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How Chris McCandless Died
September 12, 2013 4:31 PM   Subscribe

An update to Into the Wild.
posted by AceRock (114 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
McCandless dying from a toxin in the potato seeds he was eating doesn't really contradict the broader points about him dying, in large part, from cluelessness and incompetence and an overabundance of faith in his ability to authenticize his way through any problems.
posted by fatbird at 4:51 PM on September 12, 2013 [44 favorites]


I feel that at this point Krakauer has an agenda to prove that McCandless was poisoned. In his book he advances the theory that it was an alkaloid poison in a similar looking plant. Later, tests determine that the plant had no such poison. He then supposes that it was a toxic mold on the seeds, but Wiki says no mold was found his seeds.

His new theory comes from a post that someone made on an Internet forum suggesting it could have been ODAP poisoning. The author of the post has no particular expertise in the field and whose primary credentials appear to be that he agrees with Krakauer. Krakauer did indeed verify that the seeds contain ODAP, and believes that proves his case.

His theory is plausible, but I don't think anyone who is in the field of toxicology or medicine has looked at the evidence and said "yes, these seeds are poisonous and reasonably may have killed McCandless."
posted by justkevin at 4:52 PM on September 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


McCandless dying is a tragedy, because anyone dying is a tragedy, all of us have situations in which we are out of our element, and calling someone incompetent is just a way of othering, of reassuring ourselves something like that will never happen to me, for I am smarter than that.
posted by JHarris at 4:53 PM on September 12, 2013 [33 favorites]


Fascinating. Poisoning that disrupts leg nerves gradually!
posted by infinitewindow at 4:55 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


calling someone incompetent is just a way of othering

And I call this "well poisoning".

I've read the book, I've watched the movie. One of the notable things about McCandless was his continual refusal to accept help or expertise because that interfered with the authenticity of his experience of overcoming adversity. I don't think I'm othering him because I'm pretty sure I'm not worried about it happening to me because his way of doing what he did, regardless of the tragic outcome, is entirely different from how I might do the same thing.
posted by fatbird at 4:58 PM on September 12, 2013 [38 favorites]


I just learnt about ODAP poisoning recently. The grass pea is a robust drought resistant plant in the Mediterranean which is often the only remaining crop during famine. So, because the poisoning is threshold bass and the peas nutritious, people will eat it rather than starve. I've seen there's plans to genetically engineer the grass pea with reduced ODAP may reduce starvation in some desert areas.
posted by ambrosen at 5:02 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Agreed with fatbird. It's of course a tragedy that anyone died but I definitely felt like the book and movie glorified McCandless' "authenticity" when he was really so reckless, rejected advice and didn't even clue his family, who seemed like decent enough people, in on what he was doing or where he was.
posted by sweetkid at 5:04 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


fatbird: "McCandless dying from a toxin in the potato seeds he was eating doesn't really contradict the broader points about him dying, in large part, from cluelessness and incompetence and an overabundance of faith in his ability to authenticize his way through any problems."

Okay... so what part of his death was caused by cluelessness and incompetence, exactly? Because I thought he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebook to edible plants of the region specifically said was ok. That doesn't seem to have anything to do with his motivations for being out there?

Like if you ignore his personal philosophy, the story is of a guy who had way more wilderness experience than the average person, who had successfully spent a lot of time surviving in the wild by himself, having something unlucky happen. The people who blame him seem to be the ones who desperately want to fit the narrative into the "unprepared jackass dies by his own hand" cliche. I think it's a little more complicated than that.
posted by danny the boy at 5:07 PM on September 12, 2013 [65 favorites]


Indeed, every hour or so some kid over-estimates his (usually) ability to drive a car at high speeds and dies (or kills). Nothing especially clueless about McCandless compared to the crazy fucker who tried to snowboard down Everest.
posted by spitbull at 5:10 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The people who blame him seem to be the ones who desperately want to fit the narrative into the "unprepared jackass dies by his own hand" cliche. I think it's a little more complicated than that.

Well said. Also, to me it never seemed to be about glorifying anyone's authenticity -- it's about someone who searched for it in a world where his definition of authenticity was hard to achieve. In the book, Krakauer posits that the seeds made McCandless ill, but if he'd been eating properly, he'd have been able to overcome it. This new article focuses on the fact that no one, even healthy men, could recover from the poison. I think that makes a difference, even though McCandless had gotten to a point where he was doomed either way.
posted by mochapickle at 5:11 PM on September 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


He was already starving to death before eating the plant, which wouldn't have done anything if he weren't already malnourished.
posted by Ghost Mode at 5:11 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


McCandless' story will be forever tangled with that of Everett Ruess (previously) for me.. Both young men, both seeking some sense of extreme independence and connection with Nature... Both died in pursuit of that goal. Pretty much everything about those two men is different except for that one thing, that inner drive to confront the vastness of the planet alone and survive.

I've read a lot about Ruess, and quite a bit about McCandless, and I've felt those same pullings at my spirit both before encountering either of their stories and certainly very deeply while exploring them. I think there must be a personality type which is drawn to this kind of thing. I never had enough courage or self-confidence or (dare I name it) hubris to think I could attempt a similar escape, but years in Boy Scouts doing survival camps and such did arm me with enough knowledge to toy with the idea.

Anyway, exactly why either of these young men died will never be determined. It's all conjecture. It's sad they both died, each in their own way. I think Ruess is probably the greater loss (his woodcuts and photography are really great), but both of them have oddly inspiring stories.

All that said, the final sentence of the OP article made every hair on my body stand on end. I'm 45 years old.
posted by hippybear at 5:13 PM on September 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


It's fascinating (in the reactions Krakauer quotes, more than in this thread) how many people seem to feel Krakauer was obliged to choose between "glorify" and "condemn" and stupidly chose "glorify". What makes the book so brilliant, if you ask me, is how well he manages to honor the nobility of McCandless's yearning without suggesting that what he did was anything but dumb and perhaps even cruel.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:15 PM on September 12, 2013 [28 favorites]


I've done things a few things woefully underprepared where I drastically overexerted and overextended myself and skirted the edge of disaster before, and had the thought "fuck if I die doing this, it's going to look pretty stupid", but you know on the other hand those were some of the best times in my life, and the fact that I made things harder on myself by not planning routes, not bringing enough food, not becoming an expert rock climber, etc. beforehand added to the enjoyment and total presence in those moments. I don't regret any of it, and would roll the same sort of dice again with the same sort of risks.

It's kind of sad to see people here 20 years later on a silly web blog shitting on a young guy for trying to live life the way he wanted, and with a level of adventure and self-reliance few ever experience. He didn't force his story down your throat - go back to watching TV and working in an office and patting yourself on the back for living smarter and longer than he did.
posted by crayz at 5:18 PM on September 12, 2013 [44 favorites]


Another key point in the new article is that he didn't misidentify the plant (as the original theories speculated). He successfully identified and consumed a plant that was supposed to be harmless according to his guidebooks (and as far as anyone knew), and was paralyzed by a poison not even science knew was present in that species. He did put himself in a dangerous situation where he couldn't get help, and might have starved anyway, but this does change my opinion of the situation.

It's interesting to think that even if he had been rescued or had managed to escape, he'd probably still be at least partially paralyzed. It doesn't sound like the paralysis caused by this toxic amino acid goes away with time.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:19 PM on September 12, 2013


It's plausible that eating the seeds caused or at least hastened McCandless' death - he seemed to think so, and I think it's one of those things you'd just know.
But First Nations people in the Northwest have been eating wild potato for thousands of years - you'd think people would have found out by now that the seeds can be poisonous.
posted by Flashman at 5:20 PM on September 12, 2013


It's kind of sad to see people here 20 years later on a silly web blog shitting on a young guy for trying to live life the way he wanted, and with a level of adventure and self-reliance few ever experience.
People didn't just come out of nowhere. They're responding to Krakauer's continuous defense of the guy.

While I'm at it, I don't think there's anything particularly noble about 'self reliance' that ends in death.
posted by ftm at 5:24 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


But First Nations people have been eating wild potato for thousands of years - you'd think it would be a known thing that the seeds could be poisonous.

Possibly they knew better than to eat them if they were already starving. The toxin is much less of an issue if you are well fed.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:26 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I remember seeing the movie and being very irritated at this guy. But if you need a reason why he died, I vaguely remember a scene in the Phil Dick novel "Valis" that might explain it. As I recall it, the protagonist at one point disputes that god is beneficent, and he says if he ever met god, he'd challenge him about his dead cat that got run over by a car, a gentle little kitty that never did anyone any harm, and why did random evil strike him down? So at some point in the book, he actually does meet god, and he challenges him. God replies that his cat was the last of a subspecies that had a propensity for running out in front of cars. Now that subspecies is extinct, because it was stupid.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:28 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


... or they didn't eat them raw.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:29 PM on September 12, 2013


But First Nations people in the Northwest have been eating wild potato for thousands of years - you'd think people would have found out by now that the seeds can be poisonous.

