Christopher McCandless

Christopher McCandless
Christopher McCandless

A self-portrait of Christopher McCandless in his camp on the Stampede Trail was found undeveloped in his camera after his death.
Born February 12, 1968(1968-02-12)
El Segundo, California, United States
Died August 1992 (aged 24)
Stampede Trail, Alaska, United States
Body discovered September 6, 1992
Nationality American
Other names Chris McCandless
Alexander Supertramp
Alma mater Emory University
Influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, William Steger, W.H. Davies.
Parents Walt McCandless and Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless (née Johnson)

Christopher Johnson McCandless (February 11, 1968 – August 1992) was an American hitchhiker who adopted the name Alexander Supertramp and hiked into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment, hoping to live for a time in solitude. Almost four months later, McCandless' remains were found, weighing only 67 pounds (30 kg; 4 st 11 lb); he died of starvation near Lake Wentitika in Denali National Park and Preserve.

In January 1993, author Jon Krakauer published McCandless' story in that month's magazine issue of Outside. Inspired by the details of McCandless's story, Krakauer wrote and published Into the Wild in 1996 about McCandless' travels. The book was adapted into a film by Sean Penn in 2007 with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless's story also became the subject of Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild.


Early years

McCandless was born in El Segundo, California, the first of two children to Walt McCandless and Wilhelmina "Billie" Johnson. He had one younger sister, Carine. In 1976, the family settled in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after his father was employed as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft, and later assisted her husband with his successful home-based consulting company in Annandale. Despite the McCandless family's financial success, Walt and Billie were often fighting and sometimes would contemplate divorce. Chris also had six half-siblings living in California from Walt's first marriage. Walt was not yet divorced from his first wife when Chris and Carine were born, however Chris did not discover his father's affair until a summer trip to Southern California.[1]in 1986.

At school, teachers noticed McCandless was unusually strong-willed. In adolescence he coupled this with intense idealism and physical endurance. In high school, he served as captain of the cross-country team, urging teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred."[2]

On June 2, 1986, McCandless graduated at Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School in Fairfax, VA. On June 10, McCandless embarked on one of his first major adventures in which he traveled throughout the country in his Datsun B-210, only to arrive at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia two days prior to the beginning of fall classes. McCandless graduated at Emory in April 1990 with a Bachelor's degree in history and anthropology. His upper-middle-class background and academic success were drivers for his contempt of what he saw as the empty materialism of society. In his junior year, he declined membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, on the basis that honors and titles were irrelevant. McCandless was strongly influenced by Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, W. H. Davies and Henry David Thoreau, and he envisioned separating from organized society for a Thoreauvian period of solitary contemplation.


In May 1990, McCandless donated the remaining $24,000 of the $47,000, given to him by a family friend for his law degree, to Oxfam International, a hunger charity. Towards the end of June, he began traveling under the name "Alexander" McCandless until later adopting the last name of "Supertramp" (Krakauer notes the connection with Welsh author W. H. Davies and his 1908 autobiography The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp). Most people he had encountered regarded him as intelligent and one who loved to read. By the end of the summer, McCandless made his way through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. He survived a flash flood, but allowed his car to wash out (although it suffered little permanent damage and was later reused by the local police force as an undercover vehicle) and disposed of his license plate.[citation needed] In 1991, McCandless paddled a kayak down remote stretches of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. He took pride in surviving with a minimum of gear and funds, and generally made little preparation. McCandless was, however, sometimes fed or otherwise aided by people he met on his travels.

Alaskan Odyssey

For years, McCandless dreamed of an "Alaskan Odyssey" wherein he would live off the land of the Alaskan wilderness, far away from civilization, and "find himself". He kept a journal describing his physical and spiritual progress as he faced the forces of nature. In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Enderlin, North Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive on April 28, 1992 by Jim Gallien, a local, who gave him a ride from Fairbanks to the head of the Stampede Trail. Gallien was concerned about "Alex", who had minimal supplies (not even a compass) and no experience surviving in the Alaskan bush. Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade Alex to defer his trip, and even offered to drive him to Anchorage to buy suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien's warnings, refusing all assistance except for a pair of Wellington rubber boots, two tuna melt sandwiches, and a bag of corn chips.

After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless found an abandoned bus (about 25 miles west of Healy) used as a hunting shelter and parked on an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park, and began to try to live off the land. He had a 10-pound bag of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, a book of local plant life, several other books, and some camping equipment. He assumed he could forage for plant food and hunt game. McCandless poached porcupines and birds. He managed to kill a moose; however, he failed to preserve the meat properly, and it spoiled. Rather than thinly slicing and air-drying the meat, like jerky, as is usually done in the Alaskan bush, he smoked it, following the advice of hunters he had met in South Dakota.[1]

His journal contains entries covering a total of 112 days. These entries range from ecstatic to grim with McCandless' changing fortunes. In July, after living in the bus for three months, he decided to leave, but found the trail back blocked by the Teklanika River, which was then considerably higher and swifter than when he crossed in April. Unknown to McCandless, there was a hand-operated tram that crossed the river only ¼ of a mile away from where he had previously crossed. In the 2007 documentary The Call of the Wild, evidence is presented that McCandless had a map at his disposal, which should have helped him find another route to safety.[3] McCandless lived in the bus for a total of 113 days. At some point during that time, presumably very near the end, he posted an S.O.S. note calling on anyone passing by to help him because he was "injured" and "too weak". The full note read:

"S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?"[4]


On August 12, 1992, McCandless wrote what are apparently his final words in his journal: "Beautiful Blueberries."

