I’m about to turn 30 years old, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris McCandless.
The story of Chris McCandless and Into the Wild (the book and the film) have woven through my life for many years.
In 1990, Chris graduated from Emory University. He was born in California and raised in Virginia. After graduating, Chris gave his savings to charity and started backpacking and hitchhiking around the US. In April 1992 he hitchhiked to Alaska and backpacked into the Alaskan bush to try to live off the land. In August 1992 he starved to death in the Magic Bus he was living in (toxic plants he ate may have contributed to his death). He was 24 years old.
In 1996, Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild about Chris’s journey, and it became a national bestseller. In 2007 the film Into the Wild was released, written and directed by Sean Penn, starring Emile Hirsch.
In 2007, I took a year off from college and spent six months backpacking around Europe solo, sometimes staying with and traveling with friends. I saw the film Into the Wild for the first time around 2008, and Chris McCandless reminded me a bit of myself, but more of my high school boyfriend. I’d caught his attention because I’d read Jack Kerouac, he caught my attention because he was reading Sartre for fun. He was an outdoorsman and (along with the tumult of young love) tapped into my sense of adventure. We traveled to Alaska together one year for spring break, stayed in a hostel, slept in a park one night, and Alaska is still the only place I’ve hitchhiked. We were long broken up by 2008, but I pined for years. Seeing a character that reminded me of him dying alone in a bus in the Alaskan bush made me cry buckets.
The second time I saw the film was in 2010, a lot had changed in just a few years. I went to film school and graduated, and was in the midst of what I now call my Vagabond Years as I bounced around the country and worked on farms. My ex was married and having kids. I watched the movie on a laptop in the yurt I lived in, in a field with two llamas, part of an Intentional Community at an abandoned lumber mill that was often described as post-apocalyptic. I realized that now I was the Chris McCandless of this story, and that was exciting and terrifying. I had sought adventure and found it, but Chris’s story was a cautionary tale for me. Dying alone in a bus in Alaska was not on my To Do list. I did date two different guys who lived in busses (different busses, in different states!) around that time, but that’s a story for another time.
In 2011 I was living in rural Montana as part of AmeriCorps, building a garden at a middle school in a town of 500 people. I picked up a copy of Krakauer’s Into the Wild and read it as I meandered back to California, stopping in Yellowstone, camping an Intentional Community, and Couchsurfing. I was 25, and in Part 2 of a 2-Part Quarter-Life Crisis. While in Montana I realized that I needed to move back to LA and really give my career as a filmmaker a shot. I’d been vagabonding around the country for three years following graduation, and it was bittersweet to know that chapter was coming to an end.
As I read Into the Wild it stood out to me that as McCandless is dying in the bus, after working so hard to escape society, he realizes that connection with other people is what matters in life. In a copy of Doctor Zhivago found with him in the bus he had written, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” I vowed to not be as stubborn as Chris McCandless, for it to not take starving in a bus in Alaska to teach me that connection with other people helps bring meaning to our lives. For three years my challenge had been to push out of my comfort zone, to see how minimal my life could be. My new challenge was to learn to stay in one place and let people into my life, to share my adventures.
(Continued in Part 2)