Into the Wild

Into the Wild Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-18 and Epilogue

A year after McCandless wanted to cross the river, Krakauer stands on the other side, also wanting to cross, with three companions. Krakauer has a map that shows that there is a gauging station only half a mile downstream, which has a wire crossing the river, and a basket that one can ride across in. When they get to the station, they see that the basket is on the far side of the river, and it had been there when McCandless wanted to cross—had he known about it, he easily could have crossed to safety. McCandless, however, wanted to be on uncharted territory, and so didn’t carry a good map with him.

Because the basket is on the other side, Krakauer uses his rock climbing hardware to pull himself across the wire. He then gets into the basket and heads back to the other side to ferry his companions across. Before crossing the river, the trail was well-marked and fairly easy, but on the other side it is overgrown and indistinct, since so few people cross the river in the spring. It is never exceedingly difficult, but many parts of the trek are unpleasant, and it has a kind of malevolent feel to it.

At nine pm they come upon the bus, which is an appealing spot, open and filled with light. The bus is surrounded by lots of tiny bones from the small game that McCandless ate, as well as the skeleton of the moose that he so regretted killing. Gordon Samel and Ken Thompson had insisted the McCandless misidentified the moose, and that it was really a caribou, which led many readers of Krakauer’s Outside article to insist that McCandless was ill-prepared and ignorant. On close study of the remains, however, it becomes clear that it is, indeed, a moose.

Inside the bus, they find some of McCandless’s leftover possessions, as well as a bag of feathers he had stored away, probably to insulate his clothes or make a pillow. There is lots of graffiti in the bus from all those who have stayed in it, but McCandless’s etchings are by far the longest. Leaving the bus, Krakauer and his companions make camp, and discuss why so many people seem to hate McCandless so intensely for having died there. Many find his lack of what they consider necessary provisions to be a sign of his profound arrogance.

Some have even compared him to Sir John Franklin, a nineteenth century British naval officer. On the first trip he leads through the wilderness of northwestern Canada, eleven men end up dead from starvation, sickness, and murder, and all are only days from starving when they are rescued. Because he survives, he is promoted, but his lack of survival skills and his unwillingness to acquire any meant that when he chooses to go on another Arctic expedition, this time leading 128 men, not one of them is ever heard from again.

Although McCandless did lack some knowledge and skills that could have helped him, it oversimplifies matters to blame his arrogance and ignorance for his death, for he does manage to survive for sixteen weeks with only ten pounds of rice and very few tools. He also is well aware how slim a margin of error he has given himself. Krakauer and his companions stay up late into the night discussing McCandless, what made him tick, and so on. They finally go to bed, not sure whether they have come any closer to the truth.

McCandless returns to the bus on July 8, and his diary says nothing about how his state of mind is. He continues to be successful hunting, however the small game he catches does not have much in it, and he runs up a caloric deficit, continuing to lose weight. He reads Doctor Zhivago, and makes many notes in the margins, some of which hint that he is getting ready to rejoin the human community, and perhaps stop avoiding intimacy.

Before July 30, there is nothing in McCandless’s diary to hint that he is in anything but good health, if a little undernourished, but on July 30 he writes that he is extremely weak and having trouble even standing up. There are several theories as to what caused the change. One food that McCandless has been taking advantage of is a kind of wild potato, but by mid-July they might have been becoming too tough to eat, and it’s possible he started ingesting the seed pods of the plant instead. In addition, there is a kind of wild pea that looks very similar to the potato, but is poisonous. Krakauer believes that the former was the case, as McCandless had successfully eaten the potato for weeks without mistaking the pea for it, and there is a picture showing him with a bag of seeds—he even writes in his journal that his illness is the fault of the “pot. seed.”

However, when Krakauer sends samples of the seeds to be tested, no traces of poisons are found. Krakauer later finds an article about a dangerous mold that can grow on such plants in wet climates, and believes that this, in fact, is what killed McCandless.The moldy seeds make the already weak McCandless incapable of climbing back to civilization or hunting, which leads to further weakness. There are three cabins, all stocked with some first aid gear and provisions, within six miles of McCandless’s bus, but he doesn’t know they exist. It turns out, however, that a vandal had destroyed all three cabins recently anyway, so the provisions inside them would have been ruined, even if McCandless knew of their existence and could have reached them.

