“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.
Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.”
Christopher McCandless, so affectionately known by his choice of pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp”, wrote this letter to a dear friend he had met on the road during his infamous adventure. The letter was addressed to an octogenarian ex-alcoholic who had fought in the war, lost his entire family, and now lived a sedentary life alone in a ramshackle apartment building in southern California – a man referred to in Krakauer’s Into the Wild as Ronald Franz, a pseudonym.
McCandless may have been a solitary figure, known to avoid close interpersonal relationships, but he had grown close to Franz during his stay in Southern California, and that Franz was living a such a sedentary life concerned him. In a turn of tradition, he didn’t hesitate in passing along his words of wisdom to Franz, decades his senior, who would usually take his advice with a grain of salt. After all, there were many cynical young vagabonds who would pass along their “enlightened” version of reality to whoever would lend an ear. But McCandless seemed different, not your usual castaway backpacker.
McCandless didn’t offer advice on traditional matters, though; he didn’t care for finances, career aspirations, personal relationships. He cared for a life on the road, spiritual freedom, and existential contentedness. He read enough Henry David Thoreau for a dozen university philosophy classes, and highlighted passages such as this one:
If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,–that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality… The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods
Such a philosophy, scoffed at by many, clearly got to the soul of McCandless, and in so writing inspired Ronald Franz to shack up his belongings and begin a life on the road. Already into his eighties, with the majority of his rocky life behind him, perhaps it was this particular line that inspired him: “You are still going to live a long time.” If only McCandless could say the same about himself.
It is common, and somewhat reasonable, to examine McCandless’ mission, his journey to Alaska, as naive. Spoiler alert: McCandless died in Alaska – a frail, starved, and frozen body found weeks after, crumpled on the bench of a decrepit Fairbanks city bus in the Alaskan bush. His death was his own fault, that is for certain. He wasn’t prepared, he didn’t heed the warnings of those he met along the way. He was steadfast, or more stubborn – that was the consensus among those who met him on his travels, and his own family. So why would anybody follow such a destitute’s advice?
McCandless’ pilgrimage was not entirely unique. There are many notable examples of disillusioned twenty-somethings who, upon some spiritual awakening or traumatic life-incident, have embarked on a journey into the wild. Most of them also died there. But McCandless’ case is unique. Many people look at the few surviving photographs of McCandless – staged selfies with dead game, or seated casually and cross-legged in front of the abandoned Fairbanks city bus – and they see themselves. Much like the universal allure of Holden Caulfield, many people seem to identify with McCandless in a way they don’t with others who’ve opted to abandon society and live amongst nature.
Christopher McCandless has a charm – he didn’t shun society without a warm handshake, a smile, a willingness to walk briefly in our world, however hesitantly, and leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs of his charm – people who miss him, people who fell in love with him, and people who befriended him along his journey.
There is a way to follow the heart of McCandless’ words without necessarily dying in Alaska. The message itself is to evade comfort and seek novelty in life. He took this to the extreme, of course, but simply to abandon materialism, or at least reliance on materialism, and live a life that welcomes and is open to change – that’s the core of his message. McCandless saw a world filled with people shunning the concept of change – a society that valued conformity over individual expression and happiness – and that’s what he was escaping.
Perhaps the crux of his philosophy can be taken from reiteration of an excerpt of his letter to Franz:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”
Change comes to those open to it, and with that change, the natural ebb and flow of life, happiness. To open ourselves to the call of the wild, whether that wild be the world’s nature or our own human nature, our own uninhibited wild selves. This is what McCandless recognized and sought with his pilgrimage, and that visceral feeling may very well be buried in all of us, somewhere, and is roused with the touch of his story – the story of a man who heeded their call to the wild with daring spirit.
“There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
I’d recommend Into the Wild, the book or film, to anybody. The book was written by Jon Krakauer after the tremendous response to his January 1993 Outsider magazine cover story about McCandless, whose story inspired wonder, admiration, and criticism from many. Sean Penn directed an excellent film adaptation, with a notable original soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.
Photo of mountains: Rodrigo on Flickr, used under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 2.0 Generic license. No changes have been made.
Photo of Fairbanks bus: Paolo Lucciola on Flickr, used under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 2.0 Generic license. No changes have been made.