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The purpose of Jon Krakauer’s book is to address the matter of young Christopher McCandless and his odd seclusion from society and a lifestyle that was all most people could ask for. Coming from a well-to-do background in the Washington D.C. area, McCandless always had privileges that few can claim. McCandless was just entering society, having graduated from Emory University, with more than $25,000 in savings and a family that loved him. The question of why he would completely break contact with all that he knew, give away everything he owned, and disappear to the Alaskan wilderness as a homeless man for two years drives Krakauer’s work.
Throughout the many years he spends on the road, McCandless meets and affects many people, though never long enough have a lasting impact or be lured away from his wandering. Citing classic hermits and renouncers of society such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, McCandless decides to live in the wild, without the advents of human society. Living in a bus in the midst of the Alaskan wilderness with nothing more than some basic supplies, McCandless keeps a careful diary of his time, his thoughts, and his reasons for fleeing from society.
Eventually, he makes the decision to return to society, but is unfortunately forced to return to his bus by a swollen river. In his final days, McCandless is weakened by hunger and the cold. He spends a little more than 100 days in the wild, all the while being suspected of causing damage on local cabin owners’ land, and finding himself stuck in his situation. He writes often of his reasons, but eventually decides that nature is only a refuge for a short while, that true happiness can only be shared with others. In 1992, moose hunters in the Alaskan wild found McCandless’s body partially decomposed in his bus, the diaries and meager supplies still nearby. Initially, many thought he died from confusing potato seeds with a poison type of pea.
Alaskans derided the foolishness of his endeavor, thinking he could possibly survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness with nothing but his wits. There were many who spoke out adamantly against anyone who was foolish enough to try and survive in such conditions without survival equipment. Alongside the heartbreak of his parents and the public disdain for his ignorance, many try to make an example of him in a negative way.
The author though believes he has lived a similar life and undergone similar instances as McCandless. With that belief, he offer his own personal story and attempts to parallel what has happened in his life with McCandless’s. In the process, he touches on many themes that cross everyone’s lives. There is the matter of the parent-child conundrum, and in it Krakauer manages to maneuver enough perspective into McCandless’s story to make it more about the general condition of youth than about McCandless’s individual situation and decisions.
Into the Wild Chapter Summaries
Krakauer begins the book by describing the story behind Christopher McCandless. In April, 1992, the young McCandless hitchhiked his way into Alaska and took up residence in the wild nearby Mt. McKinley. Later, in August of that year, a group of hunters found his body, prompting Outside magazine to request Jon Krakauer to write a story about McCandless’s life and times. He describes McCandless’s college education at Emory University and the events that followed directly after he graduated. He gave away all of his money to charity, left his things, and took to being a drifter and explorer.
The article arrived in Outside magazine in January, 1993, but Krakauer’s interest in the story did not die with the story’s publication. Rather, he was personally attracted to the aspects of McCandless’s life, the outdoors attraction and rocky relationship with his father. He compares himself to McCandless to give a little perspective, and describes the reaction many people had to McCandless’s actions, so many labeling him young and foolish. Krakauer does not agree though and states that McCandless would still be alive if he had only kept from making one or two crucial mistakes. He ends his note by announcing he hopes to allow the reader to form their own opinion of McCandless and his actions.
Chapter 1, The Alaska Interior
Opening chapter one is a postcard from McCandless to Wayne Westerberg, back in Carthage, South Dakota. Using the name Alex on the card, McCandless describes how much respect he has for Westerberg and how he is afraid he might not survive his time in the Alaskan wilderness. Every chapter, starting here, opens with a quotation established to set the tone for the rest of the chapter.
Chapter 2, The Stampede Trail
The chapter opens with a mention and quote from Jack London’s White Fang, referring to the cold hard winters of the wilderness and small chance of survival in such circumstances. The Stampede Trail is described as a fifty mile stretch between Mt. Healy and Mt. McKinley.
Chapter 3, Carthage
A quotation from Tolstoy about loving danger opens the chapter, having been highlighted by McCandless in one of his many books, Family Happiness, which bridges to Krakauer discussing McCandless’s family.
