Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild attempts to solve the riddle of Chris McCandleless’ life and untimely death: why did this privileged, academically talented young man feel such a fatal draw towards the Alaskan wilderness? To answer this question, Krakauer retraces Chris’ steps across his cross-country odyssey, Chris, who shed his birth name along with his savings account and rechristened himself Alexander Supertramp, endeared himself to everyone he encountered on his travels. These friends shared their fond recollections with Krakauer, but along with their memories emerges Chris’ desire to evade prolonged human intimacy and the baggage this intimacy entails. Chris appears a sensitive, intelligent, bright young man. Although his trip was to have tragic consequences, his desire for adventure is a timeless one. Few twenty-year-olds can honestly claim they’ve never experienced a longing to be footloose and shrug off their material trappings to explore a new world. Chris’ desire to travel was also engendered by difficulties in his relationship with his parents; after fulfilling their wishes and graduating, he wanted to take time to discover himself. Krakauer certainly understands this pull to the wild. He made a similar journey in his own youth, only to nearly meet his death and face the uneasy discovery that a mountain could not solve his problems. Had Krakauer died, he would likely have been dismissed, as many have dismissed Chris, as a foolish, romantically inclined youth, but it’s difficult to dismiss as intelligent and enigmatic a figure as Chris so easily.
Chris was fascinated by the novels of Jack London. He shared many passions with the author, such as his anti-capitalist sentiment, and his glorification of the natural world. Chris failed, however, to separate fact from fiction, a surprising oversight from such an otherwise astute youth. The representation of the wilderness in London’s novel was based on a romanticised perception, rather than first-hand experience, and London’s own life deviated strongly from the ideals celebrated in his writing. When the story of Chris’ untimely death went public, he faced criticism from many on the charge of being a romantic, an ignorant idealist who fatally underestimated the country. While it’s not true that Chris was ignorant, he was perhaps unprepared, and reading Into the Wild it’s difficult not to feel frustrated with this wayward wanderer. While he had good grounds for his anger towards his father, it’s tough to reconcile his disaffection for his privileged upbringing with the maturity he demonstrates elsewhere. Krakauer states that on meeting Chris’ mother and witnessing her grief first hand, ‘even the most eloquent apologia for high risk activities ring fatuous and hollow’. There’s a hint that Chris was prepared to initiate a reconciliation with his family; he was certainly ready to end his odyssey and walk out of the wilderness. But due to a series of unfortunate incidents, Chris was never able to walk out (and recent findings suggest that his death was definitely not the result of ignorance). The riddle of Chris McCandless’ life is destined, however, to remain unsolved.