Revisiting Into the Wild
When the news broke 15 years ago about an idealistic young man who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness, I reacted badly.
Plenty of folks, myself included, go alone into the wild and emerge unscathed; in fact, restored to Muirean health and sanity. The national fascination with Chris McCandless’ sad end seemed morbid to me — a morality tale told by the comfortable to justify their easy, unexamined lives.
I still think a sick fascination is part of what made Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild a bestseller. But I confess I have read only the excerpt from it published over a decade ago in Outside magazine, which may not do the book justice. It was somewhat misleadingly subtitled "How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds," and mostly focused on the mistakes he made, his tragic death.
Many people who heard of this story didn’t want to take time to follow a reckless youth. I was one of them. But then I saw the movie, and I saw the young actor playing Chris McCandless make him become the man he wanted to be — "Alexander Supertramp."
He had an extraordinary life; giving away his inheritance, burning his cash, walking off into the desert. He wanted meaning, more than anything. You could question his sanity, but not his sincerity. And nearly everyone he met fell in love with him, one way or another.
The movie overwhelms — and for both me and a wilderness friend, far outstripped the written version of the story. But to be fair, when I went back and read the excerpt again, I realized I had forgotten the most important part — Krakauer’s connection with McCandless. He wrote:
In 1977, when I was 23 — a year younger than McCandless at the time of his death — I hitched a ride to Alaska on a fishing boat and set off alone into the backcountry to attempt an ascent of a malevolent stone digit called the Devils Thumb, a towering prong of vertical rock and avalanching ice, ignoring pleas from friends, family, and utter strangers to come to my senses. Simply reaching the foot of the mountain entailed traveling 30 miles up a badly crevassed, storm-wracked glacier that hadn’t seen a human footprint in many years. By choice I had no radio, no way of summoning help, no safety net of any kind. I had several harrowing shaves, but eventually I reached the summit of the Thumb.
When I decided to go to Alaska that April, I was an angst-ridden youth who read too much Nietzsche, mistook passion for insight, and functioned according to an obscure gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end it changed almost nothing, of course. I came to appreciate, however, that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.
The director Sean Penn talked about his version of that kind of trial to Joe Donnelly at the LA Weekly:
… definitely the most life-changing things were the times when I put my life on the edge. I don’t think it’s because of the life on the edge, literally. I think it’s because of the humility that comes with dancing with something that shows itself to be clearly bigger than you are.
To Time, he put it more grandly:
You’ve gotta feel your own life to have a quality of life, and our own inauthenticity, our corruptions, get in the way of that. The wilderness is relentlessly authentic.
And so too is the movie. Penn has always had an ability to chip his edgy characters into our lives, be they Spicoli spilling stoned out of the van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or the too-proud killer in Dead Man Walking. Now he’s done the same thing with another actor, another character, and with skills many of us haven’t seen before — as a writer and a director.
After this movie, he may become a Clint Eastwood of indie filmmaking, a completely free spirit and a free talent. Watch out world.
It’s best to go into most movies, this one included, knowing as little as possible, so I’m not going to spoil it by saying too much, because I want you to see it, and experience it for yourselves.
But I can point you to the music, by Eddie Vedder, from what is essentially his first solo record ever, and, as you might expect, a durn good one. On the iTunes edition, it includes a shockingly strong antiwar song ("No More") and all versions have a campfire song — "Society" — as wryly touching as anything Vedder has ever written.
You’ll come out of the theater deep in thought, wondering if McCandless lived well or not, and probably landing on some version of a question asked years ago by Don Delillo (in his novel Great Jones Street. Delillo wondered “Why are free spirits always so fucking dumb?”