Christopher McCandless, known as “Alexander Supertramp” was an American adventurer who died on August 18, 1992, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s biographical story Into the Wild adapted for cinema in 2007 by Sean Penn in the film of the same name. One of the best movies ever (with the scary soundtrack by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam) and one of the most significant books ever read. On the day of his disappearance, we tell you his story.
The first years of Christopher McCandless
Christopher Joseph McCandless was born on February 12, 1968 – to Walt McCandless and Wilhelmina Johnson. His father was born in Greeley, Colorado and became a physical engineer; from a first marriage he had four children and then remarried in 1967. From this second marriage two children were born (Christopher and Carine). He settled in Annandale, in the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the nicknamed Jon Krakauer, who had analyzed Chris’s diaries, Chris McCandless’s personality was complex: he had a keen sense of his private domination, but he could be friendly or extremely sociable; he tended to measure people with a particularly rigorous moral code.
Chris was a talented young man who wanted to understand what it is to live beyond social conventions and the artificial structure of society by embarking on a journey that will be tragic. In this he remembers Arthur Rimbaud and his trip to Abyssinia but also, in a certain way, also Kurt Cobain.
His relationship with his parents deteriorated the day he learned of the circumstances in which his father separated from his first wife. What happened was that Walt McCandless had a child with his first wife sometime after he married Wilhelmina Johnson.
Chris’ mind turned to idealism and pantheism. Rejecting the modern consumer society, he felt a certain disgust for the human being that pushed him to isolate himself. At a very young age, he devoured the books of Henry David Thoreau, Emerson and Jack London and shared the philosophical ideas of these authors.
In 1986, Chris McCandless graduated from Woodson High School. During that time he spent several weeks in Arizona, Virginia and Texas. He later entered Emory University, more to please the family than out of real desire. He graduated in 1990 and left his family shortly thereafter.
Memories of the family
According to his parents, Chris had always been a motivated person, a winner who couldn’t bear to give up on a project that was close to his heart. He therefore had an iron will that withstood many tests. Stubborn, he didn’t listen much to the comments of those close to him.
When Christopher was 12, he and his father went on a mountain trip on one of their usual summer hikes. When they reached the 3,000 meters that separated them from the valley, they both noticed that the rest of the way to the top was dangerous and steep. Walt decided it was time to go back downstairs, but Chris didn’t and protested. He wanted to continue and walk to the top of the mountain. His father eventually convinced him to give up. “If he had been 14 or 15, I would have let him go himself,” Walt later stated. “But he was too young. It has always been like that with Chris, we had to keep taking him by the collar of his shirt ”
Chris McCandless turned out to be a truly great sportsman, third best runner in his state and in his category. He loved running, competing in cross-country competitions and training often. Also he had become the coach of the high school cross-country ski team and challenged his teammates with hard training. He was cunning and intelligent and used these qualities of his, believing that the only way to achieve a goal was with the mind, spirit and will.
Chris’s aspirations for wildlife drew inspiration from his grandfather, who lived in the countryside. They adored each other and could not separate.
When Chris went to college, where he also had excellent grades, he did not make friends with other students, often rejected his former classmates and did not participate in extracurricular activities. He didn’t have many guests and very rarely left his small minimalist bedroom. As mentioned above, he preferred to find happiness in the books of Thoreau, Tolstoy or even Jack London.
“It was inevitable that Chris would leave,” his sister said. “Nobody could have stopped him.” After his graduation and his father’s birthday, Chris left. He didn’t write to his family, didn’t even make a phone call. His sister added again: “I think if Chris didn’t write to me there was a reason. He was living his life and enjoying it, I was trying to understand him and wait for him to return. ”
Christopher McCandless’ trip
Away from Atlanta
Christopher McCandless left Atlanta in July 1990. His travels took him to the southern United States, through Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Montana then, through Canada, Alaska. This journey into nature is also a little child of that hippie culture that wanted to know the world by traveling whose emblem, of which we have spoken to you, is Easy Rider.
Detrital Wash is a flowing river in Arizona; it originates in the mountains north of Kingman and flows into the Colorado River, opposite Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. During the summer, condensation can cause thunderstorms that turn the dry river bed into a muddy stream.
Chris McCandless reached Detrital Wash on July 6, 1990. He parked the car at the bottom of the dry river bed but was suddenly chased away by a storm, which gave him just enough time to take refuge on the embankments, while the car was covered with rain. water. He abandoned the vehicle to continue on foot.
A botanist discovered the car three months later, and donated it to the state. It is still in use.
Christopher McCandless left Detrital Wash on July 10, 1990 and went to the Sierra Nevada, where he worked on a ranch before leaving for Arcata (California). He went up the Pacific coast to Oregon. On August 10, he was fined for hitchhiking near Willow Creek: inadvertently, he gave the address of his parents, who received the unpaid fine at the end of the month.
Chris McCandless then descends to Arizona and reaches Topock on October 28, 1990. He explores the Colorado River region and enters Mexico; he arrested him while he was trying to return to the United States without ID, he spent a night in jail on January 18, 1991. On February 3, 1991 he arrived in Los Angeles to obtain a new identity card. For several weeks he lived on the streets with tramps and drunks. In May 1991 he moved to Bullhead City, where he got a job as a waiter at McDonald’s, but left after three weeks.
