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August 25, 2008

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Into the Wild ... But Not Out of It

“Within modern traditional societies, the ability to survive is drastically reduced if the group is too small. A lone individual rarely survives for more than a year….”—Modern People in Africa and Europe, by Goran Burenult

In April, 1992, an electrician named Jim Gallien gave a 24-year-old hitchhiker named Chris McCandless a ride to the Stampede Trail above the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River. McCandless, who gave his name only as “Alex,” said it was his intention to hike up the trail into the wilderness and live off the land. His equipment consisted of 10 pounds of rice, a .22 rifle and ammo, a guide to the edible plants of the area, several books, and no map or compass.. Gallien was appalled at what the kid was about to do, and offered to buy him some of the things he would need to stay alive. But “Alex” would not listen. Gallien was the last person to see him alive. When his body was found by hunters in September, Chris McCandless—or what was left of him—weighed 67 pounds.

McCandless’ death made national headlines. He had come from a well-to-do Virginia family, graduated from Emory University in 1990, and then simply vanished. He abandoned his car, gave away his money, and calling himself as “Alexander Supertramp,” hoboed around the American West for nearly 2 years before heading for Alaska and his end.

These are the bare bones of one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s called Into the Wild, and was written in 1996 by Jon Krakauer. It sold something like 2 million copies and has been made into a motion picture.

A good deal of the book’s appeal (for people like you and me) is that we can see parts of ourselves in McCandless. He actually did what just about all of us have dreamed of doing at some point or another. But at some point or another we developed common sense, but poor McCandless, who was very, very bright, did not.

His cause of death was given as starvation, but he may have poisoned himself through carelessness, and if he had owned a decent map, he would very likely have been able to save himself before he grew too weak to walk.

Into the Wild follows McCandless from his childhood to his death, and the odds are you will not be able to put it down. It’s marred only by two chapters telling of Krakauer’s own near-death experiences climbing mountains in Alaska. They are there, I guess, to show that he understands Spiritual Angst and has Messed with Death. You can skip them and you will be none the worse for it. The other missing element is the photos that McCandless took of himself as he starved. The last one, taken just before he crawled into his sleeping bag to die, is something out of a nightmare. You can find it on YouTube, or maybe we can conjure it up here.


And as you read, you will wish you could have given McCandless a hard smack upside the head and said, “Kid, this is serious; this is no game.“ But he didn’t listen in life, and he would not listen to you or me now.


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I remember that story from an episode of ABC's 20/20. The guy was lost but had plenty of food but died of eating a poison plant he thought was a type of potato. He was found in an old bus used as a hunting camp. Sad tale.

Chad Love

Read the book a couple years after it came out. I'm not into mountain climbing but I admire Jon Krakauer's writing so I've read "Into Thin Air" and "Eiger Dreams" as well.
But "Into the Wild" is by far his best book.


I find the story interesting and have Daves perspective.

But almost as interesting is the reverential attitude so many people have towards what was basically a kid with out the sense to take care of himself.


From wikipedia:

Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote: “I am exposed continually to what I will call the ‘McCandless Phenomenon.’ People, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent....When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament...Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.”

Clay Cooper

People do a lot of stupid things from climbing mountains to want to be survivalists like Jim Gallien. There is one piece of equipment that I have purchased 2 weeks ago that may have saved their lives. I’ve tested it and the darn thing works and only the size of a toss away camera. It’s called “SPOT” or EPRB, Emergency Personal Radio Beacon updated with GPS. Go hide in the wilderness and if you get lonely and want to meet a lot of people real quick? Press the 911 button and you will have the world coming your way! I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a must have and an insurance policy that you cannot go without. Be a great must have for every Boy Scout that goes on a Camping trip. The parents can track their location and gives them a piece of equipment superior to a cell phone in case of emergency and to let them know they are ok.


The Trout Underground

The concept of the "outdoors" is so removed from most of our lives that it's easy to romanticize it beyond recognition.

In McCandless' case, wilderness wasn't a beautiful place full of things that didn't want to be eaten, but a utopian vision.

McCandless seems to generate polarized responses from readers. Some say he's just another idiot, while others understand at least a part of what he was trying to do while recognizing that he was doing it very poorly.

My own take was that he was running to this idealistic wilderness without realizing that once he arrived, the demons that drove him there would be standing in his shoes with him.

Like Buckaroo Banzai said, "No matter where you go, there you are."

Clay Cooper


Good search Sir!

I’ve hunted every environment on earth from swamps to arctic conditions. I can tell you all the beauty I have seen. But all that beauty has one thing in common. GIVEN THE CHANCE, ALL THAT BEAUTY WILL KILL YOU!

