By DAVID GREEN
The movie “Into the Wild” begins with these words by Lord Byron:
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”
Byron’s poem is the perfect introduction for two reasons. His poem describes the adventures and thoughts of a world-weary young man who is disillusioned with a life of pleasure and partying.
And that describes a 24-year-old boy named Christopher McCandless who hit the road after college, never to return. He called himself Alexander Supertramp and he had one goal in mind: To lose himself in the back country of Alaska. When he sent out his last postcard to a friend, he wrote, “Now I walk into the wild.”
McCandless’s story is a fascinating one. He was a friendly, intelligent kid who suddenly left his family and friends behind to strike out on his own.
There’s an odd twist to his wanderlust: He never spoke to his family again, not even to his sister that he was so close to. Not a phone call, not a letter, nothing.
Anti-social doesn’t seem like an apt description. He spent a lot of time alone, but he made some very good friends on his travels. As presented in the movie, he deeply touched a lot of lives before once again shouldering his backpack and moving on down the road.
The McCandless tale appeals to a large audience. Both the movie and Jon Krakauer’s book are highly acclaimed. But there’s a segment of the audience who makes a different connection. We also were once out on the road with thumb extended.
Most of us, I think, didn’t follow the same route—we called home occasionally—and we didn’t break away so completely.
McCandless hiked for miles into the Alaskan wilderness before settling down to live inside an old school bus left behind by construction workers. He wasn’t fully prepared for the challenge, but he was exhilarated. He was living life to its fullest, in his own odd way.
I remember a week on an island in Lake Michigan. The first weekend was spent with four other people who went home Sunday afternoon. I was left alone for the remainder of the time.
The sudden shock of solitude hit hard at first, but soon I was living that exhilarating experience, despite setbacks. McCandless’s meat rotted with maggots; my bread quickly turned moldy.
When McCandless was ready to leave and return to civilization, his departure was blocked by a raging river. For me, I simply took the ferry back to the mainland and hitched home. Over and over, my experiences were all very tame compared to his.
There’s a much bigger difference between his adventures and my travels: I came back home.
McCandless wrote, “no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees.” But before his four-month journey ended, he was poisoned by the wilderness. According to his journal, he ate an inedible plant, became sick and eventually died of starvation, about three weeks before some hikers found his body.
I’ve read descriptions of Christopher McCandless that call him foolish, arrogant and selfish.
After his father learned of his son’s death, he asked, “How could a kid with so much compassion cause his parents so much pain?”
Some say he had a death wish—why else would a kid walk into the wild so unprepared? I don’t know. Naòve, perhaps. Certainly lacking caution. Too strong a dose of youthful invincibility. Climbing a ladder to nowhere like I’m doing in this old photo from the 1970s.
Like many people, he really didn’t hate Man, as Byron wrote, he just liked Nature more.
Many thinkers have written about the need to share happiness, and McCandless wrote in his journal near the end, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
Maybe that’s why I came home.