That there was some great meaning to the sad, 1992 death of a young man in an abandoned bus near the northern edge of Denali National Park and Preserve became a modern-day Alaska myth that once seemed destined to live forever, but there are signs at last that this turkey is losing some of its feathers.
Jezebel.com – a blog that tags itself a site for “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women, Without Airbrushing” – unleashed an interesting fireswarm of tubal debate this week when it dared to poke fun at the latest of many young adventurers to be rescued after a pilgrimage to the bus.
Granted, Jezebel was clearly trolling with a headline calling out “Alert, Brave Males: Maybe Don’t Try to Visit the Into the Wild Bus.”
Some not-so-alert, not-so-brave males were almost certain to take exception, but the most amazing thing about the reaction to the story was the extent to which the tide appears to have turned against the glorified version of the late and mythical Chris McCandless presented in the semi-fictional book “Into the Wild”
To create the key Alaska section of that book, author Jon Krakauker took a journal of 430 words, about a quarter of which were the identifications of animals McCandless apparently killed, plus some photographs and built a complete narrative about what the 24-year-old McCandless was doing in the wilderness for four months.
The book, which is now used in some U.S. schools to teach God only knows what, still has its vehement defenders.
“So you say you read the book…do you think Krakauer feels about McCandless like you do? Because if you do, you need to reread, sweetheart…He has an actual appreciation for those who try to live their lives outside of the lines,” a not-so-brave male safely shielded behind the screen name “Simpson” shot back at those commenting on Jezebel. “He didn’t ask you agree with every choice McCandless made in his life, but if you missed his plea for his readers to respect McCandless for trying to be something/somebody different (which you clearly did), then your critical reading skills are at zero.”
The comment came in reaction to the overwhelming majority of readers who readily recognized a simple reality of the Alaska wilderness: If you die out there, you have by definition screwed up.
Krakauer, of course, came up with an excuse for McCandless’s death after writing “Into the Wild.” McCandless, Krakauer claimed, had eaten some plants thought to be safe but actually poisonous. That theory turned out to be wrong.
Other similar theories have followed. They’ve all turned out to be baseless. And people, or at least those who read Jezebel, seem to be catching on to the fact that all of the poison-plant theories are just so much Krakauer, straw-grasping silliness as illustrated by a thread “MuffMuff” started with a cold-eyed assessment of McCandless – the sad, fallen hero of a movie also titled “Into the Wild.”
“How anyone could watch that movie and not think that McCandless was a giant dumbass was beyond me. Why do people idolize a spoiled brat that killed himself from a mix of ego and incompetence?”
“He poisoned himself because he ate a plant that paralyzed him…that no one knew was toxic until like 3 years ago,” GriefBacons answered only minutes later. “That’s neither ego, nor incompetence.”
The push-back to that came equally quick:
“Pretty sure that eating plants that you’re unfamiliar with is a big no-no. I think eating mystery plants would easily fall under ego and incompetence,” wrote BIMming.
“How is it not incompetent to think an unfamiliar plant is edible? It’s the very definition of incompetent,” posted Shelwood.
As of Thursday, 513 people had commented on the Jezebel story and most of them were of a mind with MuffMuff, BIMming and Shelwood. Someone named CurieCat seemed almost relieved at the arrival of logic after all these years of mythology.
“I felt like I was the only kid in my high school who saw him as an irresponsible idiot instead of a hero,” CurieCat wrote.
Silly white boys
The online discussion also strayed into some interesting areas of social class and race that Americans really don’t like to talk about.
“God, I wish I could go back and yell at all the dudes in my junior-year English class who thought this book was so profound and McCandless was such an inspiration and maybe they wanted to go on a similar journey, minus the death. Instead, I just sat there and silently raged against all the entitled, naive, 16yo white boys who thought this was a good idea,” wrote “hardcore umlaut.”
“Marie Fury” was even more to the point:
“for f—’s sake, did this many people really miss the entire point of the story: rich kid didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Yes, he had a good heart and it was all very hollywood-romantic and made for an awesome adventure story, but, really, the point was pretty obvious (or so I thought)! Also: This is purely observational, but all of the people I know who are obsessed with Into the Wild are upper-middle-class white people. The same people who have the money for ‘adventure sports’ (with allllll the fancy backpacks, and gear, and shit).”
Clearly a lot of people did (and still do) miss the point that the McCandless story was highly and intentionally romanticized by Krakauer. These people include the author of the Jezebel story herself.
Quick to mock a pair of decently prepared and fairly capable Denali backpackers, who were more late to return than in any real trouble when rescued, Ellie Shecht was clearly afraid to take on the “Into the Wild” establishment.
“Yikes, guys! I feel like I stoked some pretty harsh commentary here,” she wrote in response to all the comments. “As much as I love to shit on overconfident men, let’s take a tiny step back, perhaps, and not blow up the bus, which is—sure—definitely a siren call to irresponsible/hubristic American hikers, but also a pretty significant monument to our own limitations as human beings in the natural world, and to a very young and apparently traumatized and, again, overconfident guy whose death was not necessarily the result of sheer stupidity.
The first link she put in that comment is to a book by McCandless’s sister that claims she and her brother grew up in a household with an abusive father. There is no evidence that growing up with abusive parents causes people to flee into the wilderness to starve to death.
The second link is to Krakauer’s latest speculation on a new mystery poison responsible for McCandless’s death. Krakauer has now theorized either three or four different mystery poisons. It’s hard to keep track. Each new one has come after science has killed the old one. The latest remains unproven.
Left unresolved, meanwhile, and never to be resolved, is why McCandless failed to simply walk back to civilization when he had the chance. He once hiked, Krakauer theorizes based on thin evidence, to where the Stampede Road crosses the Teklanika River and then turned back because the river was too high to cross. McCandless then apparently returned to the bus and spent weeks there working his way toward death by starvation as later determined by a pathologist.
McCandless does not appear to have ever attempted the alternate route to safety which involves hiking along the west bank of the Teklanika to the Denali Park Road. That is how hikers Michal Trigg, 25, and Theodore Asland, 27 – the men featured in the Jezebel story – reached the bus.
They didn’t get in trouble until they decided to try a short cut back to civilization and followed the McCandless route down the Stampede to the river. They found the Tek too high to cross, or at least too high for them to cross, and started back to the park road along the route they had come.
“Ground search teams have located the two hikers,” the National Park Service later reported. “They are currently walking out with Search Team Bravo. The pair was found west of the Teklanika River, south of the canyon. It is anticipated that they will reach the park road in approximately three hours.”
The Teklanika canyon starts only a few miles north of the park road. Hikers traveling to the bus from the park road must, however, hike up and around the canyon. It is a more strenuous hike than the Stampede Road, but the Tek is easier to ford north of the canyon than at the Stampede, or the northwest bank of the river can be followed several miles farther to the southwest to where the park road crosses the river on a bridge.
Had Trigg and Asland been just three hours faster or a little stealthier on the return from their adventure, they might have made it to the park road safely and avoided the embarrassment of joining the many “rescued” on the way to or from the bus.
Navigating from the bus to the park road is not particularly difficult. All one needs do is head south. The terrain clearly defines the direction. And McCandless had a map showing the park road only about 15 miles to the south.
Why McCandless never tried to hike out to that road after finding the Tek too flooded to cross (if indeed that was the case) will remain forever a mystery. But there are those who much prefer the myth to the mystery.