Monday, October 08, 2007

Into The Wild

I never knew what to think about Christopher McCandless, hero of the book "Into The Wild". If you're not familiar with the story, Jon Krakauer's original account of the story, "Death of an Innocent", is great reading. To refresh your memory: a young suburbanite erases all traces of his former life, gives away his life savings, and spends two years on the road in a quest to challenge himself. He ends up in Alaska, makes a few mistakes which quickly and ultimately dies of starvation.

Now that I've seen the movie, I think maybe I'm starting to understand him. The problem I had in the original reading is that he's not a completely sympathetic hero. Dropping out of society and hitchhiking across the country is a little cool, in that "I wish I had done something like that when I was 23" kind of way, but this country was tamed a long time ago, and it's a conceit to think that such a thing was authentically wild. When you're on a quest to to "feel strong", that's an important distinction. He may have put himself into momentary danger a few times early in his trip, but excitement and challenge are not necessarily synonyms. I think he knew this, and that's why he never felt satisfaction with his adventures.

He's also somewhat self-absorbed during his quest, never contacting his parents or sister. He makes and abandons friends several times throughout his trip. Perhaps that's his nature, being his parent's son. His parents were apparently selfish suburbanite yuppies. The problem is that McCandless rebelled against the suburbaness of his parents, but forgot to rebel against the self-absorption.

When McCandless arrived in Alaska, he ended up holing up in an abandoned bus. Once again, that's "cool", but it's not exactly a genuine Lewis and Clarke experience.

But maybe, right at the end he started to really feel in danger. With his food supplies gone, poisoned from a misidentified plant, and facing slow starvation, he knew it wasn't going to be an adrenaline-fueled death. His universe was ending in a whimper. But based on the tone of his last few journal entries, I get the feeling maybe he finally knew his own mortality. And I think that's what he was really looking for.

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