It may, after all, be the bad habit of creative talents to invest themselves in pathological extremes that yield remarkable insights but no durable way of life for those who cannot translate their psychic wounds into significant an or thought.
theodore roszak, “in search of the miraculous”
We have in America “The Big Two-Hearted River” tradition: taking your wounds to the wilderness for a cure, a conversion, a rest, or whatever. And as in the Hemingway story, if your wounds aren’t too bad, it works. But this isn’t Michigan (or Faulkner’s Big Woods in Mississippi, for that matter). This is Alaska.
edward hoagland, “Up the black to chalkyitsik”
When McCandless turned up dead in Alaska and the perplexing circumstances of his demise were reported in the news media, many people concluded that the boy must have been mentally disturbed. The article about McCandless in Outside generated a large volume of mail, and not a few of the letters heaped opprobrium on McCandless-and on me, as well, the author of the story, for glorifying what some thought was a foolish, pointless death.
Much of the negative mail was sent by Alaskans. “Alex is a nut in my book,” wrote a resident of Healy, the hamlet at the head of the Stampede Trail. “The author describes a man who has given away a small fortune, forsaken a loving family, abandoned his car, watch and map and burned the last of his money before traipsing off into the ‘wilderness’ west of Healy.”
“Personally I see nothing positive at all about Chris McCand-less’s lifestyle or wilderness doctrine,” scolded another correspondent. “Entering the wilderness purposefully ill-prepared, and surviving a near-death experience does not make you a better human, it makes you damn lucky.”
One reader of the Outside piece wondered, “Why would anyone intending to ‘live off the land for a few months’ forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain?”
“Krakauer is a kook if he doesn’t think Chris ‘Alexander Su-pertramp’ McCandless was a kook,” opined a man from North Pole, Alaska. “McCandless had already gone over the edge and just happened to hit bottom in Alaska.”
The most strident criticism came in the form of a dense, mul-tipage epistle from Ambler, a tiny Inupiat village on the Kobuk River north of the Arctic Circle. The author was a white writer and schoolteacher, formerly from Washington, B.C., named Nick Jans. Warning that it was 1:00 a.m. and he was well into a bottle of Seagram’s, Jans let fly:
Over the past 15 years, I’ve run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there’s quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they’re almost a collective cliche. The only difference is that McCandless ended up dead, with the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media… (Jack London got it right in “To
Build a Fire.” McCandless is, finally, just a pale 20th-century burlesque of London’s protagonist, who freezes because he ignores advice and commits big-time hubris)…
His ignorance, which could have been cured by a USGS quadrant and a Boy Scout manual, is what killed him. And while I feel for his parents, I have no sympathy for him. Such willful ignorance… amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez spill-just another case of underprepared, overconfident men bumbling around out there and screwing up because they lacked the requisite humility. It’s all a matter of degree.
McCandless’s contrived asceticism and a pseudoliterary stance compound rather than reduce the fault… McCandless’s postcards, notes, and journals… read like the work of an above average, somewhat histrionic high school kid-or am I missing something?
The prevailing Alaska wisdom held that McCandless was simply one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death. Dozens of marginal characters have marched off into the Alaska wilds over the years, never to reappear. A few have lodged firmly in the state’s collective memory.
There was the countercultural idealist who passed through the village of Tanana in the early 1970s, announcing that he intended to spend the rest of his life “communing with Nature.” In midwinter a field biologist discovered all his belongings-two rifles, camping gear, a diary filled with incoherent ranting about truth and beauty and recondite ecological theory-in an empty cabin near Tofty, its interior filled with drifted snow. No trace of the young man was ever found.
A few years later there was the Vietnam vet who built a cabin on the Black River east of Chalkyitsik to “get away from people.” By February he’d run out of food and starved, apparently without making any attempt to save himself, despite the fact that there was another cabin stocked with meat just three miles downstream. Writing about this death, Edward Hoagland observed that Alaska is “not the best site in the world for eremitic experiments or peace-love theatrics.”
