Into the Wild

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I was recently on an extremely lengthy plane ride, so I decided to watch a movie. They had over 100 different choices, and nothing really grabbed me. However, as I was glancing at the list a second time, I decided to see what I thought of Into the Wild, which I vaguely remembered was about a young man who trekked to Alaska and perished there.

One of my older brothers, just after high school, decided to hitchhike his way to Alaska. This is from Louisiana, remember, and it was during the mid 1970s. In other words, this was insane. At the time, I didn’t really give it a second thought, but as a parent myself now, I can hardly believe he got out of the house with such plans. My kids are just about fully grown, and I still wait outside the bathroom door for them at restaurants, so I can’t imagine just sending a kid off for the entire summer and hoping maybe he’d return in a couple of months.

Anyway, the movie obviously wasn’t about my brother, but I did feel a particularly curiosity about the movie based partly on that. The other part, and it was a big one, was my constant intrigue about people who just pull up the stakes completely and go live an utterly different kind of life. Perhaps I’ve got a smidgen of wanderlust in me, particularly since I’ve got such a ridiculously buttoned-down life myself. I doubt I’d ever set off for the horizon to see what happened – – – I wouldn’t make a good drifter – – but by watching the movie, I figured I could at least get a taste.

This post isn’t a review of the movie (which would be silly, since it came out a long time ago), nor is it a synopsis. I just wanted to share a few tidbits from the real-life Alexander McCandless, who was the college graduate who decided to set off for his “big adventure” to Alaska. Late in April of 1992, just before he pushed into the Alaskan wilds, he sent a few postcards off to people he had met along his journey (he didn’t extend this courtesy to his parents who, cruelly, he left frantically worried).

I find that P.S. to Wayne Westerberg (“…if this adventure proves fatal…”) to be eerily prophetic.

McCandless happened to discover an old, abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere (God knows how it got there……….) which he converted into his home, of sorts. 1992 was pre-iPhones, pre-cell phones, pre-everything, but I guess he had a camera with a simple timer, so he was able to take a self-portrait in front of his bus.

He also kept a detailed diary. Here’s one entry below. Being a big fan of the writings of Jack London, Henry Thoreau, and other adventurous men, he often quoted them (and he has the decency to provide page citations!) I find his yearning to live “without government control and…poisonous civilization” to be especially poignant (and, oh, if he only knew what things were like today!)

Sadly, things took a turn for the worst after about three months surviving on his own. He had an epiphany of sorts and decided to return to society, but he found himself trapped there, unable to cross what had been a small stream during his arrival but what had now turned into a torrential river. No game roamed the landscape anymore, depriving him of protein, and he began eating vegetation. Despite his botanical knowledge, he mistakenly ate a poisonous plant. He recovered, but he was in desperate straits, as this handwritten note he left in the woods attests.

As death approached, he wanted to say farewell somehow, leaving a memento of some kind to those who survived him. Hoping that someone would find his camera one day, he took this final photo. Even though he was just 24, you can see how ravaged and exhausted he looks.

The handwritten sign he is holding in his left hand was this:

Heartbreaking. Here was a young man who risked it all, and lost. He turned his back on a nearly certain half century (or more) of years ahead of him, and even though he wound up slowly starving to death, his last message to the world was one of gratitude and blessings.

How fortunate we all are that some hunters stumbled upon his bus, his body, and the undeveloped film he left behind. Alexander seems like he must have been an extraordinary, idealistic person, and how sad it makes me to know how his wide-eyed and fearless adventure ended in tragedy.