Friday, October 30, 2009

Chris McCandless from Another Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective



Several years ago, Pete Christian—a park ranger and my former boss at the Gates of the Arctic National Park—wrote the popular essay, “Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger’s Perspective,” about the wandering youth whose death in the Alaskan wild was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, and Sean Penn's film adaptation of the same name.

Pete enjoyed the book, but had little respect for McCandless, calling him suicidal, mentally ill, and his journey, “stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.”

Because Pete's position as an Alaskan park ranger required him to routinely deal with headlong McCandless types, and because he, too, as a young man, wanted to "live a free life in the Alaska wild," he's been regarded as a credible authority on, what he calls, the "McCandless Phenomenon"—when "[p]eople, 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.”

Whether Pete wanted it to be or not, his denunciation has become the quintessential anti-McCandless essay. It's been cited hundreds of times by those who are offended with McCandless' motivations and who consider McCandless' apologists to be wrongheaded hero-worshippers. In an interview in which Pete’s views are mentioned, Sean Penn had this to say:

No, I don’t object to a person who wears a brown shirt and a patch on their shoulder and follows instructions all day either. I'm not all that interested in what the park rangers have to say. I accept that there's an automatic instinct to judge those you envy and who have more courage than you do, and I think that while he (the ranger) rides around in his four-wheeler on a CB radio getting fat, Chris McCandless has spent 113 days fucking alone in the most unforgiving wilderness that God ever created.

Yikes.

Penn’s a bit harsh. Because I know Pete, I can attest that Pete is neither fat nor does he ride around on a four-wheeler with a CB all day. Pete was a backcountry ranger for years, going on the sort of patrols I've been embarking on for the past two summers. Now, he’s a ranger-pilot.

Before I go any further, I should say that Pete is a really good guy. He and his family were my only neighbors at the ranger station in Coldfoot, and—if it wasn’t for him—I never would have gotten such an amazing job that allowed me to explore the Gates or pay off my student debt.

But with that said, I think Pete is very, very wrong.

It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the book and movie. I think it’s even fair to say that McCandless and I are, in some sense, kindred spirits. So naturally I can’t help but take Pete’s views personally because, when he calls McCandless stupid, insane, and suicidal, he's inadvertently calling me these things, too.

But it’s not just Pete’s views. It’s all the people—and there are a lot of them—who agree with Pete. And whenever I speak to one of them, I think to myself, "they just don’t get it.”

Because I am in the unique position as both an Alaskan park ranger and a person who is, in many ways, like Chris McCandless, I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject.

Pete diagnoses McCandless as a suicidal lunatic

When asserting that McCandless was suicidal and “suffering from mental illness,” Pete seems to have disregarded some essential facts.

McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two. It’s obvious, though, that Pete is not suggesting that McCandless literally killed himself. Rather, Pete implies that McCandless’ decision to come to Alaska “unprepared” and “unskilled” was a suicidal act in itself.

I am not arguing that McCandless was prepared and skilled. McCandless's inability to preserve the moose meat or properly scout the river makes it very clear that he was unprepared. But unpreparedness does not make someone suicidal. The fact that McCandless tried to cross the Teklanika River and leave the wild in July after three months in the bush should dispel any such notion that he wanted to die in the bus.

Moreover, Pete seems to wrongly associate reckless behavior with suicidal behavior. And this is, I believe, the central defect of his argument. McCandless was, without question, reckless. But shall we presume that all reckless people are suicidal? McCandless, like his adventuring forbears, beheld characteristics unique to explorers, not suicides. Was Heyerdahl suicidal for wanting to cross the Pacific in a wooden raft? Were Hilary and Norgay suicidal for climbing Everest when every capillary and muscle pleaded that they descend? Was Robert Falcon Scott, who died en route to the South Pole, and the millions of adventurers before and after him—who died in pursuit of a dream—just crazy and suicidal?

“Alaska wild”

Pete begins his essay by juxtaposing his Alaskan experiences with McCandless’, insisting that they both wished to “live a free life in the Alaska wild,” but differed because “I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die.”

It's true that they both wished to live in Alaska, but this is where the similarities end. McCandless and Pete wanted very different things. McCandless wanted a brief, raw, primeval experience in the Alaska wild. He wanted a challenge that would push his limits. I can’t say exactly what Pete wanted, but by no means, did he—at least in comparison to McCandless—“live a free life in the Alaska wild.”

What does it mean to “live a free life in the Alaska wild”? A “free life” can mean a lot of things. Most people—with Alaska in mind—think of a free life as one spent in a remote cabin off the grid, where a man can hunt, fish, and grow his own food—a place where there’s no clock to punch, no forms to fill out, and no one to answer to.

Let me explain a few things about a park ranger’s life in the “Alaska wild.” We live in small Alaskan villages where we’re required to wear a uniform and work 40 hours a week. We live in newly-built, low-cost government housing that includes washers, dryers, fully-functional kitchens, heat, solar panels, and even flat-screened televisions. Backcountry rangers go on eight-day wilderness patrols, but our routes are determined largely by supervisors. We have to call the ranger station every morning on a satellite phone to tell them where we are and where we’re headed. We’re even forced to shave in the field. Before the season begins, we have 3-4 weeks of training. Permanent employees get pensions, health insurance plans, and early retirements.

One doesn't need to go all the way up to Alaska to live this sort of "free life." You can live this sort of life anywhere in the lower-48.

As for wilderness excursions in the Alaskan wild, I've learned that most anyone can survive in the wild. You can experience the Alaskan wild on a sightseeing flight. You can hire a professional guide. You can bring maps, a GPS, locator devices, and every precautionary device imaginable. You can even become an Alaskan park ranger to get a watered-down version of “a free life in the Alaska wild.” While these people may very well be in the “Alaskan wild,” their experiences are anything but “wild.”

