BROAD PASS – The precipitation was falling as slush on Friday, April 27, and it was hard not to think of Chris McCandless, Alaska’s most famous nobody, as the SUV sped south along the George Parks Highway toward Cook Inlet and what was sure to be more hospitable weather.
Back behind was the Nenana River near the outpost community of Clear. The river was still largely encased in ice and snow as Jim Gallien said it was when he drove McCandless north to the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992.
That simple fact didn’t stop author John Krakauer from embellishing a bit when he wrote the best-selling book “Into the Wild” three years after McCandless’s death.
“A hundred miles out of Fairbanks the highway begins to climb into the foothills of the Alaska Range. As the truck lurched over a bridge across the Nenana River, Alex looked down at the swift current and remarked that he was afraid of the water” was how Krakauer recorded it. “‘A year ago down in Mexico,’ he told Gallien, ‘I was out on the ocean in a canoe, and I almost drowned when a storm came up.'”
Alex was Alexander Supertramp,McCandless’s alter ego, or maybe it was the real McCandless. The human brain sometimes takes people on strange journeys into worlds all their own.
Gallien said he doesn’t remember a conversation anything like that concocted by Krakauer, but the reference to a fear of water is a nice setup to offer an explanation as to how McCandless might later have became trapped in the wilderness west of the Teklanika River.
It was there he eventually died of starvation, though Krakauer continues to float various theories as to how McCandless might have eaten something that poisoned him.
“There was a little Hollywood … going on in there” is how Gallien described Into the Wild in 2015. It was the reality book that preceded the birth of reality TV. Krakauer did a lot of back filling around the 430 words McCandless left behind to record his spring and summer living in an abandoned bus along the then little traveled Stampede Trail.
Since McCandless’s death, there has been a lot more traffic. Some come to worship the poor, lost soul of the character created by Krakauer after McCandless’s death. They usually have the sense to come in the summer when the weather is warm and nice, although the best travel is in the winter when the rivers, creeks and ponds are frozen and covered by snow. It is easier then to get to the bus by skis or snowshoes, or easier still by dog team, or easiest of all on a snowmachine.
As the SUV passed the Stampede Road, still climbing into the wind and gathering clouds to the south around the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve, there were no signs of life on the Stampede Trail.
Glitter Gulch – the tourist strip along the highway outside the park – was, however, awakening. The plywood had come of the windows of some of the shops. The hotels were gearing up to open. Seasonal employees were already visibly on the ground in anticipation of the brief tourist rush of summer.
Mother Nature would, however, remain her fickle self in the heart of the Alaska Range. Winter was rallying for one last show. The National Weather Service was forecasting snow in the evening with an accumulation up to an inch. Temperatures were forecast to drop into the 20s.
The first week of May looked wholly less than friendly: snow and rain, temperatures in the 30s during the day dropping into the 20s at night, possibly warming into daytime 40s with rain by the weekend.
It’s hard to say which is worse, cold rain or warm snow. This is something McCandless did understand. Fourteen numbers into his Alaska adventure, his scant diary has one word: “misery.”
Weather records for Denali Park record 4.5 inches of wet snow falling on May 16, 1992, with another 6.8 inches coming the next day. If the numbers in the diary correspond even roughly to those days, misery is a good word for anyone alone in the wild with marginal gear, a crappy tent and not much food.
In such a situation, cold weather and almost a foot of wet, heavy snow pretty much define misery.Even with the best of gear, it’s no fun. It’s no wonder that within a couple of weeks, McCandless jotted down “move bus.”
Shelter, food and fire are the cornerstones of wilderness survival, but judgement is the true foundation of success.
If McCandless had been possessed of better judgement, he would have early on done more exploring to the top of the ridge to the south and found the escape route to the Denali Park Road if the Teklanika crossing of summer became too sketchy.
There is no indication he ever did that, but then his notes on his brief time in Alaska are so sparse there is no indication of much of anything: “Magic bus day; weakness; snowed in; porcupine day; misery; move bus; grey bird; ash bird; squirrel; gourmet duck, MOOSE!” and on it goes in that vein.
Almost anything one wants can be read into the first 100 days, if they were days, of the McCandless journal, and then comes the big moment: “Death looms as serious threat, too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild – no game.”
His journal reflects he lived at least another seven days, if the numbers from 1 to 107 are presumed to represent the counting of days in the wild. There are no dates in the journal.
The self-proclaimed “Alexander Supertramp” didn’t leave much of a record, but River Wind did. He spent a lot more time in the wild, remains alive to this day, and never became famous. He simply lived a fruitful life.
Coming Into the Country
River Wind appears in John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” arguably the truest book written about modern-day Alaska but now eclipsed by the more talked about fiction of Into the Wild.
McPhee met River Wind in Eagle as the latter was about to get into a canoe and follow the Yukon River into the country writer Dan O’Neill would later describe fairly as “A Land Gone Lonesome.”
“I asked him where he meant to go,” McPhee wrote. “‘Down the river,’ he said. ‘I’ll be living on the Yukon and getting my skills together.’
“I wished him heartfelt luck and felt in my heart he would need it. I said my name, and shook his hand, and he said his. He said, ‘My name is River Wind.'”
River Wind was a lot more representative than McCandless of the wave of young people who once came north to Alaska looking for adventure and opportunity and a little of themselves.
River Wind eventually went back to his given name, David Cornberg, and led a rich life in and out of the Alaska wilderness over the course of the next 40 years. He would never become famous. He would become successful.
He left Alaska for a while to get a master’s degree in education from UCLA and later a PhD in education from the University of Oregon. There was some time spent in a monastery in Romania and some time in Taipei, Taiwan.
From 1984 to 1989, he was a teacher in Anchorage and the poet-in-residence for the Anchorage School District. Over the years, he taught everything from nursery school to graduate studies.
And he spent so much time living in the wild that it’s not even fair to begin to compare him to McCandless. Cornberg was never going to die in a bus. He was a survivor.
He today has a 16-by-20 foot cabin along the Yukon now near Kaltag. He regularly takes refuge there. It is small enough to heat efficiently with wood and big enough to be comfortable.
“I can stand up in it,” he said. “I had to crouch in the old cabin.”
He sees himself a Yukon survivor. There aren’t many of them. Most of those who escaped to the wilderness along with Cornberg in the 1970s gave up and went back to civilization where life is a lot easier.
“I can’t say I’ve run into any of them since the 1970s,” he admitted. “I think it’s to be expected. They grew up on Jack London. It was a fantasy.”
The Interior wilderness of Alaska is good at choking the life out of fantasies. It’s not a friendly place. Cornberg notes that Los Angeles and Fairbanks were chartered as cities not that far apart in time.
The Greater Los Angeles area is today home to 18.7 million people. The Fairbanks Metropolitan Statistical Area, which covers an area almost the size of the state of New Jersey, is home to fewer than 100,000.
Some of them, like Cornberg, lead rich and successful lives, and yet the man that stirs so many emotions is the one who died young having accomplished nothing. McCandless lives on in a tall tale about a failed search for the meaning of life, although the reality is that a life lived in solitaire has no meaning.
It is a tree falling in the wilderness with no one around to witness. It only takes on meaning if someone comes along, discovers it resting on the ground, and writes a story about what might have been.
Or, more likely, what never was….
But that doesn’t diminish the power of the story.