For those of you who have seen the 2007 Sean Penn film Into the Wild, you will be acquainted with the truly fascinating story of Christopher McCandless. For those of you haven’t, I could not recommend it more; it is actually quite an accurate portrayal of his life and travels. McCandless’ story is one of adventure, freedom, wanderlust, and ultimately tragedy. There has been much debate as to the sincerity and legitimacy of his motivations, but I for one strongly identify with his dream.
On the 6th of September 1992, aged 24, Christopher McCandless’ body was found in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. After almost two years of travelling across the United States, McCandless trekked into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 in search of a life of solitude and simplicity, far away from the ‘evils’ of a modern corporate society. For four months he lived off the land by hunting and gathering, using the abandoned bus (pictured above) as shelter. The wild would eventually get the better of him as McCandless died of starvation owing to a series of errors, weighing only 30kg at the time of his death.
A high achiever from a privileged background, Christopher McCandless donated his $24,000 college fund to Oxfam in 1990, after graduating from Emory University, before making his way on his grand adventure. Dreaming of an ‘Alaskan Odyssey’, far away from the superficial environment that he had grown up in, McCandless set off on a grand journey across North America, adopting the moniker Alexander Supertramp. McCandless travelled lightly, carrying only the bare minimum, no money, and getting by on odd jobs and the help of friends and kind strangers he met along the way. His journal entries and accounts given by people he was close to paint a picture of a bright young man disillusioned with the superficial, empty, and repetitive nature of the society in which he lived. He was a man that believed conservatism was the death of adventurous spirit and that adventure and travel were what made life worth living.
As tragic and avoidable as his death may have been, his story shows that a short life filled with adventure and joy far outweighs a long life wasted away in the safe monotony many subject themselves to. While some more cynical people have used his story to justify conformity and have used it as an example to deter the young and naive from pursuing their dreams, many more have truly identified with ‘Alexander Supertramp’. His story awakens the adventurer within. In my case, it only strengthened my belief that whilst it might be safer and easier to ‘live by the norms of society’, it is in no way as rewarding. This is a belief I have held for a long time. As the old saying goes: ‘no risk, no reward’. McCandless truly loved his adventurous lifestyle, and there is no way that he was ever going to give that up, regardless of the challenges he’d face.
Christopher McCandless’ story truly demonstrates what it is behind travelling that fascinates so many of us. The freedom and sense of adventure that we have when we travel cannot be rivalled by any experience. To me, there is nothing greater than the feeling of leaving everything behind, be it for just a short period of time; to be completely removed from the world and to experience things far beyond the realms of imagination. This is the true lesson to be drawn from McCandless’ life. You simply cannot live life to the fullest if you do not experience as much of it as possible, which brings me to my final point.
It is said that McCandless wrote, “Happiness only real when shared” in the margins of the book Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Or, as Psternak himself put it, “unshared happiness is not happiness”. Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild does a fantastic job at picturing McCandless’ loneliness in the wild. His journal entries also flicker between the ecstasy of living his dream, and the misery of being alone, especially as his condition began to deteriorate. The fact that McCandless wanted to live off the land by himself was the one thing that I struggled to relate to, which is why the above quote hit home. I have never been one to enjoy long stretches of solitude, and one of the joys of travel comes from the amazing people you meet along the way. Given that McCandless’ adventure was borne out of a desire to leave his previous life behind, his desire for solitude is understandable. Nevertheless, his final days show that the key to life is not just pursuing your dream, but having people to share that dream with.
Originally published on Wayfaring Student on June 2nd 2014.