Critics call McCandless stupid for not bringing a map, extra food, and proper gear, as if he—bewilderingly—didn’t have the foresight to think that he’d need these things. Depriving himself of these conveniences was deliberate. McCandless knew that to travel with excessive technology is—sometimes—to not travel at all. Wilderness sage, Aldo Leopold, says:

The American sportsman is puzzled... Bigger and better gadgets are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation? It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic...; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh.

McCandless hoped to peel off the soft layers of civilization, and harden himself in more austere and taxing conditions. He wanted to see the world through the eyes of the first Alaskan explorer who didn’t carry a map, GPS, or satellite phone. He didn't want have to squeeze his adventure into two weeks of paid vacation. He didn’t want to have to come back to jobs and bosses and taxes. McCandless wanted a test, a challenge, and—most of all—to immerse himself in nature, that one last refuge of the real in a paved-over, smoggy-skyed century.

The "McCandless Phenomenon"

Pete says the “McCandless Phenomenon” occurs when “[p]eople, 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 Pete first heard about me (years before I got the job as a ranger), he was probably reminded of the "McCandless Phenomenon." That's because I was one of these young men.

In the Summer of '05, I drove up to a truck stop (near Pete's ranger station) in Coldfoot, Alaska with my friend Paul to clean motel rooms. A week after I arrived, we hiked into the Gates of the Arctic National Park to climb Blue Cloud—a 6,000-foot mountain, ten miles from the road, surrounded by nothing but untrammeled, howling wilderness.

Paul joined me for the first few miles, but turned back when his feet began to blister, leaving me in treeless rolling green hills with a cluster of stone-gray mountaintops in the distance. I was alone in the Alaskan wild. And this was the first real hike of my life. Hours later, I'd remember that Paul had left with the compass, matches, and water-filter in his backpack.

I hauled a giant sleeping bag, a three-person tent, and a cumbersome camcorder mile after miserable mile. I’d scream at large rocks, thinking they were grizzlies. On the mountain, a band of Dall Sheep walked in front of my passageway. I threw rocks and yelled at them, worried where they’d put those horns if I came any closer. They stared back at me, bewildered, as I traversed to the other side of the mountain.

After miles of swamps, tussocks, scree slopes, rain, and forest fire haze, I made it to the top. I ate the snow atop Blue Cloud and rationed my sandwiches and granola bars as best I could.

The descent was so steep I had to keep my butt and back against the mountain as I carefully lowered each foot into piles of scree that jingled down the mountain like silver dollars. I ripped a hole in the seat of my pants and the bottom of my backpack split open. I lost the map that was in my back pocket.

Once I got off the mountain, I collapsed and slept for half an hour on a pile of rocks. Upon waking up, I wasn't sure where I was. Looking across the country, I came close to tears, thinking that this might be it for me. I was only ten miles from the road, but I had no idea where the road was.

Paul felt guilty for leaving me, so he got down on his knees and—for the first time in years—prayed. He had driven back to the spot we started from eight hours after we parted ways. I wasn’t there, so he came back eight hours later, and another eight hours after that. I had been walking for over 28 hours straight.

Ranger Pete heard about me when fellow coworkers began conjecturing what carnivorous animal I was inside of. He interviewed Paul to find out what gear I had, whether I had any suicidal tendencies, and what route I may have taken. Pete planned to search for me in his plane, but forest fires prevented him from taking off.

After figuring out where I was, I finally made it back to the road, haggard, tired, and dragging feet that would be covered with blisters for the next few days.

I came back from that mountain slightly different. I didn’t know it then, but that climb would help me define who I was. It would become a precedent—a reminder that I can do anything I set my heart to. Because of that climb, I could go on two cross-country hitchhikes. I could embark on a two-month long canoe voyage. I could live in a van to afford grad school. I could resist melting into mediocrity. And while I could have wound up dead and missing on that mountain, that was no one’s business but my own.

Supposedly, having such experiences is irresponsible. Supposedly, people like McCandless and I are suicidal for taking a risk or pursuing emotional experiences—as old as mankind—that our suburban upbringings could not give us. Supposedly, it’s insane to go into the wild without the latest, greatest technology and every possible electronical gadget imaginable.

I have a different definition of the “McCandless Phenomenon.” I can’t speak directly of Pete, but I can speak of many Alaskans. Many Alaskans—as Pete points out—come to Alaska to reinvent themselves in a rugged landscape, yet few make it past Fairbanks and Anchorage. Despite compromised goals and sorry attempts to live the lives they imagined, these Alaskans—with an electric car starter in one hand and bag of Taco Bell takeout in the other—still proudly proclaim they’re “Alaskan,” lavishing themselves with connotations they don’t deserve—connotations like self-reliance, independence, and a fierce relationship with nature. Even the fattest and laziest among them think they’re expert outdoorsmen.

These people are your standard McCandless-haters. They call him a moron or a stupid kid or a suicide, and they may not realize it, but they hate McCandless—not because he was a foolhardy youth, but because he, unlike them, followed through with his dreams. He didn’t end his journey like they did. He lived alone, killed his moose, and almost made it out alive. The “McCandless Phenomenon” is envy.

Final Thoughts

Pete’s argument is not without value. It’s no mystery why it’s so popular. It’s well-written, most of it is well-reasoned, and Pete makes many legitimate points. For one, McCandless illegally killed a moose and was unable to preserve the meat. While McCandless may have imagined himself in a different century when there were no restrictions on taking the lives of abounding wildlife, clearly, if everyone disregarded hunting regulations—even for high-minded reasons—we’d have no moose, grizzlies, caribou, or wolves.

Plus, as Pete points out, McCandless lived in a bus, which hardly conjures the image of a wild experience in Alaska. This is a valid point, and one I reluctantly forgive McCandless for because the surrounding terrain, the raging Teklanika, and his struggle to survive makes up for the fact that he settled for a shelter that wasn’t in accord with his original idea of life in the wild.

