The Road Less Traveled
McCandless could have had everything planned out if he wanted to. He was a straight A college student, prospective law student, came from a semi-wealthy family, and was ready to be a part of the real world. However, that wasn’t the life he wanted. All of those things: College, the prospect of law school, and pursuing a 21st century lifestyle, were not his choosing, but thrown upon him by his family and friends. McCandless, after begrudgingly doing what he was told for years, finally snapped and decided that he would finally pursue a life he wanted. Inspired by Tolstoy, Thoreau, Jack London, and others, he would go on to travel the US for two years until his fatal venture in Alaska. What exactly happened is still contested, but the leading theory is he accidentally poisoned himself right before his planned return. Christopher McCandless is a man of controversy. Both beloved and ridiculed for his actions, he attempted to live in the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back, a .22 rifle, a pair of boots, some books, and a five pound bag of rice. He was by far a radical transcendentalist, idealistic and stubborn, and had set out to explore not just the land around him, but the soul within him. Regardless if you think he was reckless or a hero, why McCandless went into the wilderness is not unique in that countless other individuals throughout the world yearn for exactly the same thing McCandless sought and arguably achieved: An escape from a suffocating society overly concerned with self achievement, material wealth, and cultural norms.
I Went Into the Woods Because I Wished to Live Deliberately…
To those close to McCandless, it wasn’t too much of a surprise what he did. He was consistently considered different and weird by his peers, a brooding, emotional, social, and yet simultaneously isolated individual. I also think that he, as a character, is prevalent throughout the world.
To me, McCandless is both a product of himself, but just as much, the environment he grew up in. Tired of both the expectations set on him by others and the hypocritical nature of the world, the idealistic McCandless wanted out. He left not just because ‘he felt like it’, but because he felt no other viable option was readily available to him. McCandless, to me, is an example of those free thinkers, non-conformists, and wanderers. The same kids who fail in school, doodle on desks, dress ‘weird’, act ‘weird’, and whose thoughts are almost always in the clouds or in the world outside. These characters(istics) are typically suppressed now, and sadly even discouraged, with things like modern education and media. However, McCandless is a rare example of someone who manages to retain his childhood wonder and curiosity, something that I believe is remarkably beautiful.
What McCandless succeeded in doing was resisting the world that wanted him to meet its terms. McCandless refused to play by anyone’s rules but his own, even if it meant hitch hiking and being homeless for two years. And who could blame him? We find ourselves in a world where individual wants aren’t so much discovered, but instilled upon us from our environment. Kids go to college now not because they want to, but because they are told to and are expected to. This then goes on to various fields of work: Engineering, Medical, Law, and beyond. The reasons people justify so much school and work is a loaded question in of itself. “So you can pay for your car, kids, and house”, or some iteration of that. Who said you want a big house, a nice car, kids, and student debt? These things are already assumed, despite you yourself not actually being asked.
And it’s not just life paths, either. It applies to how we dress, what we watch, read, buy, and practically every facet of life now. You are automatically assumed to like X brand or X show, and you are pressured by those all around you into consuming the same things as they are, both physically and mentally. For those like McCandless, this reality is all too obvious, and it is both utterly terrifying and frustrating.
Societal norms are all consuming now in a world with instantaneous social media, and to escape is to disconnect.
I Have Promises to Keep and Miles to Go Before I Sleep
How do we resist the current conditions of the world? Do we have to leave the world as we know it? Loved ones, possessions, and all as McCandless did? Do we need to run away from home and live in seclusion in order to pursue our dreams? Absolutely not.
One good quote from the book itself that expands on this a bit is directly from the author. In it, Jon Krakauer reflects on his youth and his parallel journey to McCandless’, when he attempted to climb a mountain in Alaska to fulfill his existence:
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devil’s Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. but I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And that I lived to tell my tale. (Into the Wild, pg 155)
What needs to be understood is that some “great journey” away from home will not redeem you from your past or from society. There is no such adventure that can create a fissure great enough that you will be permanently disconnected from the material/superficial world. That is what both McCandless and Krakaeur attempted to do in their youth, but both would discover that the journey itself is not the end, but if anything, the means to an end. To really resist society and be yourself, you need to focus on yourself, not society. In the sparingly few journal entrees he wrote, McCandless noted:
Circumstance has no value, It is how one relates to a situation that has value. All true meaning resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon, what it means to you.(Into the Wild, pg 168)
McCandless began to realize near the end of his Alaskan journey that it did nothing directly to solve his problems. His dilemma with society was solved by how he lived, be it in the wilderness or while at home. Albert Camus, a French author and philosopher, really nailed it on the head:
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
To me, this is exactly what needs to be emphasized. Simple originality and stringent upholding of personal values and beliefs are what will allow you to resist an all consuming modern society. Do what you want now, rather than later. Live as you see fit, not how others would like you to. By being free mentally, you become free physically.
Luckily for McCandless, he achieved this freedom throughout his life and was known by those close to ‘march to a different beat.’ He was a daring and loving person who lived as he saw fit, and he’s left quite the lesson for us to learn from. Even when facing death, McCandless was not phased, and ever the optimist, he lived his life to the fullest. In the short 24 years of his life, he experienced more joy and happiness than most people do in their average 70 years. For that, Christopher “Alex the Supertramp” McCandless will always have my respect.