As an avid reader and lover of the outdoors, it was surprising that I had never read “Into the Wild” until last year. Having heard about the story only in passing, I knew little of the debate and criticism that surrounds the story, its telling, and its main subject, Chris McCandless. Yet, after first engaging with the story a year ago, and recently re-watching the movie in class, I found myself thrust headfirst into the dispute and full of opinions. But so was everyone else, especially at a school as supposedly obsessed with the outdoors as Colorado College.
For context, “Into the Wild” is based on the true story of Chris McCandless. A young, upper-class white man, McCandless took off west after graduating college. He donated his life savings, destroyed all forms of identification, and embarked on a journey toward a “climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.” McCandless spent two years rambling through western America working odd jobs, exploring the land, living off the grace of strangers, and making friends with people of all ilk. To conclude his journey, McCandless set out to Alaska to live off the land where “the freedom and simple beauty is just too good to pass up.” He lived alone in the Alaskan “wild” for 100 days before dying from starvation and the consumption of poisonous berries. The book by John Krakauer and subsequent movie were based on the journal he kept in addition to stories from family and friends, especially those from his sister, Carine.
As McCandless ran into the wild, he left a trail of broken relationships reeling in his wake. It is this harm to the people in his life, his selfish actions, and his lack of maturity that are most often highlighted in critiques of the story. A Time magazine review noted that the “film needs at least to entertain the possibility that its protagonist was driven less by high principle than by lamentable screwiness.” As he tossed off the chains of a “sick” society, McCandless had everything to fall back on — money, an education, family, and friends. Yet, he complained of the corrupt world and the failure of human relationships to provide the satisfaction and contentment that the wilderness supposedly could. Time and time again, he broke away from the people who loved him to resume his potentially dangerous adventure. Critics point to these choices as rash and selfish decisions made by what one letter to Outside magazine called “another unprepared, overconfident man.”
Certainly, these critiques hold some legitimacy. While tragic, McCandless’s end was by no means just the result of bad luck. His choices alienated everyone who cared about him, put him into dangerous situations unprepared, and left him alone to meet a painful end. His fetishizing of the wilderness, solitude, and freedom he dreamed of likely stemmed not only from positive personal experiences outdoors, but also from a dangerous and widespread misinterpretation of American wilderness. From romantics like Henry David Thoreau to the national agencies that manage public lands, society has built a mantra of a free, pure “wilderness.” Not only does this view ignore the Indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their land, but it creates a false image of wilderness and civilization as opposites.
This is the wilderness that McCandless longed for and, perhaps selfishly, ran to. But it is also important to take into account the other reading of “Into the Wild” — the reading that accounts for McCandless’s humanity, his violent and troubled upbringing, and even a true love of the outdoors. Carine McCandless, years after the book and movie, wrote her own book explaining their abusive upbringing and the motivations behind her brother’s escape from his parents and society. An NPR article said that “she accepts her beloved brother’s abandonment without bitterness, seeing it as an unfortunate casualty of his clean break with their parents.” Unable to find solace and recovery from the harms of his past, McCandless looked to escape his pain in the way that he knew best: through nature. His sister relates, to this in her book, that childhood camping trips always brought her brother clear joy, and he showed an innate love for the outdoors. But his eventual attempt to find peace for himself in nature distanced McCandless from everyone around him and led to his untimely death.
Yes, McCandless made choices that readers and viewers interpret as selfish and privileged, but they are also choices that are human and understandable. Many people find comfort and solace in nature. Personal experiences combine with pervasive wilderness representations make the “wild” seem like a place that will forgive all flaws and heal all wounds. In the end, neither reading of “Into the Wild” is completely true or correct, they are just that — readings. However, they help inform the ways in which we view wilderness, human choices, and our own interactions with both.