The story of Chris McCandless, the intrepid adventurer who inspired Into the Wild

It’s been 27 years since the death of Chris McCandless, the young man who dropped everything to experience authentic life in Alaska’s wilderness. His story has been told in the book and movie Into the Wild.

If Christopher McCandless found the aluminium basket linked to a cable with pulleys used by hydrologists to cross the Teklanika river, he would probably have managed to cross the engorged river to safety. Today he would be alive to celebrate his 51st birthday. However Chris couldn’t know as he didn’t bring any maps with him, so he passed away in Alaska‘s wilderness.

denali national park alaska
Chris entered Alaska’s wilderness north of Mount McKinley © Lance King/Getty Images

Why Chris is still talking to us

Some think Chris is a legend and a symbol of extreme freedom and self-determination; others say he was just an irresponsible person who paid for his carelessness with his life. Most probably he was neither of those things. He was just a young man nauseated by the consumerist and materialist society he was immersed into, and wanted to experience living in nature in the most authentic and adventurous way. Chris’ story, which is told in Jon Krakauer’s book and Sean Penn’s movie Into the Wild, is extremely modern because the causes behind his disillusion are still present in our society. Nowadays many people are unsatisfied and live an artificial life with no adventure at all.

A modern wanderer

Christopher Johnson McCandless was a boy from a wealthy family who grew up in a rich suburb of Washington DC. In the summer of 1990, after a degree (with honours) in history and anthropology, he decided to drop everything – his family, his money and even his name. He gave his 24,000 dollars in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions and started what it seemed a pilgrimage.

Chris McCandless, also known as Alexander Supertramp
“I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up”. Christopher McCandless wrote to his friend Wayne Westerberg © Back to the Wild

A new life

Chris was driven by a great idealism and even before his departure he started to live in an almost ascetic way, giving up wealth and privileges. Chris wasn’t naïve: he knew that the journey to Alaska would be full of hurdles and peril, but such hardships were necessary for his initiation. Chris, who called himself Alexander Supertramp, didn’t want to flee civilization for good, but only stay away for a while in order to be reborn, like a rite of passage. “He invented a new life for himself in order to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented,” writes Krakauer. Chris didn’t just flee an alienating society, he also fled his familiar traumas characterised by the discovery of his father’s bigamy.

Towards extreme, wild lands

Chris crossed the United States on the margins of society, embracing civil disobedience of state laws and living off his own means to continue on his journey. Two years later, on 28 April 1992, the journey led him to the Stampede Trail in Denali National park, in the heart of Alaska’s taiga. There he spent over three months completely alone in the wilderness, sleeping in an abandoned bus, which he called Magic Bus, and feeding on small animals, edible plants and berries.

Chris McCandless’ death

Chris died at 24 on 18 August 1992, 112 days after he walked into the wild. His dead body was found 19 days later. Many theories have been made about his death, but he most likely died from hunger and malnutrition. Chris, as the last person who saw him alive has confirmed, wanted to live in nature for a few months. In fact, after two months he started his way back but when he reached the Teklanika River he found out the river engorged too much to be waded across. In that moment, also due to the lack of game and his physical decline, his end began.

The Magic Bus, Chris McCandless' shelter in Alaska
The Magic Bus, where Chris McCandless found shelter in the Stampede Trail, Alaska © Madeleine Deaton/Wikimedia Commons

Chris McCandless’ blessing

In his last days Chris wrote a short farewell message that, after all, expresses positivity: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” Even the last picture he took of himself, holding the message in his hands while being wrapped up in a jacket that was way too loose for his 30 kilos, doesn’t show self-pity or regret: he smiles peacefully. “Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God,” writes Krakauer. We don’t know if Chris McCandless found what he was looking for, if his experiences justified his early death. What is certain is that his story has touched the hearts of many people and, in the end, we can’t judge him, at least not until we’ve dropped everything to hit the road.

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