Fatal Wanderings: Thoughts on Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”

Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

*I wrote this in 2006.

Recently I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  Therein Krakauer tells the story of a young man named Chris McCandless who upon graduating from college leaves his family and friends, hits the road in his old Datsun and severs all contact with his origins.  His parents don’t even know he has left until they try to visit him at his former home weeks later.

Into the Wild is that story we all know so well of the youthful vagabond who wanders off into the unknown in search of himself and those old clichés: truth, beauty, and meaning.  And as in every other similar tale, the desperate wanderer believes in his core that his quest is original and that his path is untrodden, that his journey will yield the answers he’s looking for and that solitude will set him free.  He doesn’t know that others have already been where he’s going and that many have not returned.

Chris’s naiveté and youthful enthusiasm fuel a two year trek on foot through the western United States.  He camps in deserts, hops trains and sustains himself on little more than small portions of rice.  Human contact consists primarily of hanging out with vagrants in shanty towns or pausing briefly to earn money at menial jobs.  Chris’s ultimate goal is to hitchhike to Alaska and survive on his own in the bush.  In the end, he makes it to Alaska, and after living for months on berries, roots, birds and squirrels, he dies of starvation–alone.

Somehow, despite how perfect this book is for me and my personality, I managed not to read it until yesterday.  Why “perfect”?  First of all, because I love tragedy; second of all, because for more than a decade I believed, like Chris McCandless, that solitude was the answer to my questions and the salve for my pain.  Only within the last two years did I finally realize that solitude was in fact the source of my problems.  Let me qualify that.  I’ve learned a lot by avoiding people and in many ways have grown as a result.  But in the broader analysis my misanthropy only deepened my wounds and heightened my discontent.  As a direct consequence of my worsening condition, I came to believe even more firmly than ever that distance from others was the solution, so that avoidance became self-perpetuating.  “The farther I go,” I believed, “the closer I’ll come to finding the answers I seek.”  You see, you know you’re in trouble when you believe that the solution to your problem is actually its very cause.

To highlight the pervasiveness of this self-destructive mentality, Krakauer lists a number of other vagabonds who disappeared and eventually destroyed themselves following what they believed was their calling.  In 1981 Carl McCunn, a Texan, starved and froze to death in the Yukon Territory in his attempt to become intimate with nature.  John Mallon Waterman, a skilled climber, was swallowed by Alaska’s Ruth Glacier in April of 1981.  Gene Roselline’s death came later in life.  In 1991, at the age of 49, he stabbed himself in the heart a full thirty years after beginning his experiment with life outside of modernity in Alaska.  And to demonstrate that these personality types have always been with us, Krakauer tells us of Everett Ruess, who forsook society and in November of 1934 ventured into Utah’s Davis Gulch, never to return.

Alaska, between Anchorage and Denali

Certainly, only a minority of such people die, but many of those who remain and who never shake their habits end up miserable and alone.  In short, they don’t find that thing we’re all looking for: happiness.  Happiness has no residence in the desert, nor does it exist in lasting from atop a mountain.  Isolation has its benefits, but only if he who embraces it returns to society after a time and integrates whatever he has gained from his experience into a lifestyle that includes other human beings.

To put it bluntly, people like Chris McCandless may learn a lot from their recklessness, but they do so at the expense of a full and happy life.   Ever notice how people who have a lot of friends and who don’t turn their backs on love are less likely to dwell on those burning questions that often lead to such misery for the loners among us?  It’s no coincidence.  Human contact engenders security and well-being.  It reduces the need to know all the answers.  To most people, that probably sounds like common knowledge.  But whatever some may say, we aren’t all made of the same stuff—at the very least, that “stuff” is arranged differently in each of us, so that what is “common knowledge” to some is foreign to others.

Edward Whymper writes:

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times.  There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.  Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end (Krakauer, p. 200).

