past, for example, with his Mexico trip. Although these are fairly small examples, they hint at McCandless becoming a more dynamic character, capable of learning, growing and changing.