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The Magic Bus, Death Edition

Posted Nov 18 2008 12:10am


Wilderness . . . not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he made of his own soul.

--Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (quoted by Jon Krakauer)

Christopher McCandless died alone inside an abandoned bus on an Alaskan trail in August 1992, and, if youtube is any indication, the bus has become a shrine--to what, exactly, I don't know. Nothing against McCandless; I've always had a fondness for people who march to the beat of a different drummer, and certainly there are a fair number of people who yearn for what they perceive as a simpler, more primitive life, a life that will provide them with a spiritual epiphany. I say "what they perceive as" based on McCandles's diary entries and what litle I've read about the amount of time and energy hunter/gatherer types spend hunting for game, gathering edible vegetation, warding off disease, and staying warm. Certainly that kind of life is more primitive, but simpler? I'll give my eight hours a day to the U.S. Courts, thank you.

Into the Wild is Jon Krakauer's meticulously researched and brilliantly written account of the last two years of McCandless's life. McCandless graduated from Emory University in 1990, then went on the road. He changed his name to "Alexander Supertramp" and cut off contact with his family. He frequently went days without eating, and lived on rice and whatever he could hunt or gather. Finally, in 1992, he took off for his great Alaskan adventure, a trip he thought would bring about an inner spiritual transformation as he lived off the land. By July 1992, McCandless's diary entries indicated that he was ready to leave the wilderness and return to society. The problem was, McCandless was untrained and unprepared to live in Alaska. The river he had walked across to get to his bus had swollen and become impassible by the time he was ready to leave, and he hadn't bothered to obtain a detailed map that would have directed him to an easy way across the river a few hours from where he was. So he went back to the bus to wait things out. Something went terribly wrong at the end of July--McCandless belived he had eaten toxic potato seeds--and he starved to death by the middle of August. Krakauer opines that a toxic mold or fungus that had grown on the seeds imparied McCandless's ability to metabolize food. Whatever caused him to starve, Christopher McCandless weighed 67 pounds when his corpse was found.

McCandless's death made national news, and Outside magazine assigned Krakauer to write an article. The article led Krakauer to people who had known McCandless in the final two years of his life. His interviews with those people and McCandless's diaries allowed him to piece together a gripping narrative of an adventurous but tortured soul in search of himself. McCandless was obsessed with Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Jack London, and his extensive wilderness adventures somewhat emulated his favorite authors.

McCandless detested his materialistic (by his standards) parents, and he rejected their offers of a new car and a mommy/daddy scholarship to law school (he did what? ) Krakauer himself is a wilderness adventurer, having disappointed his own father by rejecting the family's one true path to success, also known as Harvard Medical School. He drew upon his own experience climbing a glacial mountain in Alaska in an attempt to understand McCandless. Krakauer felt vibrant and was intensely focused throughout his climb, as he was in all his adventures. Danger brought him alive. McCandless evidently had the same kind of feelings throughout his adventures. The most obvious difference is that, although Krakauer took huge risks, he was a trained, experienced climber who made appropriate preparations. A less obvious difference is that Krakauer didn't come off as all that interested in using his adventures to gain a complete spiritual transformation.

The most dangerous thing I've ever done in the great outdoors is some mild-mannered open water diving. Diving provided me not with the thrill of danger, but rather a feeling of tranquility, something that was badly needed. I haven't been in a few years, but I'm planning to go down again one of these days. I did go hiking once in the Bear River Range in Utah with no compass and a small supply of water, and I felt terribly stupid when I got lost. However, I was able to see the parking lot from the highest peak and maintain my sense of direction until I got back to the car. One of my fond fantasies is to hike, camp, and run the Rio Grande rapids in the Big Bend region of Texas. If I go, I'll attempt to be properly prepared and provisioned.

Into the Wild brought the movie and novel Fight Club to mind. Chris McCandless and Tyler Durden shared a desire for a return to a primitive lifestyle, and both had inter-generational issues. McCandless tested his body by living in an extreme manner on the edge of society, while Tyler and his followers tested their bodies by having the crap beaten out of themselves. McCandless, however, became an anarchist and withdrew from civilization, while Tyler became a fascist and attempted to create anarchy by destroying civilization. I suppose sons have always had issues with their fathers-- Oedipus Rex is rather an old play--and father/son issues have persisted even after Freud has gone out of style.

The book also raised one issue of which I was vaguely aware but had not articulated--the responsibility of an individual to conduct himself or herself in a particular manner to spare the feelings of his or her friends and family members. I have thought some about living my life in comformity with the expectations of others (I agin' it as a general proposition, but I suppose I admire nonconformists far more than I emulate them), but not so much about regulating my actions to spare their feelings. Chris McCandless's relatives wondered aloud how he could bring them so much grief. It's a fair question. However, apart from acting on an actual death wish--something Krakauer didn't see in McCandless--I don't know that one should be responsible for the feelings of anybody beyond his or her spouses and children. Beyond that, one's life is one's own, I suppose.

As for transformative spiritual experiences, I'm dubious about reliance on external stimuli, without something more, though I suppose that some experiences and phenomena are more helpful than others. In the end, however, the actual transformation occurs inside the individual, and can't be borrowed from nature or any person or institution. On second thought, I suppose that intense physical activities requiring complete concentration and perfect coordination of mind and body tend to eradicate the distinction in Western thought between mind and body. Nondualist Eastern thought rejects such a distinction in the first place. Perhaps one can gain a kind of existential, experiential transformative spirituality through adventures like McCandless's.

I can see why people see seomthing admirable in McCandless; I can also see why others see him as a reckless idiot. What I don't get is why people still make pilgrimages to what McCandless called his Magic Bus. Now I've got to see Sean Penn's movie version, which features the bus and other Chris McCandless locales.
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