Self-portrait of McCandless on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death
Christopher Johnson McCandless
February 12, 1968
|Died||c. August 1992 (aged 24)|
|Cause of death||Starvation, possibly brought on by poisoning|
|Body discovered||September 6, 1992|
|Other names||Alexander Supertramp|
|Education||Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School|
|Alma mater||Emory University|
Christopher Johnson McCandless (//; February 12, 1968 – c. August 1992), also known by his pseudonym Alexander Supertramp, was an American hiker who sought an increasingly itinerant lifestyle as he grew up. McCandless is the subject of Into the Wild, a nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer that was later made into a full-length feature film.
After graduating from Emory University in Georgia in 1990, McCandless traveled across North America and eventually hitchhiked to Alaska in April 1992. There, he entered the Alaskan bush with minimal supplies, hoping to live simply off the land. On the eastern bank of the Sushana River, McCandless found an abandoned bus, Fairbanks Bus 142, which he used as a makeshift shelter until his death. In September, his decomposing body, weighing only 67 pounds (30 kg), was found inside the bus by a hunter. McCandless' cause of death was officially ruled to be starvation, although the exact circumstances relating to his death remain the subject of some debate.
In January 1993, Krakauer published an article about McCandless in that month's issue of Outside magazine. He had been assigned the story and had written it under a tight deadline. Inspired by the details of McCandless' story, Krakauer wrote the biographical book Into the Wild. The book was subsequently adapted into a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn, with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless became the subject of Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild.
Christopher Johnson McCandless was born in El Segundo, California. He was the eldest child of Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless (née Johnson) and Walter "Walt" McCandless and had a younger sister Carine. McCandless also had six half-siblings from Walt's first marriage, who lived with their mother in California and later Denver, Colorado. Author Jon Krakauer speculated, and sister Carine later confirmed in her book The Wild Truth, that Walt's overlap between these two marriages (half-brother Quinn was born to Walt's first wife after Walt had fathered Chris with his second wife) affected McCandless deeply and shaped his worldview.
In 1976, the family relocated to Annandale, Virginia, when McCandless' father was hired as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); McCandless' mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft. The couple went on to establish a successful consultancy business out of their home, specializing in Walt's area of expertise.
Chris' younger sister, Carine, wrote the memoir The Wild Truth, published by HarperCollins in November 2014. In the book, Carine describes verbal, physical and sexual abuse her parents allegedly inflicted upon each other and their children, often fueled by her father's alcoholism. Carine cites her and her brother's abusive childhood as one of the motivating factors in Chris' desire to "disappear" into the wilderness. In a statement released to the media shortly before the memoir was released, Walt and Billie McCandless denied their daughter's accusations, stating that her book is, "fictionalized writing [that] has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, his journey or his character. This whole unfortunate event in Chris' life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams."
McCandless graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1986. He excelled academically, although a number of teachers and fellow students observed that he "marched to the beat of a different drummer." McCandless also served as captain of the cross-country team, where he would urge teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred."
In the summer of 1986, McCandless traveled to Southern California and reconnected with distant relatives and friends. It was during this journey he learned that his father had not yet divorced his first wife when McCandless and his sister Carine were born, and had apparently maintained somewhat of a double life before the move to Virginia, fathering half-brother Quinn with his first wife three months after his second wife gave birth to Carine. It is speculated that this discovery had a profound impact on the younger McCandless.
McCandless graduated from Emory University in May 1990, with a bachelor's degree in the double majors of history and anthropology. After graduating, he donated his college savings of $24,000 to OXFAM and adopted a vagabond lifestyle, working when necessary as a restaurant food preparer and farm hand. An avid outdoorsman, McCandless completed several lengthy wilderness hiking trips and paddled a canoe down a portion of the Colorado River before hitchhiking to Alaska in April 1992.
By the end of summer in 1990, McCandless had driven his Datsun through California, Arizona, and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. A flash flood disabled his car, at which point he removed its license plates, took what he could carry, and kept moving on foot. His car was later found, repaired, and put into service as an undercover vehicle for the local police department.
