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Christopher McCandless
UXL Biographies. 2011.
Born: February 12, 1968 in Annandale, Maryland, United States
Died: August 01, 1992 in Alaska, United States
Other Names: McCandless, Christopher Johnson; Supertramp, Alexander
Nationality: American
Occupation: Traveler
Full Text: 

Christopher McCandless disobeyed the Boy Scout motto: "Be Prepared."

Christopher McCandless entered the Alaskan wild in April 1992 in order to spend the summer alone with nature. During previous travels across the western United States, McCandless had been able to survive on minimal resources; he had also been assisted by people he met along the way. McCandless's success on these treks made him overconfident about his own survival skills. Unwilling to follow the advice of more experienced outdoorsmen, McCandless underestimated the challenges of living in the Alaskan wild. For example, he did not use an updated, detailed area map. If he had done so, McCandless would have seen that help—and a route out of the wild—was not too far away. After surviving for 112 days by foraging off the land, the young adventurer died of starvation. When McCandless's body was discovered and analyzed, the cause of death created a great deal of controversy. Many Alaskans were upset over the young man's apparent recklessness and disrespect for nature. Several other critics pointed out that McCandless had died because he disobeyed the basic Boy Scout motto: "Be Prepared."

A typical American boyhood

McCandless grew up in a middle-class family in Annandale, Maryland. He and his sister, Carine, were given many material and social advantages by their parents, Walt and Billie, who ran a profitable consulting business. McCandless lived in a supportive environment that encouraged him to pursue his own interests. As early as the third grade, a teacher noted that he "marched to a different drummer." In high school McCandless was an honor student and captain of the cross-country team. Already showing signs of the independent spirit that would later lead to his death, he encouraged his teammates to see running as a spiritual activity. The boys were "running against all the evil in the world," McCandless once said, "and evil, in return, resisted their doing well."

As a teenager McCandless was especially concerned about hunger in America. He once hid a homeless man in the family camping trailer without his parents' knowledge. But McCandless was not always serious. He had a lively sense of humor and entertained friends with his musical talent. He also undertook many money-making schemes that proved to be highly profitable. Yet, there was also a dark side to the young man's nature. As he grew older he increasingly developed a grudge against his father. Walter McCandless had been married twice—Billie was his second wife—and Christopher never forgave his father for having two children by his previous wife after he had married Billie. In Christopher's mind, his father had committed an unforgivable act of bigamy (marriage to more than one person at a time).

A sense of restlessness

After graduating from Woodson High School in 1986, McCandless bought a Datsun B210 automobile and headed west to California. His parents made him telephone home every three days, and he complied with their wishes until very near the end of the trip. When he returned home two days before he was to report to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, his parents were alarmed to see that his appearance had radically changed. McCandless had adopted a scruffy look and insisted on taking his new machete (a large knife) and high-powered rifle to college. Prior to his senior year in college, McCandless took a trip to the Mojave Desert, where he almost died because of dehydration (lack of water and other fluids). He returned home severely underweight. Greatly concerned about the chances their son was taking, Walter and Billie asked to be better informed about his future travel plans. As result of this request, McCandless perfected a tactic for handling his parents. He would politely agree with whatever they said, then do as he pleased.

McCandless rejects his parents' values

During his last two years of college, McCandless lived alone in a sparsely furnished apartment without a telephone, making it impossible for his parents to contact him. He withdrew from campus life except for keeping up with his studies. In the spring of 1990 McCandless graduated from Emory with a high grade-point average. At the time, he had a bank account of over $20,000, all of which he gave to Oxfam (the Oxford Famine Relief Fund). Despite their earlier differences, McCandless and his family had a good time at his graduation. Soon after the ceremony, McCandless left on one of his trips, but he promised to return home in a reasonable amount of time. He then drove west.

McCandless wanted to spend enough time in the West to earn money to finance his cherished dream of exploring the Alaskan wild, a goal he called his "Alaskan Odyssey." In a letter to a friend, McCandless spelled out his reasons for adopting an itinerant (wandering) lifestyle. According to the letter, McCandless was looking for adventure, noting that the "joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences."

Making friends among strangers

McCandless lived for almost two years in the West with little money. Within in a short time, he lost his car. While driving in a forbidden off-road area near Lake Mead in Colorado, he was trapped by a flash flood. Frustrated by his situation, McCandless stripped the car of its license plates. He then burned his money—about $123— and left a note saying that the car had been abandoned and whoever could get it out and running could have it. Park rangers eventually found the car and easily got it started. When no one processed a claim for the vehicle, the park service put it to use making undercover drug buys.

