When we walk outside the comfort of our homes, we do not fear what awaits us on the other side of the door. We know we have shelter and food to ensure our well being when we return. However, one may feel that this security or urban life causes discomfort or confinement. From early civilization, young men have historically pushed into new and unexplored land. This parallels with the westward movement in the 1800s, men often travelled to find better work opportunities and land alone, while their families stayed behind because it was a long and dangerous journey. In the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, we learn of young Chris McCandless and his journey on his own. Throughout indulging into his story and experiences, I ask myself what makes him, and other young males drawn to the unknown lands of the American wilderness.
In Into the Wild, Krakauer seeks to find the grip the wilderness has on the American imagination by not only telling McCandless’s story but the stories of Everett Ruess, Gene Rosellini, and John Waterman. Much like McCandless, these young men perished while trying to find transcendent experiences. This means they search to exceed usual limits or try to be beyond the limits of all possible experiences and knowledge.
Krakauer also searches for the romantic appeal of self-isolation within the wilderness to young men. McCandless grew up in a wealthy Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. From a young age, he was a gifted scholar and athlete, who showed deep passion and a strict moral compass. However, homelife began to decline when Chris found out his father secretly had a second family. After this betrayal, Chris began living monastically, drove away most of his friends and barely kept in touch with is family. Chris was very into literature and upon finding his body, State troopers find his diary along with a few books.
One book Chris was particularly fascinated with was Thoreau’s Walden. Not only was this book heavily annotated, Chris’s way of living was a direct parallel with Thoreau’s. Chris’s fascination with this book is what gave him the idea of such a spontaneous yet dangerous journey. The book idealized self-isolation, beautified nature, and romanticized its abilities, thus creating the thought that establishing an American legacy is surrounded by the deep respect for those who seek them selves in the wild.
Everyone draws inspiration from someone or something. Chris McCandless drew his inspiration from author, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was a part of the transcendentalism movement that developed in the 1820s to the 1830s. People who followed the movement believed that society and its institutions, specifically political parties and organized religion, corrupt the purity of the individual. They also believe, they are their better selves when they are self-reliant and independent. The movement brought a new idea regarding man, spirit and nature to a young country trying to find its own voice. Along with Thoreau, other authors including Walt Whitman and Ralph Emerson, influenced young men with their works by giving hope of freedom and solitude within nature. Radical Transcendentalism (Brannon).
John Muir, well known for being the father of the national parks, was also a strong believer of the transcendentalism movement, influenced by Emerson, he believed it was an experience of spirituality given by physical immersion into nature itself. McCandless and many other males who seek to find themselves are influenced by the transcendentalism movement. They believe that solitude is found in nature alone with no one to rely on but yourself. In Into the Wild, McCandless states, “After two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution” (Krakauer, 163).
McCandless knew of the movement and what it meant. He desired to be one with nature by leaving his materialistic world behind and being born into a world were everything is against you. Many young men follow the same path. In the beginning of chapter 16, there is a quote by Roderick Nash which states, “Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but was an ideal stage for the romantic individual…solitude and total freedom created a perfect setting for melancholy or exultation,” (Nash, Wilderness and the American mind). Nash shows how young men could find nature appealing and be drawn to its harsh conditions due to the materialistic world they live in. These harsh conditions develop a challenge that men seeking a transcendent experience are attracted to.
Although Chris was drawn to the wilderness, he was in no way prepared. Ultimately his lack of knowledge about what he needed, and rations of food led to his death. Based on his infatuation with Thoreau and his journey to solitude, he believed he would gain peace and happiness on his own in the wild. However, after two years Thoreau was done with his experiment in isolation and went back to his previous life. McCandless couldn’t go back to due his stubbornness or his fear of failure.
He had his head so wrapped around the thought of surviving on his own and finding solitude in nature, that when his body started to fail, he wrote a note, crawled into his sleeping bag and passed away. He believed if he couldn’t find happiness and home nor out on his own, he gave up on life, “he pitied himself in those last difficult hours…he was so young, because he was alone, because his body had betrayed him and his will had let him down,” (Krakauer, 199). McCandless was desperate to find his happiness, he looked to nature because he was drawn to the challenge and the reward would be his solitude.
In a quote from Walden by Henry Thoreau, he says, “men lead lives of quiet desperation…from the desperate city you go into the desperate country…a stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things,” (Thoreau, Walden). McCandless’s desire to live this life alone, the draw the wilderness had on him, was the act of desperation when he could no longer find his happiness at home. McCandless grew up living a life where everything was handed to him and he hated it however, in the wild, he would have to fight for survival. He wanted the challenge and that is what nature offered.
McCandless’s story says a lot about the effect certain authors had on him. He was inspired by Thoreau’s experiment, which drew him into the wilderness to be alone and find solitude. His actions parallel other young men as well. When you become bored of the materialistic world and the men in it, the thought of going off on your own and starting your own life in the wilderness has become idealized. Young men are drawn to the wilderness because of the challenges you’ll face, the unpredictable forces of mother nature. Into the Wild is a great example of how someone can be drawn to the wilderness in order to find themselves.
- Krakauer, John. Into the Wild. New York, Anchor Books, 1997
- Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. New York, Norton, 1992.
- Brannon, James. Radical Transcendentalism. Vol. 16, Sierra Club, 2006, vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/john_muir_newsletter/radical_transcendentalism.aspx.