One could also point to the incredible pain McCandless put his family through by cutting off ties with them so he could pursue his dream.

We can use many words to describe McCandless, but “stupid,” “insane” or “suicidal” shouldn’t be among them. To ridicule McCandless for pursuing his dream—however illogical you may think his was—is to ridicule all dreams. It’s to ridicule the ancient voyages, expeditions across continents, the quest for civil rights, a colony’s fight for independence, and dreams of leaping across distant planets.

There are a thousand excuses not to pursue our dreams. We may have jobs, families, bills and obligations. We have fears and insecurities. We might think: What if it doesn't turn out the way I expected? What if I find out I can’t do it? What if I die?

McCandless, I’m sure, asked these same questions. And that which distinguishes him from those who hate him is the fact that he had the courage to live a full life before a long one.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s never too late to pursue our dreams. Tomorrow, the twenty-something barista who always wanted to own her own cafĂ© is going to turn 40. Tomorrow, the runner who wished he’d run a marathon will become paralyzed in a car accident. Tomorrow, you’ll die. Let us not live in fear of death, but in fear of not having ever lived.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the examples of dreamers who did get to where they wanted (Hillary et al). It seems to me that they trained and studied before they went on their adventures. McCandless certainly should have researched and experimented living off the land before going to Alaska. This is why he was foolhardy.

Whitney said...

Nicely written....

Ken said...

Whitney--thanks

Anon-- good points. While there was training and preparation in the examples I listed (Hilary, for example) there was still the element of the "unknown" and an adventure can't be experienced if the outcome is guaranteed (i.e. survival). Someone once told me that "naivete is a prerequisite to adventure." If McCandless had learned about how to dress a moose, identify possibly toxic seeds, and construct a makeshift raft to cross the river, among a hundred other precautions, then the trip would have been no more adventurous than an excursion on the Appalachian Trail. Another thought: is it really foolhardy to be willing to die for something? Certainly MLK, Gandhi, and John Brown knew about the risks of their dreams, and they died for them. Clearly McCandless wasn't freeing the slaves or helping the cause for civil rights, but his dream--at least to him--was worth dying for. However tragic that may be, I think it's admirable to believe in something so passionately you're willing to die for it.

Anonymous said...

Ken,

MLK, Gandhi, even Hillary and Scott, all had motivations beyond their own personal growth. Did your hike have a greater motivation, or benefit anyone other than you?

I find it hard to see much difference between your dangerous hike and the motorcyclist who wants to race on public streets. Though, I'll admit that your choice of adventure has less risk of injuring others. Otherwise, both needlessly risk death for only personal benefit. Seems selfish to me.

Is it worth dying to advance the fortune of future generations, possibly. Is it worth dying to make a hike that a tourist with a guide can make with minimal risk? Doesn't seem like it to me.

What happens to Paul if you die on the mountain? He'd be investigated by the police, despised by your family, and probably carry an awful lot of guilt. Though I don't know him, I suspect that living through the guilt of leaving a friend alone to die in the wilderness is not on his list of dreams. If we assume that one of his dreams is to not experience something like that, why is your dream more important? When does pursuing your own dream at the expense of family, friends, park rangers, etc... become selfish?

The whole thing reeks of a type of decision making that Pete was referring to with the term 'young men'. Your defense of this is as predictable as the procession of unprepared individuals into the wilderness.

We see the same kind of thing in trauma units actually-- spend some time in one and you'll see, it isn't a cross section of society. Not by a long shot.

You're clearly an incredibly smart guy, and I admire you-- why else would I read the blog, but is there nothing greater left to risk our lives on than unprepared wilderness expeditions?

The Surgeon

Ken said...

Surgeon,

Delightful to hear from you again, even when we’re not in agreement.

To quote the tagline from one of my favorite travel movies, The Motorcycle Diaries: "Let the world change you and you can change it."

The journey is not just adrenaline and thrills (as it might be for the motorcyclist who just wishes to see how fast he can go). The journey, rather, can be an act of self-transformation. There’s the idea that one could set off on a journey as someone and come back as someone else—someone with new insights, knowledge, courage, self-esteem. He or she may very well come back as a better version of his/her self.

We can draw analogies with Christ’s forty days in the wilderness or with Thoreau’s two years at Walden Pond. They went to the wild or escaped civilization for a specific purpose. While it may seem like they went for selfish reasons, they, in the end, came back and gave back by sharing their stories, imparting knowledge, and inspiring generations.

McCandless went into the wild to “kill the false being within.” This “false being” was fostered in, what he perceived was, the stifling and unnatural conditions of modern culture where the authentic self was unable to materialize. Alaska, to him, was a sort of “quarantine” where those stifling characteristics—materialism, personal relationships and law, to mention a few—couldn’t contaminate his “true self.” Pure wilderness—unsullied by the oily touch of man—was, to McCandless, the only forum where the goal of authenticity could be achieved. Jesus and monks and other ascetics have been doing the same sort of things for centuries. While I don’t necessarily share the same extreme view as McCandless—that the authentic self can only be coaxed out in wild nature—I do know where he’s coming from.

Going back to the quote… The journey, and these wild experiences can prepare us for future trials to come. They give us the tools and knowledge and courage to "be somebody." They can, in short, help us “change the world.” McCandless, unfortunately, was one of many adventurers who didn’t make it back to share his tale. But fortunately, someone else was able to do it for him.

I didn’t set off on my hike merely for thrills either. Anyone who’s gone on a long solo journey in the arctic, or in any unforgiving landscape or situation, knows that journeys are not fun… They're more of an investment than immediate gratification. The journey, in some way, becomes a part of you. Especially those that test our limits. That’s because they help redefine the fringes of our faculties and redraw the borders of our identities. While it may not seem like it, the journeyer always has society in mind. They imagine themselves coming back as new versions of themselves. Perhaps they will settle down with a family. Perhaps they will lead a revolution. Perhaps they will self-destruct. These journeys, thus, aren’t just selfish acts. The ascetic, however alone, has something greater than him/herself in mind.

