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.