By David A. James
For much of North America, 1992 was not warm. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines the previous year spewed sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and the United States experienced one of its coldest summers of the 20th century. Denali National Park, where I was spending the third of five summers as a seasonal employee, was no exception. In April, temperatures plunged to 30-below. In May, when the park should have been coming to life, deep and heavy snow fell for weeks. Much of Alaska remained gripped in winter until nearly Memorial Day.
Shortly after Labor Day the snow resumed and word arrived that an anonymous hiker had been found dead from starvation in an abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail just north of the park boundary. For most of us working there, the obvious question was, why didn’t he hike to the park road? And perhaps more importantly, didn’t he have a map?
An account of the errant life and lonely death of Christopher McCandless was published in Outside Magazine that winter, and by the time seasonal workers were returning to the park in April, the story was on everybody’s lips. Out of morbid curiosity, a few people decided to go see the bus for themselves. They were the first of many.
In the ensuing decades, the bus has become a macabre tourist attraction for hundreds. People seeking something they can’t grasp in their ordinary lives read the story of McCandless’ life, see a piece of themselves in it, and feel compelled to travel to the site of his death. And because the bus lies on the far side of the unpredictable Teklanika River, admirers of McCandless needing rescue and sometimes medical aid have become a ritual part of Alaska summers. This year, 24-year-old newlywed Veranika Nikonova from Belarus became the second visitor to drown in the Teklanika. Whatever one thinks of McCandless, the problem he left behind himself is out of hand.
Alaskans tend to blame Chris McCandless for the perpetual troubles his disciples have inflicted on themselves and the state. It’s easy to do so. He stumbled into Alaska and up the Stampede Trail wholly unprepared to experience his fever dream of living off the land. He walked a scant few miles beyond civilization and the road system and camped out in a bus. He didn’t have a map. His self-obsession bordered on megalomania. He starved to death — a stupid, senseless, and entirely preventable way to die so close to civilization. Why, we Alaskans ask ourselves, would anyone consider this person to be a hero?
The answer lies not so much in McCandless himself as in the way his story was presented.
In the early 1990s, when Jon Krakauer wrote the Outside article about McCandless’ sojourn and then expanded it into his 1996 bestseller Into the Wild, American literary circles were abuzz with the theory of the Hero’s Journey. Conceived by the literature professor Joseph Campbell, it was the foundation for his groundbreaking 1949 study The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The Hero’s Journey is a theme Campbell claimed was common to the mythologies of nearly all human societies. In his book he wrote, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Whether or not Krakauer knowingly or subconsciously structured McCandless’ life into a Hero’s Journey narrative I cannot say. But it is absolutely the approach he took. And given how prevalent the theory was in popular culture at the time, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that he wouldn’t have had some exposure to it.
Having recently graduated from an elite college before breaking with his family, dropping out of society, and embarking on his travels, it’s just as likely that McCandless was aware of it. He assigned himself the heroic moniker Alexander Supertramp, and his journals, which Krakauer quotes extensively, are written in the third person. In effect, the process of mythologizing the life of Christopher McCandless began with McCandless himself.
Krakauer appears to have fully bought into McCandless’ adolescent self-glorification. 85 pages in, after recounting McCandless’ hoboing through the West, Krakauer tells readers the young man could not have been a sociopath or a nutcase. “McCandless was something else,” he writes, “although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.”
This is where the book transitions from reporting to hagiography. Having boosted McCandless to heroic status, Krakauer’s challenge becomes keeping him there. He treats McCandless’ life as a trajectory of personal transformation which, but for an accident of fate contrived by Krakauer himself, would have led to a fully self-actualized Christopher McCandless. It’s a dream McCandless himself harbored. In true Hero’s Journey fashion, he viewed his trip to Alaska as his final challenge after a couple of years of wanderings.
But there’s one nagging complication. McCandless starved to death. This isn’t heroic. This is an abysmal failure.
Russell Potter, Professor of English and Director of Media Studies at Rhode Island College, and one of the foremost experts on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, told me in a recent email discussion about McCandless and other doomed polar travelers, “In order for us to be able to admire someone, we have to believe that their demise was not due to any precedent failure on their part, but rather to something unforeseen and unforeseeable.” For McCandless “to be properly beatified,” Potter told me, there had to be something out of his control that led to his death.