Over the next days, McCandless manages to shoot small game here and there, and forage for some berries, but the poison in his system makes this food useless. His diary entries become fewer and farther between, and he finally rips a page out of one of his books containing a poem about death, and writes a goodbye message on the back—“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!” He takes a last picture of himself in front of the bus, holding his farewell note, and then crawls into his sleeping bag and at some point in the next few days, dies.

Ten months after learning of Chris’s death, Walt and Billie decide to go to see the place where he died. They plan to go overland as Chris did, but the river is still too high, and so with Krakauer they take a helicopter to the bus. Billie says the area reminds her of where she grew up on the Upper Peninsula, and thinks that Chris must have loved it. Walt grudgingly admits that it has a certain beauty. They put a small memorial plaque on the bus, and Billie leaves a first aid kit with a note to whoever finds it to call their parents as soon as possible.


The final section of Into the Wild is especially tragic, in that it shows that McCandless, at least from what little evidence is available from his last weeks, had matured, and was ready to rejoin society. There is some evidence, in the notes he made in the books he read, for example, that he was rethinking his stance on forgiveness, and on intimacy, and would maybe have become capable of being close to other people again. Unfortunately, his ignorance about the condition of the Teklanika, his insistence on visiting “uncharted territory,” by not brining a map, meant once he was ready, mentally and emotionally, to leave, he physically could not. In this we see another example of the motif of McCandless almost being saved, as had he only known about the basket crossing the Teklanika, he almost certainly would have survived.

Although many people looked down on McCandless for his Alaskan trip and the way he died, those who claim he was suicidal don’t seem to have much to stand on, based on McCandless’s writings and his attempt to leave the wilderness. And while he was ignorant of some things, he did manage to survive for four months, with almost no provisions, in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, so he clearly was at least capable, if not expert. In addition, the mistakes that were held against him as evidence of his arrogance and ignorance were in fact not mistakes that he made. Thus, although McCandless’s death forever dooms him to be remembered as having failed to survive in the wilderness, he did come very close to having had a miraculously successful trip.

The comparison that some have made to Sir John Franklin is, thus, certainly not fair, although considering it does illuminate some things. The only true parallel is that both Franklin and McCandless did, after surviving a first close call, overestimate their own abilities, although Franklin’s overestimation was much more extreme. In addition, Franklin’s arrogance and ignorance were not dangerous and ultimately deadly only to himself—he was entrusted with the care of over a hundred men altogether, when he should have been fully aware that he could not even take care of himself in the wilderness. McCandless only had his own safety and health on his hands, and to risk this is certainly much less terrible than to risk the safety of others.

Yet, it should not be forgotten, as he seemed to have done himself, that there were many others whose well-being, if not direct safety, was resting on his care for himself. This may be part of why he avoided intimacy, for the more people relied on him, the more he would have to be responsible for himself. In taking the risks he did, while only his own safety was at stake, he was risking the happiness and peace of all of those who loved him. In isolating himself in the wilderness, he was attempting to cut all ties, but from the perspective of anyone who loved him, they were still worrying and thinking about him constantly, and thus not cut off in actuality at all. Thus, no matter how noble his goals and principles, it is impossible to see his actions without them being tinged with the selfishness inherent in them.

The closing section of Into the Wild ultimately makes clear that it is impossible to ever truly, fully understand another person. Krakauer spends three years researching McCandless’s life and journeys, and he has many parallels in his own life to help him understand, but he still cannot, in the end, say with any certainty what ultimately led McCandless into the wild, and why he didn’t survive the foray, but instead died, alone, at twenty-four. He cannot even say with absolutely certainty what killed McCandless. And although he attempts to find some answers by highlighting all the examples of times McCandless almost made a decision that could have saved him, in the end it is only conjecture, since this book is not fiction but fact, and can only have the ending which actually happened.