He later arrived at the edge of the Salton Sea, a miniature ocean located south of Las Vegas and created by a technical accident in the 1960s (a Colorado canal, having broken its dams, flowed for several months in the plain. Salton, drowned farms and habitation: water drowned 1,000 square kilometers of desert and created an inland sea). He lived there for several weeks among the vagabonds, then left the region for San Diego and then for Alaska.
In March 1992, Chris McCandless arrived in Montana, in Carthage, where he worked on a ranch to save money and go to Alaska.
He left Montana on April 15, 1992 to arrive in Alaska 6 days later. He was then picked up on hitchhiking by Gaylord Stuckey, who took him to Fairbanks where they arrived on April 25th. Chris Mc Candless then headed south to the Stampede Trail where he arrived two days later.
The last months of Christopher McCandless
The Stampede Trail was built in the 1930s and is located 60km from the town of Healy. Despite the abandonment of the mine, traces of antimony remain in the area. The Trail is located outside Denali National Park and crosses the Teklanika River. In 1961 it partially became a street: the company in charge of the works bought three old disused buses which they transformed into lodgings; when the work was stopped, two of the buses were brought back to the company but one of them remained there, 40km west of Healy.
It was in this bus that Chris McCandless moved on April 28, 1992; he spent the last five months of his life there (112 days of survival in the wilderness), essentially feeding on wild potato roots as well as on small animals that he hunted with guns. Chris would then mistakenly consume the poisonous seeds of a plant.
Near the moment of his death, McCandless took a picture of himself as he waved, holding a note, which read:
I HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND I THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND GOD BLESS EVERYONE.
On September 6, 1992, some hunters went to the bus to hunt elk; there they met a young couple who, alerted by the smell, were a few meters from the bus, frightened. It was Gordon Samuel who peeked out of a window and saw a sleeping bag from which Chris McCandless’s head was sticking out. Unlike what we told you about Amelia Erhart and Antoine de Saint-Exupery over the past few weeks, this adventurer was found.
The body was brought back to Anchorage and subjected to an autopsy; the coroner concluded that he had died of malnutrition. His body was cremated and his ashes returned to his family on September 20, 1992.
The discrepancies between Krakauer’s account and the reality of the facts
The simultaneous release, in 2007, of a fiction film and a documentary dedicated to Chris McCandless’s journey (Into the Wild, by Sean Penn and Call of the Wild, by Ron Lamothe) allowed to highlight the discrepancy between the story told by Jon Krakauer in his book – the story from which Sean Penn was directly inspired – and factual reality.
It turned out that, contrary to what Krakauer and Penn suggest, McCandless never destroyed his identity documents. His wallet, intact, was in fact found in his backpack on the bus by Will Forsberg, a man who lived in the area. The wallet contained McCandless’s Social Security card along with his birth certificate, driver’s license, library card, voting card, and a Nevada-issued health card. The wallet also contained US $ 300.
These elements, ignored by Krakauer, shed new light on McCandless’s adventure: we can in fact safely deduce that he had every intention of returning to civilization at the end of his stay in the countryside. Some therefore believe that Krakauer pushed the line by making McCandless a romantic hero completely out of society. Penn, on the other hand, can defend himself by indicating that he has made a work of fiction based on a true story.
In the latest edition of his book, Krakauer also suggested that McCandless may indeed have been poisoned by moldy wild potato seeds. This thesis is also dismantled by Ron Lamothe in his documentary Call of the Wild.
Public Opinion and Christopher McCandless Legacy
Far from the idealistic and romantic point of view of many Krakauer readers, some Alaskans give a very hard judgment on this adventure. For example, Alaska Park ranger Peter Christian points out that McCandless was grossly unprepared and didn’t even have a map of the area; he considers it a real “suicide”. The young man did not know that a manual ferry operated on the river, a few hundred meters from the Stampede Trail, as well as a shelter containing basic necessities.
Curiously, until the release of the documentary Call of the Wild in 2007, no one ever mentioned the fact that McCandless actually had a map, which was given by the authorities to his parents in September 1992, with other items belonging to him.
After Chris’s death, a plaque in memory of him was affixed to the inside of the bus by his father, Walt McCandless. “The Magic Bus” has become a pilgrimage destination for hikers who camped at the vehicle.
On June 18, 2020, various government agencies coordinated to permanently remove the bus, believed to be a public safety concern after at least 15 people had to be rescued and at least two people died trying to cross the Teklanika River to reach the bus.
On September 24, 2020, the University of Alaska Museum of the North announces that it is the permanent home of McCandless’s “Magic Bus 142″, where it will receive a complete restoration. In addition, an outdoor exhibition is planned to tell the story of him.
Christopher McCandless’s life has become the subject of numerous articles, books, films and documentaries, which have helped elevate his life to the status of a modern myth. For some he has become a romantic figure inspired by what they see as his free-spirited idealism, but for others he is a controversial figure.
The questions that remain after reading this summary I think are many. What were Christopher McCandless’s real motives? Did he deliberately want to die or “get away from the madding crowd”? Why did he push himself so far?
Chris’s sister, Carine, explains many of these reasons in the video below but also in the book we mentioned earlier “Into the Wild Truth“.
She tells us that Christopher McCandless has embarked on a journey as he was disappointed in life and society. A society that, according to conventions, had accepted a violent father as normal. Especially at this precise moment in history, we believe it is not difficult to identify with Chris’s story, which still remains relevant after almost 30 years.
What Carine invites us to reflect on is to think of her brother as a human being who tells a human experience, not as an icon. And to reflect on the fact that Chris must be remembered not because of his death, but because he had really lived.