And then there was the wayward genius I bumped into on the shore of Prince William Sound in 1981. I was camped in the woods outside Cordova, Alaska, trying in vain to find work as a deckhand on a seine boat, biding my time until the Department of Fish and Game announced the first “opener”-the start of the commercial salmon season. One rainy afternoon while walking into town, I crossed paths with an unkempt, agitated man who appeared to be about forty. He wore a bushlike black beard and shoulder-length hair, which he kept out of his face with a headband made from a filthy nylon strap. He was walking toward me at a brisk clip, hunched beneath the considerable weight of a six-foot log balanced across one shoulder.
I said hello as he approached, he mumbled a reply, and we paused to chat in the drizzle. I didn’t ask why he was carrying a sodden log into the forest, where there seemed to be plenty of logs already. After a few minutes spent exchanging earnest banalities, we went our separate ways.
From our brief conversation I deduced that I had just met the celebrated eccentric whom the locals called the Mayor of Hippie Cove-a reference to a bight of tidewater north of town that was a magnet for long-haired transients, near which the Mayor had been living for some years. Most of the residents of Hippie Cove were, like me, summer squatters who’d come to Cordova hoping to score high-paying fishing jobs or, failing that, find work in the salmon canneries. But the Mayor was different.
His real name was Gene Rosellini. He was the eldest stepson of Victor Rosellini, a wealthy Seattle restaurateur, and cousin of Albert Rosellini, the immensely popular governor of Washington State from 1957 to 1965. As a young man Gene had been a good athlete and a brilliant student. He read obsessively, practiced yoga, became expert at the martial arts. He sustained a perfect 4.0 grade-point average through high school and college. At the University of Washington and later at Seattle University, he immersed himself in anthropology, history, philosophy, and linguistics, accumulating hundreds of credit hours without collecting a degree. He saw no reason to. The pursuit of knowledge, he maintained, was a worthy objective in its own right and needed no external validation.
By and by Rosellini left academia, departed Seattle, and drifted north up the coast through British Columbia and the Alaska panhandle. In 1977, he landed in Cordova. There, in the forest at the edge of town, he decided to devote his life to an ambitious anthropological experiment.
“I was interested in knowing if it was possible to be independent of modern technology,” he told an Anchorage Daily News reporter, Debra McKinney, a decade after arriving in Cordova. He wondered whether humans could live as our forebears had when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the land or whether our species had moved too far from its roots to survive without gunpowder, steel, and other artifacts of civilization. With the obsessive attention to detail that characterized his brand of dogged genius, Rosellini purged his life of all but the most primitive tools, which he fashioned from native materials with his own hands.
“He became convinced that humans had devolved into progressively inferior beings,” McKinney explains, “and it was his goal to return to a natural state. He was forever experimenting with different eras-Roman times, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. By the end his lifestyle had elements of the Neolithic.”
He dined on roots, berries, and seaweed, hunted game with spears and snares, dressed in rags, endured the bitter winters. He seemed to relish the hardship. His home above Hippie Cove was a windowless hovel, which he built without benefit of saw or ax: “He’d spend days,” says McKinney, “grinding his way through a log with a sharp stone.”
As if merely subsisting according to his self-imposed rules weren’t strenuous enough, Rosellini also exercised compulsively whenever he wasn’t occupied with foraging. He filled his days with calisthenics, weight lifting, and running, often with a load
of rocks on his back. During one apparently typical summer he reported covering an average of eighteen miles daily.
Rosellini’s “experiment” stretched on for more than a decade, but eventually he felt the question that inspired it had been answered. In a letter to a friend he wrote,
/ began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native. For over 30 years, I programmed and conditioned myself to this end. In the last 10 of it, I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental, and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to-face with pure reality. I learned that it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land.
Rosellini appeared to accept the failure of his hypothesis with equanimity. At the age of forty-nine, he cheerfully announced that he had “recast” his goals and next intended to “walk around the world, living out of my backpack. I want to cover 18 to 27 miles a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
The trip never got off the ground. In November 1991, Rosellini was discovered lying facedown on the floor of his shack with a knife through his heart. The coroner determined that the fatal wound was self-inflicted. There was no suicide note. Rosellini left no hint as to why he had decided to end his life then and in that manner. In all likelihood nobody will ever know.
