Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Wilderness

"Into the Wild,” by Jon Krakauer, 1997

Bored with suburbia?  Tired of your dull job?  Marriage doesn’t appeal?  Don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a virtual straight-jacket? You’re not the only one.  Chris McCandless didn’t.  He admired Thoreau, Tolstoy and Jack London.  He disliked his bigamist, upper-middle class father.  He gave away thousands of his own money, drove his B210 Datsun into the Arizona desert, burned his cash and eventually hitchhiked to his doom in the Alaska semi-wilderness. 

You may remember this young man from news reports in 1992, or the 2007 film by Sean Penn, “Into the Wild.”   Krakauer is the excellent author of “Into Thin Air” that described a disastrous mountain-climbing expedition he experienced on Everest; ‘Under the Banner of Heaven,’ centered around a crime by fundamentalist Mormons, and ‘Where Men Win Glory,” the real story of Pat Tillman, former NFL player and Special Forces soldier and victim of a military cover-up.  There is a death at the heart of every Krakauer book.  This one, Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, aka Alex, resonates with anyone who has tested themselves against the elements or society.  Never been in a confrontation with cops?  Or gone on a hike in dangerous conditions?  Hitchhiked across the country?  Got lost?  Stood up to conformism?  Rode a motorcycle, climbed a mountain or lived off the land? 

If you care, this book is a real ‘page-turner,’ as they say.

Young men especially feel like they have to test themselves against conditions and not always play it safe.  McCandless was a young college graduate from Emory College in Atlanta and decided to chuck it all, heading out on the open road.  He had started a Republican club at Emory, and had also supported the struggle against apartheid.  He had great sympathy for the poor, yet felt, as Krakauer put it, that the ‘best government is the government that governs least’ – a quote from Thoreau.  He was sort of an anarcho-environmentalist.  He was very friendly, yet he always left people.  He was confident to the point of ignorance.  He valued a Spartan existence, always testing his body, living on very little food, until there was none at all.  He was skilled at many things – a good piano player, a runner, a business-boy, resourceful, courageous - yet failed at some key things.  Ones that cost him his life.

Krakauer writes this book as an exploration of the ‘type’ represented by McCandless, and discusses other adventurers like him.  Krakauer makes plain that McCandless loved nature and himself more than society or people.  He structures it as an argument with people, mostly Alaskans, who thought McCandless was incompetent.  Other young men have gone into the wilderness and died.  Many have also lived, like John Muir and Krakauer himself.  Krakauer depicts his own reckless assault climbing a mountain called the ‘Devils Thumb” in Alaska as something a McCandless-kind of person might do.  He was 23 at the time. Many young men believe the concept of mortality doesn’t apply to them. 

Krakauer identifies some of the mistakes that McCandless made.    He had romanticized living in the wild bush, based on his reading of various authors.  Yet Jack London spent only a year in Alaska.  Thoreau spent most of his time around the contemplative Walden Pond near Concord, and only climbed Katahdin Mountain in Maine once.  Tolstoy claimed to be an ascetic, but that ruled out wilderness trips.  While a Kerouac-like hitch-hiker, he didn’t read much of the Beats. McCandless is a bit similar to the more political “Monkey Wrench Gang,” who haunted the desert around the Grand Canyon to save that desert from destruction.  Or even more the over-confident hiker of the film “127 Hours,” who saws his own arm off with a dull blade to get out of a crevice. 

McCandless traveled around the western U.S. – living in the Mojave Desert near several towns, paddling down the disappearing Colorado River to Mexico, working hard on harvesting operations in South Dakota, hitching up the West Coast.  His survival through all this with very little money or possessions made him confident in his own abilities.  His final dream was to make it in the Alaska bush, living off the land for awhile, with just a .22 rifle, a pretty thin pack of belongings and a book on wild food.  

Krakauer understands McCandless and defends him from accusations he didn’t know the difference between a moose and a caribou, or between the seeds of wild potato and the poisonous wild sweet pea.  He praises him for being able to live off the land for so many weeks.  However he cites some key mistakes McCandless made.  McCandless started living in an abandoned Fairbanks bus in an area that was really not far from habitation.  30 miles from a major road and town.  A few miles from some hunting cabins.  6 miles from a Forest Service cabin with emergency food.  16 miles from Denali, where tourists got on and off buses every day.  This was not in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  As Krakauer notes, nothing much IS anymore. 

When McCandless decided his sojourn was at an end July 3rd, he left the bus to hike back to the main road.  However, he was stopped by high water on the Teklanika river.  He didn’t have a typographic map of the area, which would have shown him how to get over the river at a shallower ford upstream, or downstream at a Forest Service cable car. (!)  Krakauer theorizes he didn’t believe in maps.  In another confusion, he took the word of some South Dakota hunters and butchered a moose he had shot.  But instead of cutting and drying it in sunlight (pemmican) he attempted to ‘smoke’ it, which didn’t work and led to much waste of meat.  Krakeuer also doesn’t understand why McCandless didn’t try crossing the river a few weeks later to see if the waters had gone down. 

His fatal mistake was in storing seeds from wild potato plants in baggies, which made them susceptible to mold when eaten.  Krakauer and others had originally thought that McCandless had eaten the poisonous seeds of the wild pea, which were almost identical to those of the wild potato.  Upon doing more research, he found out it was the mold on the good seeds of the potato plant that killed him.  This made him too weak to hike out.  He was slowly starving to death due to the effect the seeds had on his digestive system.  He died wrapped in his sleeping bag in the bus August 19.  Krakauer, writing the initial story for Outside Magazine, had followed McCanless path and eventuall visits the bus.  The scene is creepy, as all of McCandless’ stuff is still there, his graffiti on the walls, many months after his body had been removed by police. 

Sometimes it’s hard to escape the real world.  Other times, not so much. 

(Read review of “Deep Survival,” below.  Other mentions - “Monkey Wrench Gang” and Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums,” are also reviewed below.)

January 11, 2014

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