Going Into the Wild
Joseph Aultman-Moore on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild
(based on the true story of Christopher McCandless)
“Reason is the slave of passion” – David Hume
It’s been two days since my last ride. My right arm aches, thumb suffers from rigor mortis. The enormous backpack hangs on my shoulders like a toddler. The sun is sweltering; temperatures of 90 degrees are not uncommon in Interior Alaska. The two-lane road curves into the distance; spruce forest stretches to infinity around me, up to the snowcaps and dry tundra of Denali, a hundred miles distant.
I suck my water bottle dry and refill it with tea-colored creek water. The road is empty, which means another day of walking. A motor sounds behind me and I turn, stick out my thumb. Surprisingly, the clanky Range Rover stops in the dust ahead of me. Alaska plates, grimy windows. A middle-aged man is driving, belly brushing the wheel; a young woman sits silently in the passenger seat. They look nervous.
“You’re not a killer are you?” asks the man, whose name is Ken. I say no and try to laugh the tension away. They say nothing. The car rattles.
“Well then, get in.” I stuff into the backseat and we drive off.
When I first met Christopher McCandless, in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, I had the joy of meeting a new friend. It was that rare emotion you feel when you click with someone. It would be a bittersweet friendship though, one that I knew ended in tragedy. Clearly, Krakauer felt something similar, as he writes in the introduction,
I was haunted by the particulars of the boy’s starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own.
I read Into the Wild when travel was peripheral to my suburban existence and books were central. Adventure books were a flash of excitement and I gulped them down, idolized the authors. National Geographic and Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary. I read Heyerdahl like Holy Scripture, Krakauer like the Koran. But Chris– Chris was someone like me. I never wanted to be him; I wanted to live with that same conviction, that lust for seeing and feeling and living. Chris’s death morphs him into a tragic figure; the story becomes more tantalizing. Could one do it right, make fewer mistakes and survive? Wasn’t it the ultimate dream of youth?
The first person to pick me up, Walter, is a man in his sixties. Horn-rimmed glasses and overalls. He is towering, thin, and so sinewy it looks like his bones are tied together with bass strings. The pickup truck is just as lanky. A handmade white canvas cover over the bed reminds me of a horseless Conestoga wagon. It feels like we are embarking on the Oregon Trail.
“What do you do, Walter?”
“I’m a contractor, looking to retire soon. Headed up to Anchorage for a new furnace–that’s why the bed’s empty, cheaper for me to drive up then have them ship . . . ” and he goes on. Walter is a good talker: soft, measured, and continuous. “. . . and I’ve been prospecting in these mountains for decades. There’s the creek! C’mon!”
He pulls the wagon to the side of the road and gets out. I watch, dumbfounded, as he plunges into the thick bush, then I jump out and follow. He steps over brush, mooselike; I whack through with my arms. There is a tiny stream, arched with alders and looking like it flowed out of a Sierra Club calendar. Walter wades in and inspects rocks, a clump of silt. He squints up at the mountain. “Yeah . . . yeah, there could be gold up there.”
When I decided to hitchhike around Alaska, I had been traveling seasonally for a couple years. Fresh out of college, no career, no girlfriend. It was my second summer in Alaska, and I wanted to see more of the Great Land before retreating from the wicked northern winters.
Why Alaska? What is it about this place? Alaska!–the word sounds like a mountain. Americans have been obsessed with the idea of the frontier since the days of westward movement and Alaska retains some of the mystique California held during the Gold Rush. Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams: “This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration.” It drew Chris and it drew me.
I was sharply aware of the storylike quality of my surroundings–everything was more Alaska-y. The animals were wilder, the mountains higher, the roads longer, the people more caricature than I anticipated. I wallowed in it. “I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road!” I belted into the woods. I read Kerouac’sOn the Road and listened to the soundtrack of the film Into the Wild. I wrote letters and put my return address as “Park’s Highway, AK.” Sometimes I felt like I was watching a movie about someone hitchhiking Alaska.
I noticed that Chris wrote in third person, using his alter ego, Alexander Supertramp. He scrawled on the headboard of the bus:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is The Road…. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the Wild.
Chris knew he was an idealist, a romantic. He knew he was young, naive, and inexperienced. That’s the thing about wanderlust, you can be fully aware of its insanity, its self-absorption, its sheer danger–and it doesn’t make a shred of difference.
The night is cold, black, and I’m a thousand miles from the people I love. Darkness lies like a damp shroud; my tiny campfire, a circle of flickering light, pushes back on it. Coyotes–what I hope are only coyotes–howl in the distance. I feel fear rising and suffocate it, drown it by singing. “Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents.”
I have never been so alone.
What am I seeking? Maybe nothing. Maybe just the romance itself, a story. But stories themselves, the stringing together and relating of events, exist only in our heads. The loneliness of solo travel is the realization that all of it– the pain and ecstasy and misery and hilarity and wonder–are yours alone.
In the most poignant moment of the book, a month before starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Chris scrawls in the margin of Doctor Zhivago,
HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.
Isn’t this why we tell stories– to try connecting the islands of human minds, to see the reflection of your face on another?
Ken, the Texan driver of the Range Rover, who took me all the way to Denali and then picked me up again on my way back down, said, after a sidelong look, “Sometimes you just got to do something, logic and reasons be damned.”
Lyrics from “King of the Road,” recorded by Roger Miller, 1964
Joe Aultman-Moore lives in Morgantown, West Virginia. He is a recent college grad and therefore loves any way of traveling cheaply. He and his brother have recently worked on farms and hitchhiked all over Ireland. Joe’s writing has been published in Verge Magazine and on his college’s web site, which doesn’t really count. A video of the trip can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBe9AZmcic8.