Jon Krakauer is the reason I traveled to India in 2008 to see the Himalayan mountains. Into Thin Air was a personal account of a terrible occurrence on Mount Everest that for some reason led me to adore and venerate the world's ability to form this mountain range. So before I even picked up its predecessor, Into the Wild, I was on Krakauer's side and knew it would be a story deeply connected to my own.
After holding off watching the movie for a year [hoping to read the book first], I finally caved and let tears soak my cheeks as I watched Chris McCandless follow a desire that couldn't be silenced. Since the book came second, I fear the story's impact was compromised, but only by a fraction.
Starting from the book's cover, the outcome is apparent to the reader: the protagonist, a 24 year-old Emory graduate, dies in the Alaskan wild. Where does the story unfold from here?
Krakauer reveals the perspectives of the people who became integral parts of McCandless' quest: the electrician who dropped him at the mouth of the Stampede Trail in Healy, Alaska; the hunters who found his body in an abandoned bus; the jack-of-all-trades who employed and befriended him in South Dakota throughout the two year journey; an old man from California who felt so connected as to ask to be his guardian; and the tormented family still writhing in painful loss at home in Virginia.
It's an investigation where the main mystery is the state of the human condition, and the reader asks, "What compelled Chris?" It is through the tales of these personal encounters with McCandless that the reader can decide if he was narcissistic and stupid or in touch with something most of us don't fathom.
McCandless mailed many letters to road friends and kept journals and written thoughts, which help the reader deduce further his mental state. One such letter to his friend, Ron (the older man whom McCandless met in Salton City, California), illustrates his passion to inspire those bound by habit to security to do something invigorating:
"So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future."
The Author's Presence
Not only does Krakauer question these real-life characters in their surroundings but describes every landscape and lifestyle vividly, enough to prove he's been there and absorbed McCandless' experiences viscerally.
If the craft and accuracy of his writing aren't enough to prove Krakauer is the right person assigned to the story, then the final affirmation comes from his own stories about paternal relations and outdoor challenges of the body and soul that relate to McCandless.
It's through his own solo experience in the Alaskan wild, climbing the Devil's Thumb and traversing the Stikine Ice Cap, that Krakauer impresses the drive of man's primal allure and connection to that which has great potential to kill him.
"All that held me to the mountainside, all that held me to the world, were two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water; yet the higher I climbed, the more comfortable I became.
"...But as the climb goes on, you grow accustomed to the exposure, you get used to rubbing shoulders with doom, you come to believe in the reliability of your hands and feet and head. You learn to trust your self-control."
Many say McCandless took on more than he could handle and underestimated the magnitude of Mother Nature, but had he survived [and sidestepped his tiny, fatal mistake] would people have considered him so childish?
Krakauer inspires the question: is survival the test of someone's philosophical or inexplicable purpose?
Chris' Art of Travel
The moral of the movie, the essence of the narrative, what McCandless sought for those two years as a vagabond is a means to happiness. If you don't mind a good spoiler, these two excerpts demonstrate the evolution of his viewpoint from journey to final words:
[In his letter to Ron while en route to Alaska] "You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living..."
[Referring to a margin note in Doctor Zhivago by Boris Paternak, the last book he read] "HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED."
What was certainly magnified by Krakauer's text was the reality that we humans harbor primordial desires, and it's on a sliding scale how much we allow these feelings to be heard and acted upon.
It is my belief that travelers, adventurers, nomads and those hopeful to detach from the man-made structure of modern civilization are more responsive to those "calls of the wild." Unconventional living forces a constant reevaluation of one's life [and one's mortality], and when we are closer in mindset to our own expiration, it seems we connect closer to the motivations of our primitive ancestors.
Thanks to the realities described by Krakauer, we can assume this man died understanding a lesson that seemingly takes half-centuries to comprehend; one could call it a priceless lesson, but since his life was the cost, was it justified?
Case in point, it's a good book. Read it.
What are your thoughts on Krakauer's Into the Wild? If you've also seen the movie, how do they compare? I want to hear your thoughts!