Whymper was a mountaineer.  Like most climbers I’ve known, he uses climbing as a metaphor for everything.  His message?  Yes, take risks in life.  Take on dangerous challenges and expose yourself to the elements, but do not do so blindly without an eye toward what may come next.  Pause and consider alternative paths that entail adventure and hold mystery also, yet that are less likely to annihilate you.  Climbing Everest is a legitimate goal for the well prepared, but make the ascent knowing that rock and ice alone never cured anyone of depression.  Try talking to someone first.  Besides, there are other ways to seek transcendence.  Everest isn’t the only mountain out there; it’s just the tallest.

*I was a little more didactic in my writing back when I wrote this… College wasn’t far behind me and I think I was still strongly influenced by writing essays and long analytical papers.  It’s fun to see how your writing and thought process change over time.  Anyway, I thought this post was appropriate since I’m moving tomorrow.

The Wisdom of Innocence

I wonder sometimes if the simple wisdom we attain as kids is often superior to what we think we know as adults.  Because then, when we were young, it was all so new, and since we were experiencing the world for the first time, new experiences came to us pure and unfiltered through the minds of others.  No one had yet told us how to think and discriminate.  The first sunset we saw must have been the most beautiful we’ll ever know, because we saw it for what it was: illuminating, mesmerizing, mysterious.

Now that I’m older, I rank sunsets.  I can tell you that yesterday’s was more beautiful than today’s, and that the best sunset I ever saw was over Yosemite Valley, in California, when the sun found a sliver of sky on the western horizon through which it lit from below the clouds hanging over the valley and set them aflame.  I can tell you how the normally white cliffs surrounding the valley glowed orange and curved toward the sky like a tidal wave of molten lava about to break on the fragile green valley below.

But how can a sunset over Yosemite compare to the first one I ever saw, when one sunset was all sunsets and all sunsets were beautiful, when ranking was neither necessary nor possible?  Then again, maybe, when I’m struck with awe, I’m actually recalling my first experience of it and I’m feeling it as strongly in the present as I did when I was a boy.  Maybe awe is a state in which we forget to pick apart what we’re seeing, to rank it, to categorize it, to place it alongside other experiences and judge it against them.  Maybe in that moment we slip back into our childhood selves and see the world for what it is.  That feels right.

Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.

Puerto Rico, Who Are You?

Sunset over the bay, from Old San Juan.

Latin America encompasses parts of two continents, hundreds of islands, and peoples and cultures too numerous to list.  Yet we use catch-all words like Latin American, Hispanic, and Latino to refer to anyone born anywhere in this vast territory.  The theme of layered and overlapping identities courses through the literature of Latin America.  You find it in the fiction of Borges, in the poetry of Neruda, and in the tirades of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who nevertheless dreamed of unifying these peoples with their varied origins and experiences of Spanish colonial rule and foreign imposition.

Cemetery below el Castillo del Morro

The people of Latin America are Colombian, Mexican, Argentinean, Chilean, Bolivian, Guatemalan, and Puerto Rican.  They are Incan, Aztec, Mayan, Aymara, Quilmes, and Olmec.  They hail from Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Asia.  Their cultures are at once young and old, their religions indigenous and imported. 

The people of Latin America are complicated and multifarious.  They express their multiplicity of identities through their art, their architecture, their language, and their religion.  I have felt this complexity in Mexico, Perú, Chile, Argentina, and the United States.  Now, I’ve felt it and seen it in Puerto Rico, where in a single day in Old San Juan one may set foot on Spanish forts that date back nearly five-hundred years, stroll along narrow blue cobble stone streets that would not be out of place in Europe, eat lunch at McDonald’s, speak Spanish and English in the same sentence, and mail a letter via the United States Postal Service.

The beginning of Condado Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Little evidence remains of the original inhabitants of this island.  Their blood courses through its people now, but one sees little in the way of ruins left over from the days before Europeans sailed toward Puerto Rico’s shores, unleashed themselves on this fertile land, and enslaved the people who variously welcomed, resisted, and fled from them. 

Spaniards have conquered this island, the British have bombarded it, pirates have marauded it, and Americans have occupied it.  Disparate tribes have mixed, tourists have invaded, and what emerges from these vicissitudes and whims of history is what we call Puerto Rico.  Ask me to describe Puerto Rico and though I may attempt to trace a rough outline of the country and its people, in the end I’ll throw up my hands and say, “Go there.”

