What would Chris McCandless do? That is a question I have asked myself more and more often these days. To most people, the name Chris McCandless does not ring a bell. Honestly, it did not raise any flags for me either until this past July. Perhaps the utterance of the title Into the Wild would help some people to recognize the name, but still, with time passing, names that were once in huge headlines start to be associated with the headline, not the person. If it would be any consolation to him, his name means more to me than the headline; what he did, of course, means the most.
This summer, the summer before I head out into my own Great Perhaps, also known as college, I set out to read ten acclaimed novels. Among my choices were the obvious modern classics: The Bell Jar, Slaughterhouse Five, The Old Man and the Sea, A Clockwork Orange, and the like. I devoured every single one of them, even reading some in just a day. As a lover of words and an aspiring author, getting acquainted with some of the greats really inspired me to write a little bit myself everyday. On my hunt for the tenth and final book I was to read, I decided to take a break from fiction and venture into the non-fiction section of the local used bookstore. The bestseller Into the Wild was the first book I saw in the section; it might have been fate but, then again, great literature always has a way of making us find it at the right time and place.
I bought it without hesitation. I knew a little bit about the story: a wealthy boy goes off into the wilderness and tries to survive on his own. The front cover itself briefs the reader on the end result of the boy’s adventure, which was ultimately death. I reveled in the fact that an author would so readily give away the ending to a book; as someone who tends to read the last pages of novels before even reading the first, I felt a small wave of gratitude. Little did I know that the boy’s death was truly not the ending to the story.
So I went home and started the book; Jon Krakauer, the journalist and author who investigated the boy, Chris McCandless, and his journey into the unknown, immediately swept me away into the Alaskan frontier. I finished the book in a day; I laughed at Chris’s audacity and wit, I marveled at the description of the untouched, natural worlds he saw, and my heart irreparably broke when I read of his death. His adventure was bigger than his death, though, and the affect on the lives of those he came into contact with was truly what overwhelmed me. Yes, he did fail at trying to do what our ancestors did before modern civilization and surviving, but no, he did not fail at living.
I have loved camping ever since I went on my first camping trip when I was fifteen. Even though I could never do what Chris did, I appreciate his ability to survive as long as he did under the conditions and to flourish in the beautiful sanctity of undisturbed life. In a society where teenagers are more interested in the safety of the indoors than a breath of fresh air, I reveled in his ability to cut off essentially all ties with modern civilization. Of course, Chris lived in the nineties; there wasn’t Facebook, texting, or Twitter. I try to imagine him today, surrounded by all the temptations to communicate at every second of the day. I can’t see him giving into those temptations. Imagining Chris alive today makes me look at myself; I’m just like all those other teenagers, proudly most of the time, but who am I really affecting with my little daily tweets or even just a quick text to a friend?
If Chris taught me anything, he taught me the power of being present, not how to survive in the wild. I would never, as much as I love the outdoors and camping, be able to survive for more than a few days in even decent conditions. Chris had a spirit like no other, but he made me understand everyone has a spirit worth sharing. That is the key: sharing oneself and actually listening to others, absorbing their experiences in order to fuel one’s own adventures. Chris showed me to not keep waiting around; as foolish as he was to go to the Alaskan frontier a month before the ice thawed, it was what he wanted, so he went for it. The spirit of adventure allows for us to see everything as more tangible, to follow where our hearts are pushing us to go. It was not about the way he died, it was about the way his life affected others. What would Chris McCandless do? He would go out there and chase his dreams.
Some of Chris’s last written words were, “Happiness is only real when shared.” Many saw Chris as crazy, overzealous, or suicidal, but the way I see him now is someone who wanted to touch everything: people, places, and the earth itself. What would Chris McCandless do? He would listen. He would advise. He would be afraid sometimes, but he would let that fear fuel him. It’s been twenty-two years since the boy who dreamed of living in the wild passed away, a few days after I move into my dorm will mark the anniversary of his death. With his spirit, I go into the next chapter of my life; I will share happiness with as many people and places as I can. What would Chris McCandless do? Well, he probably wouldn’t even be asking that question, he would just do it. So I will too.