Raised in Virginia, Christopher Johnson McCandless began his long journey to Alaska in the summer of 1990, shortly after his graduation from Emory University. He donated the remaining contents of his college fund to Oxfam, packed his Datsun and headed west – without telling anyone his plans. After abandoning his car near Lake Mead, McCandless adopted a new name – “Alexander Supertramp” – and hitched and hoofed his way around the western United States for nearly two years. Then, in April 1992, he headed north. He planned to spend the summer living off the land south of Fairbanks, sustaining himself on wild plants and any game he could bring down with a .22-caliber rifle he’d picked up.
In his journal entries and letters to friends, first published in Into the Wild, McCandless spelled out the philosophy that motivated his travels. He was seeking freedom and adventure, an escape from consumer culture and the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Not long before he left for Alaska, McCandless wrote to a friend:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future … If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy.”
On April 27, McCandless sent a postcard from Fairbanks to a friend in South Dakota. “It might be a very long time before I return South,” he wrote. “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.”
The next day, he thumbed a ride south from Fairbanks to the Stampede Road, near the town of Healy and the main entrance to Denali National Park, and began his trek into the backcountry. He followed the Stampede Trail through the late spring snow and across a still-frozen Teklanika River until he stumbled upon a derelict bus and made the 1946 International Harvester K-5 his home. He hunted squirrels and porcupines and birds, and eventually shot a moose. He read Jack London, Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau.
But by mid-summer, McCandless was ill and starving. He deteriorated rapidly, and died in mid-August. His body was found by a group of moose hunters in early September. Krakauer’s story was published the following January and a legend was born.
On my first night in Healy, I told a bartender that I was there to write about the bus' ongoing hold on people. He shook his head.
“It’ll be gone soon,” he said. “Too many people are getting stuck out there.”
“You think they’ll take it out?” I asked. Over the years, local authorities had talked about removing the hulk by helicopter to eliminate the temptation.
“Nope. I know some local boys that are gonna blow it up.”
Whether the claim was simple bravado or not, the sentiment was real. Alaskan reactions to the Into the Wild saga vary, but almost always fall somewhere between a resigned eye-roll and full-blown hostility. A few young Alaskans I met told hand-me-down stories they’d heard from Healy locals about McCandless' behavior in the Totem Bar. “He wasn’t charismatic,” one of them said. “He just sat in the corner, drinking and talking to himself.”
Never mind that in three years of research for his book, Krakauer didn’t find any evidence to suggest that McCandless ever went near the bar, or even the town of Healy proper. For some Alaskans, the mythic aspects of Into the Wild form a balloon they feel compelled to puncture. Instead of Sean Penn’s healing, quasi-mystical vagabond, who changed every life he touched for the better, some locals see an antihero – one whose sad, predictable end has been hyped into fraudulent legend.
Rusty Lasell, the chief of the Tri-Valley Volunteer Fire Department in Healy, coordinates rescues of lost, stranded and injured bus-seekers. He’s more sympathetic to McCandless than most Alaskans. “The kid was a decent kid,” he told me as we sat in the fire hall on my second day in Healy. “He just bit off more than he could chew.” But Lasell also sees the local perspective. Alaskans grow up understanding the dangers of the north country, he said. They know it isn’t a place to be flirted with or taken lightly, nor a place to fulfill dreams hatched in a southern suburb. “You come to this state, you’ve got to bring your A game,” he said. “And so when you see people that come up here and want to try it out, it aggravates you.”
Lasell has been on the job for 25 years, since before McCandless set out from Atlanta. By the time I met him in early September, he’d already rescued 12 Stampede hikers that summer – most of them stranded on the far side of the Teklanika by fast-rising waters. Every time he gets a call from a worried parent about a kid who’s failed to check in, he has to commandeer a helicopter from a local sightseeing outfit and go on the hunt - with the state of Alaska footing the bill.
“We’ve had people die out there," he said. "We’ve flown I don’t know how many people out of there who’ve gotten sick, we’ve had people in winter that overshot it." He has no idea how many hikers have attempted the trip over the years, and either reached the bus successfully or turned back without incident. “They don’t check in with us, they don’t check in with anybody.” But he knows that the problem has been growing over the last six years. “We didn’t really feel an impact from the bus until the movie came out.”
Healy local Steve Tolley figures it was 1975 or so when he and a friend decided to make the old bus their home base for the winter trapping season. The vehicle had been abandoned in 1963, back when the Stampede Trail led out to the now-defunct Clearwater mine. Wilderness had since grown in over the one-time mining road, but the bus labeled Fairbanks City Transit System #142 was still there. “The bus had all the windows in it,” Tolley recalled, “so we took some mattresses, stuff to make it comfortable.” The place became a popular shelter for hunters and trappers each fall and winter. But in summer, when the Teklanika River ran ice-free, the bus stood empty – until McCandless arrived in 1992.
Like Rusty Lasell, Tolley is sympathetic to McCandless. “I think he just wanted to go out there and prove that he could live on his own,” he told me over beers in his homemade cabin, up on a ridge outside Healy. “But that’s a rough spot to try and do that. I think everybody has a stage in their life where they want to test themselves. But I tell you what: it’s a challenge, even living here a mile away from the grocery store.”
Tolley and another local friend, Roger Phoenix, don’t stay in the bus anymore. Two different groups head out to the bus these days, they told me: the pilgrims themselves, and a handful of young locals hostile to the McCandless mythology. “The young punks from around here shot the thing full of holes,” Phoenix told me. “The windows are broke out. You can’t even stay out there no more.” The bus has long since been covered with graffiti from McCandless’ fans – the ancient paint etched with “Please respect Mother Nature,” “The best things in life are free” and other McCandless-esque mantras. But over the years, Phoenix has seen another kind of graffiti appear. One such inscription reads, “Stupid people die fast!”