First off, it's possible that First Nations people in the Northwest do know not to eat the seeds. Has anyone asked them recently?

Secondly, this is discussed at length in the article:
Curiously, Hamilton reports, ODAP "affects different people, different sexes, and even different age groups in different ways. It even affects people within those age groups differently …. The one constant about ODAP poisoning, however, very simply put, is this: those who will be hit the hardest are always young men between the ages of 15 and 25 and who are essentially starving or ingesting very limited calories, who have been engaged in heavy physical activity, and who suffer trace-element shortages from meager, unvaried diets."
ODAP is a cumulative toxin - it's entirely likely that First Nations populations had a healthy enough diet to avoid the effects the majority of the time, even if they did eat the seeds.
posted by muddgirl at 5:30 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


with a level of adventure and self-reliance few ever experience

There's a reason that few ever experience that level of "adventure"* and "self-reliance", and that's because it comes with a rather significant risk of death.

* There's a quote from a recent C. Stross book that I highlighted: "the definition of an adventure is an unpleasant and possibly unsurvivable experience." Most adventures only seem fun in retrospect, otherwise they'd just have been a vacation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:30 PM on September 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


If you've never felt the kind of impulse that McCandless was consumed by, then it seems foolish. If you have felt it, even a tiny bit, then what he did looks like an amazing attempt to do something outstanding which resulted in failure.

He made a lot of errors, some of them pretty blind and foolish, others which he had no control over. We've all stood in marvel at the home movies of Dick Proenneke. The only thing which separates him from McCandless is knowledge and perhaps ambition.
posted by hippybear at 5:32 PM on September 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


It's interesting, how much it matters to people: Fault or not his fault? Should he have known or could he not have known? Was it his choice that caused his death or an accident?

Because the risks are the same, and there always, and were the point; and the fate was simply the card that turned up when the deck was cut. By which I mean: he could have been mauled by a bear. He could have fallen and broken his leg. He could have gotten sick from bad water, or cut himself and had the wound get infected. There were an awful lot of ways for him to die out there, and that's why people think he was mad to have taken the risk at all; or at least mad not to have done all he could to reduce the risk, to guard against his own failure. But risking death --- pushing himself to the limit, to find out what the limits were --- was the point. No daring in a wire walk when there's a net below.

So why does it matter to us the exact card that came up? If McCandless had walked out of the woods that spring would he still be a fool? If he'd got home again, jiggitty-jog, would his friends just ruffle his hair and kid him about it? Just a silly stunt he'd pulled. Of course, we wouldn't know his name, in that world, so we couldn't ask him. But the risks would have been the same. The test would have been the same. Why does death v. life = fail v. pass when deciding to take the test at all is the only choice that matters? Why does his death seal the moral of the story?

The lady or the tiger, I suppose...
posted by Diablevert at 5:33 PM on September 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


It doesn't matter whose fault it was. And if the guy wanted to die, he did it in a cool way. If he didn't care whether he lived or died, that's kind of cool too. If he didn't want to die, then he really failed miserably.

Which of these three options is noble? Which is to be revered or defended?
posted by ftm at 5:41 PM on September 12, 2013


Diablevert: So why does it matter to us the exact card that came up?

Well, I'd say it matters to me because it indicates how well prepared he was, and that determines whether what he did was foolhardy or merely dangerous. Getting killed by a hazard that was mostly impossible to anticipate does make it better, in my mind. It suggests (or at least doesn't dispute) that he did the research necessary to actually succeed at what he was doing and come home from it, had he not been taken out by what mostly amounts to random chance. Nobody would be making the whole 'dead by his own stupidity' comments if he'd announced his plans to the world, packed his car, and then been taken out by a random drunk driver on the way to the trailhead.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:46 PM on September 12, 2013


ftm: you are rather obviously someone who has never felt the pull of the wilderness.
posted by hippybear at 5:46 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Okay... so what part of his death was caused by cluelessness and incompetence, exactly?

I dunno, any one of a hundred points where common sense action might have prevented him from hamstringing himself? Such as refusing the map he was offered before walking into the wilderness, which had on it a marking indicating the hand cart that would have allowed him to cross the river that was running high when he did in fact try to walk out?

Because I thought he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebook to edible plants of the region specifically said was ok.

This has always been Krakauer's theory, unsupported by the locals, including knowledgeable biologists. We're discussing this because he's taking another kick at the can with another writer's research (in fairness, this one does seem to have more scientific backing than his earlier theory).

Like if you ignore his personal philosophy, the story is of a guy who had way more wilderness experience than the average person, who had successfully spent a lot of time surviving in the wild by himself, having something unlucky happen.

He certainly knew more than the average person, but the average person knows very little, and McCandless himself didn't know as much as even the locals around there knew.

I can admire his commitment to his quest for authenticity. But he was so mindlessly committed to it that it killed him. I don't see much admirable about that. There's nothing about indulging in "the pull of the wilderness" that requires blindly charging into it.
posted by fatbird at 5:48 PM on September 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


Okay... so what part of his death was caused by cluelessness and incompetence, exactly? Because I thought he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebook to edible plants of the region specifically said was ok.

So the guidebook was wrong, which was a risk. What if he had a map that outlined a path into a ravine to safety, and the path turned out to have eroded into a trap, and McCandless was trapped because he hadn't brought any rope? Whose fault was it, the map/guidebook or McCandless? Who cares?

The point is that -- if McCandless was more prepared, would he have been alive? Yes. Is it reasonable for McCandless to have believed his guidebook? Yes. Did scenarios happen to him, like the water level of the river rising, that he couldn't predict? Yes.

Given the changing and complex number of risks, it seems to me that the only variable you can control is your own preparedness. There will always be risks, so all you can do is to be prepared. And if you're not prepared -- well, it's partially a question of probability, rather than ability, that will determine your fate in a landscape peppered with fatal risks.

The question is whether 'surviving alone in the wilderness' is something that was important to McCandless because it was risky, or because nature itself was compelling. Is wilderness survival like a high-stakes tightrope walk, or is it like a meditative solo hike?

For me, it's the latter, so I can see how people can view McCandless as idiotic and unprepared. But it seems like McCandless himself saw it as the former. In which case -- I don't judge him, and I'm saddened by his death in the way that I would be saddened by the fatal fall of a free solo climber. I'm sad that they passed away, but I also acknowledge that they lived their life while doing what they wanted to do.
posted by suedehead at 5:49 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Krakauer made quite a lot of money off of Into the Wild. He also devoted a chapter or two comparing his own adventures ("I don't wanna go to med school, Dad! I'm climbing an iceberg or whatever!") so I can see why he keeps bringing McCandless's story up again and again.

It was a beautiful book. I've read it cover to cover several times. I love the book, intrigued by Chris, but relieved at whatever socialization/upbringing/healthy mental state I lucked into that didn't give me the kind of wanderlust that would result in seeking out self-isolation that would result in total self-destruction.
posted by discopolo at 5:51 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pay the Everest snowboarder his due. He did snowboard down Everest. He died attempting to do it for the second time.
posted by topynate at 5:51 PM on September 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've done ... a few things woefully underprepared where I drastically overexerted and overextended myself and skirted the edge of disaster before, and had the thought "fuck if I die doing this, it's going to look pretty stupid", but you know on the other hand those were some of the best times in my life, and the fact that I made things harder on myself by not planning routes, not bringing enough food, not becoming an expert rock climber, etc. beforehand added to the enjoyment and total presence in those moments.

I won't try to deny that you felt what you felt. But I can say that I've enjoyed the hell out of many things in my life that I was fully skilled in and well-prepared for. "Not taking avoidable risks" doesn't necessarily mean that a given experience will be any less enjoyable or authentic.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:56 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was at Emory around the same time, but I do not remember if I ever met him. It seems likely that we were at some of the same parties, at least.

There were a lot of guys there at that time planning on being Gary Snyder after graduation instead of going to law school. Most of them tried it for a summer and then went to law school.
posted by thelonius at 6:02 PM on September 12, 2013


Assigning fault is not that interesting to me...he is the one who is dead and we are all still alive after all. The interesting part is that we do about the flawed individuals (including ourselves) who might fail a variety of Darwin tests but also offer us their raw human experience. What's the point of being human if it's all one big survival test anyway? Ants are better at it.
posted by fraxil at 6:04 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


ftm: you are rather obviously someone who has never felt the pull of the wilderness.

Surely you can do better than a No True Scotsman. It's possible to "feel the pull of the wilderness" without rushing headlong into forested isolation with no plan, missing essential supplies, and basically having no real knowledge of what the hell you're doing.

Okay... so what part of his death was caused by cluelessness and incompetence, exactly? Because I thought he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebook to edible plants of the region specifically said was ok.

If he hadn't been in the process of starving to death, the plant would have been okay. And it was his own repeated failure that put him at that point.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from the life of McCandless, it is that whatever it is you choose to do in life, don't be an idiot about it. This is rather significantly different from the repeated message of his story, parroted in this thread, that says that it's admirable to do it with gusto and damn the consequences.
posted by kafziel at 6:06 PM on September 12, 2013 [20 favorites]


Getting killed by a hazard that was mostly impossible to anticipate does make it better, in my mind.