Back in Carthage, South Dakota again, the author sits down with Wayne Westerberg to discuss how he met Alex, also known as McCandless. He originally offered him a ride as McCandless was hitchhiking and immediately took to him, offering him a meal and a job when he couldn’t drive him as far as he was going. He originally stayed for only three days, but did return a few weeks later to work some more. Westerberg comments on how hard Alex worked and how intelligent he was, how it might have caused him more pain than good. Eventually Westerberg learns that Alex’s real name is Chris and that he has problems with his family. Westerberg never questions him further, but offers Alex a place to stay and a surrogate family in Carthage. Alex likes the small town and enjoys the sense of community but eventually Westerberg is sent to jail for four months for illegal satellite boxes and Alex leaves town. He continues to consider Carthage his home town through having his mail sent there.
Chapter 4, Detrital Wash
McCandless makes his way back into the United States, but is caught on the way by immigration, who take his handgun away. This takes place on January 18 and for the next six weeks, he travels the immediate southwest. For a short while he gets an ID and job in L.A., but soon decides against society again and leaves for the Grand Canyon. He writes that he feels much better since leaving back in July. When he finally returns to where he left his car, he finds it gone but is able to retrieve the few things he buried, including his rifle.
He travels to Las Vegas and takes a job in a restaurant, once again burying his things outside the city. For a few weeks he again lives on the street with the homeless until he once again hits the road on May 10, full of joy for the life he is leading.
Chapter 5, Bullhead City
Alex leaves the camp and heads for Salton City finally where he picks up his last check from the McDonald’s at which he worked. He rejects Burres’ offer to pay him for his help, though he does take a few knives she offers instead. He returns the warm clothing she offers him when she isn’t looking though, refusing any further assistance.
Chapter 6, Anza-Borrego
Shortly afterward, Franz takes Alex’s advice and sells everything he owns, buys a camper and takes Alex’s former camping spot outside the city. Krakauer goes on to describe Franz as a healthy man who had spent the time following Alex’s death in nature, living in the desert near the Borrego badlands. The whole time, Franz waited for Alex to return until a hitchhiker finally arrived, having read of Alex’s death in Outside Magazine. He promptly drains a bottle of whiskey in an attempt to die, quits his church, and denounces religion.
Chapter 7, Carthage
wish him farewell, learning that he can play piano in the process. He cries in his farewells, worrying again that he won’t survive. Postcards sent to Burres and Westerberg from Alaska before he enters the wild once again relay that he feels he might not survive his ordeal, and he says final goodbyes to everyone he knows, intent on never seeing them again.
Chapter 8, Alaska
Yet another man who people have compared McCandless to is Carl McCunn. As a worker on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 70s, McCunn was in Alaska already and in 1981 requested to be flown to a remote lake above the Coleen River. He forgot to request a flight back though and soon ran out of food in his cabin. Rather than ever attempt to walk back out of the wilderness, he wasted away in his cabin and eventually shot himself. Krakauer goes on to compare McCunn and McCandless’s lack of common sense and foresight in their planning. He also states that McCandless was not mentally ill, but that McCunn and Waterman both were. The argument of whether McCandless was in fact mentally ill is railed against by Krakauer, saying he knew he would likely not survive in the wild and did not think he would be saved as the other men did.
Chapter 9, Davis Gulch
An author devoted to Ruess’s story, Ken Sleight has his own theory that Ruess drowned in 1935 after tying up his donkeys in the Gulch and taking the Mormon trail out of the area. He was likely on his way to visit friends across the river and drowned in the crossing.
With yet one more comparison, Krakauer describes the secluded Papar monks of Ireland. These monks moved to Iceland in the 5th century until Norwegians arrived and they headed off for Greenland. Because they so fervently sought seclusion, many of them lost their lives in the harsh conditions of Greenland. He compares the lives and ideals of both Ruess and McCandless to that of these Irish monks, seeking some sort of Spiritual seclusion.
Chapter 10, Fairbanks
Sam reveals that he originally read the article about the hiker, but didn’t think it could be Chris. However, when he receives the description, it is familiar and so he is called on to identify Chris from photographs. Sam and his wife are left the duty of driving to Maryland, where Chris’s parents are, to inform them of what’s happened.
Chapter 11, Chesapeake Beach
Despite the financial freedom that Walt and Billie’s consulting firm brought the family, there was high tension in their near constant arguments and threats of divorce. Walt reveals that the family often took long, outdoor trips and that a history of outdoors and wandering runs in the family. Chris’s grandfather, Loren Johnson was a trucker and never stayed in one place and was a lover of nature. He was a hunter, though he would often cry for the animals he killed. Chris and Loren grew very close while Chris was a child and the two spent a lot of time in the woods.
