In May 1990, after graduating from Emory University, 22-year-old Chris McCandless told his parents he was taking a road trip. ‘I think I’m going to disappear for a while,’ he said. Over the next few months he abandoned his car in a riverbed, gave what was left of his college trust fund to Oxfam, destroyed his identification, and adopted a new name, Alexander Supertramp. His parents did not hear of him again, until he turned up dead, apparently from starvation, in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness in September of 1992. A daily log, kept in the blank pages at the back of a guide to edible plants, revealed he had survived in the wilderness for 112 days.
I first saw Sean Penn’s 2007 film Into the Wild, an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book about McCandless’s journey, a few years ago. I hadn’t yet read the book, so I experienced the film on its own terms. The narrative switches back and forth between McCandless’s two years on the road, and his final months in Alaska. On the road, Emile Hirsch as Alexander Supertramp is sage-like: an outlier and a Samaritan who helps and inspires the people he meets, then moves on, like the German shepherd in the 1970s children’s show, The Littlest Hobo. Over the Alaskan scenes, relayed mostly in montage, Eddie Vedder’s baritone swoops and soars, steeped in manly longing, yet triumphant and free – even, and especially, at the end.
As Vedder croons his bittersweet lament, a final pull-back shot takes us from the bus, and McCandless’s recently deceased body, to an aerial view of the landscape, before settling on a final frame: a still image of McCandless – the real McCandless – sitting outside the bus. He is smiling. This image jolted me out of the half-dream state that had settled over me during the film. I hadn’t just been watching a tragic tale. McCandless was a real person, and he really died. A text overlay reveals that his body was discovered by moose hunters two weeks after his death. The self-portrait was found, undeveloped, in his camera.
In June 1995, three years after Alexander Supertramp went into the Alaskan wild, Cheryl Strayed, a 26-year-old woman from Minnesota, set out to hike an 1100-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, from California’s Mojave Desert, to Ashland, Oregon – or as much as she could cover in a 100 days. In the years prior, she had lost her mother to cancer, then sought solace in casual sex, destroying her marriage in the process. For a short time, she dabbled in heroin. Like Alexander Supertramp, her wayward-sounding name was chosen to signify a new beginning. ‘I didn’t embrace my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life,’ she wrote in her 2012 memoir Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, ‘but because even in my darkest days – those very days in which I was naming myself – I saw the power of the darkness.’
McCandless and Strayed were both in their mid-twenties when they went into the wild. These were the twilight years of the analogue age, and they both sought to record and report their experiences using the tools of that age – 35mm film cameras, letters, postcards, and handwritten notes. On the trail, Strayed wrote in a 200-page hardback sketchbook, recording snippets of conversation and other details that later became the basis for her memoir. As well as keeping a daily log, and taking self-portraits, McCandless annotated his books, and carved a brief, somewhat grandiose, autobiography into the plywood frame of the bus. ‘And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure,’ he wrote, about the experience he called his Alaskan Odyssey. ‘No longer to be poisoned by civilisation he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.’ From these remnants Krakauer, and then Penn, created a narrative of a life.
McCandless and Strayed both read, and reread, books. McCandless read London, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Crichton and Thoreau. Strayed began her hike with four books in her backpack: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California; a map and compass handbook, Staying Found; Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; and The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich. She picked up new books as she went, having posted them beforehand, along with other vital supplies, to collection points along the trail. To lighten her load, she burned the pages as she read them. The burning felt like sacrilege, but more palatable than the alternative: to do without books all together. A list of books burned (or traded) appears in the back pages of Wild.
It’s impossible to know, now, what literature meant to McCandless but Krakauer and Penn seem convinced that his outlook, and ultimately his fate, was heavily influenced by his literary heroes. In Krakauer’s book, and even more so in Penn’s film, the passages McCandless highlighted are presented to us as evidence. Two thirds of the way into the film, Alex lies on the bed in the bus reading a passage from Tolstoy’s Family Happiness:
I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; their work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour – such is my idea of happiness.
Afterwards, McCandless packs up and leaves, intending to return to society. But the river he had crossed two months earlier with ease is now raging with snowmelt – impassable. He returns to the bus and so begins his final descent, to starvation, and death.
