After graduation, Chris’s parents throw him a party, and he gives his dad an expensive telescope and a moving speech of thanks. He then leaves for his first road trip, which takes him across the country, and lasts until two days before the fall semester starts at Emory. He returns back thirty pounds lighter, and very scruffy looking. Near the end of his trip, he had gotten lost in the Mojave Desert, and almost died of dehydration. When Walt tries to encourage Chris to exercise more caution in the future, Chris bristles at this, and becomes even more unforthcoming about his plans.
As the school year goes on, Chris seems thrilled to be at Emory, returning to his clean cut look, taking pride in his grades, and even talking excitedly about plans to go to law school. That summer, Chris works for his parents’ firm, and develops a flawless computer program, but refuses to tell his father how it works. Some of his darker qualities seem to intensify while he’s at college, and when his friends start joining fraternities and sororities, he pulls into himself and becomes more self-absorbed and impatient with social interaction.
He spends the summer after his sophomore year delivering pizzas for Dominos, keeping careful track of his earnings, and becoming more withdrawn from and hostile towards his parents, for no reason that they can deduce. It turns out that the smoldering anger is fueled by a discovery Chris had made on his road trip after graduation, when he had gone to the neighborhood where he had spent his earliest years. Here, he gets enough information to piece together that his father had continued his relationship with his first wife in secret long after falling in love with Billie and fathering Chris, even fathering another son with her.
Chris doesn’t tell anyone about this discovery, but instead broods about it, letting the negative feelings build up more and more over time. Chris’s very strict moral code means that he is very unforgiving of his parents’ faults and failings, even though he often forgives his artistic heroes or close friends of equally or more profoundly immoral behaviors. As Chris’s resentment towards his parents grows, so too does it towards the rest of the world, as he starts to, for example, complain constantly about all the rich kids at Emory.
Interestingly, although Chris’s academic interests and passions grow more and more towards issues like poverty, racism, and world hunger, he declares himself an ardent fan of Ronald Reagan, and co-founds a College Republican Club at Emory. He works on Emory’s newspaper, and publishes many editorials, all impassioned, and voicing opinions that go all over the map. Chris has fewer and fewer friends as time passes, and those whom he keeps notice that with every month he becomes more intense.
The summer after his junior year, Chris goes off in his car again, and this time only sends his parents two postcards the whole time, one saying he is off to Guatemala, the next saying he is about to leave Fairbanks, and will be back in a few weeks. He returns in time for fall classes, and he spends his senior year living off campus in a spartanly furnished apartment, with no phone, and seeing almost no one outside of classes.
At graduation, Chris seems happy, and implies that he’ll be traveling for the summer again, but leads his parents to think he’ll visit them in Annandale before he leaves. He doesn’t, and it is the last time they ever see him. As months and then years pass, the family’s worry is extreme, and Billie never leaves the house without leaving a note for Chris on the door. In July of 1992, Billie wakes up in the middle of the night, completely convinced she has heard Chris calling for her to help him.
Carine also clashes fiercely with Walt and Billie as an adolescent, but she makes her peace with them soon after Chris’s disappearance, and they are able to maintain a very good relationship. Sam McCandless calls her husband, Chris Fish, at work to tell him that Chris’s body has been found, and Fish comes home to tell Carine that her brother is dead. Carine and Fish go to her parents’ house, then fly to Fairbanks to bring home Chris’s remains.
Many of the people who reacted strongly to the story of McCandless’s death were angered by what they perceived as his hubris, walking into the wilderness with few survival tools and almost no food, and no safety net. In this section, we see evidence that there is indeed some truth to this idea. It may have only been his youth, but although McCandless acknowledged the danger of his plan, he did not seem to truly believe that he wouldn’t survive. On McCandless’s first independent road trip, he gets lost in the Mojave desert and almost dies from dehydration. Yet, instead of learning a lesson from this, he instead is angered when his parents ask him to be more careful, offended at the idea that he can’t take care of himself. This foreshadows McCandless’s later insistence on going forward with his Alaska trip, against much advice, and without help, though it is often offered.
It is also on this trip that he makes the discovery that seems to push him over the edge from passionate and a little eccentric to extreme. While in California, he learns that his father had a double life for many years, and his parents lied to him about it growing up. Interestingly, when he returns from this trip, he seems more interested in school and a normal future than he did before, but once he moves back in with his parents for the summer with this knowledge of their secrets, his anger seethes, and he starts to resent his parents more and more.
This resentment also spreads to the society that his parents are part of. Although they both grew up poor and made their own money, he has always looked down on them for their materialism, and when he learns of their dishonesty, he starts to feel strong antipathy towards anyone with a lot of money. His growing intensity about the things he is passionate about isolates him from almost everyone he knew at Emory, and he resents them for their participation in the Greek life, which he finds distasteful.
This results in McCandless being almost completely isolated at Emory by his senior year. As we have seen, from his childhood on he has been content to be alone, with only his imagination to keep him busy, but this lack of interaction in this case allows his eccentricities to intensify even more, as he has little contact with those who might help him to mellow out, or at least distract him with the intricacies of social interaction. Without these, he has little to do but study and fixate on what he believes is the right way to live. This emphasizes once again the importance of perspective—without having the benefit of anyone else’s perspective, McCandless has no way of sensing that all of his ideas and philosophies may not be right.
Thus, although there is much to admire in McCandless’s passion, in his always practicing what he preaches, and doing his best to always live by his morals and by the standards that he sets for himself and or society at large, it becomes clear in this section that a lot of this passion has for its source bitterness, anger and resentment, and thus it is not purely admirable. There are, of course, much worse things to do with resentment, and McCandless does maintain his desire to help others, especially the hungry and poor, but the fact that this anger is at the root of his passion seems to at least partially explain why he has so much trouble with intimacy later, and why he does not temper the danger of his actions for the sake of those who love him. This anger thus seems to be a tragic flaw, which will lead to his downfall.