Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Into The Wild on Stampede Road

Stampede Road at its intersection with the Parks Highway, June 15, 2017

Several months ago while surfing channels on Comcast, we switched over to Netflix hoping to find an interesting movie. Scrolling through the selections, we were captivated by the brief description of a movie we had never heard of - Into the Wild.  Reading the description further we learned that it was a true story based on a book with the same title written by Jon Krakauer.  Because I had earlier read Krakauer's excellent expose Under the Banner of Heaven about the Mormon cult, I had a hunch the movie would be worth the time to watch. It turned out to be an excellent choice.

As with every other book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild is a must-read

Christopher McCandless grew up in a well-off suburban Washington DC family.  After completing a degree and graduating with honors from Emory University in Atlanta, he left the trappings of his cozy life to find himself.  Doing so he drove west in a battered car spending time working in South Dakota, then to the Arizona desert.  He canoed down the Colorado River to its mouth in Mexico, then hitch hiked and rode the rails to the Pacific Northwest.  After several encounters with other vagabond travelers, he found himself in the California desert.  Long ago he had abandoned his car, tore up his identity, burned his money, and assumed the name "Alexander Supertramp."

His ultimate goal, through all of the trials and tribulations of self-discovery, was to travel to Alaska. His vision was to divorce himself from society and live off the land in the wilds of the 49th state.  In late April 1992, at the ripe old age of 22, while in Fairbanks, Alaska, McCandless hitched a ride with a man who was driving to Anchorage. Carrying a backpack, a small caliber rifle, very few clothes, and a 10 pound bag of rice, he traveled south to the Stampede Road near Healy and the Denali National Park. Here McCandless was driven west as far as the truck could safely travel and dropped out at the beginning of the Stampede Trail.

The man giving McCandless a ride offered him a pair of rubber boots and his phone number and told Chris to call him if he made it out alive.  He never did.

He lived for something like 120 days in the Alaska wilderness, surviving on edible plants, and birds, and moose that he shot. For shelter he moved into an abandoned City of Fairbanks bus that he later named The Magic Bus and here he lived out his fantasy.   However his fantasy turned to horror and some time in mid-August McCandless died.  His partially decomposed body was found by a group of moose hunters several weeks later and when it was removed by Alaska state police and flown to Anchorage for autopsy, his remains weighed 87 pounds.

At the time Krakauer wrote the book about McCandless, the dominant theory about his death was that he had eaten the berries of a plant that produces poisonous side effects.  Later analysis, however, revealed that the most likely cause of his death was protein poisoning or "Rabbit Starvation"  This rare malady occurs when someone's diet is completely devoid of fat.

From the records found in notes McCandless made while living in the Magic Bus, it appeared that his ability to obtain protein was severely limited and eventually all he could find for food was plants and their seeds. Continual consumption of food containing no fat caused his metabolism to be severely out of whack and eventually he perished.  

Regardless of how he died, whether it was from eating poisonous seeds or from not enough fat in his diet only McCandless knows.  The point is he died and he did so doing what he wanted to do where he wanted to do it.

We watched the movie in awe and the following morning I watched it again.  I saw many parallels in my life to Chris's, including his penchant for running away, his passion for solitary experiences, and his desire to go places that people don't typically visit.

The following morning I watched the movie a third time and then a fourth.  Later I bought the book and we downloaded its audio version and listened to it intently on a weekend road trip to Tallahassee.  After several experiences with the story I realized that I wanted to at least see where the end of the story had its beginning.  That opportunity presented itself with an already-planned trip to Alaska.

As part of a stop in Fairbanks after visiting Barrow, it was my intention to spend the day watching birds in nearby boreal forest before attending an Alaska Goldpanners baseball game to be played on the most northerly baseball field in the world.  That birdwatching plan changed when it occurred to me that I had more than ample time to drive from Fairbanks to Healy, explore a bit of the Stampede Road, and return to Fairbanks in time for the 7:00 p.m. baseball game before my departing flight aboard Alaska Airlines at 1:30 the following morning.

On June 15, 2017, I left Fairbanks several hours after sunrise (sunrise that day was at 3:00 a.m., so everything is relative) headed southwest on the Parks Highway toward Denali National Park and Healy.  As I drove south I tried to imagine what was going through Chris McCandless's mind that April morning long ago when he was a passenger in a pickup truck with the last human being he would ever see.  Arriving at the intersection with the Stampede Road I turned west and followed it to the end of the easily traversed hard surface road and completed my journey at the start of the Stampede Trail.

Stampede Road headed west after the asphalt ended

Because of my incurable case of wanderlust as I drove along the road and listened to birds singing (and hoping for a Grizzly Bear or a Caribou to make an appearance) I tried to imagine myself as Chris McCandless.

Tundra and mountains of the Alaska Range along the Stampede Road

Finally at the end of the road I parked and looked down the length of the Stampede Trail and tried to imagine his one-way walk into the wild until he found the Magic Bus.

Beginning of the Stampede Trail on which Chris McCandless made a one-way walk into the wild

This self-portrait of Chris McCandless was found among the undeveloped film in his possession when his remains were discovered

McCandless's death has made him sort of a cult figure and traveling to the Magic Bus (about 20 miles from the end of the Stampede Road) is now high on the list of many adventure seekers. For me, however, traveling in his footsteps was not a cult thing but more of an adventure of awareness especially because I could identify so closely with what McCandless did and why he did it.

Curiously every person I met in Fairbanks before and after my jaunt to the trail not only knew about the book and the movie but also had a theory about his death.  Even now, 25 years after Chris McCandless perished, people are debating how he died but few take into account why he began the journey in the first place.

Before leaving on my trip to Alaska I packed some winter clothing that is no longer needed in Florida - things like wool socks, a wool stocking cap, a heavy sweatshirt, a pair of mittens, and a Colombia brand windbreaker.  While in Alaska I picked up a cheap pair of hiking boots to wear when I visited Barrow.  My intention in bringing the extra clothing with me, plus adding the hiking boots, was to leave them in a pile not far down the start of the Stampede Trail.   

My last action before turning around about 500 meters down the trail was to leave all of those clothes in a bundle where they could be easily found.  Its my hope that when someone finds them they leave them in place and they understand that they are there for the next Chris McCandless who walks into the wild from the end of the Stampede Road.


  1. I graduated from Arlington's Yorktown High School in 1963 with a Dick McCandless. Makes me wonder if they were related, since Christopher McCandless was, as you note, from a well-to-do D.C. suburb.

    Excellent read, BTW!

  2. Chris's dad was Walt McCandless, a space engineer with NASA. Maybe Dick was a n uncle?