Listen to article
In late April 1992, Christopher Johnson McCandless forded a stream of early snowmelt into the wilderness. On September 6 of the same year, hunters found McCandless’ emaciated, decomposing body in an abandoned bus in the middle of the wild, home to his great Alaskan adventure. What we know about McCandless’ story comes from terse journal entries, testimony of his brave family, and acquaintances formed over two years of tramping around the American West prior to his calculated turn north. What we don’t know has captured the imaginations, speculations, criticisms, and awe of nature-philes and idealistic youth for fifteen years.
In 1996, Jon Krakauer wrote the National Bestseller Into the Wild. In 2007, Sean Penn directed a film of the same name, with original soundtrack by Pearl Jam frontman, Eddie Vedder. The film has garnered four award nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, ensuring that Chris McCandless, radically intent on dodging the conventions of American society has, in fact, become an enigmatic figure within American society’s collective conscience.
Haunted by family hypocrisies, exacerbated by youthfully assured moral dogmas, McCandless turned his back on all the trappings of consuming materialism. Donating the full contents of his bank account ($25,000) to OxFam America, McCandless struck out west to become, as graffiti on the magic bus later declared, “lost in the wild.”
“To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the elders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality” (Paul Shephard as quoted in John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, New York: Anchor Books; 1996, p. 25). While certainly seeking reality, McCandless was also escaping the reality of life’s most devastating ambiguities. “McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well–relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it” (ibid p. 55).
As summer came to the Alaskan wilderness, so too success came to McCandless’ venture. Game was plentiful, his tasks of communion with nature were in full swing and, it appears from his journal, McCandless had, indeed, accomplished the independent competence of his mission. On July 3rd, he set out from his bus-home to rejoin society. Approaching what had been a manageable stream in early spring, McCandless encountered a swollen torrent of mid-summer’s glacial melt. Unable to cross, McCandless turned dejectedly back to the wilderness to bide his time until the ice of Alaska’s autumn allowed for safe passage. In his journal he wrote, “Disaster…rained in. River look impossible. Lonely, scared.” The youthful boast that propelled his journey into the wild, “I’m absolutely positive I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own,” (ibid p. 6) had failed to account for the emotional toll of “on my own.”
As he waited out his sentence, McCandless encountered this excerpt from Dr. Zhivago, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness,” which caused McCandless to affirm in the margin, “Happiness is only real when shared” (ibid p. 189). Twenty-two days later, McCandless was dead. Starved, not for lack of food, but for poisonous toxins in his system, rejecting all nourishment.
The story in itself is tragic but as a metaphor for human existence, it is paralyzing. How many times do we stand helpless beside a raging flood, isolated from the rest of humanity? The defense mechanisms, emotional short-cuts, spiritual certainties that seemed so easy and necessary in our childhood or adolescence have become the barriers that stand between our individual selves and the people to whom we belong. In a society based upon the inalienable rights of the individual, do we push people across streams they are not capable of re-crossing back into community? In an increasingly fragmented age, where attachments are fragile at best, aren’t we all trapped in the wild? In a culture, even a Christian culture, inundated with do-it-yourself sensibility, we would be wise to heed the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote:
Into community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ…One who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair. Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. San Francisco: Harper-Collins; 1954, pp. 79-80).
To those who despair of rescue from the isolation and seclusion of their own wilderness, we echo Christ’s call to community. We may all face chasms of our own making but we cannot traverse them alone. It must be the great congregation of Jesus Christ that stands on the other side of frigid waters, to throw us a line and tow us across. On our own, we are sucked under. With the strength of others, we are rescued.
As captain of the high school crosscountry team, Chris McCandless was famous for pushing his teammates. “He would lead us on long, killer runs through places like farmers’ fields and construction sites, places we weren’t supposed to be… The whole idea was to lose our bearings, to push ourselves into unknown territory. Then we’d run at a slightly slower pace until we found a road we recognized and race home again at full speed” (Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild, New York: Anchor Books; 1996, p.112).
As the great congregation of Jesus Christ in this new generation searches for that recognizable road, let us fall in step with one another so that we may, at last, run together, full tilt, toward home.