An abandoned bus made famous by the book and movie “Into the Wild” was ambushed by the Alaska National Guard this afternoon and is being taken to an undisclosed location, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources revealed late today as rumors of its departure swirled around the quiet, Central Alaska community of Healy.
An attraction for untold numbers of adventurers since 1996 – and a deadly temptation for two – the bus had become an irritant for search-and-rescue personnel regularly called to retrieve hikers who stumbled into trouble on their way to or from the monument to a dead vagabond.
After search-and-rescue volunteers from Healy – a tourism and mining community that shrinks to 1,000 people or few in the winter – were summoned to the bus in February to rescue an Italian with frozen feet, Denali Borough officials decided they had enough.
They in March formally asked the state to remove the decaying vehicle in hopes that the barren ground on which it once sat west of the Teklanika River would lure onto the Stampede Trail fewer of those enraptured by the fable of Chris McCandless.
A lost and confused soul, the 24-year-old McCandless starved to death in the bus in the summer of 1992. He left behind a 430-word “journal” of jottings to catalog the months he hung out in the abandoned vehicle.
Writer John Krakauer later took those words, a few photos, and some writings penned into the pages of books that might or might not have been McCandless’s and wove them into a tale about a young man’s search for the meaning of life.
The book – “Into the Wild” – was as much or more about Krakauer’s search for that meaning than McCandless’s search, but McCandless became the pivotal character in a book that became a best seller in the period just before the internet changed the world forever.
The internet only served to help the McCandless fable grow, and for decades now there has grown a legion of those, mainly young, who retraced McCandless’ journey “into the wild” out of sheer curiosity or hopes of finding something though it has never been clear what.
Two of them – like McCandless – died on the journey, the last a 24-year-old newlywed.
On the way to the bus last summer, Veramika Maikamava slipped while fording the fast-flowing waters of the glacier-fed Teklinka River and was washed downstream.
Though it had often been suggested the state remove the bus, it came as a surprise when a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter of the Alaska National Guard finally swept in to snatch the bus. Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker said borough officials were informed of the plan beforehand, but admitted they didn’t get a lot of notice.
Alaska Department of Natural Resources spokesman Dan Saddler said the state kept the operation quiet in the interest of safety.
“This was a carefully crafted, well-considered operation,” he said. “Our focus has been to make sure it’s a safe, efficient operation. The window of opportunity came when the National Guard said, ‘Yeah, we can do that.”’
Jon Nierenberg, who runs a lodge along the Stampede Road, said the secrecy was probably a good idea. He thought it possible an “Occupy Movement” to keep the bus in place might have been started if news of the plan had gotten out.
“I just know some of these hard core bus types would have objected,” he said.
Wrapped as it is fable, the bus is as magic to some of them as it was to McCandless when he found it as a shelter from stormy spring weather and moved in never knowing his departure would make a far bigger impact than his arrival.
Even Walker admitted to feeling some melancholy at the removal of a bus finally bringing some sort of closure to the McCandless story for Healy residents.
“It’s a little bit of a loss of our history,” he said. “It’s been back there since the ’60s, but it’s in bad shape and doesn’t serve as shelter anymore. And it is a periolous attraction.”
Walker said he stopped at the bus on a snowmachine trip before break up this year and found “it in bad shape. It was gross frankly.”
Some in the Healy areas expressed surprise the rusted and dirty vehicle didn’t come apart by being hoisted from its old home. Most in the Healy sounded happy to see it gone.
“It’s about time,” said local dog musher Will Forsberg, who owns a remote cabin not far from the bus. “Good riddance.”
Saddler said the state is still trying to decide what to do with the bus. It’s possible it could end up on the auction block.
“Both officially and unofficially, we don’t know the final process,” he said. “We’re not sure yet. We’ve addressed the big issues, which are public safety, hazards and death.”
Both legal and economic decisions will likely dictate the ultimate disposal of what is now state property, he said.
Correction: Dan Saddler’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story.