Walt describes how Chris received a single F in his years of High School, for ignoring his Physics teacher’s formatting requirements for lab reports. Otherwise, he was a straight A student. Chris was close to Carine throughout school and thoroughly enjoyed anything that was naturally easy. He, however, did not enjoy things like racquetball in which he could not quite improve.
Chris, as the team captain for the cross-country team, was a grueling leader, constantly dragging them into the woods until lost, then forcing them to run until they were no longer lost. He was a convincing speaker and managed to convince his teammates to follow him with his spiritual motivation speeches. However, if Chris ever lost a race himself, he would be very harsh on himself.
As a single person in the world, McCandless constantly worried over things like racism and social injustice. He often spent time downtown feeding the homeless and took a homeless man into his family’s Airstream to stay. He was unwilling to attend college, though his parents badgered him until he consented. He never spoke highly of his family though, constantly deriding their financial independence.
Chapter 12, Annandale
High School graduation sees Chris grateful and emotional towards his parents, offering an expensive birthday gift and speaking highly of them. He takes his first trip during that summer, with his parent’s gas credit card in hand and instructions to call every three days. He eventually stops calling though and shows up on a couple months later, malnourished, apparently having been lost in the Mojave Desert and succumbing to dehydration.
Chapter 13, Virginia Beach
In this chapter, the author visits Carine McCandless in Virginia Beach and she shows him pictures of Chris at both seven and seventeen and describes how much she loved her dog, Buck. Carine had the same high level of intellectual thought as her brother and is highly opinionated but describes how she made peace with their parents. She now works with her husband Sam on their auto repair business, working almost constantly, finding irony in how much she disliked her parents for doing the same thing.
Carine describes how she cries every day over Chris’s death and how he grief persists. It has been ten months since she learned from her husband of Chris’s death, making her hysterical. When she finally calmed, she and her husband drove four hours to her parents’ home, and then flew to Fairbanks the next day to retrieve Chris’s body. She describes how Chris’s cause of death affected their diets, since he starved to death. She describes the extremities of her family’s grief, even nearly a year later.
Chapter 14, The Stikine Ice Cap
Krakauer describes again the final postcard that McCandless sent to Westerberg stating he believed he would die. Despite the wording though, he believes the death was an accident and begins comparing his own youthful indiscretions to those of McCandless, to show his insight into the matter. He describes his overbearing father and his obsession with climbing, desiring to reach new heights and prove to his father his own skills.
When he was twenty-three years old, Krakauer climbed the Devils Thumb alone, also planning a thirty mile ski to reach the mountain, all the while reading the works of Nietzsche, Kerouace and John Menlove Edwards. He is enthralled by the prospect of his climb, carrying around a picture of the mountain that scares and excites him at the same time.
He quits his carpentry job, clears out his things and sets out for Alaska within hours. He leaves everything behind and drives to Alaska before hitching a ride as a crew member on the Ocean Queen to reach Petersberg. He jumps ship in Petersberg and takes dinner and a spot to sleep as offered by a local woman named Kai Sandburn. He decides he rather enjoys human contact but continues on his journey, hitching across another stretch of ocean to the mountain’s base. He describes how he has brought a pair of poles to keep from falling through a crevasse and dying.
He describes the emotional highs and lows of being alone in the mountains and how they affected him as opposed to being with other people. In his descriptions, Krakauer reveals more of his closeness to McCandless through their situations. After three days, Krakauer reaches the Stikine Ice Cap, where he finds the powerfulness of nature downright frightening. While there, he falls through the ice bridges twice, his poles saving his life. He realizes how easily he could die and becomes ill. He makes camp where his food is to be dropped and is thankful for the man’s persistence in flying up the mountainside. The next day he continues his climb up the mountain.
The farther he climbs, the more confident he becomes and the more excited he becomes that he’s successfully cheated death and the more he enjoys the climb. Finally he realizes that his climb is not as safe as he had thought and so he returns to survey the mountain, finally deciding that he can not finish the climb and descending the mountain.
