Anyone contemplating a “return to nature” would be well advised to read Into the Wild first. This gripping little book investigates the last journey of Christopher McCandless: a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilds north of Denali in the early 1990’s with the intention of living off the land. He was woefully under-equipped, both materially and mentally, and in less than four months he starved to death.
People fall into two camps when hearing Chris’s tale. There is the “too stupid or crazy to live camp” and the “we understand what he was trying to do camp.” Like the author, Jon Krakauer, I’m in the more sympathetic camp. We’ve all imagined putting civilization’s bullshit behind us and getting back to a more primal way of life. The human animal evolved in the wild. For over a hundred thousand years we roved the Earth in small nomadic groups of hunter gatherers: civilization is a recent invention and our inner animal is not entirely OK with it.
Chris’s desire to experience raw unfiltered nature is universal. When I was Chris’s age I took off on long solo backpacking trips. I wasn’t acting out Thoreau’esque desires to embrace nature; I just couldn’t always find a partner. On one of my trips I got lost in the Canadian Rockies and decided to follow a river down a mountain. It was a mistake and I eventually came to an impassable roaring cataract. For a few minutes I felt a bit of what Chris endured when the Teklakania, a river he had easily crossed in early spring, had swollen into a raging torrent that trapped him in the Alaskan backwoods. If you live by a river you know they are ever-changing beasts. I am not sure Chris understood this and it cost him his life. I didn’t cross my river and Chris wisely chose not to cross his: freezing water and fast currents kill the best swimmers. I spent a day backtracking and eventually found the trail I left. Chris wasn’t so lucky. A month after the Teklakania blocked his return from the wilds Chris was dead from starvation.
Chris wasn’t ready for his trip and given his superior intelligence I am pretty sure he knew it, but he didn’t care and it’s hard to understand why. When people embark on new, potentially fatal, endeavors they either prepare or don’t realize they should! There are many amusing stories of clueless dolts getting way in over their teeny tiny heads and paying dearly. Hubris, it’s not just for ancient Greek heroes; it kills every single day. Part of training for anything is admitting you don’t know Jack, and, if you’re putting your sorry ass on the line, getting some pointers from people who do! Any good diving, climbing, or kayaking course will quickly drive home the point that mommy nature is one big capricious ass kicking bitch that will crush you without a femtosecond of remorse. Training addresses the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” by giving us opportunities to recognize dangerous situations while we still have some control over events.
Chris thought he was preparing for his Alaskan adventure. He talked to hunters about stalking game and meat preservation. He studied botany monographs of edible wild plants. He told people who picked him up while hitchhiking to Alaska what he was up to and patiently answered their many warnings and objections. The one thing Chris did not do was spend time with someone who had real Alaskan backwoods experience. This amazing omission rendered his other conscientious preparations delusional and dangerous. Chris’s notes, recovered from the margins and blank spaces of books he carried, tell how he slowly learned that he could not wander the land at will. Summer off-trail hiking north of 60th is usually a muddy, boggy, bug infested, energy draining slog. They detail his frustrations trying to smoke a moose carcass. He didn’t try the air drying method. Finally, they show that near the end he understood his peril and bravely faced it without self-pity.
To me Chris’s biggest mistake was not walking into the Alaskan bush but rejecting his parents, particularly his father. This colored his entire approach to authority figures and made it very difficult for him to seek out and profit from the experience of others. Our hunter gather ancestors worked together to survive. They depended on and learned from each other. They knew that rejecting your clan and wandering alone was extremely dangerous. Well guess what, a hundred thousand years later, it still is! The next time you think about fleeing into the wild keep Chris in mind it might just save your behind.