Although McCandless's impatience led to the loss of his car, he was not totally helpless. His ability to make friends quickly led him to an informal support network. Strangers saw McCandless as bright, sociable, and a good storyteller. The middle-class qualities he disliked, such as good social skills, served him well in forming attachments. His new friends were often older and sometimes questioned him about his family. Seldom forthcoming, McCandless ended any conversation that went too far.

Befriends Wayne Westerberg

Prior to leaving for Alaska, McCandless worked in Carthage, South Dakota, for Wayne Westerberg, who owned a grain elevator and operated a combine (a machine that cuts and separates grain) for harvesting winter wheat. Westerberg had picked up McCandless when he was hitchhiking, and the two men became friends. By this time McCandless had renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp," but he introduced himself to Westerberg simply as "Alex." Westerberg could tell that the young man was intelligent and well educated. McCandless proved to be a good worker and no job was too lowly for him—qualities Westerberg admired. McCandless made many other friends in Carthage, especially Westerberg's mother, who admired him because he was true to his beliefs. Since Westerberg was overwhelmed with work, he asked McCandless to delay his departure for Alaska until April 25. Westerberg even offered to buy his young employee an airline ticket to Fairbanks, Alaska. McCandless declined the offer, saying that he wanted to hitchhike.

The misadventure begins

Six days after leaving South Dakota, McCandless arrived at Laird River Hotsprings, 1,523 miles from Fairbanks, near the starting point of the Alaskan Highway. While he enjoyed bathing in the area's thermal pools, McCandless soon realized that he was stranded. Early one morning at the largest pool, he met Gaylord Stuckey, a semi-retiree who was driving a motor home from a recreational vehicle (or RV) manufacturer in Indiana to another RV dealer in Fairbanks. McCandless asked Stuckey for a ride. Although company policy prohibited picking up hitchhikers, Stuckey thought McCandless deserved a lift. He told the young man he would take him halfway to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. Stuckey enjoyed McCandless's company so much, however, that he offered to take him all the way to Fairbanks.

McCandless told the older man about his wilderness plans. Stuckey later recalled that McCandless really seemed to want no part of civilization. The two men arrived in Fairbanks on April 25, stopping at a grocery store to buy a bag of rice. When McCandless announced that he was going to the local university to find a book on edible (safe to eat) plants, Stuckey told him that he would find no vegetation in Alaska at that time of year. Stuckey's concerns mounted as he realized McCandless was determined to begin his adventure in spite of such obstacles. He urged the young man to call his parents, even offering his telephone credit card. But McCandless would not promise anything.

The last man to see McCandless alive

After Stuckey departed, McCandless spent the next three days around Fairbanks making preparations for his trip. He picked up a field guide on edible plants at the university book store, then bought a gun—a semiautomatic, twenty-two caliber Remington with a scope—and four rounds of shells. Camping near the George Parks Highway, McCandless awoke early the morning of April 28, ready to begin the first leg of his journey to the Stampede Trail. As soon as he stepped out onto the road to hitch a ride, a vehicle stopped. The driver, Jim Gallien, agreed to take McCandless to his destination.

Like Stuckey, Gallien's concern grew as he learned about his passenger's plans. Sizing up the situation, Gallien saw a young man ill prepared for the wild. McCandless did not have the proper gear or food, his state road map did not provide adequate navigational information, and his backpack was far too light (it contained mostly books). Gallien offered to drive McCandless to Anchorage, Alaska, to buy camping equipment, but McCandless said no.

Gallien next tried to scare McCandless out of leaving, but that tactic failed as well. Turning his truck off the highway onto a side road, Gallien drove McCandless as far as he could. He gave the young man a pair of boots, some sandwiches, and corn chips. In return, McCandless offered his watch and all his money—about eighty-five cents. Gallien did not want the watch or money. He took a photograph of McCandless at the trailhead with the camera the young man would use to document his life in the wild. After Gallien left, he thought of stopping in the small community of Healy to inform Alaska State troopers about McCandless's plans, but changed his mind. Gallien was the last person to see McCandless alive.

Makes old bus his home

McCandless entered the bush country with little idea of what lay before him. He proceeded along the Stampede Trail (fifty miles of abandoned road built in 1963), and reached the Teklanika River on his second day. At the river he made a mistake that would have fatal consequences. Although he could easily wade across the river in the spring, McCandless was unaware that when he returned from the wild in July, the water would be a raging torrent fueled by thawing glaciers and melting snow fields.

