VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Was Christopher McCandless a brave adventurer or a tragic fool? Today we're looking into the surprising truth behind the 2007 film, “Into the Wild.” Our video will trace the origins of the McCandless's life all the way to his death in 1992.
The Surprising Truth Behind “Into the Wild.”
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re looking into the surprising truth behind the 2007 film, “Into the Wild.”
Christopher McCandless was born in the Californian city of El Segundo but was raised primarily in Fairfax County, Virginia. His father, Walt McCandless, had accepted a job at NASA working as an antenna specialist. If this seems like a good avenue for a happy and prosperous upbringing, it was betrayed by Walt’s alleged alcoholism. Chris’s sister Carine states in her memoir that Walt was an alcoholic who mistreated both his wife and children. This spurned a sense of adventure into Christopher, as he wished to escape his tormented home life and the abuse that was inflicted on him by his father.
Shortly after graduating from Atlanta’s Emory University, McCandless gave away the $50,000 he had saved and took to the wild, finally embracing his desire to travel and see the country. From Atlanta, he went to his home state of California and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and then down to states like Arizona, South Dakota, and Colorado. From here, he kayaked the Colorado River into Mexico via the Morelos Dam.
McCandless traveled the United States for nearly two years before hitchhiking from South Dakota to Alaska. He wished to hike the state’s Stampede Trail, a remote, dangerous, yet serenely beautiful path that stretches west from the small town of Healy. It was here that McCandless would die and become the famous name he is today. A local resident named Jim Gallien was the last person to see McCandless alive, having given him a ride to the trail’s start. Gallien was observant and noticed that McCandless was grossly unprepared for the demanding path. It seemed like McCandless was prepped for an afternoon hike, not a miles-long journey through the remote Alaskan bush. Knowing the dangers and realizing that McCandless wasn’t ready for them, Gallien was hesitant about letting him go. He even offered to make the four-hour drive into Anchorage and buy McCandless better supplies, but he refused. Believing that McCandless would abandon the trail once hunger set in, Gallien reluctantly let the hiker go, and he ventured into the wild for the last time.
McCandless made it 28 miles into the trail before coming across the abandoned bus that would eventually become his tomb. This bus dated back to 1946 and is officially known as Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142. This bus had been towed into location by a bulldozer and accommodated construction crews who worked on roads in the area. Most of these roads serviced the nearby Stampede Mine, and when this closed in the ‘70s, the buses were removed and the roads fell into disrepair. However, Bus 142 had a broken axle and could not be towed away. Instead, the Yutan Construction Company left it behind to service hunters and hikers.
McCandless took full advantage of this generosity and set up shop in the abandoned bus. Deterred by the thick Alaskan bush, McCandless decided to camp at the bus and live off the land with his semi-automatic rifle. Aiding in his endeavor was a ten-pound bag of rice, camping equipment, and a book on local plant life.
McCandless spent over three months in the area, using his book to forage edible plants and his gun to kill various animals like squirrels and geese. Satisfied with his time in the wild and running low on supplies, McCandless decided to head back but found the nearby Teklanika River swollen and impassable. There was a hand-operated cable cart only a half-mile downstream that could have taken him across, but without a map, McCandless was unaware of this fact. He decided to head back to the bus and quickly realized that he would die without immediate intervention. He wrote an SOS on the bus, claiming that he was “near death, and too weak to hike out”.
McCandless was unable to survive for long, and he proudly accepted his impending death. He took one last picture of his filthy and emaciated figure and wrote a note that read, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” Sometime in late August of 1992, McCandless died inside the bus, and his decomposing body was found by hunters two weeks later.
The exact nature of McCandless’s death remains a mystery. Author Jon Krakauer posits in “Into the Wild” that McCandless died of protein poisoning. This occurs when someone gets all their nutrition from protein and lean meat, which in turn causes a form of malnutrition. Essentially, the body is starved of necessary fats and shuts down.
Yet another theory, championed by a man named Ronald Hamilton, claims that McCandless paralyzed himself and was unable to forage for food, which of course contributed to his death. According to Hamilton, McCandless likely ate the seeds of Hedysarum alpinum, which is commonly called wild potato. The seeds of wild potato contain a dangerous amino acid that causes lathyrism in malnourished humans. Lathyrism results in general weakness and typically affects the legs, resulting in muscle atrophy and paralysis. This theory is seemingly confirmed by McCandless himself. In a journal entry dated July 30, McCandless wrote “Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up”.
Author Jon Krakauer champions McCandless and defends his sense of naive adventure, and the accompanying film has a similar positive tone. However, McCandless has left behind a very questionable legacy, and many people view him not as an idealistic but naive adventurer, but an idiot who has caused great harm. McCandless’s story greatly popularized Bus 142, and it became a hot tourist destination. Unfortunately, it has also attracted unprepared idealists like McCandless. Two people have died crossing the Teklanika River in an attempt to reach the bus and numerous others have required rescue. The bus was eventually deemed a public health risk and was taken away by the Alaska Army National Guard. It now resides at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North.
As for McCandless himself, many experts have openly shared their unfriendly opinion of his quest. To them, he was a rich boy who had silly and dangerous notions of being a vagabond who lived off the land. Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian famously called his adventure, “Stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate”.
Some people may defend his optimistic sense of adventure, and they certainly sympathize with his hostile homelife. To them, he’s a tragic figure. To others, he was a silly young man who harbored wildly unrealistic ambitions and who was grossly unprepared for the task at hand. They see McCandless not only as a danger to himself, but a danger to others, as well. Maybe we shouldn’t idealize his story. But nonetheless, it is a great story.