Commentary

Into the Courts

krakaeur

John Krakauer/Devon Christopher Adams, Wikimedia Commons

News analysis

“Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer is suing the people with whom he agreed to make a musical stage play based on his well-known Alaska book.

No one knows exactly why.

“In May 2018, attorneys for Krakauer told (musical developers Nikos) Tsakalakos and (Janet) Allard that the author had ‘found the
script objectionable” and wanted the two to remove all references to his book, Thomas Gounley reported at Business Den last week. 

The Denver-based, news website broke the story. Krakauer lives in Boulder, about 25 miles north of Denver. Neither side has offered anything more specific than that “objectionable” claim to date.

The book “Into the Wild” is a reconstruction of the 1992 starvation death of 24-year-old Chris McCandless in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail just north of Denali National Park and Preserve. The book made Krakauer’s career.

Krakauer created a portrait of McCandless as a Thoreau-esque figure in search of the meaning of life murdered by the unforgiving Alaska wilderness.

“McCandless’s journey was inspired by Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. These authors’ works can be assigned in conjunction with this text. Transcendentalism also influenced McCandless, so students should learn about the philosophical and spiritual movement,” says Prestwick House’s guide to “How to Teach ‘Into the Wild.'”

Krakauer has been aggressively protective of this McCandless image in the face of alternative theories as to how McCandless came to starve to death within a day’s hike of the Denali Park Road.

The alternatives include the possibility the young man was simply incompetent or suffered from mental illness as suggested by authorities on wilderness survival and others.

Developmental project

The play has been little seen. It premiered last year at the Encore Dexter Musical Theatre Company in Michigan. Dexter is a small town on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, a community of 365,000 home to the University of Michigan.

Dan Cooney, the producing artistic director at the theatre, Monday refused to offer a summary of the play.

“We are not going to comment here,” he emailed. “We have no idea what the issue is with the show, and don’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the musical.”

A review of the play at the website A2 Arts Addict in May of last year said the play made “sympathetic, McCandless’ parents – to such a degree that you wonder what else, beyond typical young adult rebellion, is happening in Chris’ head.”

It went on to describe how the play “unpacks a bit more of Chris’ troubled relationship with his dad….for it appears to be a primary driver of Chris’ doomed, foolhardy mission.”

The first suggestion – that McCandless has issues in his head – and the second – that he set out on a “doomed, foolhardy mission – run counter to the McCandless myth created by Krakauer.

He portrayed McCandless’s disappearance into the Alaska wilds as a grand adventure and painted McCandless’s demise as the fault of nature.

The key plot twist in the book is that McCandless becomes “trapped” in the wild.

“On July 5…the Teklanika (River) was at full flood, swollen with rain and snowmelt from glaciers high in the Alaska Range, running cold and fast,” Krakauer wrote. “If he could reach the far shore, the remainder of the hike to the highway would be easy, but to get there he would have to negotiate a channel some one hundred feet wide. The water, opaque with glacial sediment and only a few degrees warmer than the ice it had so recently been, was the color of wet concrete. Too deep to wade, it rumbled like a
freight train. The powerful current would quickly knock him off his feet and carry him away.”

The meteorological record for the area at the time does not support that conclusion.

“McCandless was a weak swimmer and had confessed to several people that he was in fact afraid of the water,” Krakauer wrote.

Jim Gallien, who picked McCandless up while he was hitchhiking along the George Parks Highway and drove him to the road where the adventure began, is cast as one who heard such a confession. Gallien has said that didn’t happen.

“Attempting to swim the numbingly cold torrent or even to paddle
some sort of improvised raft across seemed too risky to consider,” Krakauer wrote. “Just downstream from where the trail met the river, the Teklanika erupted into a chaos of boiling whitewater as it accelerated through the narrow gorge. Long before he could swim or paddle to the far shore, he’d be pulled into these rapids and drowned.

“He concluded, correctly, that he would probably be swept to his death….”

All of that is pure conjecture. Krakauer had no way of knowing what was going on in McCandless’s head nor did anyone else. Whatever conclusions McCandless reached about anything during his approximately four-month sojourn in the Alaska wilderness died with him.

But the death of an adventurous young man entering the wilderness in search of the meaning of life only to be trapped there by the unforgiving whims of nature is central to the cult of McCandless that Krakauer built.

A play that even hinted at a foolhardy young man on a suicide mission would not sit well with the author.

Another view

“In short, (the play) takes way, way too long for McCandless to die in Act Two,” David Kiley wrote in a review that appeared on the Encore website after the play was staged.

