Jim Gallien sees a young man hitchhiking four miles outside of Fairbanks, and he picks him up. The hitchhiker introduces himself as Alex. Alex tells Jim that he is heading to Denali, where he plans to hike into the wilderness and live off of the land for a few months. Jim is concerned, because he notices that Alex’s pack seems awfully light and he lacks a lot of essential tools, especially for the season, but he is at least a little reassured by Alex’s sane demeanor and intelligent questions.
Alex tells Jim that he plans to go to the end of a little known path that peters out into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Jim does his best to dissuade Alex—the hunting isn’t good there, the grizzlies are fierce—but Alex won’t budge. He even offers to take Alex to Anchorage to buy him some better gear, but Alex says he’ll be fine with what he has. He also tells Jim that he doesn’t have a hunting license, and no one knows where he is going—he hasn’t spoken to anyone in his family for nearly two years. Jim convinces Alex to take his boots and some sandwiches his wife made for him, then he takes a picture for Alex at the trail head and leaves him there on April 28, 1992.
McCandless follows a trail called the Stampede Trail, which was blazed in the 1930s by a legendary Alaska miner. In 1961, Yukon Construction started to upgrade the trail, but gave up in 1963, leaving a bus outfitted to house workers along the trail as a shelter for hunters and trappers (although it is rarely used). In early September 1992, three moose hunters, Ken Thompson, Gordon Samel and Ferdie Swanson, go out to the bus, where they find a couple from Anchorage standing about fifty feet away, looking disturbed.
A powerful smell is coming from the bus, and there is a note taped to it written by Chris McCandless, saying that he is injured, weak, near death, and in need of assistance. The couple is too disturbed to look inside the bus, so Samel looks through the window, and sees a sleeping bag that might have something inside it. He goes around the other way, and sees a head protruding from it. McCandless has been dead for two weeks when they find him.
Samel thinks the body should be evacuated immediately, but Butch Killian, another hunter who soon after comes upon the scene, is the only one whose vehicle is large enough, and he thinks it should be left to the state troopers, so he drives back until he can get a signal to radio them the information. The police helicopter comes the next morning, and they examine the scene before taking McCandless’s body, note, diary, camera and film back to Anchorage.
For the autopsy, McCandless’s remains prove too badly decomposed for much to be clear, but as there is no evidence of massive internal injury or broken bones, starvation is posited as the most likely cause of death. McCandless was carrying no identification, so although there are pictures of him from his camera, and his name signed at the bottom of the SOS note he wrote, the police do not know where he is from or how to get in touch with his family.
We flash back to earlier. Wayne Westerberg, the owner of a grain elevator in Carthage, South Dakota, meets McCandless when he picks him up hitchhiking. McCandless ends up staying in his trailer for a few days, and Westerberg tells him to look him up if he ever needs work. McCandless comes back a few weeks later and starts working for Westerberg. He is one of the hardest workers Westerberg has ever seen, willing to do even the most unpleasant jobs, and finishing everything he starts. McCandless lives in a house owned by Westerberg with some of his other employees, which he really enjoys.
Westerberg, however, has to serve some time not too long after McCandless’s arrival, and so although McCandless has found a lot to love in the town, there is no work for him without Westerberg, and he moves on. He keeps in touch with Westerberg from then until he goes into the wilderness, and tells almost everyone he meets that he is from South Dakota.
McCandless is actually from Annandale, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., where he grew up living with his father, Walt, an aerospace engineer, mother Billie, and younger sister Carine. In May 1990 (we have again flashed back further in the past), Chris graduates from Emory. His parents believe that he is planning on law school. The day after, which happens to be Mother’s Day, Chris gives Billie a gift and sentimental card, which is extremely touching because for the past two years he has refused to give or accept gifts on principle. Not too long before that, for example, Chris became very angry when they offered to buy him a new car as a graduation gift, or to help him pay for law school.
After graduation Chris tells them that he is intending to spend the summer traveling, and then a few weeks later he writes them a note with his final transcript, which will be the last communication he ever offers to his family. When they go to stop by his apartment in August—he doesn’t have a phone—they find that he moved out at the end of June without telling them. Five weeks earlier he had packed up all of his belongings and driven off in his beloved old Datsun, changing his name to Alex Supertramp to symbolically complete cutting himself off from his past.
In Into the Wild, it quickly becomes very clear that Chris McCandless’s story elicits strong reactions from people. In Krakauer’s opening note, he explains that the original story he wrote for Outside magazine prompted more letters of response from readers than any other article ever in the magazine. Many of these reactions are strongly negative, but it is also clear that Krakauer, and almost everyone who met Chris, find something very admirable in him and in his story, or at least parts of it. This opening note also makes clear what the book’s primary focus will be—not suspense or adventure, as Krakauer has already told us the ending, but instead the investigation of what drove McCandless, who he was, and how his life came to end so tragically.
In these opening chapters, Krakauer shows us many people who get along well with McCandless, and who have strongly positive things to say about him, even if they only spent a few hours driving him somewhere. Often, these people doubt him at first, assuming, based on his looks, hygiene, or Alaskan plans that he is foolish, uneducated, or some equivalent, but he is able to change people’s minds about him very quickly. Thus, according to Krakauer’s characterization, although McCandless certainly is flawed, and makes some mistakes that end in his death, the common belief that he is naïve and arrogant is shown to be, if not completely wrong, at least an unfair oversimplification.
McCandless has a few key characteristics that often change people’s minds about him quickly. He is obviously intelligent and well-educated, and his passion for and intensity regarding his lifestyle and his forthcoming Alaska trip make it clear that he is not just following a whim. He is also incredibly hard-working, and even when he is not the most skilled, he proves himself a valuable employee to whoever hires him, willing to do any task, no matter how unpleasant or menial. His insistence on living by his beliefs and morals makes him stand out even more.
McCandless is, however, also very stubborn, as it quickly becomes clear in these opening chapters. Although he always pushes himself to work very hard and do the best job he can, he does not respond well to any criticism, or to any exhibition of authority at all. His stubbornness leads him to refuse any help from Jim Gallien, who goes so far as to offer to drive him far out of his way to buy him better equipment for his Alaskan trip. It also leads him to ignore any advice he gets, even from those with much more experience, if it would mean he would have to alter his Alaskan plans at all.
This stubbornness is closely related to what seems to be McCandless’s most devastating flaw: his selfishness. He is passionately insistent on his own ability to take care of himself, on his right to freedom, from government law, from the responsibilities of intimacy, from the bounds of safety. This, though not selfish at heart, translates into selfishness as McCandless hurts those who love him most in his quest for total freedom. Though he is admirably trying to live as best he can by his own beliefs and morals, he doesn’t pause to reflect on how his actions are painful to those around him, and this ultimately leads to his death.
The fact that the reader knows this will be the end from the beginning creates many moments of dramatic irony. The most profound example in this section is when Jim Gallien offers McCandless different kinds of help, and McCandless insists that he will be fine. The reader of course knows that this will absolutely not be the case. This moment is also an early example of one of the book’s motifs—that of moments where Krakauer shows a decision or twist of fate that leads McCandless to his death, moments could have easily gone the other way instead. Another example in this section is Wayne Westerberg’s prison sentence, without which Krakauer implies McCandless may very well have stayed happily and safely in Carthage.