In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28 by a local electrician named Jim Gallien, who had given McCandless a ride from Fairbanks to the start of the rugged track just outside the small town of Healy. Gallien later said he had been seriously concerned about the safety of McCandless (who introduced himself as "Alex") after noticing his light pack, minimal equipment, meager rations, and obvious lack of experience. Gallien said he had deep doubts about "Alex's" ability to survive the harsh and unforgiving Alaskan bush.
Gallien tried repeatedly to persuade McCandless to delay the trip, at one point offering to detour to Anchorage and buy him suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien's persistent warnings and refused his offers of assistance (though McCandless did accept a pair of Xtratufs, two sandwiches, and a packet of corn chips from Gallien). Gallien dropped McCandless off believing he would head back towards the highway within a few days as hunger set in.
After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless came upon an abandoned bus (about 28 miles (45 km) west of Healy at ) alongside an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park. McCandless, according to Into the Wild, attempted to continue "heading west until I hit the Bering Sea." However, he was deterred by the thick Alaskan bush and returned to the bus, where he set up camp and lived off the land. He had 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, a number of books, including one on local plant life, some personal effects, and a few items of camping equipment. Self-portrait photographs and journal entries indicate he foraged for edible plants and hunted game. McCandless hunted porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he illegally stalked and shot a moose. However, the meat spoiled within days after McCandless failed in his efforts to preserve it.
It has been speculated that McCandless was responsible for vandalizing several cabins in the area that were stocked with food, survival equipment, and emergency supplies. In response, Denali National Park Chief Ranger Ken Kehrer has categorically stated that McCandless was not considered a viable suspect by the National Park Service.
McCandless' journal documents 113 days in the area. In July, after living in the bus for a little over two months, he decided to head back to civilization—but the trail was blocked by an impassable Teklanika River swollen with late-summer runoff from the Cantwell Glacier: The watercourse by that stage was considerably higher and swifter than when he had crossed in April. McCandless did not have a detailed topographical map of the region and was unaware of the existence of an abandoned hand-operated cable car that crossed the river 1⁄2 mile (800 m) downstream from where he had previously crossed. At this point, McCandless headed back to the bus and re-established his camp. He posted an S.O.S. note on the bus stating:
Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?
McCandless' final written journal entry, noted as "Day 107", simply read, "BEAUTIFUL BLUE BERRIES." Days 108 through 112 contained no words and were marked only with slashes, and on Day 113 there was no entry. The exact time and date of his death are not known. Near the time of his death, McCandless took a picture of himself waving while holding a written note, which read:
I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!
On September 6, 1992, a group of hunters who were looking for shelter for the night came upon the converted bus where McCandless had been staying. Upon entering, they smelled what they thought was rotting food and discovered "a lump" in a sleeping bag in the back of the bus. The hunters quickly radioed police, who arrived the following day. They found McCandless' decomposing remains in the sleeping bag. It is theorized that he died from starvation approximately two weeks before his body was found.
Theories of malnutrition
In his book Into the Wild (1996), Krakauer suggests two factors may have contributed to McCandless' death. First, he offered that McCandless was running the risk of a phenomenon known as "rabbit starvation", from overrelying on lean game for nutrition.
Swainsonine in hedysarum alpinum seeds
Krakauer also speculated that McCandless might have been poisoned by a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine, by ingesting seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii) containing the toxin, or possibly by a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola) when he put them damp into a plastic bag. Swainsonine inhibits metabolism of glycoproteins, which causes starvation despite ample caloric intake.
However, in an article in the September 2007 issue of Men's Journal, Matthew Power states that extensive laboratory testing showed there were no toxins or alkaloids present in the H. alpinum seeds McCandless had been eating. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at University of Alaska Fairbanks, said, "I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I'd eat it myself." Analysis of the wild sweet peas, given as the cause of McCandless' death in Into the Wild, found no toxic compounds, and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant. As Power put it: "He didn't find a way out of the bush, couldn't catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death".
