Into the Wild (book)
|Genre||Biography/True travel essay|
|LC Class||CT9971.M38 K73 1997|
|Preceded by||Eiger Dreams|
|Followed by||Into Thin Air|
Into the Wild is a 1996 non-fiction book written by Jon Krakauer. It is an expansion of a 9,000-word article by Krakauer on Chris McCandless titled "Death of an Innocent", which appeared in the January 1993 issue of Outside. The book was adapted to a film of the same name in 2007, directed by Sean Penn with Emile Hirsch starring as McCandless. Into the Wild is an international bestseller which has been printed in 30 languages and 173 editions and formats. The book is widely used as high school and college reading curriculum. Into the Wild has been lauded by many reviewers, and in 2019 was listed by Slate as one of the 50 best nonfiction works of the past quarter-century, but the book has also been described by Alaskan reporter Craig Medred as "something invented" by its author.
Christopher Johnson McCandless grew up in suburban Annandale, Virginia. After graduating in May 1990 with high grades from Emory University, McCandless ceased communicating with his family, gave away his college fund of $24,500 to Oxfam, and began traveling across the Western United States, later abandoning his 1982 Datsun B210 after a flash flood.
On April 28, 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in Alaska. There he headed down the snow-covered trail to begin an odyssey with only 10 pounds (4500 g) of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, several boxes of rifle rounds, a camera, and a small selection of reading material—including a field guide to the region's edible plants, Tana'ina Plantlore. He declined an acquaintance's offer to buy him sturdier clothing and better supplies. McCandless perished sometime around the week of August 18, 1992, after surviving for 113 days.
On September 6, 1992, Christopher McCandless's body was found in an abandoned bus at Coordinates: on the Stampede Trail in Alaska. One year later, author Jon Krakauer retraced McCandless's steps during the two years between college graduation and his demise in Alaska. McCandless shed his legal name early in his journey, adopting the moniker "Alexander Supertramp", after W.H. Davies. He spent time in Carthage, South Dakota, laboring for months in a grain elevator owned by Wayne Westerberg before hitchhiking to Alaska in April 1992. Krakauer interprets McCandless's intensely ascetic personality as possibly influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and McCandless's favorite writer, Jack London. He explores the similarities between McCandless's experiences and motivations, and his own as a young man, recounting in detail Krakauer's own attempt to climb Devils Thumb in Alaska. Krakauer also relates the stories of some other young men who vanished into the wilderness, such as Everett Ruess and Carl McCunn. In addition, he describes at some length the grief and puzzlement of McCandless's parents, sister Carine, and friends.
Cause of death
McCandless survived for approximately 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness, foraging for edible roots and berries, shooting an assortment of game—including a moose—and keeping a journal. Although he planned to hike to the coast, the boggy terrain of summer proved too difficult, and he decided instead to camp in a derelict camping bus left behind by a road construction company. In July he tried to leave, only to find the route blocked by the Teklanika river raging with snow-melt. On July 30, McCandless wrote a journal entry which read, "Extremely Weak. Fault Of Pot[ato] Seed". Based on this entry, Krakauer hypothesized that McCandless had been eating what he thought was the roots of an edible plant, Hedysarum alpinum, commonly known as wild Eskimo potato, which are sweet and nourishing in the spring but become too tough to eat in the summer, perhaps forcing McCandless to eat the H. alpinum's seeds instead. Krakauer first speculated that the seeds were actually from Hedysarum mackenzii, or wild sweet pea, instead of the Eskimo potato, which contained a poisonous alkaloid, possibly swainsonine (the toxic chemical in locoweed) or something similar. In addition to neurological symptoms, such as weakness and loss of coordination, the poison causes starvation by blocking nutrient metabolism in the body. However, Krakauer later suggested that McCandless had not confused the two plants and had in fact actually eaten H. alpinum. Krakauer had the H. alpinum seeds tested for toxins and, through tests on Hendysarum alpinum, it was discovered that it contained an unidentifiable form of toxin.
According to Krakauer, a well-nourished person might consume the seeds and survive because the body can use its stores of glucose and amino acids to rid itself of the poison. Since McCandless lived on a diet of rice, lean meat, and wild plants and had less than 10% body fat when he died, Krakauer hypothesized that McCandless was likely unable to fend off the toxins. However, when the Eskimo potatoes from the area around the bus were later tested in a laboratory of the University of Alaska Fairbanks by Dr. Thomas Clausen, toxins were not found. Krakauer later modified his hypothesis, suggesting that mold of the variety Rhizoctonia leguminicola may have caused McCandless's death. Rhizoctonia leguminicola is known to cause digestion problems in livestock, and may have contributed to McCandless's impending starvation. Krakauer hypothesised that the bag in which Chris kept the potato seeds was damp and the seeds thus became moldy. If McCandless had eaten seeds that contained this mold, he could have become sick, and Krakauer suggests that he thus became unable to get out of bed and so starved. His basis for the mold hypothesis is a photograph that shows seeds in a bag. Following chemical analysis of the seeds, Krakauer now believes that the seeds themselves are poisonous.
In March 2015, Krakauer co-authored a scientific analysis of the Hedysarum alpinum seeds McCandless ate. 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."
Into the Wild addresses the issues of how to be accepted into society, and how finding oneself sometimes conflicts with being an active member in society. Most critics agree that Chris McCandless left to find some sort of enlightenment. He also tries to find his way in the wild with minimal material possessions, because "it made the journey more enjoyable." His extreme risk-taking was the calling which eventually led to his downfall.
McCandless's story is also the subject of the documentary by Ron Lamothe named The Call of the Wild (2007). In his study of McCandless's death, Lamothe concludes that McCandless ran out of supplies and game, and starved to death, instead of being poisoned by eating the seeds of the wild potato.
The Christopher Johnson McCandless Memorial Foundation, headed by McCandless's parents Bille and Walt, with the editorial and writing input of family and friends, released the book and DVD Back to the Wild: The Photographs & Writings of Christopher McCandless (2010). The material includes hundreds of McCandless's previously unseen pictures and journal entries. Jon Krakauer has written a piece in the book's introduction, while Hal Holbrook—who appeared in the Penn film—narrates the DVD.
The bus that McCandless died in became a tourist attraction after the book became popular. The bus was removed on June 18, 2020 because tourists were endangering themselves in the Alaskan wilderness. Members of the Alaska National Guard airlifted the bus to an undisclosed location, and then on September 24, 2020, the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks announced the permanent display of the bus.
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- Krakauer, J., et al. (2015). "Presence of l-canavanine in Hedysarum alpinum seeds and its potential role in the death of Chris McCandless." Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2014.08.014
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- Bohrer, Becky (June 18, 2020). "'Into the Wild' bus removed from Alaska backcountry". Star Tribune. AP. Retrieved August 12, 2020.
- Horton, Alex. "Into the Wild author torn over removal of iconic bus: 'I wrote the book that ruined it'". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 20, 2020.
- "Bus 142 | Museum of The North". University of Alaska. September 24, 2020. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
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- Back To The Wild, following up from the original book
- Finding Into the Wild's Magic Bus, book inspired trip to the magic bus and a complete guide to finding it
- Hiking The Stampede Trail, a guide to hiking to Bus 142 on the Stampede Trail.
- The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless, ISBN 978-0-06-232515-0, detailing what it was like growing-up in the McCandless household.
- 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