Chapter 15, The Stikine Ice Cap
Krakauer stays in his tent at the base of the ice cap for three days, not quite willing to retreat in defeat yet. He smokes a bit of marijuana and decides to make oatmeal, somewhere in the process burning a hole in his father’s expensive tent again. He ponders how he will have disappointed his father once again. His father is a rash man who never admits when he is wrong. He taught Krakauer to climb, though he never knew he would become so adamant about the sport. Despite his love for his family and the rare gentle side, his father is a controlling man, expecting great things from his children – doctors and lawyers. His father started young, constantly expecting the best from his children and pushing him to reach medical school. It is this that Krakauer claims he rebelled against.
So it is that instead of going to college, Krakauer becomes a carpenter and climber and when his father’s weaknesses come to light, he becomes angry over such hypocrisy and high expectations. The rage from those days has faded away, claims Krakauer, replaced by familial love and affection. He realizes how stubborn and foolish he was being and that it took time for him to make these realizations. His father became ill at a certain point, dependent upon medication and even attempted suicide in front of Krakauer, completely shattering whatever illusion he might still have had of his father’s greatness.
After three days on the ice cap, Krakauer attempts once again to climb the north face of the mountain, quickly driven back down the mountain by weather and fear. He stays at the mid-mountain point and waits, unwilling to give in and return. However, when he returns, a storm buries him again and he decides to hide away in a snow drift.
After the storm, he finds the base camp and decides that he cannot defeat nature, considering the climb on the south wall instead of the north. So, he makes that climb and sleeps on the mountain again, watching the city and feeling lonely. He must race to beat a storm to the summit once again, taking an extremely dangerous route to the top so as to beat out an approaching storm.
After a series of near-deadly slips and close calls, he makes it to the summit, takes a few photographs, and quickly descends. Having beaten the weather to the summit, he quickly heads back down the mountain to ensure he survives. On his way down, he hitches a ride with a boater across the water and back to Petersberg. At first the boater doesn’t believe Krakauer’s story and is wary of the smelly, unkempt young man. He tells his story later than night to patrons at a bar who are hardly impressed by his climb, bursting his bubble of pride. He returns home a month later to his carpentry job, gets a better apartment and begins putting his life back together. He ends the chapter with reflections on how his climb of the Devils’ Thumb did nothing to change his life or who he was, comparing his revelations to what McCandless might have felt shortly before he died.
Chapter 16, The Alaska Interior
As planned, Chris McCandless leaves Carthage for Alaska on April 15, 1992. Along the way, he takes numerous photos of himself at different mile markers and hitches with a trucker named Gaylord Stuckey for nearly a thousand miles in the state of Alaska itself. Alex describes for Stuckey his anger with his parents, his love for his sister and his dreams of living off the land in Alaska. Alex buys a great deal of rice in Fairbanks and stops off at the University of Alaska to research what he can survive off of while in the wild, which plants are safe and whatnot. Alex promises to send Stuckey a letter when he reemerges from the wild but will not commit to calling his parents.
McCandless spends three days in Fairbanks and mails out the post cards and letters to Burres and Westerberg. He buys a used .22 because it is light and durable and makes camp about four miles outside of town. On the morning of that fourth day, he gets a ride from the first person he sees, Jim Gallien, and in three hours he is standing at the Stampede Trail, covered in snow.
On his second day hiking the trail, he comes across the Teklanika River. In April, the river is tiny and easy to cross, not anywhere near the rapid it becomes in August when Alex tries to cross back over it. He travels 20 miles inland and comes across the bus with its hunting gear and remarks on it as the “magic bus” because of its miraculous appearance.
He tags the bus immediately, excited by his luck. Within days, his journal reflects something different though, with worry over his weakness, the snow outside. He often references “disasters” becoming frustrated at nearly all interruptions to his goals. His hunting skills eventually increase though and when the snow melts he finds various plants that he can eat.
Alex leaves the bus on May 5 to head west, seeking game and hoping to hike 500 miles to the tidewater. Unfortunately, melting snow makes the hiking too hard and he returns to the bus for the summer. The bus is actually only 30 miles from the main highway, 16 from another road and within 6 miles of at least four other cabins. He never sees another human being though during the summer and goes about staying alive, gathering wood, and finding food.
His hunting skills continue to increase until he kills a moose on June 9. He feels bad for the kill though and when he fails to properly cure the meat because of his unfamiliarity with the weather and local assets, he is upset at wasting the animal’s life. Because of the failure, McCandless decides he will make every motion of life a deliberate, well thought-out one, and to treat food as holy.