He took the guidebook. He took a 10-lb sack of rice, and a gun. He told no one where he was going, nor when he was planning to be back. He had no way of contacting the world. He took some precautions to prepare himself; but he left himself no margin for error should those precautions fail.

There were a lot of dangers that he could have prepared himself for, and taken precautions against, but which he could not eliminate, that were inherent in what he chose to do --- falling sick was just one. It's just fascinating to me that people seem to place such weight on whether it was a known unknown or an unknown unknown that did him in.
posted by Diablevert at 6:09 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a degree of people talking past each other here that I'd like to bridge, if I could. The reason I find McCandless' death ignoble rather than the opposite is because of the nature of the danger he faced. Surviving alone in the wild is hard, but doable. It takes guts and endurance and knowledge, and doing so is deeply admirable. That sort of authenticity I can very much laud, and I can't deny I've felt the same urge myself.

The biggest danger McCandless faced, though, was wilful ignorance. In going into the wild to face all those difficulties, he set himself the task of rediscovering how to survive. He rejected knowledge that was offered to him. He refused material assistance. He avoided having an escape plan. To him, the rediscovery was what made the authenticity. Not the sweat, not the suffering, not the communing with nature. He wanted to reconstruct what humanity had built up over millenia: knowing how to survive.

That's what I find silly, even as I have some admiration for his degree of commitment to what he perceived as the importance of his struggle.

Whether or not the potato seeds were toxic is beside the point because he was in the process of starving to death already. The seeds could not nutritionally support him, and he'd failed to provide other food sources for himself. The seeds were already the food of last resort.
posted by fatbird at 6:15 PM on September 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


I spent a week alone in the bush once on a military survival exercise. Despite my training, I could not catch a single rabbit, squirrel or fish, and ate nothing but berries. At the end of the week (just a week!), I barely had enough energy to walk out. That McCandless made it for months is testimony to his abilities. It also reaffirms my conviction that humans need each other to survive. Society FTW.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:15 PM on September 12, 2013 [32 favorites]


Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April, and would still be alive today.

That's why I have a problem with Into the Wild and the mythologizing of McCandless. In this very article Krakauer states in order to suffer seriously from the effects of ODAP you must already be malnourished. In this very article he points out McCandless was clearly starving before eating the potato plant. In past writings on the subject, he states the potato plant was a later addition to McCandless's diet, done out of desperation due to lack of other sources.

So you have a guy who is starving to death, eats a plant that happens to be poisonous to people who are starving to death and dies. But your conclusion is if he hadn't eaten the plant he somehow wouldn't still be starving to death, and be a-OK to walk out on his own? How does that follow?

This kind of intellectual dishonesty really turns me off, especially when the person in question is defending someone who was supposed to be 100% invested in self-analysis and the pursuit of authenticity.
posted by schroedinger at 6:27 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


an overabundance of faith in his ability to authenticize his way through any problems.

From the article:
Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April, and would still be alive today.
Another way of looking at it is that McCandless died because he put too much faith in the collected knowledge of other people.

If you want to look at things in complete black and white, you can say, "Oh, isn't it ironic, there he is out there on his own, and the only aspect in which he is not totally self-reliant, his knowledge of edible plants, that is what gets him killed. He believed something that someone else wrote, and it killed him."

I think that's too black-and-white, but I'm having a hard time articulating off the top of my head why I believe that.

It's sad that he died. I'm torn, because I think that McCandless' choice to live on his own terms took an incredible amount of courage, but it was also incredibly selfish and hurtful and destructive. Assuming that the Krakauer paints a reasonably complete portrait of what happened, the pain that he inflicted on his family is in all likelihood far out of proportion to any pain they caused him.

There's a short line in the book, almost like a toss-off, where Krakauer is talking about the old man who helped McCandless make his belt, and how the man started drinking again after he found out about McCandless' death. That line always stuck with me for some reason.

There's something about the description of McCandless' belt that also that stuck with me. It's a belt that he carved his life story into. It always reminded me of Achilles' shield. It's just a great big shield festooned with a bunch of art that for some reason Homer is really invested in describing. The Wikipedia article on it is interesting:
The Shield of Achilles can be read in a variety of different ways. One interpretation is that the shield is simply a physical encapsulation of the entire world. The shield’s layers are a series of contrasts – i.e. war and peace, work and festival, although the presence of a murder in the city at peace suggests that man is never fully free of conflict. Wolfgang Schadewaldt, a German writer, argues that these intersecting antitheses show the basic forms of a civilized, essentially orderly life. This contrast is also seen as a way of making “us…see [war] in relation to peace." The shield’s description falls between the fight over Patroclus’ body and Achilles’ reentry into battle, the latter being the impetus to one of the poem’s bloodiest parts. Consequently, the shield could be read as a “calm before an impending doom,” used to emphasize the brutality of violence during the Trojan War. It could also be read as a reminder to the reader of what will be lost once Troy ultimately falls.
I think the thing about Chris McCandless that makes people respond so strongly is that his story is about life in relation to death. I think it makes people uncomfortable, because it's a reminder of the things that you lose when you die. The things that you lose are not really things that you have in the first place.

About a year ago, I was attacked by a wild pig — this is kind of on my mind right now because of the beer-guzzling feral pig link from earlier today — and I got pretty messed up. I was looking at both my shinbones, and today I'm missing a chunk of tibia and another chunk of quadricep. There was a lot of blood, and I thought it had hit an artery and I was worried about dying.

It was a weird feeling. It felt kind of like I did when I was 21 years old and someone stole my car stereo, and I just felt robbed. Like not this feeling of great loss, but a realization that something had been taken from me against my will. Except with the pig it wasn't a tangible thing; I felt like someone was taking every relationship I had ever had with another person, with my family and friends, and the ways in which I understood and related to the world. In retrospect, I think it felt like those were the things that made me who I am, and someone was taking them.

You know the saying "possession is nine tenths of the law"? I think one of the things about McCandless that makes people react so strongly isn't so much the way he died, but the way he lived. He told everyone he knew to fuck off, and then he walked into the woods. His relationships with other people were part of what made those other people who they are. His entire adult life was a walking demonstration of the fact that you do not possess the things that make you who you are. There's no law that protects your selfhood. We rely on good luck and the goodwill of other people not to fuck off, or to die, or to tell us to fuck off, and that's the only thing that keeps anyone from hacking off little tiny bits of who we are. That's an uncomfortable concept.
posted by compartment at 6:27 PM on September 12, 2013 [59 favorites]


go back to watching TV and working in an office and patting yourself on the back for living smarter and longer than he did.

I enjoyed reading the book and think it's an interesting story, but this sentiment is exactly what puts me off about McCandless - he thinks he's so superior to everybody else.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 6:35 PM on September 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Richard Proenneke did this sort of thing the right way.

Chris McCandless was a inconsiderate vandalizing jackass. He poached a moose only to waste 99% of it due to cluelessness.

I know who I've taken my lessons in self reliance from, and it's not the moron who refuses to take a compass into the woods.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:35 PM on September 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


I'm glad every day I don't die from something or other, as it seems to me that our lives are tenuous despite our best intentions. All the time we trade issues of security to pursue whatever we consider to be human flourishing. Whether or not he was an idiot doesn't cross my mind because: 1) I've done plenty of things to almost kill myself at times, despite by best efforts (and despite my 20's), and 2) he wasn't that much of a jackass, really, to do what he did. And even if he was, I have more pity than criticism.

I do find it to be a really interesting mystery, though, and I enjoyed this hypothesis, finding it to be more compelling than not.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:41 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Okay... so what part of his death was caused by cluelessness and incompetence, exactly? Because I thought he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebook to edible plants of the region specifically said was ok. That doesn't seem to have anything to do with his motivations for being out there?

I agree. Although it's obvious enough that he should have done a little more preparation and been a little better equipped, or perhaps should have simply chosen a better spot to do his thing, the only impression I get from the backlash to this story is that it plays very conveniently into the constantly-disproved notion that we need a system of plastic and markets to survive in the world, and woe betide anybody who rejects that.

The other narrative I get is: "look what happens when you are idealistic!" It grinds against the "all you need is an idea!" notion of capitalism, so basically all I hear is "Be idealistic so long as it somehow involves people making lots of money!"

Gogol is pretty good shit though. Man, I don't fuckin' care, I'm a unique and intriguing contradiction in that I want to play Grand Theft Auto V on a big screen with good sound, but ideally in a yurt in the bush away from all these piece of shit people.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:49 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


calling someone incompetent is just a way of othering, of reassuring ourselves something like that will never happen to me, for I am smarter than that.

To generalize this further, people are drawn to and reassured by stories that reflect the correctness their belief systems, or at least stories that can be interpreted to do so.

It also reaffirms my conviction that humans need each other to survive.

