Friday, March 28, 2008
the pioneer spirit
A couple of months ago, I saw the film "Into the Wild," and shortly afterward re-read the book, which I had first read in the late '90's, when I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado (or maybe it was after I had moved to Anchorage; I can't remember exactly. I do remember reading Jon Krakauer's original article in "Outside"). I'm glad I took the time to experience it again. On the first read, I was living amongst somewhat extreme mountaineers and adventurers, and, being young and impressionable, I confess I jumped on the bandwagon of head-shakers who dismissed young Chris McCandless as naive and arrogant. For those who aren't familiar with the story, Chris McCandless was a kid in his early 20's who, upon graduating from Emory College, donated his 24,000 dollar trust fund check to Oxfam America, then shed his identity and his possessions and took off on a year-long odyssey around the country, and, ultimately to the Alaskan interior, far from civilization. With little knowledge or preparation, he was able to survive off the land for four months, living in an abandoned bus, eating plants, small game, and the rice he'd packed with him. When he finally decided to hike out and re-join the world, he found that the small stream he'd crossed in the spring was now a thunderous river, one whose current would easily take him out. Distraught, he went back to the bus; he had no map of the area, and was possibly too weak to seek an alternate route, as his journals indicate that he was either injured or starving or both. By himself and terribly lonely, he died on his sleeping bag in the bus; he either starved to death or ate a poisonous potato plant.
After re-reading the book, I was no less convinced that hubris was in part responsible for McCandless' death, and I didn't forgive him for forsaking his family and assuming a new identity, but I did read with a sense of awe, and even respect, that I didn't feel last time around. McCandless was highly influenced by the literature he read, especially Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gogol. And, like most people in their early 20's, he was opinionated, naive, and rebellious. But these qualities found their extreme form in Chris McCandless. I can't help but wonder at the awesome sense of morality and purpose that incites someone so young to essentially drop out of society and turn almost entirely to nature. On the one hand, this seems so entirely misogynistic; yet, he was able to form fulfilling relationships along the way, and many who were interviewed by Krakauer for the book found themselves spiritually touched by his presence. This was especially true of "Ronald Franz," an 80-year-old man who, after meeting McCandless, sold all of his possessions and moved out to the beach.
I'm always drawn to "pioneer stories," especially contemporary ones, because at this point in time, we are so disconnected from nature and from the land. John McPhee's "Coming into the Country," in which he spends a year in the Alaskan bush, is one of my favorite books. I understand and identify with the pioneer spirit, and sometimes read with wistful longing, even though my Alaskan experience was limited to Anchorage and Fairbanks and the wonderful mountains surrounding those places. So even though I find myself angry with McCandless at times, I'm still haunted by his story, and wish I could know more. Like, what was he feeling during those long nights in the bus, his companions the bears and moose and porcupine and relentless mosquitoes? His journal entries are curt, and mostly describe what he caught or ate. And then, at the end, his loneliness: "So lonely. Terribly lonely."
The film, despite some drawbacks, did capture the mood of the book quite well, and I have to say that the ending scene just blew me away. I won't give it away, but it's definitely worth seeing. And Eddie Vedder's soundtrack to the film is equally intense, if not more so (you can hear a clip from his song "No Ceiling" if you go to "Profile" here on this blog and then click "audio clip"). "Long nights allow me to feel I'm fallin', I am fallin' safely now, to the ground. . .ahhh."
One of the aspects of a great book is that you carry it with you, that you wrestle with your feelings and find yourself going back to it again and again. In this, "Into the Wild" is a great success, at least for me.
(the above photo is McCandless' "farewell photo". The paper in his hand is a goodbye note.)