A backpacker’s guide to eco-death

Into the Wild, Sean Penn's film about the anti-materialist Christopher McCandless, reminds us why being 'one with nature’ is no picnic.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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Christopher McCandless could in many ways be seen as a misanthropic environmentalist’s messiah. The inspiration behind Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, McCandless’ story was recently turned into a film by Sean Penn. After graduating from college in 1990, he renounces his family and material goods, donates his life savings to charity and wanders round America preaching against human relationships before going off to eat berries and roots in the Alaskan wilderness. And to top it all off, he ends up doing his bit to prevent overpopulation, finding inner peace whilst starving to death.

Since Krakauer’s account of the sad death of McCandless was published in 1995, it has intrigued countless backpackers travelling the world. Several folk songs have been written about him. With the release of Penn’s film, which unlike its counterpart The Beach does justice to the book, it looks like the legend of McCandless will grow further.

In many ways McCandless has become the Kurt Cobain of the travelling world. Clearly a man who had the potential to do something important with his life, the only thing really remarkable about McCandless compared to his peers is that he ended up dying young in mysterious enough circumstances to allow everyone to have an opinion about how it happened. McCandless did little of significance in life, but was fortunate to have inspired a Krakauer, an impressive investigative journalist with a passion for the outdoors and a flair for storytelling.

A few years ago, after announcing ambitious plans to trek in the Himalayas, I recall being begged to read Into the Wild by a fellow traveller on a Thai beach. She thought I could learn much from his experiences: the subtext being that I should water down my plans or end up dead. Being 22 and, like McCandless, feeling pretty much invincible, it did nothing to temper my risk-taking.

I found that there is typically at least one Chris McCandless-type skulking in the shadows of almost every youth hostel in the world. His background was pretty normal. Raised in a middle-class family, he graduated from Emory University with flying colours and decided to ‘live like common people’, exploring America on a shoestring budget instead of following the carefully laid path towards becoming a wealthy lawyer laid out for him by his unhappily married parents.

The film is split into various ‘chapters’ representing McCandless’ ‘rebirth’ upon setting out on his travels, through adolescence and eventually to wisdom. It’s wrong to structure the story in this way – after all, the film is solely about a young man coming of age. There is little wisdom in McCandless’ utterings, which are often quotes from Thoreau, Tolstoy or Jack London that he’s trying on for size, or adolescent fantasies about becoming an ‘aesthetic voyager’, aiming to ‘kill the false being within’. When asked what his problem is over a beer with a farmer, the best McCandless can do is to angrily chant ‘society, society’ over and over again, feebly elaborating on this by naming ‘parents, politicians and pricks’.

While it would be easy to jeer at such statements, McCandless simply wasn’t yet adult enough to effectively articulate what his concerns were. (A problem that the aging Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, who performs the film soundtrack, remains afflicted with: the best he can do is whinge that ‘society you’re a crazy breed’.)

The greatest wisdom McCandless seems to have attained by the end of the film is that if you live in the wild for any sustained period of time, it stops becoming a game and becomes a deeply unpleasant experience. His comments on day 100 of his ‘great Alaskan adventure’ captures this well: ‘Made it! But in weakest condition of life. Death looms as serious threat. Too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild – no game.’

The tragedy is that McCandless wasn’t able to escape from the wild and rejoin society with his realisation that ‘happiness is only real when shared’. Instead he had to stoically resign himself to his fate. As the traveller I met on the Thai beach understood, the main lesson you would derive from McCandless’s experience in the wild is that the Scouting motto ‘be prepared’ has a lot going for it. However, actor-turned-director Sean Penn seems to think otherwise, saying he believes we can learn much from McCandless’ ‘lack of addiction to comfort, that is so uncommon and is so necessary to become common, or humankind doesn’t survive the next century’.

Leaving aside Penn’s ill-founded pessimism, surely we can find better models for survival than Chris McCandless! One of his final notes strongly suggests that, had he survived, even the wild man himself would be deeply cynical of someone attempting to idealise his trip into the wilderness: ‘I am all alone. This is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me.’

Despite the director’s intentions, the film remains deeply moving. Although the images of nature and the American landscape are indeed awe-inspiring, the most beautiful parts of the film are in the human interactions. McCandless seems to have left an impression on many people on the road, not due to his patronising, half-baked anti-materialist ranting, but due to the fact that he had a vision for what he wanted to do and was doing it with immense energy and enthusiasm.

The great shame is that he didn’t have the chance to direct this energy into a greater project than a badly conceived trip into the wilderness.

Patrick Hayes is promotions manager for the Battle of Ideas festival.

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