Friday, July 28, 2017

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

The allure of wanderlust
Journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, published in 1996, is an expansion of an article he previously published in Outside magazine in 1993. The book is an investigative biography examining the life and death of Chris McCandless, who, immediately after graduating college, gave all his money to charity, broke all ties with his family, and embraced a life on the open road, sometimes living a primitive solitary lifestyle in remote natural areas. Krakauer tracks McCandless’s travels across North America from Atlanta to Alaska and engages in in-depth interviews with the people whom he met along the way. Unfortunately, this is a posthumous biography because McCandless died in Alaska, having chosen to venture alone into harsh conditions with minimal preparation. Krakauer pieces together the final days of McCandless’s life and conjectures as to the young man’s cause of death. The book is more than simply one man’s life story, however, as Krakauer uses McCandless as a case study to draw larger conclusions about our relationship with nature and the motives that drive some to take fatal risks.

Into the Wild is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, and I recently reread it for the second or third time. McCandless’s journey really speaks to me on a personal level. He and I are roughly the same age and both lovers of the literature of Jack London and classic literature in general. McCandless took the works of London, Tolstoy, and Thoreau to heart, adopting the ethical code of individualism and living in accordance with nature that they advocated and turning it into his own personal quest for spiritual enlightenment. In many ways I envy the freedom of McCandless’s deliberately nomadic existence. The conventions of society, the demands of work, the responsibilities of civilization, and the rules and regulations we are all constantly subject to leave little room for personal freedom or the nurturing of personal ethics. How many of us have occasionally thought life would be so much more meaningful if we could strip away all the bull and get back to the basic necessities of life? Well, McCandless pulled it off, for a while anyway. Sadly, it killed him in the process.

McCandless’s story combines romantic idealism with sometimes stupid mistakes and unforgivable hubris—wandering into the wilderness without a map and little food, for example. Krakauer does not let McCandless off the hook for his poor choices. McCandless’s wandering lifestyle is not portrayed as idyllic, but rather described with a balanced consideration of its rewards and faults. Thus, there’s something for everyone in this book, as one can make a case either to admire McCandless or to despise him.

In addition to his study of McCandless, Krakauer provides a fascinating overview of other idealists who chose to live “off the grid” under dangerous conditions. Most of these often foolhardy individuals ended up disappearing without a trace. One shocking example is Carl McCunn, who had himself flown into the remote Alaskan bush to live off the land for a few months but failed to arrange a pickup for a return trip. Krakauer adds a mountain climbing story of his own to the mix, which may or may not be relevant, but at least it’s well-told. All of these examples demonstrate a need for mankind to commune with the wild, partly to withdraw from society and partly to test one’s own mettle and fortitude. Though one may choose to write McCandless off as a crackpot hippie, one cannot deny that the call to go “into the wild” exists, and Krakauer gives it its proper due here by examining it in psychological and philosophical depth. Into the Wild is a thought-provoking, soul-stirring, and heart-wrenching book that I wholeheartedly recommend.
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