University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Christopher Johnson McCandless (February 12, 1968 – August 1992) was an American hiker who adopted the alias Alexander Supertramp and ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment, hoping to live simply for a time in solitude. Almost four months later, McCandless’s remains were found, weighing only 67 pounds (30 kg). It has recently been speculated that Chris had developed lathyrism, caused by his consumption of seeds from a flowering plant in the legume family which contain the neurotoxin ODAP. McCandless’s resulting paralysis would have caused a gradual inability to move, hunt or forage and this could have led to his death from starvation. His death occurred in a converted bus used as a backcountry shelter, near Lake Wentitika in Denali National Park and Preserve. In January 1993, Jon Krakauer published McCandless’ story in that month’s issue of Outside magazine. Inspired by the details of McCandless’s story, Krakauer wrote and published Into the Wild in 1996 about McCandless’ travels. The book was adapted into a film by Sean Penn in 2007 with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless’s story also became the subject of Ron Lamothe’s documentary The Call of the Wild. A full-length article on McCandless also appeared in the February 8, 1993 issue of the The New Yorker magazine. Earlier years
Christopher McCandless was born in El Segundo, California, the first of two children to Walter “Walt” McCandless and Wilhelmina “Billie” Johnson. Chris had one younger sister, Carine. In 1976, the family settled in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after his father was employed as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft and later assisted her husband with his successful home-based consulting company in Annandale. Walt and Billie often fought and sometimes contemplated divorce. Chris and Carine had six half-siblings living in California from Walt’s first marriage. Walt was not yet divorced from his first wife when Chris and Carine were born; however, Chris did not discover his father’s affair until a summer trip to Southern California in 1986. This discovery caused him to hold a lot of bitterness towards his father, and could have been a factor in his views about society. At school, teachers noticed McCandless was unusually strong-willed.[who?] In adolescence he coupled this with intense idealism and physical endurance.
In high school, he served as captain of the cross-country team, urging teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were “running against the forces of darkness … all the evil in the world, all the hatred.” On June 2, 1986, McCandless graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. On June 10, McCandless embarked on one of his first major adventures in which he traveled throughout the country in his Datsun B-210, arriving at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, two days prior to the beginning of fall classes. His upper middle class background and academic success were drivers for his contempt of what he saw as the empty materialism of society. McCandless was strongly influenced by Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, W. H. Davies and Henry David Thoreau. In his junior year, he declined membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, on the basis that honors and titles were irrelevant. McCandless graduated from Emory on May 12, 1990, with a Bachelor’s degree, double majoring in history and anthropology. He envisioned separating from organized society for a Thoreauvian period of solitary contemplation. Travels
In May 1990, Christopher McCandless donated the remaining $24,000, given to him by a family friend for his law degree, to Oxfam International, a hunger prevention charity. Towards the end of June, he began traveling under the name “Alexander” McCandless until later adopting the last name of “Supertramp” (Krakauer notes the connection with Welsh author W. H. Davies and his 1908 autobiography The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp). Most people he encountered regarded him as intelligent and one who loved to read. By the end of the summer, McCandless made his way through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. He survived a flash flood, but allowed his car to wash out (although it suffered little permanent damage and was later reused by the local police force as an undercover vehicle) and disposed of his license plate. In 1991, McCandless paddled a canoe down remote stretches of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. He crossed the border to Mexico and, having gotten lost in many dead-end canals, was towed by duckhunters to the sea, where he stayed for some time. He took pride in surviving with a minimum of gear and funds, and generally made little preparation. Alaskan Odyssey
For years, McCandless dreamed of an “Alaskan Odyssey” wherein he would live off the land of the Alaskan wilderness, far away from civilization, and “find himself”. He kept a journal describing his physical and spiritual progress as he faced the forces of nature. In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Enderlin, North Dakota, to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive on April 28, 1992, by Jim Gallien, a local, who gave him a ride from Fairbanks to the head of the Stampede Trail. Gallien was concerned about “Alex”, who had minimal supplies (not even a compass) and no experience surviving in the Alaskan bush. Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade Alex to defer his trip, and even offered to drive him to Anchorage to buy suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien’s warnings, refusing all assistance except for a pair of Wellington rubber boots, two tuna melt sandwiches, and a bag of corn chips. Gallien allowed Chris to wander off with the belief that he would head back towards the highway within a few days as his eventual hunger set in. After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless found an abandoned bus (about 40 miles (64 km) west of Healy) used as a hunting shelter and parked on an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park, and began to live off the land.
