1. The Romantic Idea of Finding Yourself and The American Means To Do It

Having watched Into the Wild, the survival/road movie based on the life of Christopher McCandless, it is easy to ask, why?  What I mean is not why a young man would leave a promising life that awaited his law degree and the ample wealth he would enjoy from his trust. The world is filled with young people who eschew wealth and go off to find themselves.  McCandless with a fractured upbringing would especially fit this mold.  What I refer to is a  more academic.  How could McCandless’ travel to Alaska’s Denali region and  his eventual death there have occurred to begin with?  The answer may be broadly universal, but it is also very Western (European) and in a way uniquely American.

Following McCandless’ death, Alaskan Craig Medred said, “the Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself.”  The difference is worth noting.  People the world over wander and in some instances the results are tragic, though in the vast expanse of prehistory and history, this wandering is usually done to test oneself.  Young males in hunter gathering tribes had to equip themselves for manhood on the walkabout and pilgrims went out in search for religious answers already had by those before them.  These adventures, fraught with danger, formed a period of testing for the adventurer that echoed the stories of heroes and ascetics.  As life was often harsh, testing was necessary to one’s character and in much of the world this is still the case.  In no one of these instances is one trying to “find” themselves.   That changed in the late 17th century when those in the West came to find themselves lost.

With the Industrial Revolution, the pastoral and agrarian life was gone replaced by one that was urban, mechanistic, and not very human.  The poor and working classes had to deal with it, but those with means and money, could use those resources to go off in search of finding themselves.  The revolt against this was called Romanticism in Europe and it spawned a culture of getting back to nature reflected in art, music, literature, and travel.  Though Romanticism has died, its emphasis on adventure has not.

In Europe the Romantics and today’s adventurer have a relatively safe continent to deal with.  This is largely true in America as well, but unlike Europe danger is much easier to find if you look for it especially in a piece of real estate like Alaska’s Denali.

Another difference between Europe and America is access to the land.  Founded on Republican virtue, the United States did not have the Church or Crown to deal with when it came to land ownership, but rather private interests which came to hem in the most remarkable parts of nature in the eastern half of the country.  Believing private ownership posed a challenge to Republican notions of the common good, a movement of conservation arose to preserve the West from land grabs and make it the people’s property.  Though conservationists today may disagree, it was a largely successful effort producing parks and public lands that could swallow up European nations.  (Theodore Roosevelt alone preserved a land area nearly the equivalent of present day France and Germany combined.)

Having his own personal reason for going into the wild, McCandless succumbed to the Western romance of nature, particularly the idea of “finding” himself while America with vast amounts of unspoiled land and a mythology of rugged individualism gave him the means to such a dangerous undertaking.


II.  A Little More on the Matter

As for the movie itself (I’ve not read the book,) it is excellent as filmmaking.  This is not to say I agree  with a point of view that makes McCandless a hero.  I do not think of him as such, but neither do I think he is to be vilified.  He was merely doing what many a young person does though in a more extreme way.  This is not a movie review however.  What I want to go into here is looking at the character of McCandless in a way that is broader than he is as an individual and what it says about those like him…..and we are all a little like him, though some more than others.

McCandless was a troubled person, we know that, but he was also intelligent and caring.  As for whether he was wise is another matter.  In spite of his personal history, he shares much with the college educated affluent or middle class (and almost always white) young person.  He was ignited with a strong sense of social justice that favors peace and the preservation of the planet.  These are admirable traits, though the young often get the required idealism of the matter while ignoring the necessary pragmatism.   Many such folks are not content to write a check and send it to someone in the field.  Fearing they may reach the end of their lives realizing it was one of quiet desperation, they feel they must go into the world thinking that even if they do not lend a helping hand, their travel somehow makes the world better if only because they can model how we should live, most often simply and in harmony with the planet.  McCandless came from this place, but took it one step further in seeking to throw off civilization itself.

Though most of the young run off to Europe to backpack and get the see the world experience out of their system, McCandless needed something more and here is why his story is complex.  He did take seriously the idea of harmonious living with nature as a way of throwing off a broken system.  The way for him to do so was to do it in solitude leaving behind the idea of community.  Had he been equipped to do this, he may have had a greater impact on others than his death had.

But he was not equipped.  Perhaps he was for the Badlands, Colorado River, and the California desert, but when these did not afford him solitude, he headed to Denali.  Situating himself in an abandoned bus near the town of Healy and within walking distance of the national park, he attempted to live his dream of shunning modernity and living in a blank place on the map, but there are no blank places on the map anymore and there were not in 1992 unless you make them that way.

McCandless death is all the more sad when one considers he not only rejected the trappings of the late 20th century, but earlier cartography and a compass.  This is where the idea of his heroism can be debated.  He was a man who wanted solitude, though he could have had this locked away in a room anywhere.  He was also one of the “the west is best” romantics remembering this was especially the case when much of what was beyond the great river valleys of the central United States were blank places on a map, though he ignored such journeys were rarely made on one’s own.   In reality he was another person who wanted to find grace in nature despite nature being largely oblivious to this.  He also failed to see more than a few glimpses of grace in the world of people.  Had he realized these things, he may still be with us today giving us that wisdom his death never allowed and telling of that which is the greatest of all adventure…..walking every mild and ferocious corner of the good earth knowing it is never done alone.

Image:  Dawn Endico, flickr Creative Commons