No strings attached

I wrote the below post in my personal blog on October 17, 2007, after one of many evenings I spent in college camping out with friends from the Outdoor Rec Center. Into the Wild is still one of the most profound books I’ve ever read, and I’m currently anxiously waiting for my copy of Back to the Wild to arrive in the mail.

One of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, has recently been made into a movie, and I’ve been trying to go see it for weeks. On Sunday morning, after a night of flashlight tag and campfire conversation, my friend Mike mentioned that he and some of the other people from Outdoor Rec were planning to go see it on Wednesday night and invited me to come along. This sparked off a whole conversation that I’m sure happens to everyone who really thinks about what happened to Chris McCandless, and how to ponder the ethics of what he did.

For the uninformed, Into the Wild posthumously tracked the life and death of Chris McCandless, a 20-something… something who lived much of his life wrapped in his intense thoughts and struggles with the world’s development. Some would call him a drifter, others a hero for our time, but I think he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever had the privilege to learn about. Growing up in Annandale, Virginia, in the suburbs of D.C., he constantly struggled with the life handed to him, a life that was denied to so many others and a life he wasn’t sure he wanted to have. His parents grew up in blue-collar families and worked hard to achieve the comfortable middle-class lifestyle that they never had, and they didn’t understand why Chris wasn’t impressed or even necessarily grateful for the money, the security, the college degree they tried to give him. He would do things they didn’t understand, like buying a hundred hamburgers on a Friday night and walking the darkest parts of D.C., handing them out and talking to pimps, prostitutes, the homeless, drug dealers and other people who most of “civilized” society chooses to ignore. He didn’t want to go to college, eschewing the value of certificates and letters of merit in favor of a life of understanding gained through real experiences, but he went to Emory University to appease his parents and graduated with good grades and a degree in history and anthropology.

After graduation, he disappeared. He had the post office hold his mail for a few weeks before sending it to his parents, giving him time to fade into the gaping openness of the American West, and drove away. He also gave away $24,000, his life savings, to Oxfam, a hunger relief nonprofit. One of the biggest things he couldn’t come to terms with was how people could go hungry in this world, particularly in America, and he turned to a life on the road to try to find the answer to questions like these. During his expedition, he held a few jobs, made a few friends and radically changed a few lives in the course of his travels to California, Mexico and South Dakota, but ultimately, he hitchhiked up to Alaska and walked into the woods near Denali National Park.

There, for 16 weeks, he lived off the land, having brought in a 10-pound sack of rice, a rifle and ammo, the clothes on his back, a meager sleeping bag and little else. He had studied the flora and fauna of the land well enough to eat the right things and avoid the wrong things, and from his journal, it was evident he planned to hike out after a few months and make his Alaska experience his last great adventure. In fact, he did try to hike back out, but the Teklanika River he had crossed in the spring had filled up with glacial till as the summer went on, and had widened considerably to the point where he couldn’t attempt to make a crossing. To him, this was of little significance. Living in the woods apart from the rest of society meant he wasn’t bound to any deadlines or any schedules short of the changing of the seasons, and he had been living quite comfortably under his own steam for several months at that point. He either had to get out by the time winter fell or make a way to survive in the subzero Alaskan winter. For the time being, he walked back in and continued his life in the same manner for several weeks.

Then something happened, and no one can quite be sure what. The coroner determined that he died of starvation, but it seems unreasonable that simply a lack of food killed Chris McCandless. His journal had some mention of wild potato seeds, and Krakauer theorized that a previously unknown poison found in the plant sickened him to a level of weakness where he couldn’t hike out, gather food or save himself. His final note held no hints of regret; rather, he celebrated the life he had lived without reservation. Two weeks later, his body was found by hikers, and since his identity was unknown, the story of his discovery became low-level national news. Soon after, his body got matched up with his identity, and a bewildered set of parents were left, grieving and confused, still not understanding what would cause their son to live this way and take the risks he did.

Jon Krakauer picked up the story and followed every lead he could, tracking McCandless’s life from high school until death. The Outside article he published thereafter met with a wide range of opinions, from romantics who admired the Thoreau-like existence he led to hard-living Alaskans who chalked up his death to suicide by ignorance. According to Judith Kleinfeld of the Anchorage Daily News, “many Alaskans react with rage to his stupidity. You’d have to be a complete idiot, they say, to die of starvation in summer 20 miles off the Park’s Highway.”

To an extent, and to someone of a logical mind honed by what most consider common sense, this argument is completely valid. If McCandless had carried a map and compass, standard equipment for most outdoorsmen, he would have found several cabins stocked with food within a walkable radius and a cable with a human-transport basket spanning the Teklanika River merely three miles from where he approached the raging waterway and found it too dangerous to ford. To these people, his death was to be expected from his ill-preparedness, and any fanfare he has received since then is ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst, spawning a new generation of misbegotten romantic idealists from the lower forty-eight who just don’t understand the raw reality of the Alaskan taiga.

On the drive back from camping and flashlight tag with the Outdoor Rec crew, Mike and Colleen and I got into a discussion about the merits of Chris McCandless’s story. To Mike, McCandless broke his number one rule of adventure: don’t fucking die. A good clean sort of fun could be had in a similar manner, with the minor addition of a map, an understanding of local topographic phenomena and perhaps rations and signaling devices to save yourself in the event of emergency. With these, you could have your adventure and then continue with life after it,  integrating the adventurous spirit and wanderlust he understands with the safety and security of a backup plan he finds necessary to go hand-in-hand with any adventure. Mike’s not a hard-nosed bore with no capacity for spontaneity and excitement — he’s gone to California with no job or home waiting for him, slept on beaches and eaten from trash cans. There’s more than logic involved in his thought process, and he knows from experience what that can be like.

