ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An old bus was left on the Stampede Trail about 40 years ago when a road was being built. In the summer of 1992, it became the home of young wanderer Chris McCandless.
With a bestselling book and a major movie based on his life, that old bus has taken on heightened notoriety. But, those curious about McCandless’ journey don’t have to travel all the way out the trail to see what it looks like.
When Sean Penn set out to make his epic movie “Into the Wild,” he did something most movie producers don’t do when making a film about Alaska: he filmed it in Alaska.
The film, and the best-selling book it was based on, chronicle the travels of McCandless, who hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness on the Stampede Trail north of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Three days into McCandless’ walk into the wild, he wrote in his diary, “Magic Bus Day.” That’s the day he reached the old Fairbanks City Transit System bus 27 miles down the Stampede Trail. McCandless later died of starvation in the bus.
The remoteness of the bus prohibited filming there, so Penn chose Cantwell.
The crew bought a similar bus and hired Spenard artist Duke Russell.
“I painted it. Yep, this is my side of the bus right here,” Russell said.
Russell said he traveled to the original bus early in 2006.
“We had a guide who snowmachined us out there and we took a lot of pictures and created storyboards for the front and back the left and right of the bus interior and mixed a match,” Russell said.
The bus used in the movie is still in Cantwell, parked outside of Rachel and Gordon Carlson’s house.
The Carlsons worked on the film, Rachel was an on-set paramedic.
The film crew dragged the bus a couple miles off the Parks Highway for the filming. They came back to shoot scenes on four occasions from the spring to the fall of 2006.
Russell has seen the final version of the film and calls it impressive. As for being at the site of the actual bus where McCandless’ life ended, Russell said it was an experience.
“I think as with many people you want to, you wonder if you can really feel the vibe this oooh, spooky haunted house kind of thing and it’s not really. Some people think of it as a shrine and other people think, ‘What a fool,’” Russell said.
The Cantwell Native Tribe will get ownership of the prop bus used in the film.
“Maybe a museum piece, maybe have a coffee stand where you have this in the background and sell t-shirts and books, whatever,” Rachel Carlson said.
McCandless died while attempting to escape from materialism. Think about that the next time you’re through Cantwell and end up sipping a latte from the bus.
Cantwell is about 40 miles to the south of Healy, where the Stampede Trail takes off.
HEALY, Alaska — While some view it as a spiritual journey of adventure, others say it was a clumsy stunt that cost a young man his life. The story of Chris McCandless is a tragic tale, one that inspires those who seek a wild Alaskan odyssey while coming at the chagrin of many of those who live one.
Now with McCandless’ story becoming a major motion picture, the 15-year-old tale is finding new life and may likely motivate others to walk into the wild.
The season’s first snow has come to the Stampede Trail and ice is beginning its encroachment onto the Savage River. The Savage is one of two river crossing on the Stampede, a seldom-used trail that winds its way through the foothills north of Denali National Park and Preserve. It’s the path that led 24-year-old McCandless into the wild 15 years ago.
McCandless’ story is told in the new motion picture “Into the Wild” directed by Sean Penn. McCandless was chronicled in a series of Outside Magazine articles by Jon Krakauer that later became a best-selling book.
The young wanderer hitchhiked to Alaska in search of a true wilderness experience, looking to test his limits and live off the land.
McCandless ended up dying of starvation in an old bus 27 miles out on the Stampede Trail.
While the book and movie portray McCandless as an idealistic adventurer, elevating his folk hero status, many Alaskans view his story more critically.
Dermot Cole, a staff writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, said McCandless’ poor planning was his downfall.
“By failing to prepare, he made a mistake that cost him his life. That’s not really emphasized either in the book or in the movie,” Cole said.
The Stampede Trail departs the Parks Highway just north of Healy. About four miles out is the home of hunting guide Coke Wallace. He’s been out to the old bus plenty of times.
“Hallowed ground, man, a guy died there. It’s pretty amazing to see how people react. Brent was with me when we took Sean Penn and his group out there for the first time,” Wallace said.
Hunting guide Brent Keith also offers guided trips to the bus. They are men who know the real meaning of survival in the wilds of Alaska, but also temper their criticism of McCandless and his odyssey.
“Yeah, I think it was a little bit harsh. I mean, we all do stupid stuff and if we’re lucky we learn from it and we don’t do it again — and in his case he made some mistakes and he didn’t learn from them and it cost him his life,” Keith said.
A Channel 2 News team set out by all-terrain vehicle down the Stampede Trail, with Wallace helping retracing the journey McCandless took.
“This isn’t Disneyland out here. It’s reach-out-and-bite-you in the boo-boo real quick,” Wallace said.
Crossing the Teklanika River is the most hazardous leg of the journey to the old Fairbanks municipal bus. The water is low now, as it was when McCandless crossed in the early spring of 1992. But Wallace said in the summer months it can become a ragging torrent.
“These rivers can change hourly. What’s calf-deep in the morning you can come back in the afternoon planning to cross it, and if it’s been melting or raining up in the high country it can be waste deep or deeper. It can be totally different,” Wallace said.
After an easy crossing, the Channel 2 News crew motored on for roughly five hours, not passing another soul. And then, in a clearing along the trail, the old International Harvester bus came into view.
Not a lot has changed in the 15 years since McCandless was at the bus and he took his most famous self-portrait.
