“The majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”–Henry David Thoreau
Into the Wild is not for those that have never aspired to greatness. To them, Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book and movie by the same name, is at best naive and misguided and at worst cruel and fanatical. But anyone that has longed to cut ties to the world and its explore its vastness knows that when Chris, after graduating with honors from Emory University, gave away all his money, burned his social security card and, without informing anyone of his whereabouts, began driving west, his actions were not merely a symptom of youthful insouciance.
There is a tremendous history of intrepid souls, from the earliest mythological figures, to Christ and Buddha and countless saints and sages from all parts of the earth, that have felt the need to step out of themselves and venture into the the wild. The question of whether Chris was a saint or hurt young man running from family problems has been in the minds of many that read Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book about his 2 year, 2 month long odyssey that ended with his death in Alaska. The movie makes it clear: yes, there was pain from which he was fleeing, but there were also profound experiences and truths that he was seeking. To deny one or the other is to deny the truth: no great man is motivated purely by greatness, and what is most fascinating about Into the Wild is the view it affords us into the mind of an uncommon individual.
Seeing Yourself in Chris
Both the movie and the book about the life of Chris McCandless were undertaken by men who saw much of themselves in their protagonist: the young Jon Krakauer narrowly survived several foolhardy adventures, and Sean Penn must know that his idealism could easily have led him to the same fate as Chris. That so many people have been drawn to this story speaks to a much deeper question: was he a misguided youth, or a sage whose life and death carry a message for the masses? The movie could easily have trivialized the story, turning Chris into a mouthpiece for hippy ideals, a bumper sticker version of himself. But Mr. Penn thoughtfully captures the nuanced psyche of a rugged individualist. We follow his travels across the United States, and meet the hippies, grandfathers and farmers that he met along the way. They see a disciplined, well-spoken, passionate young man, who reads voraciously and quotes from his favorite authors. And when asked about his family, Chris’s answers always seem to belie the pain he has experienced, about which we learn through occasional voice overs by his beloved sister Carine, who explains what their parents went through as the years went by without hearing from their only son. Did Chris worry about the hurt he caused his family? Why did he never contact his dear sister? We will never fully understand the reasons.
After two years of roaming the West, during which time, among other things, he kayaks down the Colorado river all the way to the ocean, works at a grain elevator and hitchhikes through the desert, Chris decides it is time to prepare for his “great Alaskan adventure.” He hitches to Alaska and heads into the wilderness with little more than a hunting rifle, a bag of rice and some warm clothes, his pack filled more with books than survival equipment. He finds an abandoned bus that he sets up as his home base. For 100 days he survives by eating what little game he can kill and his dwindling supply of rice. He loses weight. His journal entries range from the ecstatic to the sad to the terrified. I will not reveal how and why he dies, but as his condition worsens he appears more and more Christlike, gaunt and frail, but eyes alive with the spirit of life.
Why? That May Not Be The Question
His story leaves everyone asking why. Why didn’t he take a better map with him? Why didn’t he tell his family of his whereabouts. Why didn’t he make better use of his talents? Perhaps those are the wrong questions to ask. Had he survived and, as it appeared he intended to do, returned to his family and written a book, would that have changed who he was? Can anyone judge the meaning of another’s life? Christopher McClandess, aged 24, was found by moose hunters, 19 days after he passed away. He died surrounded by his books and the expansive Alaskan wilderness. Before he breathed his last breath he scribbled this note, a message to the masses: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”
If you ask anything after seeing this movie, let it be this: If you were on death’s doorstep right now, would you pen those words? For Into the Wild is more about living than surviving; if you don’t know the difference, this movie might not be for you.
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