Rosellini’s death and the story of his outlandish existence made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. The travails of John Mallon Waterman, however, attracted less attention. Born in 1952, Waterman was raised in the same Washington suburbs that gave shape to Chris McCandless. His father, Guy Waterman, is a musician and freelance writer who, among other claims to modest fame, authored speeches for presidents, ex-presidents, and other prominent Washington politicians. Waterman pere also happens to be an expert mountaineer who taught his three sons to climb at an early age. John, the middle son, went rock climbing for the first time at thirteen.
He was a natural. John headed to the crags at every opportunity and trained obsessively when he couldn’t climb. He cranked out four hundred push-ups every day and walked two and a half miles to school, fast. After walking home in the afternoon, he’d touch the front door and head back to the school to make a second round-trip.
In 1969, as a sixteen-year-old, John climbed Mt. McKinley (which he called Denali, as most Alaskans do, preferring the peak’s Athapaskan name), becoming the third-youngest person to stand atop the highest landform on the continent. Over the next few years he pulled off even more impressive ascents in Alaska, Canada, and Europe. By the time he enrolled in the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, in 1973, Waterman had established a reputation as one of the most promising young alpinists in North America.
Waterman was a small person, barely five feet three inches tall, with an elfin face and the sinewy, inexhaustible physique of a gymnast. Acquaintances remember him as a socially awkward man-child with an outrageous sense of humor and a squirrelly, almost manic-depressive personality.
“When I first met John,” says James Brady, a fellow climber and college friend, “he was prancing across campus in a long black cape and blue Elton John-type glasses that had a star between the lenses. He carried around a cheap guitar held together with masking tape and would serenade anybody who’d listen with long, off-key songs about his adventures. Fairbanks has always attracted a lot of weird characters, but he was wacky even by Fairbanks standards. Yeah, John was out there. A lot of people didn’t know how to handle him.”
It is not difficult to imagine plausible causes for Waterman’s instability. His parents, Guy and Emily Waterman, divorced when he was a teen, and Guy, according to a source close to the family, “essentially abandoned his sons following the divorce. He would have nothing more to do with the boys, and it crippled John badly. Not long after their parents split up, John and his older brother, Bill, went to visit their father-but Guy refused to see them. Shortly after that, John and Bill went to Fairbanks to live with an uncle. At one point while they were up there, John got very excited because he heard that his father was coming to Alaska to climb. But when Guy arrived in the state he never took the trouble to see his sons; he came and went without even bothering to visit. It broke John’s heart.”
Bill, with whom John had an extremely close relationship, lost a leg as a teenager trying to hop a freight train. In 1973, Bill posted an enigmatic letter alluding vaguely to plans for an extended trip and then disappeared without a trace; to this day nobody knows what became of him. And after John learned to climb, eight of his intimates and climbing partners were killed in accidents or committed suicide. It’s not much of a stretch to posit that such a rash of misfortune dealt a serious blow to Waterman’s young psyche.
In March 1978, Waterman embarked on his most astonishing expedition, a solo ascent of Mt. Hunter’s southeast spur, an un-climbed route that had previously defeated three teams of elite mountaineers. Writing about the feat in Climbing magazine, the journalist Glenn Randall reported that Waterman described his companions on the climb as “the wind, the snow and death”:
Cornices as airy as meringue jutted over voids a mile deep. The vertical ice walls were as crumbly as a bucket of ice-cubes half-thawed, then refrozen. They led to ridges so narrow and so steep on both sides that straddling was the easiest solution. At times the pain and loneliness overwhelmed him and he broke down and cried.
After eighty-one days of exhausting, extremely hazardous climbing, Waterman reached the 14,573-foot summit of Hunter, which rises in the Alaska Range immediately south of Denali. Another nine weeks were required to make the only slightly less harrowing descent; in total Waterman spent 145 days alone on the mountain. When he got back to civilization, flat broke, he borrowed twenty dollars from Cliff Hudson, the bush pilot who’d flown him out of the mountains, and returned to Fairbanks, where the only work he could find was washing dishes.
Waterman was nevertheless hailed as a hero by the small fraternity of Fairbanks climbers. He gave a public slide show of the Hunter ascent that Brady calls “unforgettable. It was an incredible performance, completely uninhibited. He poured out all his thoughts and feelings, his fear of failure, his fear of death. It was like you were there with him.” In the months following the epic deed, though, Waterman discovered that instead of putting his demons to rest, success had merely agitated them.
Waterman’s mind began to unravel. “John was very self-critical, always analyzing himself,” Brady recalls. “And he’d always been kind of compulsive. He used to carry around a stack of clipboards and notepads. He’d take copious notes, creating a complete record of everything he did during the course of each day. I remember running into him once in downtown Fairbanks. As I walked up, he got out a clipboard, logged in the time he saw me and recorded what our conversation was about-which wasn’t much at all. His notes on our meeting were three or four pages down, behind all the other stuff he’d already scribbled that day. Somewhere he must have had piles and piles and piles of notes like that, which I’m sure would have made sense to no one except John.”
Soon thereafter Waterman ran for the local school board on a platform promoting unrestricted sex for students and the legalization of hallucinogenic drugs. He lost the election, to nobody’s surprise save his own, but immediately launched another political campaign, this time for the presidency of the United States. He ran under the banner of the Feed-the-Starving Party, the main priority of which was to ensure that nobody on the planet died of hunger.
To publicize his campaign, he laid plans to make a solo ascent of the south face of Denali, the mountain’s steepest aspect, in winter, with a minimum of food. He wanted to underscore the waste and immorality of the standard American diet. As part of his training regimen for the climb, he immersed himself in bathtubs filled with ice.
Waterman flew to the Kahiltna Glacier in December 1979 to begin the ascent but called it off after only fourteen days. “Take me home,” he reportedly told his bush pilot. “I don’t want to die.” Two months later, however, he prepared for a second attempt. But in Talkeetna, a village south of Denali that is the point of embarkation for most mountaineering expeditions into the Alaska Range, the cabin he was staying in caught fire and burned to rubble, incinerating both his equipment and the voluminous accumulation of notes, poetry, and personal journals that he regarded as his life’s work.
Waterman was completely unhelmed by the loss. A day after the fire he committed himself to the Anchorage Psychiatric Institute but left after two weeks, convinced there was a conspiracy afoot to put him away permanently. Then, in the winter of 1981, he launched yet another solo attempt on Denali.
As if climbing the peak alone in winter weren’t challenging enough, this time he decided to up the ante even further by beginning his ascent at sea level, which entailed walking 160 hard, circuitous miles from the shore of Cook Inlet just to reach the foot of the mountain. He started plodding north from tidewater in February, but his enthusiasm fizzled on the lower reaches of the Ruth Glacier, still thirty miles from the peak, so he aborted the attempt and retreated to Talkeetna. In March, however, he mustered his resolve once more and resumed his lonely trek. Before leaving town, he told the pilot Cliff Hudson, whom he regarded as a friend, “I won’t be seeing you again.”
It was an exceptionally cold March in the Alaska Range. Late in the month Mugs Stump crossed paths with Waterman on the upper Ruth Glacier. Stump, an alpinist of world renown who died on Denali in 1992, had just completed a difficult new route on a nearby peak, the Mooses Tooth. Shortly after his chance encounter with Waterman, Stump visited me in Seattle and remarked that “John didn’t seem like he was all there. He was acting spacey and talking some crazy shit. Supposedly he was doing this big winter ascent of Denali, but he had hardly any gear with him. He was wearing a cheap one-piece snowmobile suit and wasn’t even carrying a sleeping bag. All he had in the way of food was a bunch of flour, some sugar, and a big can of Crisco.” In his book Breaking Point, Glenn Randall writes:
For several weeks, Waterman lingered in the area of the Shel-don Mountain House, a small cabin perched on the side of the Ruth Glacier in the heart of the range. Kate Bull, a friend of Waterman’s who was climbing in the area at the time, reported that he was run down and less cautious than usual. He used the radio he had borrowed from Cliff [Hudson] to call him and have him fly in more supplies. Then he returned the radio he had borrowed.
“I won’t be needing this any more,” he said. The radio would have been his only means of calling for help.
Waterman was last placed on the Northwest Fork of the Ruth Glacier on April 1. His tracks led toward the east buttress of Denali, straight through a labyrinth of giant crevasses, evidence that he had made no apparent effort to circumvent obvious hazards. He was not seen again; it is assumed he broke through a thin snow bridge and plummeted to his death at the bottom of one of the deep fissures. The National Park Service searched Waterman’s intended route from the air for a week following his disappearance but found no sign of him. Some climbers later discovered a note atop a box of Waterman’s gear inside the Sheldon Mountain House. “3-13-81,” it read. “My last kiss 1:42 PM.”
Perhaps inevitably, parallels have been drawn between John Waterman and Chris McCandless. Comparisons have also been drawn between McCandless and Carl McCunn, an affable ab-sentminded Texan who moved to Fairbanks during the 1970s oil boom and found lucrative employment on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project. In early March 1981, as Waterman was making his final journey into the Alaska Range, McCunn hired a bush pilot to drop him at a remote lake near the Coleen River, about seventy-five miles northeast of Fort Yukon on the southern margin of the Brooks Range.
A thirty-five-year-old amateur photographer, McCunn told friends that the main reason for the trip was to shoot pictures of wildlife. He flew into the country with five hundred rolls of film,.22- and.30-.30-caliber rifles, a shotgun, and fourteen hundred pounds of provisions. His intention was to remain in the wilderness through August. Somehow, though, he neglected to arrange for the pilot to fly him back to civilization at summer’s end, and it cost McCunn his life.
This astounding oversight wasn’t a great surprise to Mark Stoppel, a young Fairbanks resident who had come to know McCunn well during the nine months they worked on the pipeline together, shortly before the lanky Texan departed for the Brooks Range.
“Carl was a friendly, extremely popular, down-home sort of guy,” Stoppel recalls. “And he seemed like a smart guy. But there was a side to him that was a little bit dreamy, a little bit out of touch with reality. He was flamboyant. He liked to party hard. He could be extremely responsible, but he had a tendency to wing it sometimes, to act impulsively, to get by on bravado and style. No, I guess it really doesn’t surprise me that Carl went out there and forgot to arrange to be picked up. But then I’m not easily shocked. I’ve had several friends who drowned or got murdered or died in weird accidents. In Alaska you get used to strange stuff happening.”
In late August, as the days grew shorter and the air turned sharp and autumnal in the Brooks Range, McCunn began to worry when nobody arrived to fly him out. “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure,” he confessed to his diary, significant portions of which were published posthumously in a five-part story by Kris Capps in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “I’ll soon find out.”
Week by week he could feel the accelerating advance of winter. As his food supply grew meager, McCunn deeply regretted toss-
ing all but a dozen of his shotgun shells into the lake. “I keep thinking of all the shotgun shells I threw away about two months ago,” he wrote. “Had five boxes and when I kept seeing them sitting there I felt rather silly for having brought so many. (Felt like a war monger.)… real bright. Who would have known I might need them just to keep from starving.”
Then, on a brisk September morning, deliverance seemed to be at hand. McCunn was stalking ducks with what remained of his ammunition when the stillness was rocked by the buzz of an airplane, which soon appeared overhead. The pilot, spotting the camp, circled twice at a low altitude for a closer look. McCunn waved wildly with a fluorescent-orange sleeping-bag cover. The aircraft was equipped with wheels rather than floats and thus couldn’t land, but McCunn was certain he’d been seen and had no doubt the pilot would summon a floatplane to return for him. He was so sure of this he recorded in the journal that “I stopped waving after the first pass. I then got busy packing things up and getting ready to break camp.”
But no airplane arrived that day, or the next day, or the next. Eventually, McCunn looked on the back of his hunting license and understood why. Printed on the little square of paper were drawings of emergency hand signals for communicating with aircraft from the ground. “I recall raising my right hand, shoulder high and shaking my fist on the plane’s second pass,” McCunn wrote. “It was a little cheer-like when your team scored a touchdown or something.” Unfortunately, as he learned too late, raising a single arm is the universally recognized signal for “all OK; assistance not necessary.” The signal for “SOS; send immediate help,” is two upraised arms.
“That’s probably why after they flew somewhat away they returned for one more pass and on that one I gave no signal at all (in fact I may have even turned my back to the plane as it passed),” McCunn mused philosophically. “They probably blew me off as a weirdo.”
By the end of September, snow was piling up on the tundra, and the lake had frozen over. As the provisions he’d brought ran out, McCunn made an effort to gather rose hips and snare rab-bits. At one point he managed to scavenge meat from a diseased caribou that had wandered into the lake and died. By October, however, he had metabolized most of his body fat and was having difficulty staying warm during the long, cold nights. “Certainly someone in town should have figured something must be wrong-me not being back by now,” he noted. But still no plane appeared.
“It would be just like Carl to assume that somebody would magically appear to save him,” says Stoppel. “He was a Teamster-he drove a truck-so he had plenty of downtime on the job, just sitting on his butt inside his rig, daydreaming, which is how he came up with the idea for the Brooks Range trip. It was a serious quest for him: He spent the better part of a year thinking about it, planning it, figuring it out, talking to me during our breaks about what gear to take. But for all the careful planning he did, he also indulged in some wild fantasies.
“For instance,” Stoppel continues, “Carl didn’t want to fly into the bush alone. His big dream, originally, was to go off and live in the woods with some beautiful woman. He was hot for at least a couple of different girls who worked with us, and he spent a lot of time and energy trying to talk Sue or Barbara or whoever into accompanying him-which in itself was pretty much pure fantasyland. There was no way it was going to happen. I mean, at the pipeline camp where we worked, Pump Station 7, there were probably forty guys for every woman. But Carl was a dreamin’ kind of dude, and right up until he flew into the Brooks Range, he kept hoping and hoping and hoping that one of these girls would change her mind and decide to go with him.”
Similarly, Stoppel explains, “Carl was the sort of guy who would have unrealistic expectations that someone would eventually figure out he was in trouble and cover for him. Even as he was on the verge of starving, he probably still imagined that Big Sue was going to fly in at the last minute with a planeload of food and have this wild romance with him. But his fantasy world was so far off the scale that nobody was able to connect with it. Carl just got hungrier and hungrier. By the time he finally understood that nobody was going to come rescue him, he’d shriveled up to the point where it was too late for him to do anything about it.”
As McCunn’s food supply dwindled to almost nothing, he wrote in his journal, “I’m getting more than worried. To be honest, I’m starting to be a bit scared.” The thermometer dipped to minus five degrees Fahrenheit. Painful, pus-filled frostbite blisters formed on his fingers and toes.
In November he finished the last of his rations. He felt weak and dizzy; chills racked his gaunt frame. The diary recorded, “Hands and nose continue to get worse as do feet. Nose tip very swollen, blistered, and scabbed… This is sure a slow and agonizing way to die.” McCunn considered leaving the security of his camp and setting out on foot for Fort Yukon but concluded he wasn’t strong enough, that he would succumb to exhaustion and the cold long before he got there.
“The part of the interior where Carl went is a remote, very blank part of Alaska,” says Stoppel. “It gets colder than hell there in the winter. Some people in his situation could have figured out a way to walk out or maybe winter over, but to do that, you’d have to be extremely resourceful. You’d really need to have your shit together. You’d have to be a tiger, a killer, a fuckin’ animal. And Carl was too laid back. He was a party boy.”
“I can’t go on like this, I’m afraid,” McCunn wrote sometime in late November near the end of his journal, which by now filled one hundred sheets of blue-lined loose-leaf notebook paper. “Dear God in Heaven, please forgive me my weakness and my sins. Please look over my family.” And then he reclined in his wall tent, placed the muzzle of the.30-.30 against his head, and jerked his thumb down on the trigger. Two months later, on February 2, 1982, Alaska State Troopers came across his camp, looked inside the tent, and discovered the emaciated corpse frozen hard as stone.
There are similarities among Rosellini, Waterman, McCunn, and McCandless. Like Rosellini and Waterman, McCandless was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature. Like Waterman and McCunn, he displayed a staggering paucity of common sense. But unlike Waterman, McCandless wasn’t mentally ill. And unlike McCunn, he didn’t go into the bush assuming someone would automatically appear to save his bacon before he came to grief.
McCandless didn’t conform particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype. Although he was rash, untutored in the ways of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn’t incompetent-he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else-although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.
Some insight into the tragedy of Chris McCandless can be gained by studying predecessors cut from the same exotic cloth. And in order to do that, one must look beyond Alaska, to the bald-rock canyons of southern Utah. There, in 1934, a peculiar twenty-year-old boy walked into the desert and never came out. His name was Everett Ruess.