Into The Wild: The life and death of Chris McCandless
- Created on Tuesday, 08 November 2016 21:15
Why would a college-educated young man from a well-to-do family from the DC area hitch-hike from South Dakota to Northern Alaska and then wander off into the remote woods with a rifle, ammunition, and little else, determined to live off the land shooting wild game and foraging for wild plants?
A lot of people have wondered about that, but there are no clear answers. And, it ended tragically. He survived for a while on game like squirrels, porcupines, birds, ducks, and even a moose once, while he also ate wild berries and this native root called "wild potato" although it is unrelated to the potato that we know. It's actually a leguminous plant, and it's edible root has the texture of carrot.
But, it was still a low calorie diet because the meats were very lean and the plant foods were all very low in calories. From the start he started losing weight- and he was thin to begin with. After about two months, he had had enough, and he still had the bodily reserves to walk out, which he decided to do. However, the creek that he crossed getting there had swelled to a raging river from snow melt, and he could not cross it. It was too treacherous from the rapids and the rocks, plus the water was deep and only slightly above freezing. He never would have made it, and he knew it. So, he went back to the abandoned bus that he had turned into his camp, and he resumed doing what he was doing. I suppose that his hope at that point was that somebody would come along who could help him get out, but nobody showed up.
Then, there was a piece of bad luck. The wild potato he was eating turns very hard and fibrous in the late summer; it loses its succulence. So, he resorted to eating its seeds. But, what he didn't realize is that the seeds are NOT edible. The seeds are high in a toxic amino acid called canavanine.
I know about canavanine. Remember back in the 1980s that there was a big kick of eating alfalfa sprouts? People grew them at home; markets sold them; salad bars served them; they were everywhere. Well, alfalfa sprouts also contain canavanine but not as much as this other plant. And, it's one of those things where you have to eat a lot of it to be poisoned. A little cluster of alfalfa sprouts wasn't gong to kill anybody. But, he was eating large quantities of these toxic seeds. And reportedly, his thin, weakened, undernourished condition made it harder for his body to tolerate the canavanine. The effect that it had on him symptomatically was to make him very, very weak, to where he could hardly stand. And obviously, if you can't stand and walk, you can't hunt, and you can't forage. So, he just starved. Having arrived there in late April, it's believed that he probably died in the abandoned bus in mid-August. His corpse, which was found by hunters inside a sleeping bag within the bus, presumably about three weeks after he died, weighed 66 pounds.
Again, a lot of questions are circulating about what drove him to do this extremely extreme thing. But, a question that I have which I haven't seen asked before is this: he was a young man; 24 years old; at the height of his hormonal surge of young adulthood. So, why wasn't he more interested in other things. You know, chasing girls? He wasn't going to find them hiding behind trees in the Alaskan wilderness. Even before he went to Alaska, he didn't seem to have much interest that way. And apparently, somebody at college ribbed him about being gay, which he lambasted as nonsense, and I have no reason to doubt it. He wasn't interested in boys. He wasn't interested in girls. He wasn't interested in anybody. It wasn't that he was homosexual; it was that he was asexual. But why? What was wrong with him?
At various times in life, there are certain values and interests and urges and pursuits that you expect normal people to have. Why didn't he have them?
So, I have to assume that he had some pretty major psychiatric illness going on. And reflected in that, I believe, is the very slipshod, haphazard way he went about preparing for this venture, with woefully inadequate equipment, supplies, and knowledge.
It's notable that he had taken other solo road trips before this, but always remaining within civilization, but upon returning home from these road trips, he was also exceedingly thin. I mean to where his mother was aghast at the sight of him and started cooking 'round the clock to revitalize him. So, why did that happen? Money may have been a factor, but I doubt that accounts for it. His family was well-off, and he could have gone to them for money. I think that once he got away from a structured day in which meals happen according to schedule, according to the clock, that he would literally forget to eat. Hunger, alone, was not spurring him to eat enough food, and it happens. And, I think that may have been part of his mental illness too.
I have seen programs on television about guys who were surviving in the wild in extremely harsh places, like Northern Canada, but these were highly trained individuals. And since, there were tv cameras there and a crew recording it, the guy obviously wasn't really alone, although they made it look that way. I'm not saying that he cheated and took help, but he was protected in the event of an emergency. There was no chance that he was going to starve to death. He was like a tightwalker with a net. What Chris McCandless did was extremely reckless, almost to the point of being suicidal. And there's mental illness rearing its ugly head again.
Humans are obviously natural beings, but it doesn't mean that we can live in the wild, especially not in a place like that. Why do it in Northern Alaska? Why not go to a tropical rain forest? And even there, I am sure there are lots of things that can go wrong. Most people know that if you just release a domesticated dog into the wild, he is not going to survive; he is not a wild animal. He is domesticated. Well, we are domesticated too, and 10X more so.
What happened to Chris McCandless was like the exaggeration of all the human ventures that just aren't well thought out. He was lacking in judgment, again, part of his mental illness. He wasn't completely lacking in judgment because when he reached the river and realized it was too treacherous to cross, he did turn back. But, he struggled with it. He almost tried to cross it. There was probably a 50/50 chance that he would have. He probably put his hand in the water and felt the sting of the icyness, and that jarred him into coherence. That put the brake on. But, he needed a lot more brakes on himself than he had. He killed himself. He killed himself the moment he disappeared into those woods.
If you'd like to read the book, it's called Into The Wild, and the author is Jon Krakauer. It's very well written.