“Granted, no one dies quickly from starvation, but as the back end of the second act kept unfolding, with the number of days he had been without food appearing on the screen behind him, along with diary entries taken from the original book, the play became arthritic in its pace and delivery. The whole show clocked in at about 2:45. It made me wonder if the story was better suited for an opera, a form in which long aria-filled death scenes are expected. Long, long death scenes are tough to pull off in musical theatre.”

A long, long death scene – along with McCandless’s scant diary entries portraying his limited hunting skills with his .22 rifle – would not sit well with Krakauer either.

Krakauer has pretended McCandless was doing OK as a survivalist and only died because he fell victim to a mystery poison. In the first version of the McCandless story, published in Outside magazine in 1993, Krakauer wrote that “in all likelihood, McCandless mistakenly ate some seeds from the wild sweet pea and became gravely ill.”

The story was headlined “Death of an Innocent,” and it set the tone for Krakauer’s portrayal of McCandless from then on.

That story opened with the hitchhiking McCandless meeting Gallien who wondered “if he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the Lower 48 who come north to live out their ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for unbalanced souls, often outfitted with little more than innocence and desire, who hope to find their footing in the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier. The bush, however, is a harsh place and cares nothing for hope or longing. More than a few such dreamers have met predictably unpleasant ends.

“(But) Alex didn’t strike Gallien as your typical misfit. He was congenial, seemed well-educated, and peppered Gallien with sensible questions
about ‘what kind of small game lived in the country, what kind of berries he could eat, that kind of thing.'”

Having dismissed the idea that McCandless was “your typical misfit,” Krakauer went on to claim that “McCandless entertained no illusions that he was trekking into Club Med; peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were what he was seeking. And that is precisely what he found on the Stampede Trail, in spades.

“For most of 16 weeks McCandless more than held his own. Indeed, were it not for one or two innocent and seemingly insignificant blunders he would have walked out of the Alaskan woods in July or August as anonymously as he walked into them in April.”

Expanding the myth

When Krakaeur’s book came out three years later, it was more of the same plus. The supposedly toxic pods of the “wild sweet pea” that the Outside story claimed to have started McCandless’s slide into death by starvation by  rendering him “too weak to hunt effectively” had by then morphed into the seeds of the wild potato that actually killed him.

“…A compelling case can be made for these seeds having caused McCandless’s death,” Krakauer wrote. “If true, it means that McCandless wasn’t quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be. He didn’t carelessly confuse one species with another. The plant that poisoned him was not known to be toxic.”

Unfortunately, that theory was thoroughly debunked when a study found the seeds weren’t poisonous.

A third theory was then offered by Krakauer just before a movie version of his book hit the big screen in 2007.

“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy,” Krakauer said then. “And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares.”

That theory also turned out to be wrong and Krakauer came up with a fourth. Appearing on NPR in 2013, he claimed a rare “neurotoxin and amino acid” called ODAP had killed McCandless.

“So I simply took the final step, as I also last August got a hold of some wild potato seeds, and sent them to a very sophisticated lab in Ann Arbor that had state-of-the-art techniques. And sure enough, absolutely, definitely, certainly the wild potato seeds contained ODAP, this deadly neurotoxin that causes paralysis if you eat it when you’re not getting enough other nutrients.”

A month later, chemists told Chemical & Engineering News writer Carmen Drahl that Krakauer’s ODAP claim was bunk.

The data, she reported, “from high-performance liquid chromatography separations of potato seed extracts, don’t show what Krakauer says they do, according to experts who reviewed the report for C&EN. In fact, they say, the extract was barely separated at all, making it impossible to tell what the seeds contain.”

By 2015, Krakauer was claiming in New Yorker magazine that the deadly poison wasn’t ODAP, but canavanine, “an antimetabolite stored in the seeds of many leguminous species to ward off predators, and its toxicity in animals is well documented in scientific literature.”

It’s toxicity is not well documented in humans, however. But this time Krakauer at least had a team of scientists to back him up. In a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, they reported they had found L-canavanine in the roots of the Eskimo potatoes that McCandless’s meager diary indicated he was eating.

“In the case of Christopher McCandless, there is evidence that H alpinum seeds constituted a significant portion of his meager diet during a period before his death” they wrote. “Based on this and what is known about the toxic effects of L-canavanine, we make the logical conclusion that, under these conditions, it is highly likely that the ingestion of relatively large amounts of this antimetabolite was a contributing factor to his death.”

