Christopher Johnson McCandless (February 12, 1968 –August 18, 1992) was an American wanderer who adopted the name Alexander Supertramp and hiked into the Alaskan wilderness with little food and equipment, hoping to live a period of solitude.
Almost four months later, he died of starvation near Denali National Park and Preserve. Inspired by the details of McCandless’s story, author Jon Krakauer wrote a book about his adventures, published in 1996, entitled Into the Wild.
In 2007, Sean Penn directed a film of the same title, with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless.
McCandless was born in El Segundo, California to Walt McCandless and Wilhelmina “Billie” Johnson. He had one younger sister named Carine. In 1976, he moved with his family to Annandale, Virginia, an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. located in Fairfax County, after his father was employed as an antenna specialist for NASA. His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft where Walt worked, later assisting Walt run a successful home-based consulting company in Annandale.
Despite the McCandless family’s financial success, Walt and Billie were often fighting and sometimes would contemplate divorce. Chris also had several half-siblings living in California from Walt’s first marriage. Walt was not yet divorced from his first wife when Chris and Carine were born, but Chris did not discover his father’s affair until a summer trip to southern California.
At school, teachers noticed McCandless was unusually strong-willed. In adolescence he coupled this with an intense idealism and physical endurance. In high school, he served as captain of the cross-country team, urging teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were “running against the forces of darkness … all the evil in the world, all the hatred.
He graduated from Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School in 1986. On June 10, 1986, McCandless embarked on one of his first major adventures in which he traveled throughout the country only to arrive at Emory two days prior to the beginning of fall classes. He went on to graduate from Emory University in 1990, having majored in history and anthropology.
His upper-middle-class background and academic success was the impetus for his contempt for what he saw as the empty materialism of American society. In his junior year, he declined membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, on the basis that honors and titles were irrelevant. McCandless was strongly influenced by Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, W. H. Davies, and Henry David Thoreau, and he envisioned separating from organized society for a thoreauvian period of solitary contemplation.
After graduating in 1990, he donated the remaining $24,000 of the $47,000 given to him by family for his last two years of college to Oxfam International, a charity, and began traveling under the name “Alexander Supertramp” (Krakauer notes the connection with W. H. Davies, Welsh author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908). McCandless made his way through Arizona, California, and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator.
He alternated between having jobs and living with no money or human contact, sometimes successfully foraging for food. He survived a flash flood, but allowed his car to wash out (although it suffered little permanent damage and was later reused by the local police force) and disposed of his license plate. He also paddled a canoe down remote stretches of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. McCandless took pride in surviving with a minimum of gear and funds, and generally made little preparation. He was, however, frequently fed or otherwise aided by people he met on his travels.
For years, McCandless dreamed of an “Alaskan Odyssey” where he would live off the land, far away from civilization, and keep a journal describing his physical and spiritual progress as he faced the forces of nature. In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive by Jim Gallien, who gave him a ride from Fairbanks to the Stampede Trail. Gallien was concerned about “Alex”, who had minimal supplies (not even a magnetic compass) and no experience of surviving in the Alaskan bush. Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade Alex to defer his trip, and even offered to drive him to Anchorage to buy suitable equipment and supplies.
However, McCandless ignored Gallien’s warnings, refusing all assistance except for a pair of rubber boots, two tuna melt sandwiches, and a bag of corn chips. Eventually, Gallien dropped him at the head of the Stampede Trail on Tuesday, April 28, 1992.
After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless found an abandoned bus used as a hunting shelter and parked on an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park, and began his attempt to live off the land. He had a 10-pound bag of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with plenty of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, a book of local plant life, several other books, and some camping equipment. He assumed he could forage for plant food and hunt game.
Despite his inexperience as a hunter, McCandless poached some small game such as porcupines and birds. Once he killed a moose; however, he failed to preserve the meat properly, and it spoiled. Rather than thinly slicing and air-drying the meat, like jerky, as is usually done in the Alaskan bush, he smoked it, following the advice of hunters he had met in South Dakota.
His journal contains entries covering a total of 189 days. These entries range from ecstatic to grim with McCandless’s changing fortunes. In July, after living in the bus for several months, he decided to leave, but found the trail back blocked by the Teklanika River, which was then considerably higher and swifter than when he crossed in April. There was a hand-operated tram that crossed the river 1/4 of a mile away from where he fell in.
McCandless was unaware of this because the only navigational aid he possessed was a tattered road map he had found at a gas station, and he had left on the dashboard of Jim Gallien’s truck. McCandless lived in the bus for a total of 113 days.
On August 12, McCandless wrote what are assumed to be his final words in his journal: “Beautiful Blueberries.”
He tore the final page from Louis L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, which contains an excerpt from a Robinson Jeffers poem titled “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours”:
Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened or troubled
And a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper.
On the other side of the page, McCandless added, “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”
His body was found in his sleeping bag inside the bus on September 6, 1992, weighing an estimated 67 pounds (30 kg). He had been dead for more than two weeks. His official cause of death was starvation.
Biographer Jon Krakauer suggests two factors may have contributed to McCandless’s death. First, he was running the risk of a phenomenon known as “rabbit starvation” due to increased activity, compared with the leanness of the game he was hunting. However, Krakauer insists starvation was not, as McCandless’s death certificate states, the only cause of death. Initially, Krakauer claimed McCandless might have ingested toxic seeds (Hedysarum alpinum). However, extensive laboratory testing proves conclusively there was no alkaloid toxin present in McCandless’s food supplies.
In later editions of the book, therefore, Krakauer has speculated the poisonous fungus Rhizoctonia leguminicola could have grown on the seeds McCandless ate, aggravating his already weak physical conditions and leading to his possible death by starvation. The only piece of evidence to support Krakauer’s theory is an entry, on July 30, in McCandless’s journal which reads, EXTREMLY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED…