In October 1990, McCandless’s Datsun is found abandoned in the Mojave Desert by Bud Walsh, a National Park Service ranger. McCandless had driven it to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in July, and against posted regulations, had driven it off road in the park and had pitched a campsite. A few days later, flash flooding almost washed away his campsite, and his car’s engine got so wet he couldn’t get it to start.
Because he wasn’t supposed to have driven off-road, he couldn’t get help from the rangers, and so he left the car with a note saying whoever can get the car to work can keep it. He uses this as another impetus to rid himself of unnecessary baggage, burning his money and leaving all of almost his belongings with the car. After being found by Bob Walsh, it ends up being used by the Park Service for undercover drug enforcement work. McCandless spends the next few months hitchhiking around the West, allowing his life to be shaped by circumstance, sharing the company of other vagabonds, having minor run-ins with the law.
In Oregon, a pair of rubber tramps spots McCandless picking berries by the side of the road, and he ends up camping with them for a week or so before continuing North up the coast. When McCandless gets a ticket for hitchhiking, he gives the officer his parents’ address in Annandale, and so they soon after receive the ticket, which they give to a private investigator, Peter Kalitka, for him to use as a starting off point to find Chris. He follows many leads, but nothing comes up until he discovers that Chris donated his entire life savings to OXFAM, a charity that fights hunger.
After leaving Westerberg’s place in South Dakota, McCandless heads south. In Arizona he buys a canoe on impulse, deciding to row down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. He makes his way south, sending a postcard to Westerberg on the way, and sneaks through the border with Mexico. Once there, though, the river splits up into lots of small and confusing canals, and he has trouble finding his way.
Eventually he comes upon some duck hunters who speak English, who tell him there is no waterway to the sea, but who offer to tow his canoe to the ocean for him. Upon reaching his destination, he slows down his pace and takes his time camping and paddling along the coast. On January 11, 1991, he is almost carried out to sea in a bad storm, and after managing to survive decides to abandon the canoe and return back north.
He is caught by immigration authorities trying to slip back through the border without identification, but manages to convince them to let him go, although they keep his gun. He spends the next six weeks moving around the Southwest, and at one point goes to LA to get a job and an ID, but finds he can’t handle society, and leaves again immediately. Not too long after he gets a job in an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas, living on the streets, but he only lasts for a few months before he hits the road again.
After leaving Las Vegas, McCandless stops keeping a journal for the next year, nor does he have a working camera at this time, so little is known about how he spends the year. He spends July and August on the Oregon coast, then goes south again and east into the desert, ending up in Bullhead City, Arizona in early October. Although the town is essentially a collection of strip malls, McCandless takes a strong liking to it and settles there for a few months, probably longer than anywhere between leaving Atlanta and ending up in Alaska.
In Bullhead City he works at McDonald’s, and even goes so far as to open a savings account, and uses his real name and social security number for the job, uncharacteristically. His coworkers don’t get to know him very well, although they remember him as dependable, but off in his own world. Lori Zarza, the second assistant manager, is delegated to tell him that he needs to have somewhat better hygiene, and not long after this he quits.
During this time McCandless tries to hide from his coworkers the fact that he was homeless, camping outside of town and living in a semi-deserted mobile home shown to him by Charlie, who McCandless meets in a restroom, and finds to be rather crazy. Charlie remembers McCandless as a nice guy, but a little strange and intense, and remembers him always talking about Alaska. He leaves Bullhead City and goes to visit Jan Burress and Bob at the Niland Slabs.
While there, McCandless helps Jan man her table at the flea market, helping organize and sell books, and especially pushing Jack London. He also talks continually about the trip to Alaska he is planning, asking Bob for survival advice and doing calisthenics to try and get himself in shape. When he says he has to move on, Jan tries to give him some money and some long underwear, but he refuses to take anything.
This section makes McCandless’s intense distaste for society abundantly clear. In these chapters, he comes close to rejoining society a few times, going to Los Angeles with the intention of getting a new ID and possibly a job, working in Las Vegas, staying in Bullhead City longer than he has stayed anywhere else, and even working for a McDonald’s using his real name and social security number. Yet each time, he finds himself quickly moving on again, unable or unwilling to reintegrate himself. His use of his social security number for the McDonald’s job highlights the fact that Peter Kalitka, his parents’ private investigator, as a character symbolizes the motif of moments that McCandless is almost saved. Kalitka finds clues, but he never finds the most important ones, ones that could actually lead he and Billie and Walt to Chris, and to potentially saving him.
In Los Angeles, he is barely able to venture into the city before he becomes too disgusted by the idea of rejoining society. He only lasts for a few weeks in Vegas, and though he stays in Bullhead City for an unusually long period of time, it is not really a city but a collection of strip malls, and he is there on the margins, camping out and squatting. He can’t integrate into the culture at the McDonald’s where he works because he is unwilling to improve his hygiene when asked, and thus his foray into “society” is ultimately short-lived.
This distaste for society seems closely related to his distaste for authority. Although he expounds on the hypocrisy of materialism, the cruelty of letting people starve while others do well, it never seems to actually be these issues that push him out of society again, but instead it is someone telling him what to do, or trying to impose their rules on him or control him in any way, that leads to his departure. Even from those he likes and respects, he often resents any advice or attempts to curtail his desires, as when he starts to talk about the Alaska trip. This stubbornness about accepting help is all the more emphasized because of the dramatic irony inherent in McCandless’s insistence that he will be fine, that he can take care of himself, as in the first section with Jim Gallien, and in this section with Jan Burres.
In this section we also start to see clearly just how rare McCandless’s passion is, and how deeply influenced by literature. Tolstoy and Jack London are two of his favorite authors, whom he pushes on whoever he thinks has the right mindset for them, and whose philosophies and morals he tries to live by. He doesn’t seem to think or care about, however, the fact that neither of these two figures truly lived the lives they espoused, and London especially was never much of an outdoorsman at all. This both emphasizes McCandless’s ability to ignore that which would negatively affect his theories, but also how passionate he truly was, for he did not just want to share these beliefs, but to, unusually, truly live by them.
This also highlights the importance of perspective to this story. McCandless is able to ignore the worst things about his favorite authors, because he finds their ideals and philosophies so enticing, but this act of ignoring means his perspective is limited. The awareness of perspective is essential in a book about someone living on the margins of society, in a way that many people think reflects a mental illness. In this section, the idea of differing perspective is symbolized in Charlie, who McCandless refers to as crazy, but who himself calls McCandless strange.
This insistence on following things through, on living the way you think is best, can also be seen in McCandless’s Mexico trip. He decides, completely on a whim when he comes upon a used canoe, that he will canoe down the Colorado River, through Mexico to the Gulf of California. When this becomes much more difficult than expected—in Mexico, the Colorado branches into many small canals, and it turns out none of them leads to the Gulf—he becomes very disillusioned, but refuses to give up, because even though the original plan was one he made on a whim, once he has started something, he can’t give up.