Last Saturday night we watched the movie, Into the Wild. If you’ve been a reader of this blog or my other blog, you might glean that I’m a fan of Jon Krakauer’s work. Into the Wild was Jon Krakauker’s first notable book, written in 1996, before Into Thin Air. Sean Penn is one of the directors of this movie. Whilst the movie is at times as frustrating as it is disturbing, it’s well worth seeing for the reasons I’m going to give below.
I love the ‘vagabond, living free and simple’ genre of books and movies. I enjoyed Huckleburry Finn as a child, Jack Kerouac’s books as an adult, travel lit of all kinds, and Rolf Pott’s book, Vagabonding, Thoreau’s Walden and so on. So, whilst I enjoyed the sense of adventure and simplicity portrayed in Into the Wild, there are other aspects of it that disturb me greatly. Incidentally, Into the Wild is based on a true story.
*If you have any other suggestions for literature that fits in the vagabonding genre, I’d love to know.
The movie tells the story of college graduate Chris McCandless who leaves his well-to-do but troubled middle class family to go wandering around the US and then to Alaska. For two years, McCandless travelled throughout the American west, paddled the Colorado River and ended up illegally in Mexico, and then finally travelled into the Alaskan wilderness, where his body was found in September 1992, inside a bus used by moose hunters. During his travels, McCandless often lived as a tramp, camping under freeway bridges, or camping in out of the way places, often challenging himself to live without money or with very small amounts of cash for months at a time. The movie recreates this two year journey, culminating in McCandless’s death at age 24.
Selfishness and the Family:
One of the things which disturbed me about the character of McCandless was that he seemed hell-bent on punishing his family for their dysfunctionality by disappearing. Chris’s parents began their relationship by way of an affair, and seemed quite selfishly devoted to their own careers. At times, they were portrayed as abusive. As I’m observer a long way down the track, all I can say is that if the way in which they were portrayed is true, then I can understand why Chris for rejected them. However, he and his sister had a very close relationship. I don’t understand why he didn’t contact her at some point during the years recounted in the movie. Why torture someone who he knew truly understood and loved him?
There were also other wonderful people that Chris met and formed deep relationships with during his two-year sojourn. These people cared about him and asked him to make contact, which he did not. To me, this is inhuman and selfish – but then, I’m a mother, which does change my perspective of this story. It’s hard not to identify with or fall victim to the fear and worry that comes with being a parent. When the other significant people with whom Chris formed relationships asked him to contact his parents and he didn’t, to me it highlights his selfishness and suggests some kind of psychological pathology (but I’m an anthropologist not a psychologist, so who am I to say?).
Unconscious, Pre-meditated Suicide?
Looking at the character of Chris as portrayed in the movie, I can’t believe that he willingly went into the Alaskan Wilderness to die. I think he went to challenge himself against nature – which I can understand and relate to. However, he went in unprepared and without a map. He even failed to follow the track on which the bus where he lived for months had been driven to its final resting place. He failed to try and cross a swollen river when he decided to leave the wilderness. He fell in and lost heart. If he’d walked upstream a bit, he’d have found a hand-winch ferry to help him cross. I mean… commonsense. Walk up stream! Then there was the moose he shot and wasted all of the meat! He tried to smoke it and had no idea – making beef jerky out of it didn’t even appear to cross his mind. In other words, the guy didn’t familiarise himself with his environment nor with the plants, animals and techniques for eating/preserving those things suited to the climate. Had I been in the same situation, I would’ve surveyed, read, planned, known more than I ever needed to know to survive. Most importantly, I would’ve spent time with the locals, asking for advice.
However, I don’t think he intended to die – just to punish his parents. Unfortunately, it all backfired and he punished himself.
From a Park Ranger’s Perspective:
My husband is a park ranger, manager of a remote park (King’s Canyon/Watarrka National Park) in the Australian Outback. He deals regularly with people like Chris McCandless. To him, these people are selfish, irresponsible, foolhardy and stupid. They place the lives of rangers, police and other emergency service staff at risk. They also represent a drain on time and money – as you might imagine, in this economic climate, providing funding to conservation agencies is not a priority for governments. The time and resources spent saving people from themselves mean that other things simply don’t get done.
Furthermore, when people such as McCandless fail to plan or understand the environment they are ‘pitting’ themselves against, the irony is that these people are not ‘one with’ or ‘part of’ nature as they seek to be – they stand in opposition to it.
Only last week, a woman from Hawaii tried to walk cross country from Watarrka to Ulura (Ayers Rock), without a map, without planning her route, without fitness, without food or water drops, without telling anyone. Her pack, which including 16 litres of water, was so heavy she could barely lift it, let alone carry it. Had she not been prevented from doing this, she undoubtedly would have either become a major emergency or a statistic. To her, walking 140 km across terrain where there is no reliable water, where she had informed no one, had prepared no food or water drops and there were no permanent human settlements or telecommunications was something that could simply be done… like stepping onto a train and getting off at the right station.
For me, the allure of doing such things is real and realised. More often than not, I undertake off-track hikes (hikes that are across trackless, remote country) rather than those on a track. However, I do these mainly with company, they are not extended, I prepare and walk in country where I know the landmarks. I have a GPS and can read a topographic map.
But the idea of doing what McCandless and Jack Kerouac did in The Dharma Bums is so incredibly appealing to me: the challenge of surviving with a minimal amount of material possessions and money touches something deep in my soul, as does Daoism. At any rate, Into the Wild is not a movie I believe that you could easily watch and dismiss. It’s one of those films that will stay with me for years as I think about the motivations, the trajectory, the possibilities for me uncovered in the experience of viewing.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s seen the movie and ask you to share your thoughts and experiences.
I saw the movie and liked it but was a much bigger fan of the book–which put a lot less emphasis on the punishing-parents angle, and went on much more of a philosophical and literary exploration of the desire to break from society for “the wild” (which would have turned the movie into a very heady kind of documentary, so I can see why the filmmakers went with the family angle). I also feel a strange connection to the story, since, though he was a couple of years younger, Chris McCandless were similarly alienated 20-somethings at around the same time and, during the summer of 1992, when he was off in the Alaskan wilderness, I was hiking the Appalachian Trail (2,100 miles, from Georgia to Maine, USA, almost all of it by myself). I came back; he didn’t. When I first read the book I thought maybe the difference between us was that he had more courage–was willing to go more seriously “out there” (while the Appalachian Trail gets into some pretty remote places, it’s still the Eastern United States, not the Alaskan bush). I told that to a friend who laughed–said actually I was less afraid of being a part of human society than he was. A decade and a half later, I agree….
Hi Dr Jay,
The Appalachian Trail is no small feat! One of my other loves is bushwalking (hiking) and I listen to several US hiking podcasts which have interviews with long-distance hikers on them and -strangely enough- the Appalachian & Pacific Crest trails feature often on these shows.
I brought a copy of the book back from Nepal with me (5 years ago) and loaned it to someone and haven’t ever got it back. I would love to read it now as I am fascinated and love hearing about the psychological, spiritual and physical challenges involved in these journeys.
If you have any suggestions for other similar books, let me know.
Hope you’re doing ok. Thanks for the comment