Chris Mccandless – The stampede trail

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 magic bus
The magic bus

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.

Mccandless magic bus

The bus looks exactly as it did all those years ago, and whatever you think of McCandless and how he ended up dying here, walking inside is powerful. Messages from those who’ve made the journey — even McCandless’ family — are everywhere.

“Under the bunk is a little suitcase that his folks had kept emergency supplies in and a little log that people used to write in,” said Wallace. Also in the suitcase was a Bible that McCandless’ parents left for him in the magic bus in July 1993, when they came to honor his memory one year from the date of his death.”

“I wondered briefly if it would be hard to enter your last home,” wrote McCandless’ mother. “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.”

The magic bus
The magic bus

The bus seems to have taken on the quality of a shrine.

“Some of the people I bring here break down and have a pretty emotional moment,” said Wallace. “Hell, they almost have me crying some of the time, they get so broken up over it. Regardless of what you think of the guy, he did die here, so it’s kind of hallowed ground in my opinion.”

The family put a plaque inside that includes McCandless’ last words, found inside his journal. The plaque reads:

Christopher Johnson McCandless
February 1968 to August 1992
Chris, our beloved son and brother, died here during his adventurous travels in search of how he could best realize Gods’ great gift of life. With his final message, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and God Bless all,” we commend his soul to the world.
The McCandless family, July 1993.

The bus and the stories it holds remain a goal for an untold number of McCandless followers. Did Paterson make it? When our story first aired, we weren’t sure. The last we saw him he was about eight hours into his hike, hungry and tired, but he wouldn’t accept any food.

15 years after McCandless — just like so many others who’ve come along since— Paterson walked into the wild.

And eventually, he walked out of the wild. Paterson did his journey, telling ABC News that “it was a 26 mile hike in from the nearest road and took two days for me to walk to the bus. An awesome trip!”