In my life of just about 40 years, I have encountered few cases that have whacked my mind. I have felt the searing question in my mind ‘Why do people do what they do’ in such peculiar cases. It leaves me disturbed for a long time. When people do seemingly unimaginable things in full awareness about the consequences, the thought process and motive runs deeper than one can imagine. The case of Chris McCandless is one such that stumped me.
Author : Jon Krakauer
Originally Published : 1996
Publication : Villard
Pages : 224
Genre(s) : Non-Fiction, Biography, Travel Literature
It is a classic case of Americans’ obsession with wilderness, hitchhiking, the allure of the lands uninhabited and thrill that it all brings. Jon Krakauer who first chronicled Chris’ story for the Outsider magazine, did not stop at the 9000 word article that he had written for the magazine. He delved deeper into Chris’ life, almost as obsessively as Chris had delved into the wild and wrote this book that was later made into a movie.
The book tells the tale of Chris, a normal boy from California but as per his sister’s account (documented in a 2014 book) the siblings suffered as children at the hands of their parents and had a dysfunctional family. His desire to ‘disappear’ stemmed out of his leanings towards spirituality from a young age that bordered on Tolstoy’s renunciation.
The book opens with Gallien’s account of his encounter with ‘Alex’ as Chrish introduced himself. A lean man with few belongings and insufficient food or equipment, Gallien felt he would come out of the wild soon once he ran out of food. But that didn’t happen. A group of moose hunters found Chris’ decomposed body in an abandoned bus, a few months later.
Jon obviously has taken great pains to dig out the details of Chris’ journey inside the thick bushes of Alaska. At every place, Jon has found people who have reminisced how Chris had won the hearts of the locals with his tales, with his plans that they found impractical. He had worked at odd jobs on his way, like a restaurant hand at some place and grain elevator at others. Everywhere, he would strive for perfection, overthink (mainly about why people behave badly) and read so much that he used pretty heavy words routinely. He had intended this journey to be unpredictable, an odyssey and an epic one.
Jon notes that it was not a journey that would kill anyone, it was just that Chris did not embark on this journey prepared for it. Instead, he just went into it little knowing what lay in store in the harsh Alaskan winters. There are cases, like this camping besides Lake Mead where his car has given up. Apparently, he followed the teachings of civil disobedience and considered his duty to disobey all laws of the land. Instead of feeling distraught about his car’s breakdown, he was happy. He shed all his belongings, hid the car and set out on foot. The 113 days’ journey is well documented in his journal with last four days being just dashes, for he may not have had enough strength to write.
There are several stories compiled in the book, of people whom Jon contacted and who recalled having seen, helped or spoken to Chris on his long journey. Each story sheds more light on how he lived in a different universe altogether. As per several accounts of people he encountered, he was a genius misfit. He brooded over things, kept things and wounds to him. Got hurt easily and kept careful score, exacting highest moral standards from people around him. His parents’ marriage, his father’s bigamy and the betrayal of his first marriage (having fathered a son with his first wife after Chris was born to the second one leaving a huge wound in his mind) seems to have shaped his bitterness to a large extent. Unable to digest it, he chose to internalize it and suffered delusions of several kinds.
- The book is a gripping tale of a young man who wanted to life a different life because his ideals of the world were completely tangential to what it is
- Chris McCandless embarked upon a different journey to Alaska (he wanting to head Northwards, perhaps owing to his spiritual leanings that made him do so) and failed to survive because of his ill preparedness
- Not having enough food, not having even a map of the Alaskan topography, little idea about the survival instincts of a frigid continent, Chris seems to have overstretched his ideals of a simple life too far
Why I recommend this book
I found the story fascinating because I wondered how an intelligent, educated boy could be so naïve as to believe he could make this trip and emerge alive after abandoning every single piece of his belongings. I keep recommending this book because it is the story of a life, which I wouldn’t dare say wasted, but gone awry nonetheless. Perhaps Chris lived it the way he wanted to and went away happy, but his desire to live on, to be saved and to return is apparent everywhere, point to the contrary.
This book definitely forces you to think about how people make life choices that impact not just them, but others who don’t quite understand the motive behind it all.
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