A couple weeks ago marked the 20th year since 24-year-old adventurer, Chris McCandless, died of starvation in the Alaska wilderness. By pure coincidence, I happened to pull up from my Netflix queue the 2007 film “Into The Wild”, which tells the story of Chris’s last couple years on earth. The movie cut me open so severely, that I could not restrain myself from immediately downloading the book which made for most of the film’s source material, as well as the movie soundtrack, brilliantly performed by Eddie Vedder.
I’ve struggled against a reluctance to post on this subject, because it feels a lot like I’m plugging media, and that’s not primarily what I like to do here. Worse yet, I didn’t want to sound like I’m doing some sort of review of any of this material, because that really isn’t what I like to do here. But again, the film and book were so impactful to me that I feel I should bring others’ attention to them, in case I’m not the only one who feels like being stung in the chest with displays of life lived fully on the precipice of disaster.
The film is directed by Sean Penn, whom I find to be one of Hollywood’s most annoying figures, with that permanent sneer on his face and the way he stumbles all over himself every time he decides to talk politics, but I also love the guy because you put him anywhere around a movie camera, and he becomes some sort of fantastical genius – like God packed an overabundance of brilliance into one quadrant of the man’s brain, and it’s only properly tapped when it involves acting or screenplays or camera angles or epic soundtracks.
Not to recount the whole Chris McCandless tale, as I hope that those not familiar will go check out the movie and book themselves, but quickly – McCandless was a young man who, shortly after graduating college in 1990, disappeared from the lives of everybody who knew him. His reasons for escaping were complicated – he was at odds with his parents over a myriad of things; he was a tremendously passionate boy, drunk on Tolstoy and Jack London; he chose a life devoted to aestheticism and the road. (How much more stark a contrast does his life portray even now, 20 years later, when society has grown even more ripe with “things”?)
For the two years following his disappearance, McCandless traveled extensively across the U.S., never pausing for more than a few weeks in a given location, living from nothing but an oversized backpack and whatever he could work for or borrow, and the experiences he had with the people he encountered while roaming the country…well, the people he encountered are the reason I decided to write about him this morning. What strikes me most about Chris McCandless is the way he affected the people he met while he was living out his adventure.
Everybody loved the boy. Everybody found his presence intoxicating, even those who met him only for a few minutes – they remember their conversations years later. One old man spent a few weeks with him and literally tried to adopt him; this man was so grief-stricken upon the news of Chris’s eventual death, that he renounced his faith and became an atheist (I imagine he eventually relented; atheism doesn’t play out long term for most people).
I wondered as I watched the film if peoples’ reactions to Chris were truly as profound as the movie portrayed. When I read the book, I could see that the film barely scratches the surface of McCandless’s impact on people. I wondered like crazy what it was about that kid which attracted people so much. Sure, he was handsome, incredibly intelligent, a talented singer – many things that would cause people to be drawn, but a lot of people fit that list in even greater degrees who did not shake the hearts of people as Chris did.
I read a line in Jon Krakauer’s book on McCandless, “Into The Wild”; one commentator says of McCandless, “At least he tried to follow his dream. That’s what was great about him. He tried. Not many do.” When I read this line, everything I observed about the life of Chris McCandless made more sense. This is what people found so alluring. They were drawn to the boy’s passion, even if it was misguided at times; his intensity and focus were mesmerizing.
Author Donald Miller says, “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” What a weighty thing to contemplate. There are things in life – things that warp into vices, particularly – that we have little trouble falling in love with. We don’t need to watch someone plunge into chemical dependency or sexual addiction to know that these things are quite pleasurable, at least for a time. But McCandless was in love with something completely different, something beyond the trivial, flesh-deep loves; it took time for people to understand. Some people still don’t understand.
Following his death, and still to this day, there are folks (mostly Alaskans) who label Chris an idiot for stepping into the wilderness not fully prepared. Those people really piss me off, and for more than their propensity to speak so ill of the dead (bad form in itself), it’s their attachment to the belief that this life – the pasty, milk-toast, shadow-world we’re all right now contained in – is the most important thing. It’s preposterous for most people to think that there is something worse than death. And death is bad; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it isn’t the worst thing, at least not on it’s own. The depth of death’s tragedy is directly impacted by the shallowness of life preceding it. Chris McCandless’s death was a tragedy, no doubt. But it was made less so by the abundance of true life he packed into his twenty four years on earth.