Christopher McCandless is considered by many to be something of a modern-day folk hero. His decision in the early 1990s to abandon the comforts of modern life and “live simply” has inspired others to reconsider how they spend their own lives.
Yet the truth is that he was mostly unknown, save for the friends and family who knew him, and his untimely demise at the age of 24 wasn’t quite the romanticized adventure it was made out to be. While there’s certainly value in appreciating his rejection of material things, Christopher McCandless’s story may be, at heart, a cautionary tale…
Christopher McCandless’s life story was a mysterious—and tragic—one. Born in El Segundo, California, on February 12, 1968, he relocated in 1976 with his family to Annandale, Virginia, when his father, Walt, accepted a job with NASA. One might think this was a recipe for the family’s success, but a startling discovery changed everything…
Walt’s career provided a comfortable life for Christopher, but that didn’t mean it was always a happy one. Already known for his stubbornness and temper, Christopher was livid when he learned his father had been keeping a shocking secret.
Christopher learned that his father had a secret family in California, complete with six half-siblings whom Christopher never met. This revelation changed the way the young man thought about the world, and he stopped speaking to his parents until his college graduation.
Christopher attended Emory University, where he was a good student who maintained a 3.72 GPA and expanded his interest in social issues, such as South African apartheid. It was also at that point that he began to renounce the wealth and comfort he’d grown up with.
Christopher referred to college as “a 20th-century fad,” and when he graduated, he donated over $20,000 that his parents loaned him to Oxfam, a charity that fights world hunger. In 1990, he left most of his possessions at home as he set off for the adventure that would define his life.
Christopher denounced his family and started a new life, never speaking to them again. He even gave himself a new name: Alexander Supertramp, inspired by the 1908 book, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by William H. Davies.
On a mission to achieve a more meaningful life, Christopher traveled through several states until his car stopped functioning due to a flash flood in Carthage, South Dakota. But that didn’t seem to upset him much. “This piece of s*** has been abandoned,” he wrote in a note. “Whoever can get it out of here can have it.”
Christopher interpreted that setback as a sign from the universe that he should abandon every comfort he enjoyed in his past life. He continued the rest of his journey—with no particular destination—however he could, whether that meant illegally hopping on trains, hitchhiking, biking, or even canoeing.
Throughout his adventure, Christopher kept a journal. While a bit bizarre, many people have found inspiration in passages like this: “It is important in life not to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once. If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.”
Christopher eventually settled in Alaska, where he found shelter in the abandoned “Bus 142” in the remote Stampede Trail. He stayed in this makeshift home for months, “living off the land” by hunting animals like squirrels and porcupines.
Smithsonian Channel / YouTube
Forty-three days into his stay in the bus, he shot a relatively small, 600-pound moose. He was so proud of himself that he took a picture with the carcass. In an effort to preserve it, he smoked the meat, but maggots appeared five days later; the young man had no choice but to let the wolves have it.
“I now wish I had never shot the moose,” he wrote. “One of the greatest tragedies of my life.” It was evident that Christopher was ill-prepared for his new lifestyle. He only owned a camera, some paperback books—including one for identifying plants—a .22 caliber rifle, a compass, and a sack of rice.
More than three months after he started living in the bus, Christopher finally attempted to return to civilization. He packed up the few items he owned and even shaved his beard. Yet when he reached the Teklanika River, he realized it was impossible…
Christopher crossed the river months earlier when it was frozen, despite falling on the ice in the process. Yet when he returned in July, the glaciers had melted and the waters were rushing again. He had no choice but to walk back to the bus.
After returning to the bus, Christopher realized he was in danger. “I need your help,” he wrote in a torn page from a novel. “I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries and shall return this evening…”
In time, Christopher resigned himself to his fate. “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” The final entry in his journal read: “Happiness is only real when shared.”
On September 6, 1992, the 24-year-old’s decomposed body, still in a sleeping bag, was discovered by a moose hunter. Starvation was officially ruled his cause of death, but it may have actually been a bit more complicated than that…
Christopher indeed starved, but it was later revealed that this was likely due to eating wild potato seeds that have been known to prevent nutrients from properly being absorbed. It also would have gradually paralyzed the already weak young man, so hunting for more food would have been impossible.
In January of 1993, writer John Krakauer made a splash when his account of Christopher’s odd life was published in an Outside magazine article titled “Death of An Innocent.” He expanded the story in his 1996 biography, “Into The Wild,” which further raised Christopher’s profile.
Devon Christopher Adams / Wikimedia Commons
Writer/director Sean Penn adapted the book into an acclaimed film of the same name in 2007. Christopher’s story continues to divide people to this day. “He’s this Rorschach test: people read into him what they see,” Krakauer remarked. “Some people see an idiot, and some people see themselves. I’m the latter, for sure.”
YouTube Movies / YouTube
Not surprisingly, admirers of Christopher’s philosophy—and those who are simply fascinated by it—go as far as to make a pilgrimage to the magic bus itself. It is, by no means, an easy trip…
Christopher made a choice that many believed to be foolish and selfish, but the alternative was following a predetermined path that he didn’t truly believe in. No matter where you stand on the matter, it’s hard not to appreciate that he lived a life he believed in.
Whether you think of Christopher McCandless as a young philosopher who died too soon, or a naive kid who took unnecessary risks, it’s no surprise that so many have been captivated by his journey.
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