Colleen went back a little bit further and struggled with what she saw as McCandless’s negative outlook on life and the world. She agreed that sure, people have some evil in them, and sure, society isn’t perfect, but there’s good in everything, and that’s what gives her the will to go on. She’s had the same wanderlust McCandless felt to the point where she’s spent a semester in Cyprus, traveled extensively in Europe, and is graduating a semester early to go live in Costa Rica, but she’s never gotten so fed up with it all that she’s felt compelled to drop everything and live on the fringes of society, worrying her parents and taking dicey, unnecessary risks. She finds contentment in the things she does, the people she interacts with and the places she goes. To her, it seems, a deeper involvement in these things that make her happy is enough.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just as bad as all the rest of the idiots who just don’t understand what living off the land truly entails, but I see things somewhat differently. Others might think Chris McCandless had a death wish, unpreparedly and brazenly walking into the Alaskan unknown like he did, but I think he embraced life more than the rest of us ever have. How can you honestly live, really live, with the constancy of creature comforts always surrounding you? And what’s the significance of most of the problems we face? Chris McCandless was able to strip away the falsities we cloak our lives in and found a way to confront real, hard problems. He consciously took real risks that he knew were dangerous and carried high probabilities of disaster, and by doing so, experienced a more authentic existence than the rest of us may ever face.

Take away the walls, and the back-up plans, and the safety devices, and the comfortable things you’ve grown up with, never knowing anything different, take them away and see how your life is different. Is it simpler? Yes. Are your problems easier to discern? Yes. And solving them requires more than just a halfhearted effort — it takes a strength of mind and body completely squandered by our lives consumed by pop-up ads and fender benders and expensive material possessions.

When I take a step back and look at my life, my frustrations are traffic jams on the Beltway, and the constant impossibleness of weekly journalism assignments, and time management between my million commitments I undertake. At work, I get stressed out over comma splices and indefinite thesis statements, or frat boys who can’t return a tent without destroying it, or waking up at 3am to turn off automatic fire alarms and not getting enough sleep to prepare me for the coming day. In the grand scheme of things, these problems are completely insignificant. In the long run, these are not the things I will remember. But they are the things that consume my days. Tyler Durden said it best in Fight Club: “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” Are these things worth the daily, constant loss of what’s left of my life? They really aren’t. How do I escape that?

Chris McCandless sought for authentic existence, which can’t be found in a life of comfort, or even hard work without real meaning. What REAL meaning can be found in a job you tolerate for the money, a partner you deal with for the status, a life you settle for because it doesn’t make waves? Nothing complex. Sure, there’s a very valid kind of simple happiness found in a hard day’s work, a pleased boss, a content spouse, a comfortable life. But what is that really? Is it enough? Not for me, not if all that doesn’t actually go toward something genuinely worthwhile. And not for Chris McCandless. There’s more to discover within a life, within one’s own self. But it’s masked by everything we use to ignore our inner struggles, and we’re left completely ignorant of our own individuality and what we’re truly capable of.

For a completely inadequate example, I’ll compare his story to climbing a particularly difficult, long-pitch rock face. If you climb without safety gear and don’t fall, the physical result is the same as if you climbed it with safety gear keeping you alive. But the experience is completely different. By not allowing yourself to be fooled by false safety and limiting yourself solely to what you can actually do, with the consequence of failure being certain injury or probable death, you understand that much more about yourself, and you give yourself a real experience that can allow you to size yourself up. And the farther you go, the closer you get.

Are we willing to take those risks? We won’t know what we’re truly capable of, or who we really are, without actually risking significant loss. I’m not pushing people to necessarily climb thousand-foot cliffs with a great danger of death involved, but do you see the difference? We’re drawn to adventure because of our yearning for that authentic experience many of us have been unable to find in a career, in a car, in the perfect neighborhood with just the right man or woman, but we’ve taken the risk out of it, and therefore, we’ve lost much of the ability to satiate our wanderlust and our need for reality.

It was entirely against McCandless’s purpose of his trip to carry a map, so he didn’t. By walking into the Alaskan forests without telling anyone of his intentions or establishing any sort of emergency back-up plan to save himself should things go bad, he knew he was taking a big chance with his life. I don’t believe for a minute that he intended to go in and die, but to him, the tradeoff of safety and security in exchange for authenticity was a good one, and he went in accepting the risks inherent in his choice.

Parents who worry about you, a career you feel the need to upkeep, schedules you think rule the world, a family who depends on your going to a job you hate for them to be sustained, a mortgage, deadlines, the electric grid that powers our lives: these are all things that we’re tied to and they keep you safe and inside the box just as much as climbing safety gear does. We don’t want to give these things up because we don’t know what that might entail, and we’re secure in the safety of a known future. McCandless, unlike everyone else, was able to live with no strings attached, tied to nothing but himself and his immediate environment. That’s worth a lot more than we give it credit for.

According to his final letter, he didn’t regret choosing to live the way he did, even with the certainty of death looming over his pen as he wrote. He got the experience he was looking for, an experience ending in an unwanted way, but in a way he completely accepted as part of the deal. So was he a failure by dying too young of a series of poor decisions? I don’t think so. If he hadn’t lived and died in the way he did, by the choices he made, thousands of people like myself wouldn’t be sitting here at 3 in the morning, pondering reality and the best way to chase it for myself. And at least as far as I’m concerned, his death held meaning I can take something away from, and I think I’m a better person for it.

So go read the book already.

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