Thursday, March 30, 2017

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a granite plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashing on couches, and working -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, became a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

8 comments:

  1. I feel that Mccandless' spirit of adventure and desire to breakaway from society's expectations is somewhat admirable, but I do lean more towards agreeing with those who consider him inexperienced and foolish. It does, however, seem as though his "foolishness" was intentional. He started out without proper equipment and rejected help at every turn, which is seen by many as a death sentence.

    With that being said, I feel that many explorers, including McCandless, underestimate the interconnectedness with nature that seems to be necessary for survival and comfort in the harshest of climates. When you live your entire life in a society where water is accessible through the turn of a knob and any food you desire is a phone call away, it is obviously much more difficult to survive in a new environment, especially with the spirit of exploration and/or potential accolades clouding your perspective. I think the fault of many explorers lies in their assumption that they can somehow transplant what they know and the comforts of home into a new place. Just like we learn how to do things and where to find things as children, inuit people learn how to use their own resources to survive. The skill set is very different, and I think it is a mistake to assume that what we know to be true and what we can bring with us will be sufficient in a place such as the Arctic.

    I think that was Mccandless' goal, but it is something that cannot be undertaken alone.

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    1. I agree that McCandless underestimated the breadth of the knowledge and skills he would need to survive. That said, if he'd (say) taken a course in wilderness survival, brought a bigger rifle and a few more key pieces of equipment, he could almost certainly have survived on his own. And yet, in the end of course, he wrote that "happiness is only real when shared," which suggests that he may in a sense have regretted his choice to go solo, even though it was only by doing so that he gained this insight.

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  2. I feel as though McCandless’ journey can not be overlooked as a cry of rebellion. While I do admire his ability to leave everything he knew behind to begin a new journey, I can not help but view it as an impulsive rediscovery. It is no secret that many young men and women who are privileged and seemingly have everything they need search for something more. Whether it is to rebel against their family or themselves, it is common that young people with no troubles actually become the ones to cause the most trouble for themselves. It seems as though he longed for something larger than his life as it was and made the very naïve assumption that he would be able to survive in the wilderness with no previous experience or knowledge. I understand his desire for an immediate new beginning; however, there is a large difference between making an informed decision and making an impulsive one, especially one that could ultimately get you killed. McCandless simply went for the latter and assumed he would be able to alter his entire lifestyle at the drop of a hat. Courage can only be admired so far when it is a result of an impulsive and careless decision.

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    1. This limit on admiration speaks to the questions we talked about last week. Many young British and Irish men, for instance, signed up with the army at the outbreak of WWI. In many -- maybe most -- cases, it was an impulsive decision (cf. Yeats's 'Irish Airman' who called it "a lonely impulse of delight"). Does that make their sacrifice less admirable? And can we ever say for sure how impulsive a decision may have been? Another aspect of this is that McCandless wandered, and worked in a number of jobs (even at a McDonald's), and took his time before he headed "into the Wild," which suggests it may not have been impulsive.

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  3. In Chapter Five McCandless’s critic Nick Jans makes a comparison between McCandless and the protagonist of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” The protagonist in that story is unfamiliar with Alaskan life, having only just been told about the dangers of Alaskan wilderness by locals. He wanders in search of his team’s camp, ultimately (spoiler) falling into the icy water and dying of hypothermia. Jan’s criticism is not entirely inaccurate. Both the protagonist and McCandless are not Alaskan natives, which is not necessarily justification for avoiding exploration. However, they are physically ill equipped, and have little to no plan for escape, given the unpredictability of the environment. Their lack of resources ultimately leads to their deaths. Yet, I think there is a major difference between London’s protagonist and McCandless which Jans ignores. While London’s character ignores the possibility of death, McCandless seems to accept, if not search out, the possibility. This is not to suggest McCandless thought or knew he would die, but just to say that he had some understanding of the chance he was taking. It is for this reason that McCandless’s case raises interesting questions about the ethics of, and boundaries between, suicide and negligence. If McCandless understood the possibility of death, which he seems to do in his letters, how naive is his journey? It’s also interesting to think about the difference in reactions to McCandless’s personal sacrifice and the national sacrifice discussed in Professor Potter’s article. I expect many people would support sending a man to the moon, but reject McCandless’s journey, because they are allowed to participate in the national narrative of the moon but are unable to similarly participate in McCandless’s story.

    Jans says he feels for his family, but McCandless was already avoiding them and his death did not change the contact they had with him. I want to say McCandless was expressing personal freedom without harming anyone. He never asked to be saved or for others to treat the bus like Mecca. Jans says he feels for his family, but McCandless was already avoiding them and his death did not change the contact they had with him. Yet, although he never asked for his body to be retrieved, he does leave Alaskan natives to deal with the expensive process of investigating and recovering his body. I feel unable to make any final judgments until I’ve finished the book, but I’m not sure any ending will resolve the book’s most important questions about the relationship between the 21st century and risk, exploration, and personal freedom.

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  4. An important theme I saw throughout the novel is self-reliance and how as much as McCandless wanted to separate himself from society it never really works out for him. He set off thinking that he was going to survive on his own based on his own powers and resources but fails. Throughout the novel we learn that he does receive help from others, which in a way serves as a connecting to society but also as an easy way out. The bus on the Stampede Trail is another example of how McCandless was never completely separated from society and self-reliant. The bus can be perceived as a resource he uses as it was once a part of society. Instead of building his own shelter he takes the easy way out and makes the bus his shelter. If I was in that position, I probably would have done the same because it’s just what someone with common sense would do, “Think smarter not harder”. However, for someone like McCandless who wanted to separate from society and be self-reliant, this was the easy way out whether he did it consciously or not.

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    1. Yes. Chris is so reluctant to accept help from others, that he ends up harming his own cause out of this desire for absolute self-reliant purity. And he was never entirely so, I agree. But as a professor, I do wish he had read Emerson's "Self-Reliance" with a tad more care -- there are nuances there that he missed. The apothegm applies even to Emerson himself: "Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage."

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  5. Let me start off by saying that Krakauer’s own narrative irked me. I found him wanting to be viewed as both better and similar to McCandless, or as an explorer, or something. His own experiences and savvy wilderness/survival knowledge came off cocky and little desperate.
    McCandless’ story on the other hand, was interesting. I think maybe the discovery of his fathers other family made it easier for him to leave, but don't think that could have been his only motive. Sure, his taste in literature reveals he had romanticized notions about man in nature, but it takes real courage and curiosity to just leave and roam like he did. I think, if the hardships of his journey to/in Mexico didn't deter him from the life he chose then he was bound to push himself to harder or more extreme limits. I don’t think McCandless was suicidal like Waterman and Rosellini. I think maybe he wasn’t sure what he was looking for and thats why he kept going. I think risk is something everyone is afraid of, risk of leaving a job, lover, home, country, etc. When you take all those things away, the societal things I guess, you loose a type of fear and are charged with the risk of living to live. McCandless (possible) mistake of poisoning himself, or whatever happened, was just a mistake.

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