On 30 July, McCandless wrote in his log: ‘Extremely weak. Fault of pot seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great Jeopardy.’ These oblique, fragmented sentences have become the pivotal moment in the narrative of Chris McCandless’s life. From this, Krakauer, and then Penn, presented a hypothesis that McCandless did not simply die from starvation – he died because he ate the seeds of the wild sweet pea, which are toxic, mistaking them for those of the wild potato. He was poisoned. It is a seductive theory, because we crave story, and we want to know what really happened, we are willing to believe that the story and the truth are one and the same. But it diverts us from the only immutable fact of this tragic tale: a young man went into the wild and died, and we will never really know why.
McCandless leaves a farewell note: ‘I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All.’ He signs the note Christopher Johnson McCandless, and Hirsch’s voice can be heard, repeating lines from Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the last book McCandless ever read: ‘To call each thing by its right name…by its right name.’
Krakauer’s book is as much about his search to uncover the facts, and to assemble a narrative based on these facts, as it is about McCandless. He freely admits to having a kind of obsession with the McCandless story, and that it is driven by a personal connection. As a young man Krakauer embarked on his own solo adventure in Alaska, to climb the Devils Thumb, a ‘towering prong of vertical rock and avalanching ice’. He was twenty-three, one year younger than McCandless when he undertook his Alaskan Odyssey, ‘an angst-ridden youth who read too much Nietzsche, mistook passion for insight, and functioned according to an obscure gap-ridden logic’. When reading Into the Wild we know – or should know – that Krakauer, for reasons of his own, needs to believe that McCandless died an accidental, yet explicable, death.
Film has a way of making us more passive: layers of nuance are stripped away, necessarily, to shape the material into its own distinct form. The visual takes precedence. Climactic points are chosen. Certain events are highlighted over others. We see what is essentially the filmmaker’s perspective, as what is. Returning to Into the Wild after reading the book I found it heavy-handed, especially the scenes where McCandless realises he’s been poisoned. I want still to be mesmerised, and swept away by the film’s beauty, but I know now that I’m being tricked.
Wild was optioned by Reese Witherspoon before it was even published, and the film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer’s Club), with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and starring Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, was released in Australian cinemas in January 2015. I proceeded with caution, tempering my anticipatory urges with measured doses of doubt. The film is visually stunning, as I knew it would be, and Witherspoon is brave and self-deprecating and stubborn and vulnerable, as I’d hoped she would be. Inevitably, scenes and characters were cut, or condensed; some were pared back to the point where – particularly in the case of Cheryl’s one night stand in Ashland – I wondered whether viewers who hadn’t read the book would fully understand the context. Others seemed oddly prosaic, included purely for exposition’s sake, or as product placement.
Wild, the book, is a memoir, written fifteen years after the hike had taken place, contemplative both in mood and intent. Wild, the film, was a ride, and over too fast – the narrative unfurling at a thriller-like pace. As Cheryl hikes the trail, her back story is revealed, achronologically, via her thoughts and memories, which spill, prompted and unprompted – as single images, vignettes, snatches of dialogue, and the occasional longer scene – from her mind onto the screen. To me this was Vallée’s masterstroke – to bring Cheryl’s internal world, and the events leading up to her hiking the trail into the visual realm in a way that seems entirely natural. The scenes emerge in the same intrusive, chaotic way that memories often do, before coalescing into a coherent story. Because of this immediacy, and despite its nods to mid-90s pop culture – a character humming along to ‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes, references to Kurt Cobain, scenes of neo-hippies mourning Jerry Garcia’s death – the film seems eerily of the now.
In the American summer of 1994, at the age of twenty-one, I spent three months living and working at Little Elk Ranch, a horse-riding camp in Browerville, Minnesota, about two hours drive west of Aitkin County, where Strayed spent her teenage years. After the camp I met up with three female friends in Niagara Falls, where we bought an old motorhome. Research, and our better judgement, advised against buying a twenty-year-old vehicle in the rust belt, but we bought it anyway, because it was hilariously hideous and had a working stereo, and we were impatient for adventure.
