If he had lived rather than dying in the bus in Alaska in 1992, Christopher McCandless would be 45 years old. But he died, and is thus forever young, and his story resonates with each succeeding younger generation. This week, Jon Krakauer published an updated theory of McCandless' death in the New Yorker, but the truth is: It really doesn't matter exactly how Christopher McCandless died. What matters is how he lived.
McCandless did a number of extraordinary things in his brief life. He was born in El Segundo, California, but attended high school in Fairfax, Virginia. While in high school, he discovered a selfless side, helping homeless people and running track while eschewing most of the pursuits of a typical high school guy: girls, cars, and partying. He told his cross-country teammates they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred."
An often-overlooked part of McCandless' life in Into the Wild is Krakauer's exploration of McCandless' unusual family situation. Chris and Carine's parents were Walt and Billie McCandless. Walt had been married previously and had fathered a whole other family of six half-brothers and sisters back in California. He and his first wife hadn't been divorced when Chris and Carine were born. Chris wasn't told about this in any organized way by his mother or his father. He found out by coincidence on a trip to Southern California in 1986.
Turning away from social conventions, materialism, and traditional views of family, education and work, McCandless was a reader, gaining inspiration from writers who focused on nature and the eternal, ranging from Jack London to Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau.
By the time he graduated from Emory University in 1990, Chris McCandless was making his own choices — ones that others found puzzling, maddening, and ultimately, inspirational. Set for law school after Emory, McCandless instead donated his $24,000 law school fund to Oxfam International and set out on the road, first with his trusty Datsun B-210, and later on foot as a "leather tramp." It was at this time that he lost contact with his family.
Looking at the choices he made starting in high school, Christopher McCandless' life was one long series of giving up something of material value in the pursuit of spiritual wealth. He abandoned his car, he gave his law school fund away, he literally burned a pile of money, and he abandoned the family that in his mind, had proven false. He gave up a conventional future that would doubtless have been a bright one by current social mores and standards. If he slept with a woman at all, it is unrecorded. There is no record he ever drank to excess or used drugs.
He took little with him into the Alaskan wild, and he survived quite well until he was injured in some manner. Of course it's true from the conventional perspective that McCandless was ill-prepared and hadn't undertaken proper precautions for living on his own over the Alaskan summer on the Stampede Trail. This location was not as remote as many who read Into the Wild envision; McCandless' home, the "Magic Bus," was palatial compared to genuine wilderness locations.
But the truth is, whether poisoned by wild potato seeds or some other toxin, or simply the victim of too little food over too long a time, Chris McCandless died on his own terms, exactly as he lived. His last words, so very Tolstoyan, were: "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!" They will live forever.