Every now and then, something comes along to remind you that the wild is not simply a playground – that, in truth, you live with it on its own terms, not yours.
Last week, Into the Wild opened in New York and Los Angeles. This is the film by Sean Penn, adapting a bestseller by Jon Krakauer. It tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a soulful young product of a good college and a solid middle class family. He was very bright, athletic, with a promising life ahead of him.
After graduating with honours, he set out on a journey across the US – a somewhat aimless journey at that, in search of wilderness and self. He wandered and hitchhiked from prairie to desert to forest to roadless area. In one sense, McCandless was no different than Thoreau at Walden Pond, or Huck Finn in his raft on the Mississippi, or Jack Kerouac on the road. It was Kerouac who famously said: “The only people for me are the mad ones.”
But McCandless went deeper and darker than any of those American icons, and perhaps he was mad, in the Kerouac sense. He shed all vestiges of his comfortable life, giving up possessions and money, and lived as an ascetic who called himself Alexander Supertramp.
In April 1992, equipped with little more than a .22 calibre rifle and a 10lb bag of rice, he headed into the Big Empty of the Alaska wilderness, near Fairbanks, not far from Mount McKinley. “I now walk into the wild,” he wrote.
Every day in September, another eight minutes or more of daylight slips away. Winter is at the doorstep. Nights are well below freezing. Brown bears, some weighing nearly 1,000lb, are in no mood for anything but gorging themselves on food before retiring for the winter.
More than 20 miles from the nearest maintained road, young Alex found a broken-down and abandoned city bus. And this is where he died in August 1992. His diary showed he lived 112 days, alone, in the wilderness. And when his body was finally found by a moose hunter, he weighed just 67lb. He was 24. It’s likely that he starved to death.
This story continues to fascinate us, and it goes to the heart of why urbanites long for wilderness. But the reactions of city dwellers and those who live close to the wild are very different.
In Alaska, where fewer than a million people live in a state that is more than three times the size of France, people scoffed at the McCandless story. He was a tenderfoot – an idiot, in less charitable terms – who should have known better.
“He made some mistakes. He paid with his life. It happens pretty often around here.” That was one comment – and typical – on the Anchorage Daily News website last week.
In the way of so many modern tragedies, the rusted hulk of the old Fairbanks city bus has become a tourist destination. People who feel a kinship with McCandless trek up the abandoned road, walking by spindly alder and dwarfed black spruce to the place of his death.
These McCandless tourists are a curiosity to Alaskans. The outdoor columnist for the Anchorage paper, Craig Medred, made a point shared by many who live in the Last Frontier state. “The Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. It’s a bad place to find yourself.”
But the search for self is what McCandless was after, and that is still what drives so many people into the wilderness. I can see why people are drawn to the McCandless story. Here, after all, was a young man trying to free himself from our electronic cocoon. Here was someone trying to find something primal in his place in the universe.
You can fault him, certainly, for his lack of preparation – perhaps it was even a form of slow suicide. But it’s hard not to see something very human in his desire to walk up to the edge.
In the US, more than 100 million acres of public land are formally designated as wilderness. These lands, protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964, are considered areas “where man himself is but a visitor who does not remain”, as the law puts it.