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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

May 11, 2011

I picked up Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer at Yes Books in Portland, ME. I finished it pretty quickly because the story is just incredibly captivating.

Jon Krakauer first wrote of Chris McCandless, the twenty three year old who was found starved to death in an abandoned bus in Alaska in 1992, for an article in Outside magazine. Krakauer was so intrigued by Chris that he investigated him, his life, and the events leading up to his death further and wrote Into the Wild. Krakauer not only tells us Chris’ story, but he really tries to make sense of Chris’ decisions, his thought process, what he was feeling. At first I was a little put off by Krakauer’s style – he’ll spend 2 pages telling the reader all about a plant that grows in Alaska just so he can say that a man was in the area to study that plant. It really drove me nuts. But as I read along, I actually appreciated the depth he went into to describe each detail. You could tell that Krakauer was ultra fascinated with Chris and his story and his enthusiasm really kept the book flowing.

Krakauer introduces us to Chris McCandless, who is a pretty regular guy – he has a sister, parents, and a car he loves, goes to college, is thinking about law school. But the summer after his college graduation, Chris sets off across the country without telling his family or friends where he’s headed. He donates the money is his bank account, burns his cash and credit cards, and just leaves. His parents don’t learn he’s gone until the end of the summer when their letters are returned by the post office and his landlord tells them he moved out months earlier. For the next few years Chris tramps around the country, doing odd jobs, meetings lots of unique people, and truly enjoying his life on the road. When his car breaks down, he abandons it and takes up the journey on foot and hitchhiking, occasionally jumping trains and paddling down rivers.

Chris’ ultimate adventure is spending the summer living off the land in Alaska. He gets a job in South Dakota and saves up some money for the trip. He learns how to hunt and butcher meat and studies local edible plants. He hitches up to Alaska, accumulating boots, food, and books along the way, and sets off to the wilderness to live in glorious solitude for the summer. And things go really well for a while. He hunts small game and even kills a moose (whose death haunts him, which I found to be such an amazing part of Chris’ character), he finds plenty of edible plants, and makes the abandoned bus his home away from home. He reads a ton and writes a bit, recording his daily activities and thoughts along the way. It’s pretty amazing to read the words that he wrote, seeing the things he was learning, the thoughts he was thinking, the goals he was striving for. Chris was such an idealistic, thoughtful and intelligent person that its heartbreaking to read along, knowing you’ll soon encounter his death.

He decides to leave the bus and head back to civilization in July, but when he reaches the river that he easily crossed earlier in the season, it is now too deep and tumultuous to pass. He retreats back to the bus to wait until August when the river will go down. He’s now tired and lonely and is losing weight, although not starving. He continues as he had before, but during the final month in Alaska he makes a fatal mistake.  There are a few differing ideas as to what may have cost Chris his life and Krakauer goes into each of them before settling on what he thinks happened. Reading it is just horrifying because I really had come to love Chris. He’s just such an idealistic and thoughtful guy that I know why all those folks who had met him during his cross country travels had remembered him so well and had loved the time they spent with him.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this book, but I really loved it. Krakauer is a great writer, even if some of his verboseness got to me. Every thought, feeling and idea that Chris has is a calculated hypothesis by Krakauer and I think that is what makes the book so great. To me, Chris is very relatable – he kind of wants to save the world, he wants people to be better, he wants to be happy and free, and people don’t understand him. I recently watched the film version of the book and was really sad to see that Chris is kind of painted as a mentally instable person. Krakauer doesn’t make me feel that way; in fact, he made me feel like Chris is the ultimate, idealistic version of a lot of people, myself included.

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