He tore the final page from Louis L'Amour's memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, which contains an excerpt from a Robinson Jeffers poem titled "Wise Men in Their Bad Hours":

Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened or troubled
And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.

On the other side of the page, McCandless added, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!"

His body was found in his sleeping bag inside the bus by Butch Killian, a local hunter, on September 6, 1992.[5] McCandless had been dead for more than two weeks and weighed an estimated 67 pounds (30 kg). His official, undisputed cause of death was starvation. Krakauer suggests two factors may have contributed to McCandless's death. First, he was running the risk of a phenomenon known as "rabbit starvation" due to increased activity, compared with the leanness of the game he was hunting.[6] Krakauer also speculates that McCandless might have ingested toxic seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedisarum mackenzii) or a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola produces the toxic alkaloid swainsonine).

However, an article in Men's Journal stated that extensive laboratory testing showed there was no toxin present in McCandless's food supplies. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF said "I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I'd eat it myself."[7] Analysis of the wild sweet pea, given as the cause of Chris’s death in Sean Penn's film, turned up no toxic compounds and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant.[3] As one journalist put it: "He didn't find a way out of the bush, couldn't catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death."[7]


McCandless has been a polarizing figure ever since his story first broke following his death along with Krakauer's Outside article on him in January 1993. While Krakauer and many readers have a largely sympathetic view of McCandless,[8] others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate.[9]

The most charitable view among McCandless's detractors is that his behavior showed a profound lack of common sense. He chose not to bring a compass (which most people in the same situation would have considered essential). McCandless was completely unaware that a hand-operated tram crossed the otherwise impassable river ¼ mile from where he attempted to cross. Had McCandless known this, he could easily have saved his own life.[2] Additionally, there were cabins stocked with emergency supplies within a few miles of the bus, although they had been vandalized and all the supplies were spoiled. There has been some speculation (particularly in details given in the Lamothe documentary) that the vandalism may have been done by McCandless himself; however, Ken Kehrer, chief ranger for Denali National Park, denied that McCandless was considered a vandalism suspect by the National Park Service.[10] His venture into a wilderness area alone, without adequate planning, experience, preparation, or supplies, without notifying anyone and lacking emergency communication equipment, was contrary to every principle of outdoor survival and, in the eyes of many experienced outdoor enthusiasts, nearly certain to end in an undesirable way.

Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:

When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate... Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.[9]

Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:

Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don’t know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I’m puzzled by the way he’s emerged as a hero[11][dead link]

Jon Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless's desire for "being the first to explore a blank spot on the map." Krakauer continues that "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."[12] Others have pointed out that a map of the area (although apparently not including the location of the hand-powered tram) was found amongst McCandless's belongings, and refute the accusations that he intentionally discarded this map.[13]

Cultural legacy

Krakauer's book, Into the Wild, made Christopher McCandless a heroic figure to many. By 2002, the No. 142 abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail where McCandless camped had become a tourist destination.[7][14] Sean Penn's film Into the Wild, based on Krakauer's book, was released on September 21, 2007 to positive critical reviews and also earning several awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song by Eddie Vedder. In October 2007, a documentary film on McCandless's journey by independent filmmaker Ron Lamothe, The Call of the Wild, was also released.[15] McCandless's story also inspired an episode of the TV series Millennium,[16] the album Cirque by Biosphere, and folk songs by singers Ellis Paul,[17] and Eddie From Ohio.[18]

See also

  • Carl McCunn, wildlife photographer who became stranded in the Alaskan wilderness and eventually committed suicide when he ran out of supplies
  • Richard Proenneke, who survived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years
  • Everett Ruess, solitary wilderness traveler in American west


  1. ^ a b Krakauer, Jon (1997). Into The Wild. New York: Anchor. p. 166. ISBN 0-385-48680-4. 
  2. ^ a b Krakauer, Jon (January 1993). "Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds.". Outside. Retrieved 2008-04-04. 
  3. ^ a b "::: Terra Incognita films :::". 2007-08-21. Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ People Weekly, oct 5, 1992, page 48
  6. ^ Into the Wild, page 188
  7. ^ a b c Power, Matthew. The Cult of Chris McCandless. Men's Journal, September 2007. Retrieved Jan 03, 2011
  8. ^ "Letters". Outside Online. Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  9. ^ a b George Mason University English Department. Text and Community website. Christian, Peter. Chris McCandless from a Park Ranger's Perspective.. Retrieved August 26, 2007.
  10. ^ Into the Wild, page 197
  11. ^ Simpson, Sherry. I Want To Ride In The Bus Chris Died In. Anchorage Press, February 7–13, 2002, Vol. 11 Ed. 6.
  12. ^ "Retrieved January 25, 2010". Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  13. ^ "Retrieved July 25, 2010". 2007-08-21. Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  14. ^ Simpson, Sherry. I Want To Ride In The Bus Chris Died In. Anchorage Press, February 7–13, 2002, Vol. 11 Ed. 6.
  15. ^ Terra Incognita Films. The Call of the Wild.. Retrieved September 15, 2007.
  16. ^ Millennium episode "Luminary".. Retrieved August 26, 2007.
  17. ^ Speed of Trees tracklist.. Retrieved August 26, 2007.
  18. ^ "Sahara" lyrics.. Retrieved August 26, 2007.

External links

Coordinates: 63°52′06″N 149°46′09″W / 63.8684°N 149.7693°W / 63.8684; -149.7693 (accident site)

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