A contributing factor is one thing. A cause is another. And no one knows how many seeds McCandless was eating. He kept no records of his food consumption. The “significant portion” amounts to no more than a wild guess.

L-canavanine is debated in the health food community because alfalfa seeds and sprouts are high in the chemical. For that reason, people with lupus and pregnant women are advised to avoid alfalfa, but the sprouts and seeds are touted as good for lowering the cholesterol of healthy people.

An authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer, last year lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”

In doing so, Thayer raised the obvious question as to the evidence to support any McCandless poisoning theory: How much of this or that did McCandless eat?

The question is key because the effects of toxins are dose related. If you drank too much water in the right circumstances, it can kill you. 

Unfortunately, nobody knows how much of anything McCandless ate. He kept no notes on his diet. What is known from his few jottings in a journal that recorded the squirrels, birds and other game he poached is that he didn’t eat much.

“When Chris tried to leave the wilderness in early July, he probably did so because he realized that starvation was a real threat,” Thayer writes. “He took a picture of himself at that time, about which Krakauer says, ‘He looks healthy but alarmingly gaunt. Already his cheeks are sunken. The tendons in his neck stand out like taut cables’.

“How does Krakauer deduce ‘healthy’ from that description? This photo was taken almost seven weeks before McCandless died, and four weeks before he ate wild potato seeds and felt ill. Clearly, he was gravely malnourished and on a trajectory toward death long before the alleged ‘poisoning’ even occurred. But Krakauer still maintains the fallacy that Chris was doing fine. Only one page after the above description, he states that Chris had ‘been fending for himself quite nicely in the country.'”

McCandless hadn’t, however, been fending “quite nicely.” He’d been slowly starving, and in the end his autopsy recorded that he died from starvation. His then decomposed body weighed 66 pounds.

Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless  was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.

A play about McCandless’s death that might lead one to any other conclusion than the latter would surely upset Krakauer. And the R2 review suggested the play comes across “like a generational ‘Rashomon.’ You’re seeing the same story, but your subjective filter skews how you perceive this cult figure.

“As a teen or twentysomething, you think, ‘He’s so gutsy and true to himself!’ while the older you thinks, ‘Dear God, why did he plot this doomed course for himself?’!”

Jon Krakauer would not like that latter conclusion at all. He would not like it one little bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26 replies »

    • While that picture may indeed be after he killed a moose, I don’t think that shed antler is from the moose he killed. It would have made no sense for him to bother with removing that one side from the skull and it doesn’t have velvet that would have been on his moose (if it was a bull).

      • On June 9th, Chris shot and killed a moose. The moose was on the “small” side, weighing only 600 pounds.

        *Chris frantically tried to preserve the meat by smoking it, but after 3 days, all the meat was full of maggots. Chris remarked in his journal, “I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.”

      • “On June 9th, Chris shot and killed a moose. The moose was on the “small” side, weighing only 600 pounds.”
        I’m not sure where this quote of yours is from Bryan but it really makes no sense, to me. Namely how do you suppose that weight was determined as it doesn’t seem to be an estimate but rather and exact weight of 600 lbs (not that small for a cow, either).
        As I mentioned earlier, those blowflies are relentless at certain times of the year.

  1. To fully understand Krakauer’s obsession, one must be aware of his own first expedition into “the wild”.
    “At the age of 23, searching for a profound, life-altering experience, he sets off to pursue his boyhood dream. He takes off into the night, cutting through the darkness from Colorado to Washington in his Pontiac in a restless frenzy that almost has his car toppling from the side of the road into the desert when he falls asleep behind the wheel. In a cloud of whirling passion but without sufficient money, upon reaching Washington, he hitches a five day boat ride to the fishing village of Petersburg.
    Once in Petersburg, it’s almost two days until he is able to get someone to transport him to the Bairn Glacier. That he was broke – did not stop him from quitting his job and hitting the road. Maybe, that’s the first step in fulfilling a dream from childhood: dusting off the cobwebs of a stifling job and detangling from comfort and security.”
    He would later go on to say:
    “I thought climbing the Devil’s Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.”

    http://www.chalkedeepika.com/mountains-and-climbers/jon-krakauer-on-devils-thumb

  2. I had the pleasure of visiting the bus last summer. I stood there shaking my head, like I am shaking it now over the female version of McCandless. Another young, naive, unprepared person who sees the fairy tales of life through rose colored glasses (22, travelling the world backpacking, female, picking up strange guys off Tindr – what could go wrong). I think when McCandless shot the moose and let 6 months of meat spoil is all one needs to know – right?
    https://www.foxnews.com/world/new-zealand-police-22-year-old-british-tourist-was-murdered

    • Bryan,
      Ask yourself this question:
      If it were not for Chris McCandless and John Krakauer, would you ever have found yourself visiting that abandoned bus in “the wild”?
      As for the moose carcass, well many think Chris was already dying at that point from eating poisonous mushrooms and could barely move let alone eat that moose.
      Until you are faced with the weakness of a fast approaching death, you cannot fully grasp the situation that he was in.