McCandless’s journey—even if he had only selfish motivations—is now an inspiration to thousands. And the people his story has inspired aren’t all venturing alone into the Alaskan wild… They’re pursuing their dreams, whatever they may be. Is that worth dying for? I think so.

A final thought: We have 6 billion+ people on this planet. Why can’t we embrace the few who are willing to venture to the furthest reaches of our imaginations, dreams, and human faculties? Let there be a few hardy souls who will walk through the gates of Hades or unprepared in the Alaskan wild so that, by chance that they make it out alive, we have messengers who can report back and teach us something about what wonders, sublimities, and deathly throes exist outside the bubbles of our ordinary existences.

Ken

Josh said...

Hi Ken,

That was really well written and well argued. After I first saw the movie 'Into the Wild' I myself thought McCandless was suicidal and partly insane, but after reading your blog and what you had to say above I see it from another viewpoint. I can understand more clearly now how McCandless likely came to his decisions.

It's a pretty touchy topic to bring up. The whole 'When does society's reposiblity end and personal responsiblity begin?' argument. It happens alot here in Australia when bushwalkers go missing and there's public outcry because taxpayer's money has to be spent to find them. I'm still not entirely sure what to think about it.

I have alot of respect for what you've done and look forward to hearing more about it. I also hope that you view what 'The Surgeon' had to say as constructive criticism and not a personal attack against you.

You should make a novel of all your adventures one day. I'd buy a copy :-)

Ken said...

Josh-- Yeah, it definitely becomes a tricky subject when you factor in taxpayer-funded searches. Because McCandless didn't tell anyone exactly where he was going, this wasn't an issue here. Personally, I like wilderness areas that don't come with the guarantee that rescuers will come after you if you don't come out. Such circumstances, I feel, foster a sense of self-reliance. That's why I love the Gates of the Arctic--it's likely that no one will come to save you because no one will know where you are in the first place.

Ha.. we'll see about that novel. Just for saying that, I'll make sure you don't have to buy one.

Josh said...

G'day Ken,

This is Josh again, from the comment above. Since you mention the book 'Walden' so much in your blog I tracked it down at my local library. I've read through the first section but I have to say, it's hard reading. I need to constantly stop to think to myself 'Now what is Thoreau on about...'.

Did you have to work at understanding it, or it's just something that natrually is easy for you?

Ken said...

Josh,

Understanding Walden is no easy feat. I've read it over twice and there are many sections that go entirely over my head. The 19th Century diction isn't easy either unless you've read a lot of literature from the era. I suggest focusing heavily on his first chapter, Economy--that's the meat and potatoes of the book in my opinion. Also, think about picking up an annotated edition that explains all the obscure refrences, puns, passages, etc. I haven't read one of these, but the one edited by Walter Harding looks pretty good.

Fannie said...

I'm glad you've written this. I only want to remind you that for some dreams include job or family. Speaking from experience, none of my wilderness experience has given me the kind of courage my current "job" training offers.

We never can tell who might be there for us when we are handed down the sentence of incurable cancer or debilitating spinal cord injury. In those moments it is being human that counts not the human we've been.

As always, I love your writings.

Ken said...

Well said, Fannie.

Josh said...

Thanks for your advice Ken. I'll try to read the first section again. I get the gist of what he's saying, and I like it, just many parts are difficult to comprehend.

The annotated version is a good idea too.

Nemo said...

Ken, thank you for this post :) I'm newly a follower, but the book Into the Wild, and the movie have certainly impacted my life and thoughts. While I agree that he could have been more prepared for living primitively, I have nothing but respect for the strength of character he displayed by choosing to live his life, rather than simply to conform to a society that didnt really understand.

As you stated earlier.. some folks just dont get it :) I too choose not to be part of the mainstream at this point in my life. I've spent decades in government service and feel that most of it was wasted.. now that I live more in touch with the world, life is fulfilling.

Thank you for your posts :)

Louise said...

Hi Ken, great post as usual! I really enjoyed this movie and book and I also have been very frustrated by people who want to discard much of Chris' experiences by labeling him as mentally ill. I don't see any indication at all of mental illness.

It would be such a shame if we were confined to lives of safety and security so that others can feel more comfortable. Life is risky, thats no reason to not leap in and live it to the fullest!

Many years ago I used to go on day trips alone into the bush here (Australia). I had really some wonderful experiences, I loved the aloneness of it... I can't put into words how those experiences changed me and I'm so glad that I didn't listen to other peoples fears.

it saddens me to see that people who want to live their lives differently are judged so harshly. Life is risky, we get to choose how we want to spend the days we have, I don't want to spend mine in 'quiet desperation'

I recently watched the movie about the guy who lived with the bears in Alaska and was eventually killed, along with his girlfriend, can't think of his name, I'd love to hear your take on him and the bears.

Ken said...

Louise--great to hear from you. Timothy Treadwell (from "Grizzly Man"), I think, is another story altogether. One can much more easily make the "crazy" claim about him. Though he had good intentions, I think he was more of an "adrenaline junkie" than a free spirit. Plus, his relationship with the bears was probably not good for the bears... With all that said, I'd be interested to hear someone make a case for him.

Maar said...

Greetings from Denmark!

I really enjoyed reading this - both post and comments. I came across your blog by googling "McCandless Phenomenon" after watching Into The Wild and I'm glad I found it :-)
Park ranger in Alaska sounds like the job I could need right now.

/Maar

Ken said...

Maar--glad to meet ya. Yeah--rangering is a pretty good job, though for most rangers it's only seasonal (which, for me, however, is a huge bonus).

Anonymous said...

Well, well. Young cheechako decides he is an authority on Chris McCandless AND Alaskans....

