Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

One of his last acts was to take a picture of himself, standing near the bus under the high Alaskan sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave beatific farewell. His face is horribly emaciated, almost skeletal. But if he pitied himself in those last difficult hours – because he was so young, because he was alone, because his body had betrayed him and his will had let him down – it’s not apparent from the photograph. He is smiling in the picture, an there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.

Having recently read and reviewed books about solo journeys into the wilderness, I thought I would explore a similar story that did not end so well.

Into the Wild tells the story of Chris McCandless who disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness, four months later his emaciated body was found by hunters. The author, Jon Krakauer, pieces together the years leading to Chris’s death and explores why Chris and many people like him feel compelled to leave civilization behind and to push themselves to extremes.

Understanding Chris’ motivations is much more difficult as he never clearly articulated them (and obviously he’s not around to ask). Jon delves into his reasons by speaking with family, friends, and people Chris met on the two year journey leading to his final trip to Alaska.

I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for sometime to come. The freedom and simple beauty is too good to pass up. (Written by Chris on a postcard sent to a friend.)

To gain an insight into Chris’ mind Jon explores the experiences and stories of other  adventurers, himself included. He explains why people feel compelled to push themselves to the outer limits and how even the best prepared can find themselves in danger.

It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

These people journey into the wild alone because they are adventurers, physical extremists, escapees from society, romantics. They all have similarities, they are all different. They all have their reasons, sometimes knows to themselves and others, sometimes, I suspect, they don’t even know themselves.

Notably many are male, often young but not always. We know women do this too, Cheryl Strayed and Robyn Davidson for example, but they are in the minority.

What did I take from this book? Adventuring alone in the wilderness is not romantic, things can and do go wrong.  Solo journeys don’t always solve the issues you want them to. And tell someone where you are going!

I found Into the Wild an interesting read. Not just learning about Chris McCandless’ journey but also the authors, as he recognizes and accepts his own failings as an adventurer and as a writer.

“HAPPINESS IS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” It is tempting to regard this latter notation as further evidence that McCandless’s long, lonely sabbatical had changed him in some significant way. It can be interpreted to mean that he was ready, perhaps, to shed a little of the armor he wore around his heart, that upon returning to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community. But we will never know, because Doctor Zhivago was the last book Chris McCandless would ever read.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, London, Pan Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-3330-46998-2 EPUB

(Photo by Carine McCandless)


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