catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 6 :: 2002.11.22 — 2002.12.05


Good heart meets flawed methods

Chris McCandless, journey ended in a derelict 1940s school bus near the entrance to Denali National Park. The beginnings of his physical and psychological road trip were less clear as John Krakauer discovered. Krakauer's investigation, which is documented in Into the Wild, explores the depths of McCandless' social ideals and personal motivations.

McCandless grew up in a comfortable home with a supporting loving family. He was the leader of the cross-country team, had plenty of friends and earned solid grades throughout high school but was far from a typical teenager. "On weekends, when his high school pals were attending "keggers" and trying to sneak into Georgetown bars, McCandless would wander the seedier quarters of Washington, chatting with prostitutes and homeless people, buying them meals, earnestly suggesting ways they might improve their lives," Krakauer writes.

McCandless, unique attitude continued in college. Though his grades at Emory were fantastic, his social life was steadily declining. Instead of becoming involved in social activities and sports at the college level, McCandless spent his free time reading and taking road trips in his old yellow Datsun. Touring solo through the country and poring over London, Twain, Tolstoy and Thoreau eventually led to a romanticized, though not particularly accurate, view of loning it—rejecting culture to establish a faux-religion of self.

This is the view that Krakauer explores. Although he sees McCandless' story as essentially different from others who have journeyed to Alaska and died in the wilderness, Krakauer highlights others who had similar motivations, including himself. Ultimately then, Into the Wild isn't a story about Chris McCandless, but about a fundamental yearning to purge one's self from the pitfalls of contemporary society and showcase an individual strength more psychological than physical.

The format forms a parallel to the story itself. True to literary journalism, Krakauer dives into the subject matter with a heart for not only understanding McCandless, but for finding a connection between McCandless and his personal experiences. Krakauer's background as a climber and adventurer seems to meld with the history of McCandless and others whose desire for solitude brought them to Alaska and a rather unfortunate end. In this way, each chapter of the book focuses on a general progression of personalities, from McCandless' youth to his death, the people he met and influenced to others who had attempted to go it alone in a merciless wilderness.

The perspective of this book stays true to what McCandless was searching for. The idealism he held isn't portrayed as trite or foolishly immature. Dotted with quotes from Walden and Doctor Zhivago that McCandless copied into his journal, Into the Wild presents his story faithfully and honestly. And though Krakauer seems to understand and respect McCandless decisions and survival, he doesn't completely let him off the hook. McCandless was destructive and reckless. He was unprepared not only for the cold and lack of food, but for his personal demons that he exorcised near the end of his tragic journey.

The Christian response then is obvious. Chris McCandless had problems with the society he knew. He took steps to change what he saw was wrong, but ultimately, he ran away, not out of fear or anger, but out of a self-righteous impatience. I give McCandless credit for going out and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but am appalled not in his failures, but for the failures I see in myself through him. It has been half a year since I bought a meal for a homeless person, and even though Cedar Grove, Wisconsin doesn't have a visible hooker problem, there have been opportunities for me to make a difference. I've shrunk back, as my students do when I ask a question for which they are unprepared. If we are to redeem the world and if culture truly is not optional, running from or ignoring it can't be seen as a viable choice.

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