Yeah, McCandless followed his dreams, lived in a trashed-out bus, killed a moose out of season, let the majority of it waste, died within a few miles of a national park ranger station. Sounds a lot like many of the homeless people I know around Anchorage and elsewhere in America.

As for Alaskans who you claim to be fat people with their electric car starters--yes, there are plenty of them. But there are also plenty of us who live out on the land as much as possible, and look on McCandless' little journey, mere miles off a road, as the work of an unprepared outdoorsman who couldn't actually live in the wild. He retreated to a man-made wreck of our material culture--a school bus--to live out his fantasy. He selfishly killed a huge wild animal, and let it spoil. He allowed himself to die, when it would have been easy for him to build a fire to attract attention, and, as you, yourself know, NPS Rangers would have been more than willing to swoop down and rescue him. But, he didn't want to go back to where he'd come from. His was a one-way journey, the way he obviously wanted it. He had very little knowledge of how to survive in the wild, and regardless of his 'quest,' I was not impressed.

Ken said...

Anon--

The tale of Chris McCandless impassions me like none other. So, as can be seen, I’m eager to respond to all comments, especially those who cast McCandless or his journey in a negative light. And while it’s my presumption that my essay has fallen on deaf ears, perhaps I failed to state things clear enough. This, then, like my other comments in this section, should be considered an addendum to the original, written in hopes of emphasizing some already-expressed points, and expanding upon others.

I should also preface this by stating that to have any sort of reasoned debate I feel it incumbent upon me first to recognize how misleading those unruly passions can be; those that often polarize the debaters into two separate camps where new insights are rarely gleaned. Second, I will do my utmost to divorce those passions from mingling too closely with my thoughts, knowing how much their union can warp one’s judgment. So please: know that the following thoughts are expressed with objectivity close to mind.

I do think I qualify to speak with “some authority” on the subject of Chris McCandless and Alaskans. I’ve lived in Alaskan cities, villages, and in the Alaskan wild for periods of time in four of the last five years. Travel writers strolling through European towns have drawn far grander inferences than those that I’ve made based on the good deal of time I’ve spent in Alaska. While I do not claim to know much about a state whose breadth makes it utterly unknowable, I still feel I have experience enough to draw conclusions about the many people I’ve met and the observations I’ve made. And, of course, what generalizations I make should be accepted as generalizations, not as attacks on all Alaskans as your message insinuates. Perhaps criticism is due to me for suggesting that “most Alaskans” are this way or that without any hard evidence. But know what I said was said with sincerity and—what I thought was—ample evidence.

Moving on…

First of all, I strongly doubt that most of the bums you see in Anchorage and elsewhere, like McCandless have “followed dreams, lived in a trashed-out bus, killed a moose out of season, and… died within a few miles of a national park ranger station.” That said, I still understand where you’re coming from. Though, I think it’s unfair and not-in-the-least-bit-accurate to lump McCandless into a lot who’s traditionally associated with addiction, psychological disease, and dependence on the charity of others.

(continued in next comment)

Ken said...

(continued from last comment)

You call McCandless’s journey “little.” What makes a journey “big” or “little”? Can’t we have journeys looking though a microscope, exploring the tiny kingdoms—small to us, but huge to other things—that the human eye cannot observe? It’s all relative, my friend. While you—perhaps a more experienced outdoorsman—may view McCandless’s journey as “little,” can’t you see how “big” it was to him? Likewise, while his bus in the woods may not be “wild” to you, have you thought that it might have been “wild” to him? I make this point in the essay: you can have a “wild experience” in Alaska even if we cannot all agree whether or not it’s in a wild setting. Despite living in a bus, let’s remember that the raging Teklanika cordoned him and his few modern resources off from access to civilization. Is that not conceivably wild? Is that not big? Yes, he was just miles from civilization. And yes, if he brought things and knowledge with him, he probably would have survived. But let’s make a necessary distinction: McCandless wasn’t ignorant. Rather, he elected to be ignorant. Knowing the very places he could have gone and the things that could have saved him would have sucked the wild right out of the place. “He had very little knowledge of how to survive in the wild.” This is obvious. And it’s also the whole point. When you’re seeking something bordering on the holy, bringing ten years of hunting experience, a GPS, and a backpack full of Clif bars is not going to help you find it.

Speaking of the Teklanika, how do you explain his attempt to cross the river and exit the wild yet insist that it was “a one-way journey, the way he obviously wanted it”? I do not understand why this fact is brushed aside by so many so easily.

Believe me, I think his killing and (more so) his inability to harvest the moose is shitty too. But why do you criticize him for killing a wild animal, yet recommend that he ought to have burned down wild land that housed far more biota? Perhaps he learned his lesson, deciding that his life wasn’t worth the destruction of other life. Besides, as you may know, most wild fires go unchecked in Alaska and his igniting it guaranteed nothing but the death of more life than his own.

Regardless of the irony, you raise worthy objections; objections I already took care to note in the essay. While I think it’s only reasonable for a seasoned outdoorsman to be unimpressed with his quest, I think you may have breezed over some of my core points. Instead of raising the same age-old criticisms, we may have a more substantial debate if you directly address my assertions.

Regardless, I welcome your comment, no matter the nature of it.

I am, by the way, no chechaquo.

Anonymous said...

I don't think McCandless deliberately set out to kill himself. And I don't think he's a hero. To me he had an adventurous heart but died because of foolish choices. He wasn't a victim of bad luck but of bad decisions with predictable results.

You say that by equipping himself as he did he knew exactly what he was doing. I would respond by saying he obviously didn't. I think he knew what he was trying to achieve, but unless he was truly suicidal, which I guess we both agree he wasn't, he failed.

And while I could have wound up dead and missing on that mountain, that was no one’s business but my own. Most people would disagree with you. If you, or I, or anyone, are seriously injured or killed in the boonies, it's going to cause a whole lot of expense, anxiety and trouble for other people.

