I‘d heard about this book for years, but had never actually picked it up until a student of mine was talking about how much he’d enjoyed it, and offered to lend it to me. It’s the true story (as much as the author could reconstruct) of the events leading up to the death of Christopher McCandless, a young American who was found dead in an abandoned bus in Alaska in the early 1990s after a couple of years of wandering the US, living off the land and off the kindness of strangers, and seeking adventure.
My student, like a lot of young people who read this book, was impressed by McCandless’s decision to leave behind an upper-middle-class family, a college education that was likely to lead to law school, and all the trappings of a “normal” 20th century American life. The writings he left behind and the memories of people who knew him along his journey, painstakingly accumulated by Krakauer in this book, paint a picture of a young man who questioned the values of mainstream society and had done a lot of mental exploration around the idea of freedom.
Unfortunately, he had perhaps not done enough exploration around the idea of how to survive alone in Alaska — the causes for his death, and whether that death (from either starvation or accidental poisoning) was the result of his own lack of preparation, are still hotly debated. As I learned from an Alaskan friend when I mentioned I was reading the book, Alaskans particularly tend to be contemptuous of “adventurers” like McCandless who venture into their wilderness without a proper respect for its ability to kill you — though McCandless’s admirers will tell you he was better prepared than many people are, and was simply the victim of unfortunate circumstance. As I said, it’s hotly debated.
For me, coming to this story as the parent of young adults, I was unable to read this through any other lens than thinking of McCandless’s mother, who was not only interviewed (along with the rest of his family) by Krakauer for the book, but who, near the end of the book, makes a pilgrimage to the site of his death to try to better understand the son who, by the time he died, had cut off contact with his family for over two years. (While McCandless had disagreements with his parents, as many young adults do, there was no suggestion that his parents were in any way abusive or anything less than loving — he simply wanted to live his life with no personal strings attached, it seems, and saw contact with his family as inevitably tied to the middle-class lifetstyle he was seeking to be free of).
To be young is, almost by definition, to be selfish — not universally selfish, but selfish in the sense that you are focused on your own path in life, your own quest to become an individual, and you rarely think about what that journey costs your parents. And in most cases, that’s right and normal. In a few cases, like Chris McCandless’s, that need for independence is so extreme that it leaves not only a young life lost tragically early, but a family emotionally torn apart forever. I’m sure during his years of wandering, and his final weeks alone in Alaska, he probably gave little thought to his frantic parents back home — and if he had, he wouldn’t have realized how much pain they were in. But I could think of nothing else throughout the entire book. A very sad story.