May 13, 2008

The story of Chris McCandless

I am taking a night off from my usual blog banter about fashion, cosmetics, et al, to speak about a book that has affected me in a big way. This blog is usually my oasis of candy for thought, as opposed to the Times, which is my broccoli for thought. But I just can't keep my mouth shut on this one.

Admittedly, I'm many months late on the movie and years late on the book. But while traipsing through B&N last week, looking for presents for my brother, I came across Into the Wild in paperback. The combination of differing reviews, a true story from the 90s and the haunting photograph of the subject inside the front cover made me realize I had to read this book. Until then, I hadn't known anything of the story and only associated the movie with the Eddie Vedder song "Hard Sun."

Until Saturday, when I sat outside under a tree in my backyard and read it.

Cover to cover.

In one day.

Without recounting the entire book's contents and all the details of the story, I will tell the Into the Wild virgins this: Chris McCandless graduated from a prestigious university in the early 90s, and instead of pursuing family-approved post-college activities (law school, a 9-5 job, a 401k), he donated his trust fund to Oxfam, hit the road in his beat-up Datsun Kerouac-style. Later he left the car to hitch and canoe his way around the west, eventually working up to Alaska, his ultimate destination. He spent the summer living in an abandoned bus on a mountain, living off the land and eventually dying from alleged starvation.

I don't recall this story in the news as a 10-year old, and if I had, even as a teenager, without knowing anything about Chris McCandless' personality and beliefs, I would have dismissed it as an unprepared fool dying in the woods. Many people still feel that way.

But after reading about McCandless' passion for Thoreau, seeing his self-portraits and reading his journal entries via Into the Wild, I was captivated by the story of this free spirit who was taken too soon. Perhaps it's because the exact reason for his starvation hasn't been determined, and the book's relation of his rebellious nature to his rigid parents. Perhaps it's the effortless, lasting way he touched all the people he met along the way.

But honestly, I believe this story is so affecting because Chris McCandless was looking for something.

It's very rare to find a young person (under 30 in my book) with such lofty ideals and standards for himself and others. Chris never bought into the plan of school-job-marriage-kids-death. While that lifestyle seems to work out great for many, the rare few individuals who want more can feel stifled and unfulfilled, no matter how large their salary or family. Chris describes his "itchy feet" that came around whenever he stayed in one place for too long. Some might call it irresponsible wanderlust, but I interpreted it as an extreme desire for experience and answers.

Maybe he was born in the wrong era. Maybe if home was more stable, he would have been more content to stay there. Maybe if he wasn't such a day-dreaming idealist, he wouldn't have gone into the Last Frontier to seek out peace with his existence.

I disagree. I think some individuals are born too good for this Earth, or at least this country. Chris McCandless would have hit the road eventually, because nothing in modern American mainstream society was satisfying him. He wanted to reach the mental through the physical, and, as he put it, have a "new sun for every day." When you take away money, possessions, property, responsibility to anyone but yourself, that is truly the highest form of freedom.

Don't get me wrong - clearly I enjoy my expensive clothing and nice things and clear skin. But I have bought my nice things for the quality they serve me - not for the label, or because they excite me. Often times, I am thrilled to go shopping, and come home feeling like I ate a Subway sandwich: it did the job, it was generic, reliable but somewhat of a letdown.

While I don't know if I'd ever have the nerve to pack up my life and live in the wild, I have always entertained the idea of a Kerouac-esque road trip for an indefinite time, for the sole purpose of gaining experience and learning about the world around me. I definitely have a little hippie in me, and feel most at peace when I'm surrounded by nature. I feel too attached to my family and career to abandon them, but the admiration I feel for brave, fiercely independent souls like Chris McCandless is overwhelming and passionate.

If you haven't read Into the Wild, you must. Immediately. Even if you think you know the story, there is so much more. Even if you dismiss the subject as an ill-prepared, suicidal nut-job, it will make you think about how you live life.

But I bet you'll fall in love with this story. Chris McCandless, even only in print and the occasional photo, was a special man. Creative. Charming. Brilliant. Memorable. Generous. Independent. Brave. Inquisitive. Passionate.

For some reason, it seems like it's always those people who leave us soonest.

But since Chris McCandless did have to pass, we're lucky that his story carries on. If only for the purpose of showing other curious, unfulfilled free spirits in the world that they are not alone. There are other people looking for more.

I hope we all get what we dream and hope for, and can live in peace with the Earth and each other.

This is a plaque left at the bus where McCandless lived, by his family who visited the site only once.

It reads: "Chris, our beloved son and brother, died here during his adventurous travels in search of how he could best realize God's great gift of life. With his final message: 'I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!' We commend his soul to the world."

We are lucky to have it.



Meghan said...

I completely agree. While it is wonderful to enjoy the glitz and glamour that life has to offer, I often wonder myself what it would be like to abandon everything and work towards the greater good. I did a week working with habitat for humanity two years ago and it completely changed my life. For a while I was considering joining the peace corp. post college, but once I was in a serious relationship I couldn't imagine leaving him for that long. I wonder if Chris ever did find the eternal peace that he was looking for? I wonder if any of us ever will.

Anonymous said...

It is a powerful story, and well worth the read.

BTW, that last photo is not McCandless. It's Paterson I believe, who attempted to retrace the steps. Didn't see any caption with it, so wasn't sure what the connection was.

Anonymous said...