Twenty miles into the wild, McCandless came upon an old bus equipped with a bunk and some supplies, including matches, near the Sushana River. The bus became McCandless's base of operations for most of his stay in the wilderness. McCandless found that killing small wild game was difficult. On May 9, when he killed a squirrel, he wrote in his journal: "4th day famine." Nevertheless, his hunting skills improved, and for the next several weeks he lived on small game, including duck, goose, porcupine, squirrel, and spruce grouse (a type of plump bird).

McCandless had bragged to Gallien that he was going to walk westward, possibly all the way to the Bering Sea (a distance of five hundred miles). When he left the bus for the sea, McCandless did not know that winter, not summer, was the best time to travel through the wild. The summer terrain presented him with one obstacle after another. McCandless was also unaware of a cruel irony. By Alaskan standards, his trek was in an area that did not qualify as true wilderness. In fact, he was close to the George Parks Highway and Denali Park, which was patrolled by the National Park Service. In addition, he was at all times within a six-mile radius of four cabins. Yet McCandless proceeded as if he were thousands of miles from civilization. After struggling less than fifteen miles, he finally decided to return to the bus.

The dilemma of the moose kill

On June 9, McCandless killed a moose, which weighed 600 pounds or more. Because of its size, the dead animal presented a significant challenge for the inexperienced hunter: how to preserve the meat. The preferred way would have been to cut it into thin strips and air dry it on an elevated rack. McCandless decided to smoke the meat. He had little success, and soon the carcass (dead body) was attracting hundreds of flies and mosquitos, followed by maggots. He then became troubled by the ethical implications of his act, especially the waste of so much potential food. In McCandless's eyes, a true woodsman would not allow a kill to go to waste. The next day McCandless decided to learn to live with such errors in judgment, "however great they may be."

Trapped and poisoned in wild

On July 3, McCandless decided he was ready to bring his adventure to an end. He reached the Teklanika River only to find it in full flood. He was a weak swimmer, so any attempt to swim across the river was out of the question. If McCandless had walked upstream, however, he would have found that the river broke up into many smaller channels low enough to wade through. Instead, he headed back to the bus.

Near the end of July, McCandless's luck took a turn for the worse when he accidentally poisoned himself by eating wild potatoes. Although the young man's guide book indicated that the vegetable was nontoxic (not poisonous), alkaloids (bitter organic substances) became concentrated in the plant's seed coat in late summer. (This happens to prevent animals from eating the seeds.) The alkaloid in the seeds is called swainsomine, a poison that does not immediately kill, but prevents the body from turning food into energy. Ingesting large quantities of swainsomine leads to starvation, regardless of the quantity of food a person eats.

On August 5 McCandless described his weakened condition in his journal by writing that he was "IN WEAKEST CONDITION OF LIFE. DEATH LOOMS AS A SERIOUS THREAT." He continued to live for another thirteen days, killing some small animals, but not enough to regain his strength. McCandless probably died on August 18.

Identified through radio show

Hunters found McCandless's body in September. They called the state troopers, who moved the remains—which weighed only sixty-seven pounds—to the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage. After an autopsy (a examination of the body), the cause of death was listed as starvation. The police found no identification on the corpse, however, and every physical clue in their possession led to a dead end. It was not until Wayne Westerberg heard a report about the body on Paul Harvey's radio show that he made the connection to McCandless. Westerberg had McCandless's social security number and real name on a tax form, so he called the Alaska State Trooper office. At first, the state police were skeptical because they had received so many crank calls. Nevertheless, Westerberg persisted, and the social security number finally led investigators to the McCandless family.

The meaning of a short life

The reasons for McCandless's sad end can be found in his approach to living in the wild. His previous experiences, even those where strangers bailed him out of desperate situations, gave him a confidence bordering on arrogance about his survival abilities. From the outset, McCandless lacked adequate supplies, food, and clothing for his trip. He had also not taken the time to become acquainted with the geography of the area he was crossing, so he did not know that the spring thaw would trap him on the wrong side of the Teklanika River. Although McCandless had previously lived on little food, he also failed to realize that, in the wild, a low calorie intake could soon handicap him. Just as fatally, McCandless dismissed warnings from experienced outdoorsmen about his lack of preparation and the possible dangers he would face. In the end, McCandless seemed to realize that he had made a mistake; by that time, however, it was far too late to save himself.

FURTHER READINGS:

  • Krakauer, Jon. "Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds." Outside [magazine]. January, 1993.
  • Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York City: Villard Books, 1996.

 
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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Christopher McCandless." UXL Biographies, UXL, 2011. Research in Context, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FEJ2108101520%2FMSIC%3Fu%3Dmlin_w_shhs%26sid%3DMSIC%26xid%3D9580fa70. Accessed 16 Oct. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2108101520