A week later the engine blew up on a turnpike driving into Boston and we paid almost as much as the vehicle had cost to get it fixed. Another week after that, leaving Manhattan after a night out, a holding tank came loose and dragged along the ground until we ripped it off and stowed it inside the motorhome. Half an hour later, on the Long Island Expressway, we smelled smoke: the side of our motorhome was in flames. The Fire Department arrived soon after. In putting out the blaze, they hacked a metre-long gash right next to the exhaust. Our New York experience was dulled by mild carbon monoxide poisoning and quiet contemplation: should we cut our losses and just sell the bloody thing? We decided to press on.
Over the next few months we drank too much bourbon and ate too much Burger King. We flirted and kissed and slept with boys then drove away, to the next town, and did it all again. We slept overnight in car parks, and played ‘I’ve never ever’ in hostels. We relied on our wits, and on the kindness of strangers. We visited dozens of mechanics, each of them scoffing when we told them where we were headed. We wrote letters home. I wrote in my journal. We took photos and developed them as we went along, reminding ourselves of things we’d done and people we’d met before they could be forgotten. When we eventually made it to the west coast, and saw the Pacific glimmering in the distance, our jubilation was tamed by the knowledge that on the other side of the ocean, our adult lives were waiting.
Kurt Cobain had been dead for eight months. For a whole day in the middle of June, America was glued to their televisions, watching OJ run. Reality Bites had just been released and I can remember watching, in baffled awe, an MTV production called The Real World: San Francisco, about so-called ‘real’ people who lived together in a house filled with cameras that followed their every move. It could only happen in America, we thought. We were wrong.
In San Francisco I bought a copy of On the Road at the City Lights Bookstore. At the time I wrote that I bought it ‘despite my feelings that Jack and the Beat movement seems to revolve around men. There’s no point carrying my feminist beliefs to the point where it would cut me off from doing something I want to, or believing in something.’ I’m impressed that my 21-year-old self thought of herself as a feminist; I don’t remember that. What I do remember is this: I had strayed away from books as a teenager, along with my childhood dream of being a writer. Being on the road, and reading On the Road, brought me back.
Alaska is no place to find yourself, McCandless’s critics have said. But he wasn’t trying to find himself. He wanted to lose himself. When Jim Gallien, who gave him a lift to the start of the Stampede Trail, asked if he had a map McCandless said, ‘I don’t want to know where I’m going.’ He tried to give Gallien his watch, adding, ‘I don’t want to know what time it is. I don’t want to know what day it is or where I am.’ Strayed lacked experience and made mistakes – her boots were too small, her pack too heavy – but unlike McCandless she was over-equipped for her challenge, and her risks were calculated. She adjusted her plans when she had to, in the interest of self-preservation. As a young woman, she was well aware of her vulnerability, aware that autonomy and self-sufficiency were not a given right, but something to be earned and savoured.
The McCandless story will always gnaw at me. But it is Strayed’s story that I will turn to; it is her story that I would share with my daughters, and with my sons. It is her story that pulls us somewhere good, takes us back to the wellspring, back into life itself. She writes, both in Wild and in her legendary Dear Sugar columns, with a brutal honesty about sex and death and life, eschewing – for the most part – Oprahesque self-help mantras in favour of a life-affirming pragmatism.
The one book Strayed refused to burn on her hike was Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language. On her first night on trail, after setting up camp, she opens to the first poem ‘Power’, which is about Marie Curie, and reads it aloud to herself ‘again and again’. In the book, Strayed refers only to the poem’s title; in the film, we see a college professor reading the text in its entirety, including the final – and most significant – lines:
She died a famous woman denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
For the remainder of the hike, she keeps the book sealed in a ziplock bag, only returning to it at the end. She hadn’t needed to read it because she knew what it said, repeating the lines to herself as she walked, ‘their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands – so close and present and belonging to me – until I reached for it and it flashed away.’ She brings us back to this image at the end, after flashing forward to an as yet unlived future, reminding herself, and us, that we don’t always understand the purpose of our lives as we live them – and that we don’t always need to.
First published in Kill Your Darlings, No 21, April 2015.