To ridicule McCandless for pursuing his dream—however illogical you may think his was—is to ridicule all dreams. Alaskans admire Dick Proenneke because he had a wilderness dream, and he lived it. One of the primary reasons he lived it was his skill and knowledge. I believe it is possible to have valid criticisms of the actions of another who is on an adventure without ridiculing all dreams. As a matter of fact people aren't ridiculing the dream, they are criticizing the bad decisions McCandless made while pursuing his dream.

McCandless wasn’t ignorant. Rather, he elected to be ignorant. Perhaps you meant he wasn't stupid, but chose to be ignorant. Otherwise it would seem to be self-contradictory.

Knowing the very places he could have gone and the things that could have saved him would have sucked the wild right out of the place.

Was McCandles even in a wilderness? Wilderness: "An unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition." He was living in a bus, on a trail that was good enough for the bus to have driven in on.

I think it's fine if you don't know exactly the lay of the land or what you're going to find there, it can add to the adventure. But in my opinion is foolish to be so ill-prepared that you are unlikely to live to have other spiritual adventures.

“He had very little knowledge of how to survive in the wild.” This is obvious. And it’s also the whole point. When you’re seeking something bordering on the holy, bringing ten years of hunting experience, a GPS, and a backpack full of Clif bars is not going to help you find it.
That's the point? To not have the knowledge to survive in the wild? Wouldn't a reasonable level of knowledge have led to a more rewarding adventure for him, even his survival? People I know with extensive knowledge on plants, animals, geology and weather get MORE out of a wilderness experience.

He didn’t end his journey in Fairbanks like they did. He lived alone, and killed his moose, and almost made it out alive. The “McCandless Phenomenon” is envy. Pure and simple.

He poached a moose, and wasted it. Hardly admirable in my opinion. I don't think he almost made it out alive. I think he was slowly starving almost from the beginning. I agree wholeheartedly that many people seem to think if they physically live in Alaska that they are rugged outdoorsmen to be admired. There are people living in Manhattan that have more wilderness skills than some Alaskans. Most Alaskans lead lives very similar to people in the Lower 48. It is human nature to want to feel superior. And maybe that's part of annoys me about the whole McCandless story. I have spent months in the Alaska backcountry alone. So I've lived alone. And I've killed my moose legally and salvaged all the meat. And I did survive. Countless people are more skilled and have achieved more than I have. I don't think anyone would ever have heard of McCandless if he hadn't been ignorant of how to keep himself alive. I think following your dreams is admirable. I don't think ignorance is admirable or necessary in the pursuit of a quality wilderness experience.

ant said...

I personally dont understand the need to criticize Chris, he did his own personal trip. He never asked for hero status and im sure it wasnt his attention. He may have been under prepared and the hurt and concern he put on his family i cannot imagine.

However to follow your dream with such commitment and desire cannot go unnoticed. Also throughout the journey he encouraged many people to change their lives for the better, giving people the courage to persue the similar dreams that chris had.

The thing that makes the story so sad is the fact that Chris seeemd to come to the realization that he needed people within his life which leads me to think that he was defiantly not suicidal and very much thinking about the rest of his life

Ken said...

Anon—Sorry for the lateness of this response. You have some good points and I’ve put off writing back because I haven’t had adequate time to properly respond. I’ll address your points one-by-one.

1. “You say that by equipping himself as he did he knew exactly what he was doing. I would respond by saying he obviously didn't. I think he knew what he was trying to achieve, but unless he was truly suicidal, which I guess we both agree he wasn't, he failed.”

McCandless picked one of the most wild and dangerous places on earth—a place he knew would challenge him like nowhere else. I believe he knew he might not come back. That’s not to say he was suicidal. I mean to say that he wanted a life-or-death struggle. And while it’s obvious he wanted to make it out alive, he was willing to risk his life in hopes of having a truly transformative experience. Whether he had that experience or not would, for me, determine if he succeeded or “failed.” I don’t think his success or failure should be measured by whether he lived or died.

2. “Most people would disagree with you that winding ‘up dead and missing on that mountain, that was no one’s business but my own.’ If you, or I, or anyone, are seriously injured or killed in the boonies, it's going to cause a whole lot of expense, anxiety and trouble for other people.”

I suppose it’s true that other people and institutions would get involved. But shall I make my life decisions based on how I think government institutions will respond? I believe parks should be wild and free, devoid of roads and facilities. I believe we should be able to walk in freely—die in there freely if we so choose—and walk out without ever having to sign a form. This, obviously, is not how parks are today so my dying—as you pointed out—would cause more chaos than I would like.

3. “People aren't ridiculing the dream, they are criticizing the bad decisions McCandless made while pursuing his dream.”

You have a point here. Yet, I do think there are a lot of people who are offended with the dream in the first place, while others—as you point out—are primarily flustered with his bad decisions.

4. “perhaps you meant he wasn't stupid, but chose to be ignorant. Otherwise it would seem to be self-contradictory.”

Yes, you’re right. That would have been a better way to phrase it.

5. “Was McCandles even in a wilderness? Wilderness: "An unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition." He was living in a bus, on a trail that was good enough for the bus to have driven in on.”

While there was a bus and a trail, there was also a raging river cutting him off from civilization. I don’t think we should be too picky with what’s wilderness and what’s not. Was he then in “civilization” because there was a bus and a trail? Of course not. Thus, there is a wilderness-civilization-continuum, and I think most people would position McCandless’s setting darn-near close to “wilderness.”

Ken said...

(continued)

6. “But in my opinion is foolish to be so ill-prepared that you are unlikely to live to have other spiritual adventures.”

I still posit that his ill-preparedness was purposeful and I disagree that his journey was foolish simply because it could possibly have turned out—which it of course did—as his last. Though, I empathize and agree—to some degree—with your position.