Partially related: the message I got from the movie was that we started with a kid from an emotionally distant family who had idealistic and naive beliefs about how to live (as most 21 year old middle class white kids do), went about acting on that belief system while seeking out new experiences, and through those experiences started to learn how to emotionally connect with others and the incalculable value of this as a human being. The tragedy is that he was doomed at the time this lesson was finally understood, and it makes the scene with the older man who wanted to refer to him as "son" that much more of a tearjerker, as the emotional connection was offered but he wasn't yet ready to open himself up and be vulnerable.

I think it made for an excellent hero's journey narrative told from the perspective of a regular person. His gift to everyone, had he returned to regular life, would have been to be a better person to others than he would have been without his journey.

I can't read criticism of his actions as much more than an attempt to enforce cultural norms.
posted by MillMan at 6:53 PM on September 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I can't read criticism of his actions as much more than an attempt to enforce cultural norms.

Now who's failing to connect to other people?

Seriously, what is it with defenders of McCandless constantly retreating to psychoanalyzing his critics rather than meaningfully engaging the criticisms?
posted by fatbird at 6:57 PM on September 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


And I call this "well poisoning".

Whatever, if you really want to har-har about a human life ending go right ahead. Sheesh.

He made bad decisions, but we all do that, every day, and we don't die from them.

Now that subspecies is extinct, because it was stupid.

We are all stupid. I must repeat that: WE ARE ALL STUPID. The degree to which you realize this, and that feeling good because your personal brand of stupidity is a type that doesn't get you killed is meaningless, is a good measure of how kind of a person you can be.

That which is obvious to me might not be to you. And there are plenty of obvious things that it turns out we're idiots for thinking are obvious. Real truth only ever comes through careful observation and hard work; many ideas we have handed to us are faulty in some way, often through the very nature of communication.
posted by JHarris at 6:59 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I suppose what always gets me about daredevil/risking-your-life stories is that I have lost enough people from an early enough age that I never saw life as so inherently dull or safe that I needed to go out and dance on the edge of it to prove that my survival is not assured.

To be honest, I'm fairly hyper-aware of the ways I can snuff it just walking and driving around trying to live my life, in fact I often have to turn that knowledge off to stay out of unproductive panic mode. Parenting didn't improve the situation, either.

I kind of think the rush of euphoria you get when you survive taking stupid risks (which, hey, I have felt, I'm not immune) is addictive, and some people can't stop hitting that pleasure button. I don't begrudge them that, so long as they don't drag others into it, but I don't think it's particularly admirable.
posted by emjaybee at 7:00 PM on September 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I literally walked out into incoming traffic this morning because I was distracted by my book about dragons. So I'm not going to dis this guy for going camping and dying because he made some stupid mistakes.

We all make stupid mistakes on a near daily basis. It's only dumb luck that any of us aren't dead.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:04 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seriously, what is it with defenders of McCandless constantly retreating to psychoanalyzing his critics rather than meaningfully engaging the criticisms?

As far as whether his actions were justifiable, or whatever good/bad question framing you are interested in, I don't think personal risk can be quantified in a way that isn't underpinned by subjective cultural norms.
posted by MillMan at 7:11 PM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Surely you can do better than a No True Scotsman. It's possible to "feel the pull of the wilderness" without rushing headlong into forested isolation with no plan, missing essential supplies, and basically having no real knowledge of what the hell you're doing.

*Real* knowledge? Perhaps there's more than one Scotsman involved in this discussion.

I was reading about this elsewhere today and someone brought up Amundsen's epigram "Adventure is just bad planning." There's a good point in there, but unless you're Batman or some other protagonist whose superpower is acute anticipation by authorial fiat, it's mitigated by the limits of the best laid plans.

The fact is, you can be what looks like reasonably prepared for a situation and then see small mistakes or events start to lead to serious and even grave situations quickly.

It's certainly fair to ask if McCandless had been a little less romantic about his journey and more thorough about the preparation if he might have had not only his survival experience but his survival. It's less fair, thoughtful, and useful to certainly render a simple judgment of stupidity.
posted by weston at 7:12 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that McCandless wasn't isn't search of short-term euphoria derived from taking stupid risks and surviving them. His call was something else entirely. I don't think it's admirable or non-admirable. I respect what he was attempting. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you haven't heard the call, you don't know the power of it. If you have, and you have resisted, you feel regret and frustration your entire life, even after you grow out of its lure. (I know I do, even at my age.) If you have heard the call and gone out and lived to tell the tale, good for you. But not everyone (perhaps not even most) who find the song in their hearts and can't resist its melody and venture out in search of its source return to tell the tale.

That McCandless was parked in a spot known to and frequented by wilderness trekkers is only fate. If he had gone out in a different direction and attemped what he did away from known trails he would only be yet another statistic of people who disappeared. We would have no book, we would have no movie, we would have nothing but a brief mention, probably unresearched, that Person X disappeared.

Whatever inspired him was deep -- deeper than basicially anyone writing in this tread has felt. The depth of that inspiration is something I will defend to my dying breath. The simple fact that I (and all of you) are here writing on this website is evidence that none of us have felt what he felt as deeply as he felt it. If any MeFite has a story to share to the contrary, I will listen with respect. But seriously -- the core of self-preservation and conformity to norms and self-preservation are deeply ingrained, and there are outliers for any human impulse. And McCandless was feeling something that NONE OF ANYONE HERE WRITING RIGHT NOW was experiencing. That you made different choices, or feel you would have made different choices in his place, none of that matters. He made the choices he felt were the best for him, and they led him into inspiration and ultimately death.

(That said, what gets me about his situation was the lack of a map which indicated the zipline across the swollen river. That bit of basic information... could have been Very Important.)
posted by hippybear at 7:15 PM on September 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


I think his death is not as interesting as the spectrum of responses it has elicited from his survivors. Now go meta on that.
posted by BentFranklin at 7:18 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I remember reading the article that came out about Chris McCandless in the New Yorker way back when. My brother sent me a photocopy in the mail at prep school, and I had seen it also, that week at the library. Like, "I'm not sure why, but this is something". His story stayed with me since then. It's hard to believe that it's been 21 years since they discovered his body. I'm touched to see this update, although I'm not sure I trust it completely. It's not entirely convincing, but it's compelling. I like how it changes the course of discussion, at least.

I'm sorry that he died alone, in need of help. I can relate to him in that he needed connection and distance at the same time. But for him, the distance became a road in itself, and he was out too far to connect.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:22 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


the message I got from the movie was that we started with a kid from an emotionally distant family who had idealistic and naive beliefs about how to live (as most 21 year old middle class white kids do), went about acting on that belief system while seeking out new experiences, and through those experiences started to learn how to emotionally connect with others and the incalculable value of this as a human being. The tragedy is that he was doomed at the time this lesson was finally understood, and it makes the scene with the older man who wanted to refer to him as "son" that much more of a tearjerker, as the emotional connection was offered but he wasn't yet ready to open himself up and be vulnerable.

I think it made for an excellent hero's journey narrative told from the perspective of a regular person. His gift to everyone, had he returned to regular life, would have been to be a better person to others than he would have been without his journey.


I took the ending of the movie this way as well - as he gets closer to death it seemed like he was gaining an awareness that there is value not just in having meaningful experiences but also in being able to share and participate in meaningful experiences with others, but by the time he came to this realization it was too late. It was a satisfying way to end the story, but then again it was pure speculation, since we don't know much about what was going through McCandless's head toward the end.
posted by naoko at 7:22 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think his death is not as interesting as the spectrum of responses it has elicited from his survivors. Now go meta on that.

That, too
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:25 PM on September 12, 2013


Everybody dies. I don't get the hate. McCandless didn't hurt anyone else. Had he been killed by a bear even if he had every provision in place we'd chalk it up to fate.

I spend a bit of my own time in the Alaskan wilderness, albeit with expert Native comrades, teachers, and guides. Even so I've had half a dozen moments at least when I came within sight of dying from dumb mistakes or unseen hazards. Every time it happens I think, "well, if I have to go, drowning in a freezing river on a caribou hunt ain't bad compared to some twisted pile of wreckage on the highwy or a mass of tubes down my throat in some godforsaken ICU."

Reality is risky, and you can enjoy your uber-safe organic, medically supervised suburban safe space and still be killed by a home intruder or a falling steel beam or cancer. If you have never challenged your own limits of endurance and intelligence in a situation that might also kill you, I feel sorrier for you than I do for McCandless.
posted by spitbull at 7:33 PM on September 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


I don't know exactly why McCandless elicits so much vitriol for doing what he did - essentially not hurting anyone except for himself when he finally fucked up - but I do think it is correlated with the same type of vitriol meat eaters have with vegans or conservative hawks have with anti-war protesters.

To clarify, I do not think McCandless and what he did is in any way analogous with these things. I just have this weird hunch that the pure outrage he brings out of some people is of the same wavelength on the spectrum of some other types of completely stupid outrages.
posted by windbox at 7:37 PM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think his death is not as interesting as the spectrum of responses it has elicited from his survivors. Now go meta on that.