Three days into McCandless’ walk into the wild, he wrote in his diary, “Magic Bus Day.” That’s the day he reached the old Fairbanks City Transit System bus 27 miles down the Stampede Trail. The bus still looks the same today, but instead of a shelter, it is now a shrine.
Inside, the bus is tidy. A wood stove and old bed take up most of the space. It’s the same mattress on which McCandless spent his last days, and ultimately died.
Notebooks left in the bus contain messages from people all over the world. Even the notes written by McCandless’ parents in 1993 are still there, including one from his mother:
“Sonny boy, it’s time to leave, the helicopter, will soon arrive. I wondered briefly if it would be hard to enter your last home. The wonderful pictures you left in your final testament welcomed me in and I’m finding it difficult to leave instead. I can so appreciate the absolute joy in your eyes reported by your self portraits. I too will come back to this place. Mom.”
There’s also one from Krakauer, the author.
“Chris, your memory will live on in your admirers. Jon.”
Canadian Marc Paterson visited the shrine briefly before the Channel 2 News crew. He hiked out with nothing but a 10 pound bag of rice in his own emulation of McCandless.
“So he left here five days ago. Yeah, I guess that 10 pounds of rice wasn’t going to stretch out two weeks like he thought it was,” Wallace said.
The fact that so many would make this journey concerns some. McCandless became trapped when he realized he couldn’t get back across the Teklanika River. Healy/Denali Chamber of Commerce President Neal Laugman said he’s afraid it could happen again.
“When the river goes up, it goes up quick and then you’re stuck. And if you can’t get warm and it’s raining and it’s 50 degrees — you can’t get a fire started, you’ve got a problem,” Laugman said.
Laugman expects the movie to draw even more young wanderers on a pilgrimage to the bus.
“We want people to come up and visit us. We don’t want to ruin their experience, but we don’t want to be pulling dead bodies out of the river,” Laugman said.
Some have even suggested hauling the bus out in order to deter McCandless followers.
“I don’t see it as a sacred site. I see it as a piece of junk that was left behind after a road building project more than 40 years ago,” Cole said.
Wallace said it should be left where it is.
“The bus could save somebody’s bacon someday. A shelter in stormy times and a place to warm up and dry off before you head back for the road. Could save my bacon someday,” Wallace said.
Is it shelter from the storm, a piece of junk or a mythical shrine? So much about the McCandless story is conflicted. Even Wallace’s opinion of the man has evolved.
“I think overall, he’s viewed as a bit of a dumb ass, for lack of a better word. Heck, it’s printed right there on the bus. After having taken so many people out here and being around people that get emotionally choked up over it, you know, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for guy. I think there will be more like him that come out here woefully unprepared and not knowing what they’re getting into even after they read the book,” Wallace said.
After a short stay, the bus as left as it was found — a lonely place that will surely attract countless others in search of their own cathartic moments in the wilds of Alaska.
A man in Fairbanks recently took the bus’ instrument panel and sold it on eBay for $177. Some people think the bus won’t have to be removed because it will be sold piecemeal, but today it remains largely as it was when McCandless lived in it for more than 100 days back in 1992.
Wayne Westerberg Picture taken in April 1992, Wayne was portrayed by the actor Vince Vaughn in the film Into the wild.
Quotes from into the wild :
“There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
“Rather than Love, than Money, than Fame, give me Truth.”
Henry David Thoreau
“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.”
“I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it— she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do.”
Sharon Olds, May 1937
(In the movie, Chris reads this to his sister, Carine, outside the restaurant)
“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.”
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
“I have lived through much and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet, secluded life in the country with the possibility of being useful to people…”
“…the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head…”
Bear Meat by Primo Levi
Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to the centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness
From “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours” by poet Robinson Jeffers (As quoted by Louis L’Amour in his memoir, Education of A Wandering Man, a book Chris had with him in Alaska)
Quotes from Chris Mcandless and his journal :
I love working for Wayne (Wayne Westerberg), he is a grear guy. Im not to sure how long ill be hear. My feet tend to get itchy, but i love what I am doing for now. Feels good to get away from the wrath of society. People do not understand me and I surely do not undersand them.
April 27th 1992
Greetings from Fairbanks! This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon Territory. But i finally got here.
Please return all mail I recieve to the sender. It might be a very long time until I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again i want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild. Alex.
Postcard Recieved by:
Carthage, South Dakota
Well i’m still alive and thriving. The hunting can become tedious and hard at times, but i did ask for that. When not hunting i’m taking pictures to remember this life altering experience. I have made this bus a nice cosy place to live, and happy i came about it.
As I sit and think about this escapade i’ve been on, I have to say it is the best experience of my life. I can not help my love for nature. This is what I love and i will do exactly this until I can not anymore. I have missed Carine she is a sweet person. I can not help feel for my mother but this had to happen.
August 12th 1992
Today was tough, food is scarce, the river is high, and I am starting to have the fear of becoming trapped in the wild. No one knows to come looking, or even where to come looking. i have also realized that happiness is only real when shared. I do not wanna die out here. I feel that I am slowly dying due to starvation, it is not the most pleasant death but it is the one that has chosen me.
S.O.S I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU, CHRIS MCCANDLESS. AUGUST?
I am becoming much weaker. I am only eating the few berries that I find. I hope and pray someone comes and rescues me. This might be my last journal entry. . . .
I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!