7. “That's the point? To not have the knowledge to survive in the wild? Wouldn't a reasonable level of knowledge have led to a more rewarding adventure for him, even his survival? People I know with extensive knowledge on plants, animals, geology and weather get MORE out of a wilderness experience.”

I think that’s very much the point (“to not have the knowledge”). He wanted a test, and he was more than content to suffer mosquitoes, starvation, even the threat of death to get it. A reasonable level of knowledge could have led to a more rewarding CERTAIN TYPE of adventure. In the wilderness—it feels good and reassuring sometimes to know that you have everything in your pack to survive most any challenge the elements present. But there is also something alluring about going in with little and cutting off the lines to civilization: this is where one must rely on his determination, wits, etc. What I’m trying to say is that there are several types of wilderness experiences and they are to be approached in different ways; McCandless had no interest in the type I experience on my patrols.

8. “I think following your dreams is admirable. I don't think ignorance is admirable or necessary in the pursuit of a quality wilderness experience.”

If I’m traveling overseas, the very last thing I want is to know everything I’m going to see, where I’m going to sleep, who I’m going to meet. I don’t want to feel like I’m living according to a schedule; I want the unknown, the spontaneous, the real. In other words, I want to remain ignorant. The same could be said about traveling in the wilderness. Perhaps McCandless took his ignorance too far, you could argue. From someone who once pushed carts and scrubbed toilets for a living, I happen to find most any endeavor to swim against the current of conformity and live loudly and fully, admirable, McCandless’s journey included. The killing of the moose and the way in which he dealt with his parents were of course unadmirable, but I’d be beating a dead horse if I continue down this route. Of course ignorance is not necessary for a quality wilderness experience but, as stated above, I believe it is for a certain type—the type McCandless was after.

PS: You articulate and thoughtful response was exactly the type of reasoned debate I hoped this entry would generate. Thanks.

Ant—I, too, am quite mystified by how many anti-McCandless critics there are and why they --have such strong beliefs. I suppose—in that case—it might be just as mystifying to others why he has such ardent supporters. Perhaps it’s because, dwelling in each of us, is both an attraction to the open road and a desire to reap the comforts of hearth and home. It’s tough to have both, so we’re left with little choice but to adopt one lifestyle and drop the other. I suppose there’s some envy-induced hatred because he represents many people’s stifled desires. Or perhaps because he, and people like him, are seen as a threat to destabilizing fragile familial bonds. Just a few ideas from the top of my head.

Charles said...

Well written, and well argued. Thanks for taking the time to write this partial defense of McCandless. It also seems to me that people don't take into account that he had some genuinely bad fortune. For example, being poisoned and made weak by eating "Pot. sead." Also, his body was found only 19 days after his death. Let's say he had preserved the Moose (which, incidentally, he might have if he'd not been given bad advice in South Dakota). Well, this would have gotten him through that final 19 days, and he would have been found. You are right -- he wasn't just stupid, and he wasn't suicidal. One or two critical breaks in the other direction, and he would have made it out alive. So, I think we should think of his death along the lines of an "accident." There was no intentionality to his death.

Roman Dial said...

The arguments against McCandless are generally poor, mis-informed, and self-congratulatory.

Any of us could die at any time, by accident of mistake. And when we do the fools thinking they no better are there waiting to criticize and condemn.

I say f*ck them and their lucky arrogance.

Der Spiegel said...

Der Spiegel, I look at my life and others from a perch 70 yrs old. My wife and I have been inspired or perhaps nudged by other Krakauer books. As Under the Banner of Heaven. Which led me to a study of unsolved domestic crimes against women in the state of Utah.My take on Chris McCandless early death in life, is, I believe when we are blessed with a life.a nurturing enviorment,a great education and family that loves you, you owe something back to the world,and those who love you. Chris failed himself and the world with his reckless death.

Anonymous said...

My father grew up in the depression, and after serving in the Korean War was a hitchhiker throughout the U.S. and British Colombia, a hunter, and enjoyed living off of the grid as much as he could (he only settled down somewhat and became a parent in his fifties). Those travels were a part of his life that he cherished and that brought him fulfillment in a way that stagnant domesticity never would have.

Undoubtedly McCandless was an reckless individual on occasions. The circumstances of his death were tragic and in some ways preventable. While starvation shouldn't be romanticized, you can appreciate that striking out on one's own, challenging long held dreams, the way he did on many of his voyages.

I'm fine with those who are uncomfortable labeling him a hero (to my mind, a hero is someone who chooses to risk their health and life to assist another). However, a proportion of the antagonism and vitriol against McCandless is also the need to ward of the fear of untimely death: that anyone, regardless of technology of preparedness, can become a victim of minor mistakes and circumstance. That we require compelling reasons and explanations why someone died, and believe that they caused their own demise, in order to reinforce our own sense of security.

Mike O'Brien said...

Disclaimer: I truly enjoy your writing, Mr. Ken Ilgunas. That being said...

There is a balanced, middle ground on this topic that is completely missed by Pete and Ken. Pete sees McCandless as stupid and mentally ill, having ventured out, entirely unprepared; and he sees McCandless supporters as idiots who would do the same thing. Conversely, Ken sees McCandless as this shining model for living free, and seems to view McCandless haters as simply, "envious" people who rely on high-tech gadgetry and only WISH that they could live as free as McCandless. Ken even implies that bringing a map and compass in some way, limits the free living one can experience in the back country. And this is pretty absurd, as even Hilary and Norgay had a compasses, as did Lewis and Clark, and so on.

So, ok...here we go. I am a back-country adventurer who has summited peaks, nearly three times the altitude of Ken's little 6k stroll. I have never owned a GPS, or a satellite phone, or ANY kind of high tech gadgetry. But ya know what? I bring a freaking map and compass. I bring a water filter, too. I bring many rudimentary items that are necessary to survive my adventures - which is kind of a necessity, in order to LIVE free. You have to be alive, in order to be living, right? So I bring items crucial to my survival. And doing so, has in no way, diminished any aspect of freedom I have had, on my trips. In fact, all they did, was make my experiences more enjoyable, and increase my odds of getting out alive. I get it - it IS foolish, to think of yourself as "living free" when you're shacked up with govt housing and all of life's modern amenities. But it is equally as ridiculous, to view McCandless's adventure as the model for "a free life." If you unnecessarily kill yourself during your pursuit of adventure and freedom, and ONLY because you chose to be a jackass, and not prepare for a single element of your adventure. That was not a life lived freely. I'm sorry, it's just not. It IS stupid...it's utter foolishness. And it's a wasted life.

I can say this with authority because I am both, Pete and Ken. I was once, a true "McCandless" - I wandered into the depths of the Grand Canyon alone, at 20 years of age, without a clue about how easy it is to die without even trying, down there. I barely made it out alive. And I learned from my experience, that there is a very fine line between "true freedom" and "reckless idiocy." I recognized how fragile (and often, fleeting) human life can be. I developed a much deeper respect for nature, for my family and for my own life, than McCandless ever had the opportunity to do for his own. And I'd imagine that, had he survived, and grown up to become a rationally thinking adult (instead of remaining an idealistic, naive, daydreamer) he would probably not have the same take on his experience, that Ken and many McCandless lovers seem to have. But that's just my opinion.

We can use all the poetic rhetoric we wish, to try to romanticize McCandless's experience. But facts are facts. He was an exceptionally unique young man, whose lust for life led to his tragic and untimely demise. It is impossible for me to view his life as an example of "living free" because he was not free at all...he was completely trapped. And he sacrificed what could have been a very long and happy life filled with freedom and adventure, for three months on a bus in the middle of nowhere, freezing and starving to death.

How is this an example of living free??? I see it as an example of self-imprisonment...where your insatiable desire to live free has trapped you...clouded your ability to think rationally...and caused you to kill the most precious gift you will ever have...your own life.

Ken said...

Hi Mike. My thoughts are beneath yours.

“I get it - it IS foolish, to think of yourself as ‘living free’ when you're shacked up with govt housing and all of life's modern amenities. But it is equally as ridiculous, to view McCandless's adventure as the model for ‘a free life.’”

I have never referred to Chris’s experiences as a “model” of living free, which you emphasize I’ve done. I think there are many ways to live a free life. (I even explicitly point out in my essay that, “A ‘free life’ can mean a lot of things.”) You could eschew home and career to live the life of the tramp. You could live in a cabin in the woods. You could live in a suburb with a job, family, and mortgage—because, if those are things you wanted, haven’t you exercised your freedom to get them? When I worked as a Park Ranger and was living in government-provided housing, I didn’t feel unfree… I paid rent, worked for a wage, and provided for myself. These are all examples of freedom, and I acknowledge how freedom is a subjective concept to be defined on an individual basis. Again, I do not, and have not, claimed that McCandless’s experience was a model of freedom, and I fear you’re merely confusing other McCandless apologists’ beliefs with my own.

“Ken even implies that bringing a map and compass in some way, limits the free living one can experience in the back country. And this is pretty absurd, as even Hilary and Norgay had a compasses, as did Lewis and Clark, and so on.”

Where exactly did I imply this? I recall saying something about “excessive technology,” referring to motorboats, cars, planes, and, maybe to a lesser extent, a GPS unit and satellite phone. Never would I suggest that one cannot have a liberating experience while using something as simple as a compass and map, so I fear, again, you’re putting some rather incoherent thoughts into my mouth. And I can even imagine situations in which one can have a liberating outdoors experience with a satellite phone and a big boat, too. Again, it’s all dependent on the person, her motivations, and her aptitude as an outdoorswoman.

Your overall point escapes me. The expeditions of Hilary and Norgay, and Lewis and Clark were undertaken for purposes very different than McCandless’s. Hillary and Norgay were attempting to be the first to accomplish a physical feat. Lewis and Clark were paid explorers. McCandless, rather, was setting out on a challenging existential journey to provoke a personal transformation, or embrace his days with an uncommon exuberance, or some combination of the two. McCandless wanted a life-or-death situation, which required that he take something close to the bare minimum into the wild. Was that smart? For Hilary and Clark it wouldn’t be. For McCandless’s aims, it was necessary.

[On a side note, it should be said that the compass and map are relatively new inventions. The compass goes back just 2200 years, and even then it was only known to a few cultures. The Eskimos and Native Americans that populated the New World had neither, and were able to accomplish amazing feats of navigation and exploration without parchment or mechanical instruments.]

Ken said...

Part two...

“I bring many rudimentary items that are necessary to survive my adventures - which is kind of a necessity, in order to LIVE free. You have to be alive, in order to be living, right?”

You have to be alive to be living, sure, but you can also die and have lived a free life.

“And I learned from my experience, that there is a very fine line between ‘true freedom’ and ‘reckless idiocy.’ I recognized how fragile (and often, fleeting) human life can be. I developed a much deeper respect for nature, for my family and for my own life, than McCandless ever had the opportunity to do for his own.”

It’s arguable that McCandless didn’t learn these things. I’d hazard to guess that he did to some extent and would have come back a slightly different person, which is a belief I draw from my own experiences. It seems you yourself profited from your hazardous Grand Canyon journey, yet, strangely, you seem to dismiss all the virtues and benefits of perilous, under-prepared journeys.

“It is impossible for me to view his life as an example of ‘living free’ because he was not free at all...he was completely trapped.”

Again, I think we’re giving the idea of “freedom” too narrow a definition. Yes, he was physically trapped in the wild behind a raging river and was, in that way, “unfree,” but he very well could have felt other forms of freedom, even while dying. One would only need a little imagination to entertain such an idea.

“I am a back-country adventurer who has summited peaks, nearly three times the altitude of Ken's little 6k stroll.”

Really?