Okay, here you go. I've had a suspicion for awhile is that much of what drives activism on Important Life Issues is often an existential need to be heard, or to have a soap box about Something Important, than to solve real problems. It may (at times) drive us to be overly critical of issues that are really not that vital.

It would be overly critical to suggest that's what's happening in this discussion, as I can't read people's hearts. But that little corner of my conviction gets pricked whenever I hear conversations going in directions like this that are more judgment than pity. And that's also why there will never, in my mind, be a utopia in human history in which issues are finally resolved. We have an innate desire to stand for something important, as part of having lives of value, and we'll sometimes (although perhaps not with nefarious intent) contrive it where it's not always needed. (This doesn't mean that there aren't important life issues, only that we perhaps have more on the table than are warranted.)

And the real twist in my mind is that I think the source of an overly critical life posture comes from the same sort of place that drove the main character at the heart of this story.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:42 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


My takeaway from Krakauer's blog update was that McCandless could have survived by walking out of the bush at the end of August, but could not because of the effects of the seeds, and he didn't know the danger of consuming the seeds.

Not that stupid really. Just unlucky.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:42 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've read both Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. And I'm left with the opinion that Krakauer is an unreliable narrator. In Thin Air, he acts like a total jerk, but somehow expects the reader to sympathize with him. In the Wild, he mythologizes McCandless as some sort of ur-Wild Child. My Side of the Mountain, except in a bus.

IMHO, McCandless was like one of those clueless hikers that have to be rescued from Mt Whitney, year after year. Rescue teams, at risk to life and limb, struggle to pull these ridiculous tourists off the face of the mountain that they disrespected.

When you walk into the wild, sometimes you get the bear. Sometimes, the bear gets you. That's what the wild is! I see no tragedy here, but the odds falling against a young man who thought that the wild was the Hundred Acre Wood.

To put it bluntly, when you follow the Oregon Trail, yeah, sometimes you actually die of dysentery. The wild is not a game!
posted by SPrintF at 7:56 PM on September 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


Seriously, what is it with defenders of McCandless constantly retreating to psychoanalyzing his critics rather than meaningfully engaging the criticisms?

I don't really understand the concept behind "criticism" of someone's personal life choices beyond the way they affect others.
posted by threeants at 7:57 PM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you've never felt the kind of impulse that McCandless was consumed by, then it seems foolish. If you have felt it, even a tiny bit, then what he did looks like an amazing attempt to do something outstanding which resulted in failure.

I don't know. I've felt that impluse many times, for many of the same reasons you listed in an earlier comment. I still think is seems foolish. Compelling, amazing, and something I occasionally wish I had the guts (and brashness?) to attempt, but foolish nonetheless.
posted by asnider at 8:10 PM on September 12, 2013


McCandless's story reminds me of Aron Ralston's (127 Hours). Both went into the wilderness without telling people who loved them where they were going. Both got into life-threatening situations. Both came to some interesting realisations about themselves and their relationships to others. McCandless died, Ralston lived.

I find their stories fascinating and heartbreaking. I admire them for the strength of their will to survive and yet can't help reflecting on the contrasting high-risk behaviour that evokes it. I understand the pull of the wilderness and solitude and am grateful that I don't feel it strongly enough to isolate myself and risk death in its pursuit. I find it hard to forgive McCandless and Ralston for their indifference to the people who loved them and would be affected by their disappearance, yet I'm aware that I also have sympathy for people who commit suicide because they just can't see a way through (I don't think they're right to do so necessarily, but I have sympathy for them).

I guess what I'm saying is that these stories, for me and I would guess also for others, capture some of the inherent contradictions of our lives. There are no simple answers. They are not heroes, or saints, or martyrs. They're just human.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:13 PM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Those of us who are restless and adventurous souls do not expect you to understand why are compelled to put ourselves into situations such as this. You should be so lucky as to die in an abandoned bus in Denali national park. It is a far better life than swallowing the shit coming out some managers asshole, that he swallowed from his boss, as you find yourself the final link in the human centipede of some corporate job.
posted by humanfont at 8:14 PM on September 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Those of us who are restless and adventurous souls do not expect you to understand why are compelled to put ourselves into situations such as this. You should be so lucky as to die in an abandoned bus in Denali national park. It is a far better life than swallowing the shit coming out some managers asshole, that he swallowed from his boss, as you find yourself the final link in the human centipede of some corporate job.

Serious questions:
1) How old are you?
2) Have you ever held a "corporate job" and for how long?
posted by schroedinger at 8:26 PM on September 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


I don't know exactly why McCandless elicits so much vitriol for doing what he did - essentially not hurting anyone except for himself when he finally fucked up -

Because his thoughtless poaching, vandalism, and recklessness ruins things for other people. I mentioned the moose he lost most of to rot. The hunting trip he ruined for those that found him in their shack. The other animals he needlessly poached. Even you remain unmoved by these examples, the "well, they aint hurting anyone" justification is what you hear from every mudbogging, trail destroying asshat in the woods.

I get the urge to disconnect and disappear in a way that very few people do. This is something that I do not nearly as much as I would like - and I also get doing something stupid for stupids sake. Lord knows I'm guilty of plenty of that.

This is neither of those things. When people do what he did - their inconsideration results in areas being restricted, or otherwise closed off. Money that is spent recovering his remains and investigating his idiocy could have been better spent in a thousand million ways. And so on.

There is nothing romantic about his arrogance and recklessness. It's just a garden variety asshattery and we are diminished by his stupidity.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:29 PM on September 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


He made bad decisions, but we all do that, every day, and we don't die from them.

Yes, his decisions were exceptionally bad and particularly protracted, and they resulted in his death. People need to stop romanticizing him. Idiot wilderness tourist kills self, this isn't a glorious fable about the triumph of the human spirit.
posted by kafziel at 8:32 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Even you remain unmoved by these examples, the "well, they aint hurting anyone" justification is what you hear from every mudbogging, trail destroying asshat in the woods.

As a sorta-kinda outdoorsy person I get that, but when I think of how we're killing the planet with nuclear weapons grade ecological equivalents his garden variety BS doesn't even register in my universe.
posted by MillMan at 8:37 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Idiot wilderness tourist kills self, this isn't a glorious fable about the triumph of the human spirit.

History does not, in fact, contain ANY examples that are simple, neatly-packaged tales about the triumph of the human spirit. And yet we take little bits of history and package them up that way, not because it's accurate, but because we like those stories. This is just one of many, many such stories. Why is it so important that people stop romanticizing this particular one?
posted by mstokes650 at 8:48 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have nothing against for or against this person, but romanticizing his life certainly turns me off. He's only notable because he died and someone wrote a very good, romantic story about him. He is not unique, and I think the author of his story couldn't resist mythologizing him. How do we know his family was "emotionally distant"? Because it's actually true, or because it makes a better story?
posted by Brocktoon at 8:53 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


My only question after reading the article is whether Edward Treadwell is related to Timothy Treadwell....
posted by miyabo at 9:06 PM on September 12, 2013


He is not unique, and I think the author of his story couldn't resist mythologizing him. How do we know his family was "emotionally distant"? Because it's actually true, or because it makes a better story?

The author of the story linked to here wrote a book about McCandless, for which he did quite a bit of research, including interviewing McCandless' parents, friends, family and other people who knew him. I admit it has been some years since I read that book, but in my recollection he's not particularly romanticized and certainly not portrayed as being unique. In fact, he's portrayed as a smart but angsty young man, who, like many smart, angsty young men, attempts to manage his demons in a risky way and has the misfortune to die for it.

The movie, on the other hand, absolutely romanticizes him.

Regardless, I don't think people would be so condemnatory of McCandless if it weren't so easy to buy into the just-world fallacy.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 9:12 PM on September 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


if it weren't so easy to buy into the just-world fallacy

I think of it the other way. To the extent I condemn McCandless, I condemn him as wasting his life, as throwing it away stupidly, which is awful just because it's not a just world. If I believed in a just world, his death would seem somehow fated or appropriate, like the furies had caught up to him; because it's not, it seems like he gambled the most precious thing he had on an illusory existential high.

That said, I don't really condemn McCandless so much as feel a deep irritation with attempts to lionize him and romanticize his "adventure" with handwaving about "if you've felt it, you'll understand." As Brocktoon says, absent the cultural monument built for him by Krakauer, he'd just be another unfortunate tourist.
posted by fatbird at 9:19 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The author spends about two paragraphs on the family; just enough words to explain that they were materialistic and joyless. The book absolutely romanticized the man and his journey; it's one of the key elements that makes it a good one.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:33 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


That said, I don't really condemn McCandless so much as feel a deep irritation with attempts to lionize him and romanticize his "adventure" with handwaving about "if you've felt it, you'll understand."

This false dichotomy keeps popping up in this thread.

"if you've felt it, you'll understand" is a real thing. If you have been really passionate about anything in your life, it's all pretty similar. There is no magic or "illusory existential high" involved.
posted by MillMan at 9:59 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's real patronizing is what it is.
posted by Brocktoon at 10:24 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


It also reaffirms my conviction that humans need each other to survive. Society FTW.