J. Barthelt

The book was great, but the movie was pure crap. Don't waste your time with it. Penn ruined it.


uhhh no...he was just an idiot..and now he's a dead idiot...

Chad Love

I love Sean Penn the actor. I just can't get into Sean Penn the intellectual, Sean Penn the writer, Sean Penn the director or Sean Penn the activist. All these other incarnations just end up making him look like Sean Penn the pretentious douche bag.
That's why I never bothered to see the movie. Sean Penn wrote the screenplay and directed it.


Sometimes the most educated people make the worst mistakes. McCandless may have taught be was prepared, but mother nature has a way of making a fool out of you. We all make mistakes, every one does, but the ability to realize our mistakes and take control of it, is what keeps us alive.

Tom the Troll


Bottom line.

A person who has acquired the finest formal education is still an idiot without the common sense to apply it.



Avoid the movie version of this story at all costs. The book was well written and quite balanced in its view. It included the perspective of McCandless' parents, friends and people he met along the way who generally adored him, and the folks up in Alaska who thought he was a misguided idiot who paved the way for dozens of other misguided idiots to try to kill themselves in the wilderness. Sean Penn took this interesting, balanced story and made McCandless into a flawless Christ figure, tormented by the failings of his parents, who dies a beautiful, peaceful death doing exactly what he wanted. It was an awful waste of time.

By the way, McCandless supposedly killed an elk or moose (can't remember which) with a .22. Seems to me that he wouldn't have the skill or knowledge to kill such a large animal with a .22, given that he didn't know enough to clean the kill properly or stop the meat from rotting.


I think the fact that life in America is becoming ever more claustrophobic forces people to take risk that they might not otherwise take. I don't know this for a fact, but I honestly think this phenomenon is partly what is driving the extreme sports craze.

Dr. Ralph

I know I've read somewhere about a trapper who walked across the Yukon or Canada or Alaska or some crazy shit like that with only a Ruger MKII .22 pistol and a bunch of traps. Came back months or years later in fine health with thousands of dollars of pelts. Anyone out there can clue me in or verify this story... seems like maybe I read it in an O'Connor book.

This guy just didn't have a clue, obviously. A little more experience would have gone a long way.


I agree with Dave and appreciate everyone's good, frank comments.

My 2 cents = "There are lots of very bright young people; not many wise ones!"


PS = The best wilderness story on video in my humble opinion is the story of Richard Proenneke = Alone In The Wilderness. I have a friend who met the old character before he passed on.

A few minutes of the story can be seen on YouTube:



My dad used to say "Do not mistake education for intellegence!"

Indian poachers used to use a .22 on moose and elk. A shot in the lungs and wait on them to bleed out.
Some folk equate Indians with being great hunters. They hunted for survival not sport. Their techniques would be frowned upon today.


If a poor shot, shoots enough elk with a .22 - one will eventually die.
Im not saying that happened in this case but plenty of people can kill an elk with the smallest of guns when they dont have anything else to do.


I did a little bit of "McAndlessing" myself a few years ago. For a month, I lived on a beach in coastal BC off rice and fish and berries I harvested. It was great. However, I knew what I was getting into; I had a map and compass and knew where to get help if needed. I also had no dreams of surviving there indefinitely. I later tried to do the same in the BC interior but failed. I hope to repeat such an experience soon. There is nothing quite like it.

I read "Into the Wild". It is a great book. It was an inspiration. It showed me what to do and what not to do when I did my own survival expeditions.

For those of you who like this book, try "Magnetic North". It's the story of a man who crossed Canada by foot, canoe and dog sled.


Speaking of survival skills, does anyone know of a good survival school anywhere in the US? It's one thing to read books and magazine articles and try a few things on a weekend jaunt, but to have an expert show you first hand is another thing altogether. I'd love to sharpen my skills with something like this. Any help is greatly appreciated.


Your dad used to say "Do not mistake education for intellegence!"

Smart Fella!

Jim in Mo.

There are weekend and weeklong courses out there but they're a joke as far as giving someone the skills to do what this young man tried. If your young enough join the military and apply for all the ranger/special ops. courses you can. Even then no one should take on a task like this so underprepared. This guy had a death wish and didn't know it.

Dr. Ralph

Buckstopper, hunting and fishing regulations do not apply to Native Americans... they are not poaching when they shoot a moose in the forehead anytime they want even if it's a .22 to the forehead at 3 AM while they are canoeing beside him in the mid-summer.

Ralph the Rifleman

I felt truely sorry for this kid when I read his story of life and tragic death. He seemed to be searching for solice;maybe death finally stopped his search for it?

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