Adventures from Back of Beyond

Monday, August 21, 2006

Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer's riveting book is a sympathetic portrayal of 24-year old Christopher McCandless, who in April of 1992 wandered into the Alaska wilderness alone. There he ultimately starved to death, his decomposing body found by hikers.

After living off the land for over 3 months, McCandless became trapped, unable to return the way he came, because a flooding river blocked the trail and he could not find a way to cross the icy, raging stream. Although several alternative escape routes were available, McCandless never found them because he chose to carry no detailed backcountry map.

One of many glaring and ultimately fatal mistakes, McCandless chose to carry no map, according to Krakauer's analysis, in an effort to completely lose himself in the backcountry, to psychologically find a blank spot on the map, in a world where today no blank spots exist.

My opinion of McCandless is markedly different than Krakauer's, although I certainly can appreciate why the author would view the young man in such positive terms. After spending literally months meticulously researching McCandless, getting to know his family and friends, retracing his travels, no doubt Krakauer felt a kinship and bond to the spirit of the man. Krakauer seems impressed by the young man's intelligence. The story of McCandless' demise is eerie and haunting, and compellingly told by Krakauer.

Still, I see things a bit differently. Krakauer draws a parallel between McCandless and Everett Ruess, another restless young man who apparently met a tragic end in the wilderness. Ruess disappeared in the spectacular backcountry of Southern Utah, and his story is superbly documented by W.L. Rusho in A Vagabond for Beauty.

But McCandless was no Everett Ruess. The way I see it, McCandless wasn't much more than a mere adventurer, escaping responsibility, foolishly avoiding competent equipment and preparation, getting lost to try and find himself. There is a good possibility he was mentally ill.

McCandless spent his time in the Alaska backcountry living in the junked shell of an old bus, Fairbanks #142. On a wall inside the bus, according to Krakauer, he had written in part this: "Escaped from Atlanta...after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution..."

Taken at face value, this suggests McCandless battled part of his own personality that he detested. He exhibited a psychological schism, one of the hallmarks of schizophrenia.

Ruess, on the other hand, was not escaping so much as being drawn, as if by a magnet, to something. In Ruess' case, the wandererer was drawn toward beauty, specifically the sere and striking natural beauty of the Colorado Plateau. Krakauer presents little evidence to suggest McCandless viewed the natural world in anywhere close to the prodigious aesthetic terms as Ruess.

Ruess also had a close and loving relationship with his family. McCandless inexcusably cut off everyone in his family from all contact for over two years. Those that loved him most had no idea where he was, and they suffered immeasurably because of it.

Krakauer himself, for all his apparent affection for McCandless, consistently describes him as a "boy". But clearly, any normal male who is 24 years old is at least physically a fully grown man. Boyhoood is long gone. In terms of emotional maturation, perhaps McCandless was still a boy, somehow stuck in an immature mental state, trying to grow up and become a man by getting lost in the wild.

Krakauer describes McCandless as having not an ounce of common sense, which seems to be an accurate characterization. This shortcoming is amply evidenced throughout the story of his life, concluding with McCandless tramping off to his ultimate demise in an ill-equipped, poorly planned attempt to live off the land in Alaska's unforgiving backcountry.

All of this leads me to conclude simply that intelligence is no substitute for wisdom. In some cases, like that of Chris McCandless, high intelligence without a modicum of wisdom can indeed be tragically fatal.

That Krakauer admires and perhaps feels indebted to McCandless in some ways is not surprising. It was, after all, this story that really launched Krakauer's literary career. Before Into the Wild, Krakauer arguably was a hack, something he in his own words views with disdain, trying to work his way up by writing a series of assigned magazine articles for Outside.

Admiration notwithstanding, Krakauer cannot hide in an objective analysis what is basically a portrait of a darkly disturbed young man, one with excessively rigid ideals and thinking, close-minded to other worldviews than his own narrow opinions. McCandless detested and rejected his own parents, adopted the cocky moniker "Alexander Supertramp," wrote about himself in the third person, had no friends his own age, and apparently was asexual, showing absolutely no interest in sex at all.

These mental dysfunctions may be why Krakauer frames and rationalizes McCandless in artificially elevated and unrealistic terms. In one passage, he describes McCandless' life as not that of a feckless, loopy kid, but rather as a life that "hummed" with meaning and purpose.

Really. One wonders just how Krakauer defines "meaning and purpose". Did McCandless in any way help make this world a better place? Arguably, he did just the opposite, providing next to nothing constructive or proactive, and left the people who nurtured, cared, and loved him most emotionally battered and scarred for the experience.

Only through a tragic death did the life of Chris McCandless become profoundly meaningful, and credit for that goes to Jon Krakauer's riveting book. Today, this story has touched many persons in deeply meaningful ways, caused so many to think about themselves and their own purpose. Prior to this book, you might say neither Krakauer nor McCandless amounted to very much. Together, they completed something remarkable.

It would be mistake to demean this story, as some critics have, as one unworthy of being told, because it mistakenly glamorizes a foolish narcissus. The story of Chris McCandless is so gripping because it is, at its core, a story of the universal human condition, and we identify with him. The story is worthwhile to learn from, because many of us are, in some ways, like him. We love the outdoors, we seek truth and meaning, we struggle to find direction and purpose in life. And just like Everett Ruess, there's a little bit of Chris McCandless in us all.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Sacred Site

The San Francisco Peaks are considered sacred to more than one Native American tribe, including both the Hopi and Navajo. But they are sacred also because on a steep slope near the top is the the remarkably well preserved site of a crashed WWII B-24 bomber.

On September 15, 1944, while on a training mission from Kingman, the plane slammed into the side of the mountain, Arizona's highest peak. All 8 crewmen perished instantaneously as the bomber disintegrated, the plane's disembodied parts strewn throughout a football field sized debris field.

The crashed bomber is something of a legend in Arizona, and one of the first intriguing stories I learned when I moved to Arizona in 1978. The site of the crash is widely speculated, and one of Arizona's best kept secrets. From what I heard, it was off the northern face of the mountain, reachable perhaps off the Bearjaw-Abineau loop. That is not quite correct, I learned yesterday, when Arizona yielded one of her prized secrets to me. To find it was to me a very moving "Oh my God" moment.

After some research, I had a pretty good idea of where to look. After about 90 minutes of rigorous hiking up at about 11,200 feet, but still over a thousand feet below the summit, I found the wrecked bomber.

The crash site is mostly within a clearing in the densely forested slope, which makes it easy to see the enormity of the debris field. The aluminim airplane parts are largely spared the cover of vegetation even today, some 60+ years afterwards. The debris sits in stark contrast to the dark angular volcanic boulders that comprise the steep slope of the mountain.

Approaching from the top, I was awed at the size and scale of it. Viewed from top down, the site was appropriately framed with incredible 100 mile views below and beyond of the high forested volcanic plateau of Northern Arizona.

As I inspected the debris I felt a reverence, considering the lives lost at this exact spot. This place is sacred and worthy of respect.

I was stunned by the remarkably well preserved debris. Paint, including the star symbol used on American aircraft in WWII, was largely unfaded on a near-complete section of wing. Tread was still visible on a section of tire. Rust was nearly nonexistent. Stamped part numbers were plainly visible on certain pieces that look like they could been produced yesterday.

Later, after I'd descended to near the bottom of the mountain, I looked back up at where I'd been. Using binoculars, I spotted the debris field from below and was agained awed by the size and scale of the crash. The debris field is plainly visible if you know where to look from near the bottom of the mountain.

This is a special place, one that adds to the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks.