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Just How Crazy Was Chris McCandless?

The protagonist of Into the Wild made a romantic retreat away from civilization, but he forgot that social behavior helped pre-industrial man to survive.

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During the work week, nine of my college friends and I have a habit of frequently emailing each other throughout the day, inundating each other’s inboxes with links, comical banter and tongue-in-cheek diatribes on office life. Utilizing "Reply All," we keep each other updated on our mostly unexciting post-college lives in New York, L.A., Baltimore, Boston, northern Jersey and Philadelphia. A typical day of this nine-way interstate conversation might start out with a discussion of breakfast sandwiches or how to perfect your milk-to-oatmeal ratio. Recently, however, this lighthearted distraction turned abruptly serious and deep when my friend Lainey mentioned she was reading the book Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer. We had all seen the movie in 2008 and I had also read the book last fall. Suddenly, we all had something to say about Chris McCandless and his dream.

While the Into the Wild film is, in my opinion, one of the rare instances when a movie is of the same caliber as the book, the literary version provides a more exhaustive analysis of McCandless’ character through the presence of Krakauer's narrative voice. During his narration, the author examines the experiences that shaped McCandless’ personality and ideals through extensive interviews with his family and the myriad acquaintances he met during his journey from Virginia to Alaska.

Krakauer, himself an outdoorsmen and avid mountain climber, explores McCandless’ vision of modern man returning to nature through several examinations of other 20th century voyagers with McCandless-like aspirations. Among them is the strong-willed Gene Rosellini who, in 1977, began an almost life-long “anthropological experiment” in Cordova, Alaska to see if modern humans were capable of subsisting in a purely natural state. Convinced that modernity had caused our species to devolve into “progressively inferior beings,” Rosellini spent over 10 years living in a hand-built hovel outside Cordova eating only roots, berries, seaweed and game he hunted with spears and snares. After over a decade of this lifestyle he wrote,

I began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native. For 30 years, I programmed and conditioned myself to this end. In the last 10 of it I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental, and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to-face with pure reality. I learned it was not possible for human beings, as we know them to live off the land.

Could Rosellini’s conclusion be true? Has our collective physical and mental capacity degenerated so drastically over the centuries that we literally cannot live without at least some of his self-created products, medicines or comforts?  

My friend James, an environmental engineer and nature enthusiast who has spent entire summers in the woods of New Hampshire without any form of communication with the “real world,” disagreed with Rosellini. He argued that the problem was not devolution and that we were not so physically different from our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago—a quick period of time on an evolutionary scale. Instead, James saw the problem as an immense deterioration of survival knowledge that had taken generations upon generations to build up and subsequently would take generations to regain. “The knowledge required for successful hunting, food-growing, clothes-making, shelter-building, and caring for young is being lost to computers and technology,” he wrote to all of us. “I hope this knowledge survives, and that’s why I take an interest in it. I'm not looking to live on my own in the outdoors, but I think it’s fun to get into challenging situations to learn about myself and figure out who I am. ”

James is not alone in his youthful desire for self-discovery and character building through the tests of unbridled wilderness. The late Rob Gauntlett, whose recent death made international headlines in January, was a real-life embodiment of these transcendentalist sentiments. In 2006, two years prior to his untimely end in the Swiss Alps, Gauntlett became the youngest Briton to summit Mount Everest at age 19. In 2008, he and a friend embarked on a 26,000-mile odyssey from the north pole to the south pole using only bikes, sleds, skis, and sails. This 13-month intercontinental trek earned Gauntlett the 2008 Adventurer of the Year award from National Geographic Adventurer magazine.

But aside from the need for self-discovery, what else might compel a young person like Gauntlett or McCandless to venture into the wilderness? I think it has to do with a deeper desire for independence, a surprisingly elusive concept in our society. Think about all the products you use upon waking up in the morning—soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, conditioner and deodorant. All formulated by scientists, patented, mass manufactured by millions of workers. Marketed, advertised and shipped. Industrial society forces you into extreme dependence on others—really random, far away, complete stranger “others” that you will never meet in your life.

The conversation was reminding me of Leonard E. Read’s libertarian propagandist essay "I, Pencil" in which all the worldly materials—wood, rubber, aluminum, graphite—and various processes involved in producing a seemingly simple pencil are cross-examined to the point where readers realize that society’s interconnected functions are far too complex for any one person to understand; thus we should all just be self-interested, sit back, and let the divine Invisible Hand work it’s magic. At least that’s how the professor who assigned me the essay felt. During class, he made the argument that Thoreau, one of McCandless’ primary inspirations, was living in a cabin at Walden and that cabin’s logs were a product of the logging industry and they were being held together by nails which were products of mining. Not so radically detached as Thoreau himself advertised, in other words.

The same can be said about McCandless. Where was he living? A steel school bus. How was he killing meat? A gun with bullets. How was he making fire? Matches. All these things, crucial to his survival, were products of modernity. My friend Trevor wondered how one would go about defining “living in the wild” in our modern times. Living outside? Living without anything manmade or without contact with others? “Our ancestors could not have survived without technology, whether fire, or bows and arrows; how is that so different from our existence with technology today?” he wrote. “Sure you can strip away some elements (TV, Internet, etc.) to be more natural, per se, but if you are still sleeping in a lean-to you built, how then is it so different from a house? It’s still a shelter.”

I suppose it would be possible but highly unlikely for McCandless to survive without the essential but modern products he had in Fairbanks. For alternative shelter, he could construct a house or tepee of sorts using wood, but how would he cut down trees? A metal axe or by burning, most likely. I suppose if he knew metallurgy he could make an axe, but that seems unnecessarily difficult. For fire he could use flint rocks but would it be possible to start the conflagration needed to fell a tree with such a weak spark given the inhospitable, moist Alaskan air?  

Assuming we are in fact physically identical to our ancient ancestors, then of course it’s possible for one to survive in nature without the things McCandless possessed. Otherwise, our predecessors would not have made it and I would not be alive in my cubicle having email discussions about oatmeal. Then I had an epiphany, albeit an obvious one: If James' idea was true, that we have not physically evolved at all, then it seems the only reason our primordial counterparts survived is because they had each other. The more people, the more successful hunting was, the easier it would have been to build shelters, keep warm and keep an eye on the young.

Just as we presently cannot live in our interconnected society without dependency on many people, our ancestors had no choice but to depend on many others to survive as well. Perhaps McCandless and Thoreau were not entirely right to think that a truthful, real existence could be experienced in the wild simply because the knowledge and help of other people is crucial to living in this “natural” way. After his encompassing rejection of society and people, transcontinental journey, and tireless soul-searching, McCandless seems to have come to a conclusion about basic human dependency when he wrote towards the end of his life, “happiness is only real when shared.” This is the real tragedy of Into the Wild.   

While McCandless and Rosellini deserve credit for their individualism, bravery and willpower, aspiring to a bare-minimum lifestyle to the extent they did is not the solution to our problem-ridden society. Yes, our system is flawed in many ways and has a tendency to make life painfully unexciting at times. But, since human life is supported only through the social systems we’ve built over time, a full rejection of those systems doesn’t really represent a “return” to anything.

It seems McCandless, driven by his ferocious black-and-white moral code and the anger he felt towards his parents for lying to him, found fault with just about everything and everyone. The only solution to him at the time was to reject it all, at least temporarily. Had he re-entered society, I doubt McCandless would ever concede to sitting in a cubicle conversing about Snuggies and sandwiches, but maybe he would have thought to share his vision with others—calling friends, enlightening people, and helping to make modern life more exciting and more truthful.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    Feb 19, 2009, 09:28AM
    Very interesting article, Sarah, bravo! It's quite intriguing that people seem to envision a return to "nature" (a highly socially constructed idea) as a solitary pursuit. As you correctly point out the human race never passed through a "natural" state in which everyone was living completely alone and fending for him or her self. Humans are universally social. I'm reminded of an intriguing neanderthal fossil from (if I remember correctly) the Levant; the neanderthal had lost most of his right arm, and the bone had atrophied significantly. This means that he must have lost the arm years before his death, which in turn implies that his neanderthal friends helped him survive. A state of "nature" is not a state of solitude.
  • Go to comment.
    Feb 19, 2009, 11:30AM
    man i hated that movie cause that kid was such an insolent douche.
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    Feb 23, 2009, 06:59AM
    These people have romanticized mans "natural state" so much that they forget how short and brutal early man's life was. Even with the necessary knowledge and companionship, living in the wild would really suck, especially after you've tasted a Big Mac.
  • Go to comment.
    Feb 23, 2009, 07:14AM
    "Power dwells apart in its tranquillity, Remote, serene, and inaccessible: And this, the naked countenance of earth, On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains Teach the adverting mind."
  • Go to comment.
    Mar 01, 2009, 04:32PM
    Thanks asamsky...that is very interesting about the Neanderthal...while I came to the realization that "living in a natural state" however you might define that, could only be achieved through the help of others, there is something to be said about the personal growth/benefits of temporary isolation and/or solitary journeys. There are many examples of artists/writers/creators spending extended periods of time in nature or by themselves and becoming inspired and producing incredible work - Thoreau, Bon Iver, etc.; spending time/surviving by yourself can definitely be good but only temporarily.
  • Go to comment.
    Mar 01, 2009, 04:42PM
    Lloyd -- I can definitely see why you and others find CM to be an "insolent douche" but I can't say I agree with that assessment. I'd definitely say he was self-righteous. I think his issue was he was an extremely deep thinker who over-analyzed everything and developed a moral code that was impossible for any person to live up to. Seems like he had no capacity for forgiveness, at least prior to his journey - although it was weird how he could not forgive his parents for their lie but he didn't think any less of the authors he admired most - many of whom were philanderers, addicts, or amoral in some way. I admire CM though because he had strong beliefs and lived his life according to them, he sought the truth above all else, and he just didnt give a f*ck what anyone else thought about him.
  • Go to comment.
    Nov 30, 2009, 06:47AM
    I love this essay, and I love your conclusion. I have a little bit of a different perspective, though. I believe that early man was always striving for exactly the lives we live now. They were thinking, "Some day, I will not have to stand in this freezing water before dawn, in the middle of winter, trying to catch fish for my tribe so that we do not starve. Some day, we can be warm all the time, and our parents will not be eaten by predators as they weaken into their late 20's. Some day, we will all have enough to eat, and enough time to enjoy the talents of each other." I believe that if you take the perspective of early man, and look around at how we live today, you would realize that we do not have the right to be so snooty about our lives. We should enjoy every artificial luxury that we have created for ourselves.
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    Nov 30, 2009, 08:42AM
    I fully endorse alanzo's take on this topic. Nothing wrong with "artificial" luxuries. I went camping early this fall and it was one disaster after another, though of just the irksome kind. Think I'll get my nature fill by driving and walking around.
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