Ding ding ding.

I'm not sure what sort of "authenticity" he thought he was getting here.

Authentic humans live in groups. Trappers and hunters travel in groups.

Historically people who have survived well in the wilderness have been people who were brought up in that environment and had literally years of acclimatization. And it is uniformly recognized among them that the best piece of safety gear is another human.

I suppose in a sad way he did achieve authenticity. Dying happens a lot when people ignore the experiences of others.

I don't know exactly why McCandless elicits so much vitriol for doing what he did

It seems to me that most of the vitriol is not for McCandless but rather for the concept that what he did even made sense. People die chasing their dreams (even stupid ones) on a regular basis and we honor them for it. McCandless died chasing a misunderstanding and I think it rankles some to see him lumped in with people who had a clear view of what they were getting into but did it anyway.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:35 PM on September 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Cheryl Strayed felt it, and Bill Bryson felt it, too. I read their books to balance out this book. McCandless's death is tragic, and the book is a eulogy that honors so much more than the person. Cormac McCarthy would say that he "carried the fire" or "carried some fire" ...but didn't make it - in the style of The Road. It's the respect and dignity that stay with me, more than technical details on death.
posted by childofTethys at 10:46 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


No matter how I feel about a subject, I am exceptionally cautious about expressing an opinion in which it sounds like I feel like somebody deserved to die. McCandless died no more foolishly than many of us will, by misjudging how much we have had to drink, or how good a driver we are, or whether we should check that text, or how soon we should quit smoking, or how physically fit we are when we go out to shovel snow.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:18 PM on September 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I have a friend who is immensely inspired by the wilderness. She does a ton of backcountry-there-is-no-track camping and hiking, including winter camping.

She's made mistakes and nearly died - she wrote a story about one incident (which took place in a trailhead parking area), and I'll see if it's online.

She doesn't go out with a bag of rice and a gun. She understands and respects her own limitations. She respects the power the natural world holds over her. McCandless seemed to lack that, and it helped get him killed. I have a hard time grokking what's noble about that lack of respect.
posted by rtha at 11:29 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


One of the notable things about McCandless was his continual refusal to accept help or expertise because that interfered with the authenticity of his experience of overcoming adversity.

If it's lame for a rich white kid to go slumming, by say, pretending to be homeless when he can just go home to his warm bed and hot food, I think the reason for it being lame is that it suggests a worldview where authenticity is something acquired just by adopting the tropes of some other kind of life. McCandless' actions seem to suggest that there is actually no systemic problem with this model, that it's just a question of how thoroughly one commits to those tropes. That there is no weird, whacked value system in play here, tied up with a largely false set of ideas of what constitutes "authenticity". It seems like his attitude was that authenticity can in fact be acquired so long as he went to sufficient lengths to make it totally clear that he was totally not going to go home to that warm bed and hot food.
posted by anazgnos at 11:30 PM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


"if you've felt it, you'll understand" is a real thing. If you have been really passionate about anything in your life, it's all pretty similar. There is no magic or "illusory existential high" involved.

I'm really, REALLY passionate about attaching a JATO rocket to my Chevy Impala. I hope you'll wax romantic about my noble effort after I light the fuse.

So he won a Darwin Award. He got a line in "Dumb Ways to Die." So what, he's old news. Now these guys that are planning to ski across Antarctica naked? Now that's really challenging the wilderness in search of authenticity!
posted by happyroach at 11:37 PM on September 12, 2013


If it's lame for a rich white kid to go slumming, by say, pretending to be homeless when he can just go home to his warm bed and hot food, I think the reason for it being lame is that it suggests a worldview where authenticity is something acquired just by adopting the tropes of some other kind of life. ... It seems like his attitude was that authenticity can in fact be acquired so long as he went to sufficient lengths to make it totally clear that he was totally not going to go home to that warm bed and hot food.

I feel like this is a good analogy. If a rich white kid actually cut all his ties and gave away all his possessions and became homeless out of choice and then froze to death on the streets, would people here be lulzing "what a dumbass", or would they maybe try to empathize with what he was searching for, even if they wouldn't necessarily want to lose their life in the same way on the same search?

"Oh he coulda just kept his money and ate hot dogs from the street vendor ... could lived in the shelter" - what deep, deep thoughts.

We don't have to romanticize what he did to have some fucking respect.
posted by crayz at 11:54 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


obviously someone who has never felt the pull of the wilderness

Exactly. People die all of the time taking much more foolish risks. Skiing in avalanche conditions, for example -- or just taking a quick swim one afternoon -- and they aren't the subject of nearly so much disparagement as McCandless gets from some quarters.

His mistakes were no more severe than those which ultimately took climber Delmar Fadden's life in 1936. Fadden finished a 30-day solo hike across Washington's Olympic Mountains in 1932, ending it after surviving on frogs and plant bulbs for a week. People understood better then, possibly because of the chances their grandparents took to establish wilderness farmsteads - a kind of mortgage few nowadays can relate to.

I grew up in an area surrounded by wilderness - and I'd feel a lot better about dying after being surprised by that challenge than by plowing a speedboat into a rock, or waterskiing into the freaking shoreline, or surviving a plane-crash in the Andes.

Many, many people who've later become well-known have been caught in adverse circumstances and survived. Those who were overcome by circumstance were hardly failures. The Outward Bound program was created in 1941 to introduce teens to just such challenges.
posted by Twang at 12:03 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know I have total sympathy for people who want to live off the grid. I've spent months in remote camps, I have friends who live way off the grid. I hunt, I fish, I grow a lot of my own food. It's hard to do!

Having said that anyone who thinks McCandles is some kind of wilderness expert has zero wilderness bonafides themselves. The guy hiked 20 miles from the busiest highway in the state down an old road bed to a bus then died there a few months later. There was NOTHING impressive about anything he did. He walked down the Stampede Trail. It's an old ROAD. It's not bushwhacking. It's only 20 miles from the Parks Highway to the bus. That's a fucking dayhike. And he was in a good metal shelter, safe from bears, on a busy trail in a well mapped area. There are salmon streams in the area with fish running until freeze up that you can eat (early October). There are multiple places to cross the river up and downstream of the road crossing he turned back from that are easier and safer. He had months to explore the area and didn't figure any of this out. And the bus is a well known and heavily used shelter for hunters and hikers (it's not in Denali National Park) and on a snowmachine trail, less than one hour from the highway. The amazing thing is that he managed to die before someone else came along and rescued him.

It's easy to say he was willfully ignorant but a lot of people think he suffered from some kind of mental illness so maybe that was it. Whatever happened to him; you can admire his philosophy all you want but don't say he had lots of wilderness experience. I have lots of wilderness experience and he didn't. He fucked up a lot.

Also he ditched a car in a creek somewhere as I recall from the book. That's a major no-no if you actually care about nature.

I'm not saying he shouldn't have been there. If you want to wander into the woods and die, go for it. I'm just saying he was not one with the woods, by any means.
posted by fshgrl at 12:10 AM on September 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


I think it's wonderful how superior everyone here is to this guy who died.
posted by lumensimus at 1:13 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


lumensimus- I;m not invested in being superior. I do know that I have many, many years of wandering the backcountry and I know a lot of people who genuinely live off the grid like this guy talked about. He really was woefully unprepared, that's a fact, not an opinion and it's borne out by the fact he didn't make it through the summer and fall, which is pretty easy really, given everything is not frozen and it's not -20 degrees. A shit ton of totally un-prepared miners from far flung places made it through Alaskan winters in the 1800s so it's do-able.

I don't hate or disdain him or anything, I just hate to see people think they should emulate him or act like h was so much more pure than other people in the backcountry. Dude had a rifle and a big bag of rice. I bet he didn't have a hunting license, a fishing pole, a tarp, an inflatable raft, signal flares or any of about a million more useful things he would have taken in had he been more experienced.
posted by fshgrl at 1:45 AM on September 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


If anyone is emulating him, yeah, that's a problem -- but I think the facts of the story otherwise speak very strongly for themselves. I don't see anyone here making the argument that he was any kind of expert, but I do see a lot of vitriolic comments about his shameful inauthenticity and horrific disregard for nature that would put a Captain Planet villain to shame.

It all looks a bit like a pissing contest from here, and the dead are notoriously bad at winning those. Speak to us, not the presumable legions of poseurs mucking things up for the rest of you.
posted by lumensimus at 2:12 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I must have read a different book. I thought the book was about the particular and peculiar nature of McCandless' wanderlust. I thought Krakauer put in extra plenty clues indicating that he (the writer) thought what McCandless was doing was poorly planned, ill-advised and reckless and the outcome not especially surprising, though sad and doubly so for being avoidable.

Not for a single weak moment did I think McCandless' foray into the Alaskan bush was anything but a Bad Idea. (I don't know if it was, I mean, I thought it was just from my armchair, but the way Krakauer described it I thought it was a bad idea.) So, because there was no question but that McCandless was under-qualified and underprepared to go into the bush, the real story was the urge to go and the particularly blind version of that urge.