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Condado Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

From el Castillo del Morro, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Youth is Wasted on the Young?

I’ve heard three times this week someone say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve never understood this statement when it’s uttered out of scorn.  Sometimes I think the translation of it would be: “If I could, I would rob the young of their youth,” in which case it springs from jealousy. But how can anyone know the wonders of youth without first having been youthful, without having been ignorant for a while of the distinction between feeling young and feeling old, or really just feeling older? It makes perfect sense to feel from time to time that youth is wasted on those who have it, but to repeat the phrase as a mantra, as some universal truth? Really?

If I ever come to believe that youth is wasted on the young, then the only rational conclusion would be that my youth was wasted on me. Because it would mean that I begrudge those who have it. It would mean that I’ve failed to see that good things come of having been young: certain childish appreciations you never lose, fascination for simple things, a love of life that flows out of unreason rather than originating in calculations of cost and benefit. What is the value of a soap bubble? That it floats. That it reflects a rainbow. And a blade of grass? What does it do for me? It glows green, it seeks out the sun, and it will do this 100 times out of 100. What more do I need?

I don’t think we lose these insights gleaned when we were kids. We just wish we could experience them again for the first time, when we lacked context and didn’t know how unusual they were, before we understood that we were supposed to deconstruct everything, even what is indivisible and perfect as it is.

Yeah, well, I’m not that old, right? Sure, but at some point you do become aware of the process. Which doesn’t mean I know much about it.

*This is a re-post of something I wrote as a note on Facebook.

Infinite Morning: Waking Up With the World

Sunrise over Monument Valley--this is the best I've seen.

It was the morning of my first day of middle school. I had just woken up and was thrashing through a heap of clothes on the floor, searching for the right shirt and the right shorts to wear. I wanted to be cool, because you were supposed to be cool in middle school. Somewhere, from someone, you were supposed to have learned what to wear, how to walk, how to talk, and by then you should have known to throw in a cuss word and a “dawg” here and there when conversing with your peers. I had yet to learn any of these important lessons, least of all what clothing pre-teens considered cool. I decided on a Michael Jordan theme because I was twelve and Michael Jordan was cool. That morning I dressed in Michael Jordan shorts, a Michael Jordan T-Shirt, and Air Jordan basketball shoes. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and left the house in my Jordan attire.

It was late August in Austin and the muggy air clung to my skin as I walked toward my bus stop half a mile away. I noticed then that the air carried the sounds of my neighborhood a little better than at other times of day. I heard the cars streaming down Slaughter Lane. I heard the squeal of their brakes, the barking of their horns, and the screaming of their tires on the pavement. I could make out disembodied voices floating on the breeze. “See you this evening,” said one. “Remember your lunch,” said another. “Go to hell,” yelled a woman’s voice from a house somewhere down the street. With each step I took the volume rose all around me. The gaps between sounds shrunk until they merged into one loud murmur. I remember thinking that the world was waking up with me and that the cacophony around me was the earth issuing a long sigh as it shook off a night’s slumber.

I liked waking up to go to school because then, in the early morning, I felt in tune with the world, as if we breathed together and moved together. Every little act gained in meaning and significance when I realized that I did it in concert with the whole of creation. Sometimes I felt like I stood on the back of a giant whose size and shape I could only guess at. When the giant moved, I moved. When the giant stopped, I stopped. If I fell out of synch, if the giant sneezed and I failed to sneeze along with him, I would tumble off into the abyss.

There are days now, eighteen years later, when I wake up and I feel the same sense of synchrony with the world. I walk out the door and the car horns, the squealing brakes, the disembodied voices float to me on a light breeze. Again the saturated air clings to me and again it’s as if the world is waking up along with me. When this happens I’m both here, going to work, and there, a twelve-year-old kid walking to the bus, afraid of being unpopular. I’m also a teenager waking up early on another muggy morning to play basketball with some friends. And I’m a twenty-year-old college student dangling my legs from a cliff in Yosemite National Park. The sun is rising and throwing dagger-shaped shadows across the valley a mile below me. A smell of pine permeates the air. Again I feel that I’m sitting atop a giant whose form remains a mystery. Again I feel that we breathe as one. We move as one.