This is how Krakauer resolves his dilemma. Based on one line from the limited notes McCandless left in the bus where he expired, Krakauer famously concluded that the young man didn’t starve. Rather, he was inadvertently poisoned by a plant.
“EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED,” McCandless wrote on July 30. “MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.”
Forget that McCandless himself says that he’s starving, a process that occurs over time, not instantaneously. Krakauer zeroes in on his single mention of the seeds of Hedysarum alpinum, the wild potato, and based solely on one abbreviated passage, declares that they alone killed McCandless.
The book went to press in 1996 while the seeds were still being studied by Thomas Clausen, a now retired organic chemistry professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who had agreed to test Krakauer’s hypothesis. A year after publication, Clausen and his assistant Edward Treadwell concluded that there were no toxins in the seeds.
More than a decade later, and after millions of copies had been sold containing what Krakauer by then long knew was misinformation, he finally produced an update. But rather than acknowledge that the seeds were safe, which would have upended his heroic narrative, he claimed, without evidence, that they had become wet while stored in a plastic bag and that a toxic fungus, Rhizoctonia leguminicola had grown on them.
This claim remains in the 2015 edition. But in a new afterword, Krakauer changes his story yet again. This time he cites a study he coauthored showing that a previously undetected toxic amino acid, L-canavanine, resides in the seeds, and that this, not the mold, is what killed McCandless.
Clausen remains unconvinced. He told me via email, “After many, many theories, Krakauer finally did come up with a toxin, canavanine, in the seeds of wild potato and I will give him that accomplishment. But, when discussing toxins, the dosage is critical. The level of canavanine he reported in Eskimo Potato is very similar to that found in alfalfa sprouts. It just is not feasible that McCandless ate enough seeds to cause any symptoms.”
He went on to say, “Looking at what he ate, however, clearly shows he was on a severe diet. I suspect he had symptoms of “rabbit poisoning” which results from eating a zero carb/fat diet and relying solely on protein (much of which was his own). The body becomes overwhelmed with dealing with urea, ammonia, amino acids, ketone bodies from such a diet.”
“Basically, I agree with the state crime lab,” Clausen, who admires McCandless’ gumption but maintains a scientist’s insistence on facts, concluded. “McCandless died of starvation.”
This makes far more sense than Krakauer’s ever-shifting theories. Once he settled into the bus, McCandless subsisted on a diet of small game and flora that was insufficient for his caloric needs. Additionally, owing to the heavy and deep snow that May, plant life was late in coming. Krakauer makes no significant mention of the unusual weather McCandless faced. But he certainly spent the spring cold, wet, and physically struggling to posthole through his surroundings. He would have been burning far more calories than he consumed from the start.
Something else Krakauer pays little heed to is just how devoid of available nutrition Interior Alaska is even under ideal conditions. Prior to contact, the Athabaskan people moved constantly in search of food. They could not afford to stay put like McCandless did.
Delta Junction resident Judy Ferguson has conducted interviews with Alaska Natives for decades, and in her recordings of elders from the 1970s, severe hunger is a recurring memory from their early twentieth century childhoods, before food imports resolved a historic problem. Even the people who lived here for thousands of years had struggled to feed themselves. And they worked hard at it. McCandless sat in a bus reading books.
In another of his efforts at salvaging McCandless from his true self, Krakauer likens him to Everett Ruess, a young backcountry wanderer famous for going missing in Utah in 1934. But there are important distinctions. Ruess was skilled in the wilderness. McCandless wasn’t. Ruess respected the land. McCandless didn’t. Ruess went deep into the wild. McCandless hiked a few miles on a well-traveled trail and called it quits at an abandoned bus. Ruess knew how to survive on the land. When McCandless poached a moose, the one act that might have saved his life, he lacked the knowledge of how to properly preserve the meat and it rotted. This was incompetence.
Yet despite McCandless’ glaring failures, midway into the book Krakauer declares that McCandless “wasn’t incompetent–he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were.” In actual fact, 113 days is a realistic time frame for someone to starve death from malnutrition. The wild potato seeds that Krakauer is fixated on made him sick because they are difficult to digest in the best circumstances. In an advanced stage of starvation, a place McCandless knew he was at and said so in his own sparse journal, it’s not surprising they made him sick. His organs were failing. He probably couldn’t keep them down.