If my uncle, born in the late 30's, raised in the boonies of New Brunswick, Canada, and having spent lots and lots of time in the woods as a child a teen and young man, had decided to do this his motivation to go out to the woods would have been manifestly different. That difference defined by his previous, life-long experience. Which McCandless had almost none of.

It was as though I, now, at 45 decided to go into ... fashion. Sink all my money into it, start a brand, etc. The story would not be 'did he succeed or not?' the story would be 'what the hell was he thinking? and why was he thinking that?'

I always thought it was the gaps in McCandless' thinking/planning that were the most telling, and the part that the story was about.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:47 AM on September 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Richard Proenneke did this sort of thing the right way.

Yeah, have a guy with a plane fly in supplies ! Stupid kid - why didn't he think of that ?
posted by y2karl at 3:20 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a Paul Kelly song that I have had running through my head since this thread started 10 hours ago. "I've done all the dumb things"

Man, I've done some dumb things. One time I got a bloke to take me in his dinghy from the Bloomfield River to Rattlesnake Point in North Queensland and leave me on the beach to walk into a particular piece of tropical wilderness. I was smart to get him to take me by sea because otherwise I would have been walking the beach and crossing, at high tide, the mouth of a creek known to be invested with salty crocs. But I was dumb thinking I could camp on the bank of the next creek by the Point. I was dumber still letting the log I was using as a windbreak for my campfire catch alight while I was sleeping. But then, that was luck too. Because that night when the tide ran high again (dumb me for not realising that would happen), the saltys came out but were kept away from my sleeping form by the log that was on fire. It was only the next morning (after the dream I had about appealing to the croc gods) that I saw their tell-tale swishes in the sand not 10 feet away from me.

Then there was this other time when I was rapid surfing in a river in Burma. I'd grown up rapid surfing and this river had the perfect form. But I missed the turnout on my third run through and careered headfirst underwater into an rough section full of submerged boulders. In micro seconds I thought 'this is it, I'm going to smash my head on a boulder and die.' I was calm and thought 'oh, well'. I also thought 'damn, my recently met hotel-mates are going to have their day ruined' and that was my strongest regret in those moments before I found a passage through and surfaced a 100m down.

What I am trying to say with this confession of some dumb things is that a momentous life is made of moments. Frequently those moments balance on a knife edge of luck good and bad. Many people don't know when those knife edge moments occur - you cross a road and all is good. But had someone else left home a moment or two before or after, you may not be here reading this, you just don't know. At least when people choose to challenge the world's beautiful terrors they are making a deliberate choice to have a momentous life. And that I respect.
posted by Kerasia at 4:16 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also don't understand the hate-hard-on for McCandless but I have a feeling it stems for both fear and jealousy. Fear that something bad can happen to the boldest and jealousy that they don't have the courage to do something so fearless themselves.

How many explorers who died in the wilderness do we revere? How many astronauts? How many car-racers, junkie musicians, or other folk who do something for us before they die an untimely and preventable death. I think much of the hate-on is because people like McCandless were doing what they were doing for themselves and not for the sit-at-homes.
posted by Kerasia at 4:25 AM on September 13, 2013


I will fully admit that I haven't seen the movie, or even a read a review at this point. I am vaguely aware that some have been inspired to copy the journey, and if I had to rank the survivability of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific trail, and Alaska in winter, Alaska would be last every time.

I read the book with my teenage son likely about a decade ago, and we both knew there was a lot more to surviving than "eat this, not that". It was a tragedy. I do wonder, in light of the generated fandom, some of this is to keep lemming-like behavior at bay.
posted by childofTethys at 4:29 AM on September 13, 2013


I don't think it is lemming behaviour. As someone said above, you either have the desire or you don't and no big movie or big book is going to make you want or not want. It's like having kids. I don't think one piece of media makes someone take that big adventure of kid making and raising. It's either in your blood or it aint. All I know is that for me, having an experiential life was something I wanted since I was a old enough to feel it in my blood (I would escape home and walk the banks of flooded rivers at night since I was five). And I am having an adventurous life still, taking on a career most people start 30 years younger than I am now. There has been a lot of good sense, and some luck, that has got me this far. McCandless could have been smarter, sure, but that wasn't the way he wanted to roll his particular dice at that time. He wanted to do it his way. Who are we to judge?
posted by Kerasia at 4:45 AM on September 13, 2013


I got lost in the Sonoran desert once, after taking what seemed at the time like every sensible precaution. I was one slip, fall, and broken leg away from my body never being found.

Were there dumb mistakes that led to that situation? Sure. Am I a total moron who deserved to die? I like to think not.

It's not romanticizing someone to recognize that you, too, have felt the impulses that person did, and you, too, made mistakes that could have turned tragic, and you were lucky enough to survive while he did not.
posted by kyrademon at 4:56 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not romanticizing someone to recognize that you, too, have felt the impulses that person did, and you, too, made mistakes that could have turned tragic, and you were lucky enough to survive while he did not.

I fully agree, kyrademon. I doubt that McCandless thought, in his dying days, well at least a writer, a famous actor-turned-director and an amazing vocalist is going to romanticise my dying days. From what I can remember from the book detailing his diary he thought quite a bit about his family.
posted by Kerasia at 5:25 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


This myth of isolation and independence seems like a convenient way for society to dispose of its malcontents who would otherwise try to change it. America, love it or leave it.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:13 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel like this is a good analogy. If a rich white kid actually cut all his ties and gave away all his possessions and became homeless out of choice and then froze to death on the streets, would people here be lulzing "what a dumbass", or would they maybe try to empathize with what he was searching for, even if they wouldn't necessarily want to lose their life in the same way on the same search?

He did do this, minus the freezing to death on the streets. And in my eyes that's even worse, that's just shitty poverty tourism.
posted by schroedinger at 6:36 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think much of the hate-on is because people like McCandless were doing what they were doing for themselves and not for the sit-at-homes.

I think it's a little silly to characterize human existence as dying an avoidable death alone in the wildnerness vs sitting in a greasy heap on the couch covered in cheeto dust. There are plenty of people right here in this thread who have explained why, via their personal experience in wilderness situations, they believe McCandless was acting in an irresponsible and nonpraiseworthy fashion.
posted by elizardbits at 9:19 AM on September 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


There is not really a hate on for McCandless at all. Most people I know just feel sorry for him. It seems like he wasnt mentally all there.

The exasperation is for the idea he was doing something noble that most sheeple are just too scared to do anything so fearless, so utterly brave and free! There are people and stories like that. This story is about a confused young man who couldn't take care of himself, became estranged from his family, isolated himself from societyand died as a result. Its a very sad story not an inspiring one. This kid didn't even venture off the beaten trail, literally.
posted by fshgrl at 10:19 AM on September 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


I must have read a different book. I thought the book was about the particular and peculiar nature of McCandless' wanderlust. I thought Krakauer put in extra plenty clues indicating that he (the writer) thought what McCandless was doing was poorly planned, ill-advised and reckless and the outcome not especially surprising, though sad and doubly so for being avoidable.

Same book I read. Perhaps there's a another book. Or maybe some people aren't paying attention.

Jon Krakauer can have his problems, and maybe some of those problems is what seems to keep some readers of Into The Wild and Into Thin Air from parsing out what he's saying. He writes like a wanderer through the topic and he doesn't always tie things up neatly.

I do think it's pretty obvious that JK is certainly interested in examining and elaborating on the "call" and what's behind it -- and looking at the romantic and even the positive side of the involved aspirations and experiences. I also saw ItW as clearly about the folly and tragedy that can follow. Perhaps particularly when you combine a zeal and mindset like McCandless's.

Does that make McCandless merely a contemptible or pitiable figure? Maybe it's the fact that Krakauer doesn't reduce him to that that gives some a problem with his story, but I'm glad JK doesn't write it that way. Inexperienced and unprepared? Sure. But then again, survivorship bias is a real problem thinking about this. Show me someone who's experienced and prepared and chances are a closer examination will reveal a past doing things while inexperienced and underprepared -- but a luckier past. There are plenty of other people who take advice better and prep more seriously than Chris did who go in for encounters less protracted and involved don't come back. There are plenty of people who mix romantic and even noble impulses with foolish judgment. In and out of the wilderness.

And with Into Thin Air, Krakauer takes this all a step further: even the experienced and trained have their limits. You might be tempted to ask "What went wrong?" certain years on Everest and think about what you can learn from it. But in the words of Dwight Schrute "Not everything's a lesson, sometimes you just lose." Sure, some of the people who die in these places are tourists, but some of them are deeply experienced people who are more than two standard deviations outside the mean in terms of fitness and prep. Some places the hazards get so serious and judgment itself becomes a big enough challenge that there may not be enough to learn.

But then again, maybe the problems related to judgment aren't really about the place, exacerbated though they can be in wild places. Maybe they're just problems with some wild hearts -- those wilderness thrill seeker adrenaline junky impulsive unprepared feckless idealistic zealous types.