Lathyrism due to ODAP in hedysarum alpinum seeds
In 2013, a new hypothesis was proposed. Ronald Hamilton, a retired bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, suggested a link between the symptoms described by McCandless and the poisoning of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp in Vapniarca. He put forward the proposal that McCandless starved to death because he was suffering from paralysis in his legs induced by lathyrism, which prevented him from gathering food or hiking. Lathyrism may be caused by ODAP poisoning from seeds of Hedysarum alpinum (commonly called wild potato). The ODAP, a toxic amino acid, had not been detected by the previous studies of the seeds because they had suspected and tested for a toxic alkaloid, rather than an amino acid, and nobody had previously suspected that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contained this toxin. The protein would be relatively harmless to someone who was well-fed and on a normal diet, but toxic to someone who was malnourished, physically stressed, and on an irregular and insufficient diet, as McCandless was. As Krakauer points out, McCandless' field guide did not warn of any dangers of eating the seeds, which were not yet known to be toxic. Krakauer suspects this is the meaning of McCandless' journal entry of July 30, which states, "EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY."
In September 2013, Krakauer published an article in The New Yorker following up on Hamilton's claims. A sample of fresh Hedysarum alpinum seeds was sent to a laboratory for HPLC analysis. Results showed that the seeds contained 0.394% beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans, although the interpretation of the results were disputed by other chemists. The article notes that while occasional ingestion of foodstuffs containing ODAP is not hazardous for healthy individuals eating a balanced diet, "individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin".
In March 2015, Krakauer co-authored a scientific analysis of the Hedysarum alpinum seeds McCandless ate. Instead of ODAP, the report found relatively high levels of L-canavanine (an antimetabolite toxic to mammals) in the H. alpinum seeds and concluded "it is highly likely that the consumption of H. alpinum seeds contributed to the death of Chris McCandless."
The converted blue bus where McCandless lived and died became a well-known destination for hikers. Known as "The Magic Bus", the 1946 International Harvester was abandoned by road workers in 1961 on the Stampede Trail. A plaque in McCandless' memory was affixed to the interior by his father, Walt McCandless. McCandless' life became the subject of a number of articles, books, films, and documentaries, which helped elevate his life to the status of modern myth. He became a romantic figure to some inspired by what they see as his free-spirited idealism, but to others a controversial misguided figure.
"The Magic Bus" became a pilgrimage destination for trekkers who would camp at the vehicle. Some of these experienced their own difficulties or even died attempting to cross the Teklanika River.
On June 18, 2020, various government agencies coordinated with an Alaska Army National Guard training mission to finally remove the bus, deemed a public safety issue after at least 15 people had to be rescued, and at least two people died while attempting to cross the Teklanika river to reach the bus. It was flown via CH-47 Chinook helicopter to Healy, then via flatbed truck to an undisclosed location.
On September 24, 2020, the Museum of The North at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) announced it became the permanent home of McCandless' 'Magic Bus 142' where it will be restored and an outdoor exhibit will be created.
McCandless has been a polarizing figure since his story came to widespread public attention with the publication of Krakauer's January 1993 Outside article. While the author and many others have a sympathetic view of the young traveler, others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate.
Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:
When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [...] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.
Ken Ilgunas, also an Alaskan Park Ranger and the author of The McCandless Mecca, writes:
Before I go any further, I should say that Pete is a really good guy [...] But with that said, I think Pete is very, very wrong. [...] Because I am in the unique position as both an Alaskan park ranger [...] I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject. [...] McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two.
Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:
Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero.
Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless' desire for "being the first to explore a blank spot on the map." He continues: "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."
In popular culture
Krakauer's approximately 9,000-word article "Death of an Innocent" (January 1993) was published in Outside. Chip Brown's full-length article on McCandless, "I Now Walk Into the Wild" (February 8, 1993), was published in The New Yorker. Jon Krakauer's non-fiction book Into the Wild (1996) expands upon his 1993 Outside article and retraces McCandless' travels leading up to the hiker's eventual death.
An eponymous 2007 film adaptation of Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless, received a number of awards, including Best Picture from the American Film Institute. Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild (2007) also covers McCandless' life story.
The 2011 book Back to the Wild compiles photographs, postcards and journal entries by McCandless. A PBS documentary uncovering some additional information, with interviews, titled Return to the Wild: The Chris McCandless Story, first aired on the PBS network in November 2014.
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- Dispatches from the Wild – Excerpts of McCandless' own articles published in the Emory Wheel student newspaper.
- The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless, ISBN 978-0-06-232515-0, detailing what growing-up in the McCandless household was like.
- The Call of the Wild, a 2007 documentary about McCandless made by Ron Lamothe.
- Vagabond, a 1985 French film that deals with a similar theme