Recently I decided to read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, the true story of a young man named Chris McCandless who embarked upon an adventure following his graduation from college – an adventure that ended with his tragic death in the summer of 1992. Despite the fact that I have been preoccupied with my schoolwork lately, I finished the book in less than two days and spent a bit of time reflecting on what little we know about this person who has been – for better or worse – shrouded in a certain mystery.
As a reporter, Krakauer does an incredible job writing a narrative that is grounded on interviews with people McCandless encountered during his travels, as well as McCandless’ own personal writing in postcards to his friends, his journal, and his notes inside of books that he carried with him. Much can be gleaned from these primary sources. However, there still are a number of questions that surround what happened to him in Alaska and why.
I don’t have any interest in denigrating him or proliferating theories about his unfortunate fate. When I think about this story, I see a complex individual in conflict with himself, his family, and society. While these conflicts aren’t anything new, the way McCandless acted in response to them is thought-provoking. How many people are willing to abandon their privilege and take that kind of chance on the unknown? Not many. Most young adults from suburbia end up following a very predictable path in life, and for those who are exposed to radical ideas during their formative years, well, any adherence to those ideas is usually abandoned rather quickly.
Now, we don’t know what kind of person Chris McCandless might have evolved into had he survived, but we do know that he pushed himself during his 24 years while alive. Did he act out of naivety? Perhaps. Was he ill-prepared to handle some of the challenges he faced? Yes. Here I would argue that all of what he experienced in the year and a half before heading to Alaska wrongly informed his perception about his capabilities. Then again, nobody ever acts with perfect knowledge and it’s always possible that pushing yourself leaves you exposed in ways that cannot be anticipated.
Some might argue that this kind of behavior is as arrogant as it is selfish, after all, taking chances that result in death leave others who care about you grief-stricken. I simply reject this claim altogether. I don’t think McCandless sought to cause anyone emotional distress. The way I see it, a person must always be true to him or herself, and it is imperative to live according to your principles. Moreover, if someone experiences a certain restlessness that emanates from the core of his or her being, then it’s important to address those thoughts and feelings – not deny their existence. While I don’t view Chris McCandless as heroic, I believe his motivations were genuine and many of his actions worthy of respect.