Not you, of course.
posted by weston at 11:10 AM on September 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


".. he put too much faith in the collected knowledge of other people."

.. he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebook to edible plants of the region specifically said was ok.

One of the benefits of culture is that our individual experiences and knowledge can be shared by others without direct contact with them. It cuts both ways: Where some have found their paradise, others just come to harm.

Wild Potato stirred a memory of a plant from a guide by Harrington/Matsumara, of the same common name but different latin name (Solanum jamesii). The author verified both palatability and edibility of all the edible plants referenced in the book, and provided a traditional Navajo recipe and complained about persistent bitterness.

Now the plant is identified as entirely poisonous, except for immature tubers. I pencilled in a note to that effect, and a date.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:28 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The exasperation is for the idea he was doing something noble that most sheeple are just too scared to do anything so fearless, so utterly brave and free!

This. Very much this. There's an underlying note of contempt in the "you just haven't heard the call" side of the debate that says more about the romanticizers of McCandless than McCandless himself or his critics.
posted by fatbird at 12:35 PM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


That bit about the officer at Vapniarca making the jews choose between starvation and paralysis really freaked me out.

At least McCandless wasn't going out of his way to hurt people like that; mistaken food selection or lack thereof.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:48 PM on September 13, 2013


Yeah that Vapniarca story is ghastly.
posted by thelonius at 1:23 PM on September 13, 2013


McCandless dying is a tragedy, because anyone dying is a tragedy, all of us have situations in which we are out of our element, and calling someone incompetent is just a way of othering, of reassuring ourselves something like that will never happen to me, for I am smarter than that.

That's not a crazy thing to say, but it doesn't seem clearly true to me, either. I pretty freely admit the things with respect to which I'm incompetent... So it's hard to see that the ascription of incompetence is always an act of "othering." (Though I'm not particularly fond of that term...) I, like most other people, recognize that I have areas of incompetence, and I try not to let my life depend on my ability to do something that I'm not very good at any more than I have to. I'm not competent to go into the Alaskan wilderness and live like McCandless did...and I don't think that McCandless was competent to do so, either... Which is not to say that I think that the guy was entirely un-admirable, because I don't. Or, rather, maybe it's more accurate, and kinder, to say: given his skills, he was pushing it. And when you push it, a bit of bad luck can be the end of you.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 1:38 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Much has been said in this thread about the call of the wild, the pull of adventure, authenticity, individualism, and independence, and about McCandless as a white middle class person. I would argue that few people are addressing the very masculine orientation that North American guys like him are wrestling with in such wilderness narratives.

Sometimes people *cough* make fun of urban/suburban dudes eXtreme sports enthusiasts who wear the fashion markers of climbing, camping, hiking, etc, have a carabiner clip as a keychain, drive a big car that can go off road, etc. I think it is because civilization seems so overwhelmingly ubiquitous and they might seem deluded to think they can escape it. So when someone tries to push this rugged performance further, the contrast with his abandoned privilege/social capital is much greater.

I realize McCandless' form of travel to the wilderness only shares a sliver in a Venn diagram with this post about Burton and women travelling.

TL;DR:
How many non cisgender men do we MFs know of who are this insistent about rewilding *ALONE*?
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 3:33 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's an underlying note of contempt in the "you just haven't heard the call" side of the debate that says more about the romanticizers of McCandless than McCandless himself or his critics.

If you're reading any note of contempt into anything I have written about not having heard the call, it is projection on your part. I envy those who haven't lived their lives with this tug at their heart. Feeling always unsettled and yearning, even at this point in my life, is not something I volunteered for.
posted by hippybear at 6:11 PM on September 13, 2013


Krakauer seemed to have a reasonably good handle on McCandless I thought. The myth making has mostly been a result of fans.

There is a minimum of one rescue per year at the site of the bus. People hike in, the sun comes out, the river comes up and they get stuck. They tend to call these trips to the bus "pilgrimages" if that gives you an idea of the attitude many readers of the book have adopted towards McCandless.
posted by fshgrl at 6:12 PM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


How many non cisgender men do we MFs know of who are this insistent about rewilding *ALONE*?

So if only he wasn't so concerned about being a certain type of guy, he'd still be alive today? The Patriarchy Made Him Do It?

I dunno. I don't deny that the stereotype of the woodsy loner is a male stereotype. Mountain man, after all. Self-reliance is a requirement of the masculine archetype, and not the feminine. But I don't think the desire to test yourself against the world belongs to one gender alone, in reality. I consider it a human, and not a manly, impulse.

Besides --- extreme sports and carabiners and 4x4s weren't the kid's bag at all. You call it a performance; who was the audience, out there alone in the woods? His trip was far more ascetic than athletic. 10 lbs of rice, a couple books, and a gun. No gear. Closer to a monk or a hermit or Henry David Thoreau than Bear Grylls.
posted by Diablevert at 8:57 PM on September 14, 2013


I'm really, REALLY passionate about attaching a JATO rocket to my Chevy Impala.

You post it to projects, I'll put it on the front page. Let's get 'er done.


As for McCandless, I've always found the Hollywood treatment he received, and to a lesser extent Krakauer's, irritating because if the goal is to come up with a just-so story with which we can romanticize going into the wilderness and failing nobly and fatally in the attempt, there are so many better options.

I mean, in the classic death-by-adventure narratives, e.g. Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova Expedition, they all ended up dead, but at least they were legitimately attempting to break new ground. Yes, there are some arguments one can make about preparedness and leadership, but it's a lot harder to assail Scott — who was attempting something on the level of what today might be a privately-funded space mission — than McCandless.

Before writing Into the Wild, Krakauer was already well-known for Into Thin Air; any number of people who died during the events covered in that book would probably be better candidates for doomed-personal-hero. So I just find it odd that people continually choose McCandless to hold up as some example of an individualist triumph des willens. Not because there's something inherently wrong with lauding that — a little adolescent, maybe, but not wrong, and I have my own adolescent fantasies so I'm not one to really criticize others' — but because you have to work so hard to squeeze the just-so story out of the sad chain of events that led to his death.

There is something to be said for doing something that may or may not be beyond anyone's capabilities, of intentionally pushing the envelope with the foreknowledge that it may end in death — yet doing it anyway. And the stories that actually do end in death make that pivotal decision to go forward and take the risk that much more meaningful, since we know in retrospect that the risk wasn't just an idle boast. But it's one thing to die because your number came up after doing whatever you could to put the odds in your favor, having made a calculated bet, and die playing Russian roulette with the uncaring universe.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:26 PM on September 15, 2013


I think that idealists like MaCandless are heroes of a sort -- even if they're naive or mildly delusional. They possess visions and the courage to act on them. In the end they are responsible to no one but themselves, as each of us is ultimately responsible for their own life. Failure, success? It doesn't matter. Dreams became real for a moment, life was experienced fully.

To point out the obvious cliche, the Wright bros had an outrageous, dangerous dream too. So did MLK, and he also died for his in a way. To me such dreams are much more beautiful than those of "honor" and "country" that so many others have, and will, die for.

I too believe the hate for these types of individualists generally stems from: an attempt to reinforce cultural norms (safety, security); the need to justify one's own decisions; or a desire to feel superior to others ("the jackass").

I myself have often felt the call for something more -- something radically different -- but have always been too scared, sane or timid to act upon it. Depending on the day this seems like either my greatest virtue or my greatest failing.
posted by nowhere man at 6:31 PM on September 16, 2013


A few notes in McCandless' defense. Original reports about his lack of skills were exaggerated and later proven incorrect. For example the original Outside magazine article suggested he didn't know the difference between and elk and a moose. It was also reported that he didn't have map, but a map was found in his possession. The digital radios carried by backpackers today, were not readily available or widely used in 1992 when the story took place. He didn't have a compass so what, was he going to eat the compass?
McCandless spent two years prior to his Alaska trip successfully completing a number of back country expedition. He brought sufficient equipment to avoid exposure, forage and chose a abandoned bus as a shelter.
We suppose he didn't know about the tram, but it may have been he elected not to use it. He certainly didn't think his situation was critical when he went to the river and saw it was too high. It is entirely likely he just saw the river was too high and decided that this was a sign he had more writing to do. He wasn't operating on a schedule.

Starvation of the type he suffered comes on gradually until you just collapse. Losing weight on a back country expedition is fairly typical, even a lot of weight. Like hypothermia, often it goes unrecognized until one is really fucked.

McCandless didn't die like most tourists do by exposure, dehydration, injury or bad decision around wildlife. His plan was not low risk, but not excessively so. If he'd recognized his near starvation earlier, or avoided it by being better trained to manage the moose meat; he'd have made it out ok. These seem like the kind of minor mistakes that happen, even by those experienced adventurers.

Todd Skinner was one of the greatest rock climbers ever. He died because he overlooked some wear on his belay loop for his harness. It broke and he fell 500 feet to his death.
posted by humanfont at 8:16 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


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