Who was Christopher McCandless? The young man whose life was chronicled in the book and subsequent film adaptation, Into The Wild, often seems more myth than man. After his untimely death in 1992, his story made McCandless a larger-than-life sensation and touted his philosophy of simplicity and detachment from material goods. His persona became something that armchair adventurers the world over would cling to and adopt as their own dogma; he's often spoken of in the same breath as wilderness figures like "Grizzly Man" Timothy Treadwell, who also lost his life seeking solace in the remote Alaskan wilderness.
McCandless advocated for the value of experience over regret or security, and preached an extremely minimalist flavor of subsistence, describing his own journey as "the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage."
However, was Into The Wild actually based on a true story? Or was it just another romanticized account of an ill-prepared, big-hearted dreamer who ultimately died alone in the Alaskan wilderness after he realized it was too late to turn back? When it comes to McCandless, there are the facts, based on his own journal entries and family members' accounts, but then there is also the speculation surrounding the truth, as often is the case when someone dies so young and mysteriously. Delve into the short, strange life of Christopher McCandless... or, as he preferred to be called, Alexander Supertramp.
Christopher McCandless Died In An Abandoned Bus In The Middle Of Nowhere, Probably From Potato Poisoning
In August of 1992, a moose hunter came across an abandoned bus numbered 142 off the Stampede Trail in a desolate part of Alaska. Inside, still in his sleeping bag, the hunter found McCandless's decomposing body. One of the more controversial conversations regarding Chris McCandless is what actually caused his death.
When his body was first discovered, starvation was the official ruling. However, as his story became sensationalized around the world, more research pointed out that he had actually probably died of starvation resulting from the ingestion of wild potato seeds that contain an amino acid known to prevent absorption of nutrients. Over time, the alkaloid also slowly paralyzes the body, making an already-weak McCandless unable to hunt or gather any sustenance. He was only 24-years-old.
He Lived In An Abandoned Bus In The Middle Of Nowhere For Over 100 Days
At the peak of his multiyear pilgrimage, McCandless found himself on the desolate Stampede Trail in Alaska, located in the Denali backcountry. For the first 67 days, he managed to hunt and kill most of his meals, eating things like porcupines, ptarmigan, and squirrels. His journal entries were cheerful, for the most part, and after a little more than two months, he packed up his belongings, shaved his beard, and started to head back towards civilization, having supposedly satisfied whatever wild urge he was craving.
However, when he reached the Teklanika River, (through which he'd fallen when it had been iced over while crossing on his way months earlier), he was shocked to find a raging river, swollen from glacier melts. Crossing was not an option, and defeated, he retreated back to the bus, where he would eventually meet his end.
He Entered The Wilderness Totally Unprepared
It's unclear just exactly what McCandless had supplies-wise when he started off on the Stampede Trail, but if there's one thing that's certain, it's that it was nowhere near a sufficient amount. This wasn't the most forgivable planning error, and many argue that McCandless wasn't just being naive, but rather he was being plain dumb.
Though McCandless lived resourcefully as a tramp for a few years on the road, there's a big difference between train-hopping and backcountry trekking. When his body was found, he had a few paperbacks, a camera, his diary, a book that identified edible plants, and a .22 caliber rifle. From his journal, it's known that he had brought a sack of rice and a compass along, but no maps. There was, of course, the sleeping bag in which his corpse was found. But for somebody who lusted so strongly after adventure, he seemed to have overlooked the crucial element of such wild places: survival.
Before His Death, He Left Tragic Notes Of Farewell
When the moose hunter who found his body approached the bus, he found a page torn from a Nikolai Gogol novel taped onto the door, with this urgent message written all in caps:
ATTENTION POSSIBLE VISITORS.
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 OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU,
Apart from this note, he had taken a self-timer photo (a camera with film was included among his meager posessions), holding a note that said, "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!"
Among his last journal entries, he also wrote this final, sad line: "Happiness is only real when shared." This note is especially tragic, because so much of his dogma was built on the ideology of self-sustainment, of adventure and passion. He had a few close relationships throughout his years on the road, but always tore away to fulfill this odyssey in Alaska. In the final days before his death, this note is basically saying that he realized what a huge mistake he had made by making a point to lead such a solitary, bare existence.