Into the Wild

It would be un-Alaskan not to weigh in on Sean Penn’s well-hyped film Into the Wild based on Jon Krakauer’s exploration of what went right and wrong with the soul-searching of Christopher McCandless back in 1992. I’ll start with a disclaimer – ten years have passed since I read the book, and except for a $25 premier of the film at the Blue Loon in Fairbanks a month ago, the movie hasn’t hit Alaskan theaters yet. But Penn has been out doing what successful artists do, promoting his project. People are talking.

Was McCandless a hero or a crackpot? It’s curious that the question is posed in such black and white terms. We don’t want to admit that crackpots could be heroes or that heroes could be crackpots. Heroes think outside the box and take risks. I’m not sure any of us can tell exactly where to draw the line between admirable risk-taking and outright craziness.

So far, most of what I’ve heard from Alaskans is that McCandless is no hero. Part of that is plain old Alaskan pride talking. We all came to a place that’s more distant, more remote, and more rugged than a lot of places we could have gone. What’s McCandless got on us? So he tramped around on his own and couldn’t cross a river and camped in a bus and starved to death or at bad potato seeds or whichever version of his demise you want to subscribe to. We’ve all had our adventures here.

McCandless was foolhardy and unprepared, we say a bit smuggly. Those two traits can be deadly when you’re trekking around in the subarctic wilderness. We’re smarter than that, or saner that that, or we wouldn’t be here, having the discussion. “The Alaskan wilderness is a good place to test yourself,” says outdoor writer Craig Medred of the Anchorage Daily News. “The Alaskan wilderness is a bad place to find yourself.”

Maybe so, but a lot of us have done our soul searching here and come out better for it. We’ve enriched our lives with calculated risks. Most of us have calculated wrong once in awhile and luck was on our side. McCandless was not so lucky.

The bus where McCandless has become a shrine. Pilfered bus parts have already been sold on e-bay. Profiteering was inevitable, I guess, but it makes me sad. McCandless isn’t the sort of hero one worships. If he’s a hero, he’s a tragic one. Searching, but confused. Wandering. Lonely.

I liked Krakauer’s book. I liked the way he reserved judgment on McCandless, the way he recognized pieces of himself in the rash behavior of a troubled man. I thought of McCandless when I crafted one of the characters in my novel Out of the Wilderness. I didn’t romanticize him, and I don’t think Krakauer romanticized McCandless, either.

The world would be a dull place if it left no room for romanticizing, but like anything else, it can go too far. People are retracing the Into the Wild journey as if it were some sort of spiritual pilgrimage. They’re forging rivers that will sweep them away and keep right on going. Some guy has been spotted along the Parks Highway lugging a bag of rice, a McCandless wannabe.

Don’t they get it? Whatever McCandless was, he was his own person. You don’t imitate an individualist in order to find yourself. Admire him for trying, but own up to his flaws. If he was at all the man you think he was, that’s what he’d want you to do.

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