My wife and I happened to catch Krakauer on his 1996 book tour during a visit to Seattle. There he went much further in advancing his argument that McCandless had achieved some form of Samadhi in his final days. Perhaps he did, but he still died miserably from starvation brought about by incompetence. This is the most important lesson we should derive from his experience. But for Krakauer to accept this is for him to undermine the entire premise of his book, a premise which has brought the endless stream of pilgrims to the site of the bus, and no end of troubles for Alaskans.
Why will he not admit the simple facts? One possible answer lies in the book itself. During two rather boring chapters in the second half, Krakauer tells of his 1977 attempt at pioneering a route up Devil’s Thumb, a mountain in Southeast Alaska. It’s the most self-indulgent part of the book, but Krakauer wants to show readers how, based on his own youthful exploits, he relates to the mindset McCandless was in. Apart from marking the first known instance of someone looking into the life of Chris McCandless and seeing themself, what it really tells us about is Jon Krakauer.
Writing of his father, he says, “If he ever in his entire life admitted to being wrong, I wasn’t there to witness it.” As many of us have learned, sometimes to our chagrin, one of the key moments of adulthood is recognizing how much like our parents we have become. But Into the Wild is not an adult book.
Well known Alaskan writer Nick Jans, whose The Grizzly Maze tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, another vagabond who died from his own ignorance in Alaska, is a critic of both McCandless and of Krakauer’s book. In a discussion of the differences between Into the Wild and how he approached his account of Treadwell’s self-inflicted fatal bear encounter, he told me it’s “okay to let your voice or beliefs enter into the telling, but one needs to label that clearly, maintain objectivity, and let the facts fall where they may. Be an impartial judge rather than a lawyer arguing a side. Let ambiguity ring wherever you find it. Include the reader in the process. Show don’t tell.”
He also said, “I think Werner Herzog’s film on Tim fell into the same trap as Jon did with Chris; got too caught up in the story he wanted to tell and actively argued against or suppressed anything that got in the way of that story.”
This was Krakauer’s failing. Having merged his identity with McCandless’, he cannot be objective. And having created a heroic account, he gives his readers a false impression that inspires similar behavior rather than alerting them to the potentially deadly outcomes of attempting things without preparation. Where Jans concludes Grizzly Maze with extensive and important information on what to do in bear country so his readers will hopefully not meet Treadwell’s fate, Krakauer denies the extent of McCandless’ willful ignorance, setting his readers up to follow suit.
Krakauer continues to do this in his 2015 afterword. After crowing that the seed study he cites proves his theory about McCandless’ death (it doesn’t), he claims that, had McCandless not eaten the seeds, he “probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty then when he walked into it in April, and would still be alive today.”
This is rubbish. While trying to escape in July of that summer, McCandless was turned back by the Teklanika River, unable to ford it. And he wasn’t knowledgeable enough or healthy enough to head upriver looking for a safer crossing point. He retreated to his bus. The weather got worse, as did the river and McCandless’ physical condition. Had he somehow survived into August, he would have been even weaker, while the river raged unabated. He wasn’t getting out.
McCandless starved and died. His Hero’s Journey landed in the abyss and never rose above it.
In the new afterword, Krakauer cautions his readers about eating wild foods. Sage advice, but he says nothing to them about the hazards of wandering out to the bus unprepared. Yet he could not have been unaware of the fact that by 2015 there had been countless rescues and already one death in the same Teklanika River that rebuffed McCandless. In failing to do this, he failed his readers. And now this summer another young woman, misguidedly inspired by McCandless, is gone.
It’s easy to blame Chris McCandless for the never ending problems on the Stampede Trail, but he’s only guilty of unpreparedness and lousy decision making. If a responsible author had tackled his story, this would have been the lesson, and the bus would mostly be a curiosity for winter travelers. Instead it’s a shrine to an invented hero, where two young women have died, several people have required medical help, and dozens have needed rescue. Don’t blame Chris McCandless. He never sought fame, and now he’s dead. Look instead to Jon Krakauer, who was blinded by a man crush on McCandless, and who downplayed and at times outright ignored his fatal errors, choosing instead to present the young man as a manufactured hero whose death was a cruel accident of fate and not of his own doing. Had Krakauer stepped back from the story and looked at it objectively, he would have written a far different book, and two young women would still be alive today.