These experiences exist outside of time. They can be packed into an instant like a trillion particles crammed into a singularity a moment before the Big Bang. All of them are there, together, in the same space, in the same mental moment, occurring forever.

Explaining Myself

For some reason people who don’t know me very well think that I’m an organized person both in thought and in action.  My apartment must be clean and tidy.  My filing cabinets must be filled with well labeled folders whose contents are accessible within mere seconds should I need them.  Yet what these people see is only the outer manifestation of an inner chaos.  But how can chaos give way to the appearance of organization?  Let me explain.

I am a pack rat in the truest sense.  I collect words.  I collect thoughts.  I collect feelings and memories.  I discard nothing, at least not with intent.  On my computer I have every document I’ve ever saved since I was in 5th grade.  My physical surroundings are no different.  Throughout my bedroom books lie in thick disorganized stacks.  Others rest neatly on shelves, yet without any discernible system of classification by author or discipline. 

My outer and inner worlds are essentially the same.  In my mind conflicting ideas float around and clash continually.  No one idea is able to claim any permanent victory over the rest.  These ideas play off of each other and merge and recombine like DNA molecules that lack an overall blueprint, so that the general appearance is of chaos and confusion.  Out of this disordered morass of contradictory and competing thoughts and beliefs a few particles of clarity percolate to the surface.  It’s as if through incessant recombination some ideas were able to glom onto others that are compatible, thereby forming the beginnings of a system of thought that can be applied to the outside world.  Yet most of what is in my head remains mere noise that threatens to destroy the conceptual edifices that have taken so long to erect. 

Example: for much of my childhood I grappled with the task of organizing and defining my personal philosophical system.  I had a vague sense of direction throughout, but I lacked a complete system that I could articulate and formalize.  All I had were a lot of questions, many more possible answers, and an ineffable feeling about the world and my place in it that I couldn’t convey to others.  It wasn’t until high school that my thoughts coalesced so that I could work out an organized framework that I might convey to the outside world.  This framework that I had worked so hard (or waited so long—I don’t know if it’s accurate to call the process “work”) to form was far from solidified.  It would undergo continued modification and retooling, but the core of my outlook on the world was there, and finally I understood it. 

How I came to my philosophical outlook is an extreme case, but a similar process is in motion on a smaller scale with nearly every conclusion or claim that I make.  When I say that a mountain is beautiful, I say so not only out of a spontaneous sense of awe that is unavoidable when I’m in the presence of something so immense.  I apply a notion of beauty that I have formed over twenty-seven years.  It is a notion that has been informed by science, literature, philosophy, the arts, pop culture, experiences with friends and family and strangers.  Everything I’ve come into contact with, whether frivolous or serious, has played a part in my definition of beauty. 

 Yes, the mountain is beautiful because it is enormous and is covered with bright white snow and threatens to tear the sky in two with its jagged ridges.  But more than anything it is beautiful because it is a visible record of the immense past.  It speaks of earthquakes and uplifting events, ice ages, and rivers and streams cutting through the land to form deep canyons.  It is a record of extinction events and the rise of new species to fill niches that come and go as the mountain changes in character.  Particles of the mountain exist in all of the oceans of the world and in fertile valleys that yield crops which are essential to our survival.  The mountain represents ubiquity and interconnectedness.  Such beauty exists in all things, but not always so immediately as in a majestic mountain. 

Such is my thought process for a lot of things, not just beauty, which I grant is actually quite a heavy philosophical theme.  What I’m trying to convey is that even simple decisions like how to engage in small talk can be just as involved as determining what constitutes beauty.  I’m selectively methodical and meticulous, not because I’m a master of organization, but because it’s all I can do to overcome my intrinsic sense of confusion.