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Into the life. The story of Christopher McCandless

Christopher McCandless, Into the wildIt seems that, in the chaotic dynamics of our lives, everything must be just astonishing or disappointing. No other option is admitted. All this sketches the contour of a paradox – very modern, but, unavoidably, a paradox.

If most part of what is related to our common living, like habits, personal relationships, expectations, is increasingly sophisticated and breathtaking for its hectic timing, on the other hand, our involvement –through judgement and appreciation – is more and more rudimentary. So that the will is becoming redundant, if not even burdensome.

I think that these speculations represent the key point to have a deep understanding of the case of Christopher Johnson McCandless, without loosing sight of what really counts in it. The story of McCandless, and most of all its tragic ending, reported in a book authored by Jon Krakauer (published by Villard in 1996), inspired a major movie directed by Sean Penn in 2007, carrying the same name of Krakauer's manuscript: Into the Wild.

However, it is not my intention to discuss either the book or the movie, but, based on the precise reconstruction – provided by Krakauer – of Chris' choices, I would like to outline a personal interpretation of what drove McCandless during the last part of his short life, without putting too much emphasis on its dramatic end.

The story of Christopher Johnson McCandless is simply the one of a person, a young man, who tried to make his way in establishing relationships within the society, since the set of rules, constraints and tight mechanisms available in his hands, was not totally acceptable to him.

Chris was a smart guy coming from a respectable family. His father, Walt McCandless, has been a brilliant microwave engineer who developed an innovative radar system for NASA. On the other hand, Christopher was hardly less so. He graduated in history and anthropology with a very high score in 1990 at Emory University in Atlanta.

Nonetheless, he quit out of the blue the regularity of his life, donated all the savings, and started wandering across United States, hitch hiking and camping here and there. In two years of travelling Chris met several people with whom established a profound friendship. But his final destination was only one: Alaska.

He wanted to be in a place totally alone, where he could experience challenging situations in such a way to understand where his actual place was: if back home, in the society, with all its rules and shallow values, or if it rather was right there, in Alaska, into the wild.

McCandless managed both to reach a place – in Alaska – along the Stampede Trail, not far away from the city of Fairbanks, as well as to survive a few months hunting animals and eating wild plants. In the abandoned bus he chose as dwelling place – the Fairbanks 142, or magic bus, as he renamed it –, Chris had all the time he needed for thinking about his life, the relationships with – and of – his parents, as well as his (possible) future into the society.

The conclusions he reached were most probably that his place was home, where, against all odds, he could have had something that was impossible along the Stampede Trail, like sharing the time of his life with other individuals. During his stay in Alaska, Chris wrote notes on his diary – a few thoughts were also carved in the wood. Among them, one seems to be particularly meaningful: «Happiness only real when shared».

Still according to the notes, at a certain moment he decided to leave the wilderness and started coming back home. Unfortunately, the Teklanika river, a shallow stream of water easily waded by Chris in early spring, became a wide and turbulent river in summer, making impossible its crossing on the way back. He found himself entrapped into the same wilderness that he looked for so eagerly, and in a matter of a few weeks Christopher Johnson McCandless starved to death.

It is difficult to say which was the evolution of Chris’ thoughts and emotions during the two years of travelling, as well as in the last part of his life in Alaska. For sure, going back home is the most appropriate happy ending one could envisage for a successful story to be watched on a big screen. Furthermore, the unexpected turn of events, leading to the death of the main character, is even more effective and full of pathos.

In fact, nobody can tell what crossed Chris' mind. Based on his notes, it appears that McCandless faced difficulties in hunting animals bigger than porcupines, and that his diet, based on rice and seeds of wild plants, was not appropriate to sustain mental and physical wellness. This might have been an important driver, as well, in forming his decision to come back to civilization.

Christopher McCandless, Into the wild, BusChris, moreover, faced the adventure in Alaska with a dangerously scarce level of preparation. If he just had a map – or simply initiative to wander in the surroundings – on the way back, he would have found, half a mile downstream, a gauging station for geological survey provided with a suspended basket, allowing an easy crossing of the Teklanika river. Unfortunately, the prolonged isolation and the constant under feeding made impossible for him to try some alternative strategies to overcome the obstacle, while in the previous two years of hitch hiking, McCandless found himself facing and stepping over several difficult situations.

Given all these considerations, I think that the very last period of Christopher's life in Alaska is more a personal and intimate drama, rather than part of a plan. On the other hand, what I consider really valuable is all he did before.

Chris found himself barely matching into the trail of a life that seemed to be already set. So he quit. He had the courage to build up from scratch a new path, his own one, out of conventional rules imposed by the society, but strongly based on the personal relationships he managed to establish in almost two years of travel across US and Mexico. He also defined a target, a destination, maybe more symbolic than real, but in any case something it was worth working for: Alaska. The circumstances, unfortunately, caused that the real target was fatal to him.

What makes the whole story bitter is that, in looking for wilderness and isolation, where he probably was expecting to find the key of happiness, Chris left behind him a trail of people who loved him, his company, and the time spent together. Could not all this have been already Christopher's Alaska?

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