      • Steve, honestly I had no real desire to visit a silly rusted bus. But, my 21yo daughter was on a “spiritual” quest after reading the book. I looked at it though as an adventure to make some memories. I did find it interesting once we got there. Kind of like a mini-museum. Cult like. There is a suitcase in the bus with momentos, diaries, and the book his sister left. We left two polished stones that said “passion” and “live” on them. So, if you are ever out that way ,well, you will know who left them.
        I must disagree with you about the moose. His diary speaks otherwise if I remember correctly. Also (again if I understand correctly), he gave his boots away, maps, etc.. I will admit I have not scrutinized this whole story in great detail. So, I might be wrong. Basically, I just look at it like a young kid, bit entitled, whose spoiled upbringing got him in over his head.

      • Bryan,
        Although I feel it was good that you got to experience that hike with your daughter and understand her a little bit more, ultimately I feel it would be far better for the government to extract that bus out of the wild and end the so called “shrine” in the woods.
        It is not Chris that caused a cult like following, but the mere fact that the bus remains.
        Unfortunately, no one likes simple solutions in AK.
        I will probably never visit the bus, but I can relate to Chris’s naive way of thought when I was in my 20’s.
        Some days I look back and wonder how I ever survived them?…many of us are foolish in our 20’s…look what happened to Cody Dial while he was solo treking alone in the jungle of Costa Rica.
        There are many parallels to the McCandless demise…both were over college and the “western” way of life.
        Both walked away from what you call a “privileged” lifestyle and taking minimal gear with them on their “trip”.
        All in all, I prefer Krakauer’s book “Eiger Dreams” over “Into the Wild”.

      • Steve, you will not get any complaints from me. I could careless whether the bus stays of goes. I do feel though a lot of people get some sort of comfort, peace, or “spiritual” uplifting from visiting the bus. People come from all over the world to spend some time there for one reason or another. Personally i see no reason to remove it. But, again, could careless if they did. Again, maybe I am wrong but, you strike me as a guy who would be supportive of their quest? Referencing Cody Dial and Krakauer’s book “Eiger Dreams”.

      • Bryan,
        I think the bus remains largely for economic reasons as like you said people come from all over the world to visit it.
        These people buy plane tickets to Alaska, rent vehicles, pay for meals & lodging and that is probably why the bus remains.
        I support “spiritual journey” but I must say at this age and point in my life that I do not see the rewards from abandoned families and misdirected dreams.
        A good book that examines this theme in life is “The Alchemist”.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Alchemist_(novel)

      • Steve, you are correct in that the bus generates revenue in multiple forms. I could see that as one reason the state leaves it there. Look at the 49th State Brewery in Healy with the fake bus $$$$. Imagine the outcry, howls, and mess if the state removed the real bus now? Also, let’s face it, it is a shelter with a nice stove, has food, fuel, lighters/matches, bed, blankets, tarps, and does make for one of the better emergency shelters in the state.

    • I’ll just say here that there is not one person in a hundred that could take care of a moose under those circumstances. Clearly he shouldn’t have shot it without being better prepared, but that’s just something that he learned rather quickly-those blowflies are relentless.
      I just heard of a couple fellows hunting in McGrath area that lost two bull moose last Fall due to weather conditions. My own experience was that weather then caused a lot of problems that many were not prepared to deal with. I suspect that a lot of moose meat was lost, especially those that were taken around rivers and being transported on those rivers. We all expected the weather to turn colder, as it always did, but that just didn’t happen. In my case, we had enough bags to be able to keep the meat dry and away from the flies, but that is more difficult when hauling quarters in a boat. I suspect more caution from hunters after last year’s weather situation.

      • Bill,
        You make some very good points as I could not seeing hunting moose in the 60 degree sunny days like we had last September.
        Might be time for F&G to move the season into October or November as the climate continues to change?
        I just heard from a resident in the bush that the entire Yentna is still open all the way past Skwentna.
        This is unprecedented from what I have seen in the last dozen winters or so.

