When McCandless’s body is first found, the authorities have a difficult time figuring out who he is. An article runs about the unidentified body being found in the Anchorage Daily News, and Jim Gallien sees it, and is fairly sure it is “Alex,” so he calls the state troopers. They show him the developed pictures from the camera, which Gallien immediately recognizes as McCandless, and so because he had told Gallien he was from South Dakota, the troopers start looking there for his next of kin.
The troopers find nothing in South Dakota, but Wayne Westerberg is alerted to a radio broadcast about the hiker by a friend, and agrees that it sounds like McCandless, so he too contacts the Alaska state troopers. On one of his employment forms, McCandless had put his real name and social security number, and from that the troopers find that he was from Virginia.
The McCandlesses have by then moved out of state, but Chris’s half-brother Sam still lives in state, and receives a call from a local homicide detective about the unidentified hiker. He thinks it is likely that the hiker is his half-brother, and when he goes to the station to see a picture, he has no doubt. He then has to drive to Maryland to tell Walt and Billie that Chris is dead.
Seven weeks after Chris’s body is found, Krakauer goes to Walt and Billie’s Maryland home to talk to them. Walt is very authoritative, brilliant, and intense, and according to the family has a mercurial temper, which has mellowed greatly since Chris’s disappearance. Walt started dating Billie, a secretary at his company, soon after his separation from his first wife, Marcia. They moved in together, and Billie got pregnant with Chris, who was born slightly underweight but healthy. From the beginning Chris was unusually gifted, and incredibly willful. He was never antisocial, but he was always content to be alone, without toys or anything but himself.
When Walt quits working at NASA to start his own company, money becomes a lot tighter and Walt and Billie have to work incredibly long hours, and the stress sometimes comes out in fights between Walt and Billie. They also have many happy moments, however, especially when travelling—McCandless’s wanderlust begins early. Chris easily got A’s in school, with the exception of an F in Physics when he refuses to do the lab reports according to the teacher’s specifications because he thinks it is pointless. Chris also shows his musical talent from a young age. Chris and his younger sister, Carine, are very close, best friends all through childhood.
Throughout his life, Chris shows natural talent in many things, but always a strong resistance to being coached. He would get very skilled at different sports, but always refuses to follow instructions that could take him that last bit further to greatness. He doesn’t like nuance or strategy, but only wants to tackle problems head on with brute strength and energy, which often leads to frustration. Running, which is more about will and determination than finesse or cunning, is a perfect match for him.
Even in high school McCandless is caught up in serious questions, becoming obsessed with fighting racial oppression in South Africa, and spending weekends in the seedier neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., talking to prostitutes and homeless people, buying them food and giving them earnest advice on how they can improve their lives. One time he even brings a homeless person home with him and secretly sets him up in the trailer his parents have beside their house.
Chris tells his parents he doesn’t want to go to college, but they are insistent and end up convincing him. He also always is embarrassed by their wealth, even though both his parents have known poverty, have worked hard to gain what they have, and aren’t flashy about it. But Chris thinks wealth is inherently evil, even though he is a natural salesman and capitalist from early on.
This section makes very clear the consequences on everyone else for McCandless’s stubborn carelessness about his own safety. As friend after friend hears about the unidentified hiker found dead in the Alaskan wilderness and becomes sure that it is McCandless, his carelessness stops seeming just stupid or foolhardy, but it starts to seem actually cruel, and this is especially emphasized when Krakauer visits McCandless’s parents at their home, and sees firsthand the pain that Chris’s disappearance and death has caused them.
In these chapters, Chris’s childhood is also illuminated, and Krakauer traces back those characteristics that would lead to him deserting his family and all his possessions to wander into the wilderness. The strongest of these is his stubbornness, which prevents him from taking his talent to the next level in almost anything, because he is so against following directions and taking advice, or following authority. He is able to excel at running because he certainly has determination and natural athleticism, but at sports that require technique and finesse, he falls just short of greatness. This certainly seems to foreshadow what will happen to him in Alaska—his determination helps him survive for months under incredibly difficult conditions, but holes in his knowledge and his refusal to accept help eventually lead to his death.
Seeing this stubbornness in its youthful form illuminates certain qualities of it that would otherwise be unclear. What will become his passion and independence in his early twenties come off as simple aversion to authority in his younger years. Although he easily gets A’s throughout most of his education, he fails a physics class, simply because he refuses to follow the teacher’s specific guidelines for lab reports. The teacher institutes this policy because of the large number of reports he must grade, but to Chris—not quite capable of seeing it from someone else’s perspective—it is just an arbitrary rule that someone wants to impose on him.
This also highlights the issue of perspective. Authority and rules feel utterly oppressive to McCandless, and he is so insistent on his own independence that he finds those who care about him giving him advice or showing concern over his safety to be an affront. Yet were he capable of seeing it from their perspective, he would understand that they just fear for what might happen to him, and for the great loss they would face as a result. And rules, though limiting in freedom, are what keep society running, and help all, not just the strongest, survive.
It becomes clear that this distaste for authority largely comes from the fact that he is—and always was—very independent and strong willed, and because his father is the same way, and tries to exert control over him, the two clash often and passionately. It seems that this is one of the primary reasons that McCandless’s moral standards for his parents are so much higher than for others. He feels that, if his father is going to be in a position of authority over him, he had better be, essentially, perfect.
McCandless’s passion for helping others and his distaste for materialistic society also show themselves very early. It is especially noteworthy that he doesn’t just try to help people from a safe distance, but he actually drives into dangerous neighborhoods to talk to the homeless people, the prostitutes and drug addicts, to try to find ways to help them. For someone raised in the suburbs, this is especially unusual, and it shows how even at a very young age, he was not afraid of very much, and he was willing to venture far outside of his comfort zone—certainly a unique character.