He had 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, several books including one on local plant life, and some camping equipment. He assumed he could forage for plant food and hunt game. For the next thirty days or so, McCandless poached porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he managed to kill a moose; however, he failed to preserve the meat properly, and within days it spoiled and was covered with maggots. His journal contains entries covering a total of 112 days. These entries range from ecstatic to grim with McCandless’ changing fortunes. In July, after living in the bus for three months, he decided to leave, but found the trail back blocked by the Teklanika River, which was then considerably higher and swifter than when he crossed in April. Unknown to McCandless, there was a hand-operated tram that crossed the river only 1⁄4 of a mile away from where he had previously crossed. In the 2007 documentary The Call of the Wild, evidence is presented that McCandless had a map at his disposal, which should have helped him find another route to safety. McCandless lived in the bus for a total of 113 days. At some point during that time, presumably very near the end, he posted an S.O.S. note calling on anyone passing by to help him because he was injured and too weak. The full note read: “ Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August? ” Death
On August 12, 1992, McCandless wrote what are apparently his final words in his journal: “Beautiful Blueberries.” He tore the final page from Louis L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, which contains an excerpt from a Robinson Jeffers poem titled “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours”: Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having madeSomething more equal to centuriesThan muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.The mountains are dead stone, the peopleAdmire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,The mountains are not softened or troubledAnd a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper. His body was found in his sleeping bag inside the bus by Butch Killian, a local hunter, on September 6, 1992. McCandless had been dead for more than two weeks and weighed an estimated 30 kilograms (66 lb). His official, undisputed cause of death was starvation. Krakauer suggests two factors may have contributed to McCandless’s death. First, he was running the risk of a phenomenon known as “rabbit starvation” due to increased activity, compared with the leanness of the game he was hunting. Krakauer also speculates that McCandless might have ingested toxic seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii) or a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola produces the toxic alkaloid swainsonine).
However, an article in Men’s Journal stated that extensive laboratory testing showed there was no toxin present in McCandless’s food supplies. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF said “I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I’d eat it myself.” Analysis of the wild sweet peas, given as the cause of Chris’s death in Sean Penn’s film, turned up no toxic compounds and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant. As one journalist put it: “He didn’t find a way out of the bush, couldn’t catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death.” However, the possibility of death through the consumption of the mold, which grew on the seeds in the damp bags which McCandless stored them in, was considered a suitable explanation by Krakauer. Subsequently the academic Ronald Hamilton made the link between the symptoms described by Chris and the poisoning of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp in Vapniarca. He put forward the proposal that Chris McCandless died of lathyrism caused by ODAP poisoning from Hedysarum alpinum seeds which hadn’t been picked up by the previous studies as they were searching for alkaloid instead of toxic protein. The protein would be relatively harmless to a well-fed person on a normal diet, but toxic to someone who was malnourished, physically stressed, and on an irregular and insufficient diet, as McCandless was. Subsequent tests revealed ODAP was indeed present in the seeds.  Criticism
McCandless has been a polarizing figure ever since his story first broke following his death, along with Krakauer’s Outside article on him in January 1993. While Krakauer and many readers have a largely sympathetic view of McCandless, others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate. The most charitable view among McCandless’s detractors is that his behavior showed a profound lack of common sense. He chose not to bring a compass, something that most people in the same situation would have considered essential. McCandless was also completely unaware that a hand-operated tram crossed the otherwise impassable river 0.25 miles (0.40 km) from where he attempted to cross. Had McCandless known this, he could easily have saved his own life. There has been some speculation (particularly in details given in the Lamothe documentary) that he vandalised survival cabins and supplies in the area. However, Ken Kehrer, chief ranger for Denali National Park, denied that McCandless was considered a vandalism suspect by the National Park Service. His venture into a wilderness area alone, without adequate planning, experience, preparation, or supplies, without notifying anyone and lacking emergency communication equipment, was contrary to every principle of outdoor survival and, in the eyes of many experienced outdoor enthusiasts, nearly certain to end in misfortune. Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:
When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [… ] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide. Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure: Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the “he had a death wish” camp because I don’t know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the “what a dumb–” territory, tempered by brief alliances with the “he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest” partisans. Mostly I’m puzzled by the way he’s emerged as a hero. Jon Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless’s desire for “being the first to explore a blank spot on the map.” Krakauer continues that “In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.” Others have pointed out that a map of the area (although apparently not including the location of the hand-powered tram) was found among McCandless’s belongings, and refute the accusations that he intentionally discarded this map.