      • Folks living in the bush have always objected to the hunting season for moose-they would prefer it much later when their outdoor freezers are working. I don’t see Fish and Game moving the seasons but do see hunters adding to their bag of tricks for taking care of their meat.
        While some hunters got surprised last Fall, they will be better prepared IMO. I suspect those hunting on the rivers will just need to head to town as soon as they get one moose, as they can’t depend on weather cooling down. Hopefully Fish and Game will have some ideas, too. There are products that slow down spoilage and more hunters will be using this IMO.

  3. Pardon me, but I’m thinking one of the songs that should be included in the musical is “Don’t Cross the River If You Can’t Swim the Tide.” Just a thought.

  4. A key piece of information would be the contract between Krakauer and the principles of the musical. If such a document exists, it may have stipulations as to how the story line of his novel was to be honored. If no such document, with no such stipulations, exists, then Krakauer’s ego/paranoia is driving this court action. Time will tell, hopefully.

  5. I have long been fascinated by this story and by the obsessiveness with which it has gripped certain writers … Present company most certainly not excepted.

    Let’s start from this presumption: Krakauer is wrong. McCandless did not die of witless self-poisoning. He starved to death simply because he could not provide for himself. It doesn’t matter to me what this says or doesn’t say about Krakauer; I’m fully OK about simply dismissing Krakauer and his motivations for book/movie/play/poem/etc. and taking him out of the equation.

    What’s left?

    Along about the time that Sean Penn’s movie was released, another McCandless devotee & admirer, Ron Lamothe, made a personal documentary about McCandless, “Call of the Wild” (2007), which was almost as much about Lamothe as McCandless (I saw it at here at the Anchorage International Film Festival). For the sake of argument, we can dismiss Lamothe’s motivations as self-serving (his identification w/ McCandless is borderline narcissistic; actually, maybe not so borderline). But … Lamothe did something that Penn apparently had no interest in doing: Through the use of family home-movies, Lamothe showed McCandless as an adolescent & youth who was as alert and charming and gifted as any upper-middle-class youngster of his time and place (1970s-‘80s Washington DC greater metro area). In other words, the home videos show the boy as well-adjusted, keen to have the experiences that life at that age can offer him, and not a dour, rebellious, pissed-off youngster. If I extrapolate from these videos and what we know of the facts of McCandless’s life (including from Krakauer’s book), I find that it doesn’t tax our minds too much to see that as bright as he was, he fucked-up. He blew it. What’s the issue with accepting that a bright young kid could so mis-gamble that he’d end up dead? And why do certain kinds of Alaskans (mostly if not exclusively men) feel so superior to him because he turned out to be a fool who made the kind of mistakes that have been killing wanderers and adventurers in the Great Land since time began?

    • Peter, I think most Alaskans would agree with you, that McCandless was simply a fool that fucked up. But that is not the big issue with Alaskans. The big issue is that Krakauer started a worldwide cult of ignorance based on a romantic and improbable fable of his. And Alaskans don’t well tolerate pompous outsiders rewriting the truth of what happens in Alaska and profiting off of it. Penn included. McCandles is simply the easy target caught in the crossfire.

      • “… pompous outsiders rewriting the truth of what happens in Alaska and profiting off of it.”
        — It’s a major industry with a long, long tradition here, James.

  6. This book is the pathetic work of one know-nothing writing about another. What should be expected when someone who obviously lacks a hint of outdoors moxie picks up a pen attempting a knowledgeable rendering of a tale in which a stumbling, green-as-grass wilderness newbie had pursued what anyone with a lick of survival sense sees must lead to a predictable, miserable fate?

    • Sure Rod…
      A solo expedition to the Devil’s Thumb in his 20’s and a first ascent on the Moose’s Tooth (Ham and Eggs) and you still think of Krakauer as “…someone who obviously lacks a hint of outdoors moxie…”
      Just because folks do not care to live in AK does not discredit their accoplishments up here.
      Many of Alaska’s greatest explorers have come from “the outside” and stay there…for good reasons too.

  7. I’ve been told that Sean Penn was given a copy of ‘Into The Wild’ by his girl friend of the time, Jewel. He discovered her in a coffee house in San Diego and helped her get a recording deal, worked on her videos and helped make her a star. This was all on the quiet because Penn was also dating and married Robin Wright her the next year. During their romance, Jewel gave Penn ‘Into the Wild’ and it took him 10 years to get the movie rights and the money to make the movie.

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