At some point in his diary, it is apparent that McCandless had decided to return, that happiness is only achieved when with other people. He decides to return on July 3rd but is stopped by the slew of Beaver Ponds blocking the Stampede Trail on which he hiked in. the river has exploded into a hundred foot torrent and so he decides to return to the bus, incapable of fording the river. As Krakauer notes, McCandless could have merely walked north a bit and found smaller fording points. However, he returns to the bus in what will eventually become a fatal move.
Chapter 17, The Stampede Trail
A full year after McCandless failed to cross the Teklanika River, Krakauer observes the same torrent of water. Only a half mile away there is a basket on cables and pulleys to cross the river, which McCandless had no way of finding without the kind of map McCandless has. Initially annoyed at the company, Krakauer remarks on how lonely the area seems and how much he would have disliked having been alone.
When they reach the bus, they find a variety of animal bones and the remains of the moose McCandless was unable to cure. Much of Krakauer’s hate mail regarding his Outside Magazine article was directly related to the fact that the initial moose hunters said the remains belonged to a caribou. However, Krakauer’s party finds that this is not the case.
Inside the bus, Krakauer finds books, supplies, and remnants of unmade clothing. There are remnants of his stay everywhere, including clothing, pots and pans, and the knife sheath given to him by Franz. Krakauer heads outside, disturbed by his discovery, later discussing the matter of McCandless with his companions, not understanding why so many people are so upset by the young man’s decisions. There have been comparisons to Sir John Franklin, a cocky British Officer who led 140 men and himself to death in the 19th century. Krakauer differentiates between the different kinds of arrogance though, with Franklin believing he could conquer the wild and McCandless trying to live with it.
Krakauer admits that the major mistake McCandless makes is that he didn’t first learn what most people learn before heading into the wild. He did however have the right survival skills to survive in the wild for the time he was there. He compares McCandless to the typical teenager who will take unnecessary risks to prove him or herself. He tries to confirm that McCandless found meaning in his adventures and that he wasn’t in fact a man lost in the wild like his critics have claimed.
Chapter 18, The Stampede Trail
On July 8, McCandless returns to his bus because of the river. He decides to wait for the river to go back down and returns to his previous routine of hunting and gathering. The animals he finds,though, are small and weak because of the weather and don’t offer much in the way of nutrition. He makes a revelation while reading Doctor Zhivago that he wants to re-enter society because he cannot be happy without sharing his happiness with others.
A couple of days later though, he reports that he is starving and can hardly move. He blames potato seeds, though some believe he confused a wild potato plant with a poisonous sweet pea. Krakauer reported originally in his magazine article that this was the likely cause of death, but later revised his statement in the book against such a conclusion. It had been months since McCandless started eating the wild potato plant and it was unlikely that he would make the mistake after so long. He had long been eating the rest of the potato plant and not gotten sick, so probably assumed the seeds were okay as there was no reference anywhere stating otherwise.
Krakauer tests the seeds at the University of Alaska and finds swainsonine alkaloid, a substance that stops the human body from turning food into usable energy. It cause starvation regardless of how much you eat. It’s possible to overcome the poison but because McCandless was already so low on necessary sugars and protein, he could not flush it free and likely succumbed to the seed.
On August 5, McCandless had been in the wild for 100 days and even though he is excited, he is also very weak and now unable to walk outside. Krakauer once again describes the nearby cabins and service stations that he could have found, had he carried the right map with him. The cabins in question had actually been vandalized and when they found McCandless’s body, the owners assumed it was him.
There is no evidence that he did any wrong-doing, though and Krakauer believes he did not, though there is no true way to know. Many have argued that he would have edited his journals to not include any negative aspects of his stay, having previously noted he wanted to write a memoir.
In his final days, McCandless continues attempting to kill game but is unable to kill anything larger than a squirrel. With the poison, such game was useless to keeping him alive. He writes a plea for help on the bus door slightly before he dies on August 12, reverting to his actual name. In the final pages, Krakauer muses on the final moments of McCandless’s life, hoping he felt the euphoria of starvation that many have reported having. His last note is dated for August 12, saying goodbye and stating that he had a happy life. He takes one last photograph and is believed to have died on August 18.