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Friday, August 15, 2014

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Book Review: Into the Wild

Not many people born into a respectable family would graduate college with top marks and donate $25,000 in savings to charity in order to hitchhike across the country.

This is the true story of Chris McCandless and how he died.

Inspired by my recent road trip across the northwestern United States, today’s review is dedicated to one of the most widely read travel essays. It’s a book I pick up now and again to read the things I’ve underlined, and to remind myself of that wild side in all of us.

What makes McCandless’s story so compelling is the clear fascination (bordering on obsession) of its author and narrator: Jon Krakauer. A fellow adventurer and explorer of the wildness, Krakauer could not ignore the “unsettling parallels” between his own trials with rock climbing and Chris’s need to live a life outside the norms of ordinary society. In the book, Krakauer compares Chris to other young men who also perished in the wild, though he makes sure to point out clear differences between those who simply underestimated Mother Nature—the naïve and arrogant, the reckless and disillusioned—and the strong-willed, thoughtful Chris McCandless.

Krakauer can’t stand to hear people call McCandless foolish and careless, and he wants to set the record straight. With countless accounts from the people Chris met on his travels, the book delves into the soul of a very intelligent, very loved young man, who wanted his life to mean more than society could offer.

McCandless had issues the confines of suburban life in Virginia and the tedium of working a 9 to 5 job. He struggled with the moral choices made by his parents, especially his father, and was ashamed by the wealth they acquired. And so his response was to withdraw from interpersonal relationships, society, and put his faith in adventure and nature. Though inherently a gregarious and warm person, he inevitably formed relationships with total strangers on his travels, and Krakuaer carefully pieces together the stories that tell us what kind of person Chris was. He simply operated at his own pace and on his own terms. Like many of us, he simply wanted more from life. But as one contributor points out, “Unlike most of us, he insisted on living out his beliefs.”

He adopted a new identity, Alexander Supertramp, and dedicated his life to intentionally trying to get lost. Among his heroes were Jack London and Leo Tolstoy, and the book provides us with passages that Chris underlined in his books—things that influenced his lifestyle.

But when he wandered alone in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992, it appeared he had definite plans to return--one last final adventure. But something went horribly wrong. A simple mistake. And the tragedy that followed has inspired and fascinated many since its occurrence.

Though his own parents may not have understood a lot of his decisions, Chris touched the lives of many people. One story in particular really moved me. He came across an old man who was still grieving after the lost of his wife, Ron Franz. Conservative and set in his ways, Ron took pity on Chris, offering lodging and life advice. After spending time together, it was Chris, ironically, who sparked a flame in Ron that inspired him to pack his things and finally move on with his life.

Driving and camping through some of the nation's most famous National Parks these past two weeks (after growing up in the flat lands of the southeast), I couldn't possibly imagine that effect it would have on me to come across the vastness this country has to offer. From mountains to massive lakes to canyons and glaciers, there is something so honest and freeing about the untouched wilderness. It's the one place I can be okay with the idea of being so small and insignificant. I found myself picturing Lewis and Clarke on their journey west--the excitement and possibility of adventure at every turn. Understanding the draw of wild is something that comes easier to some, but in his final days, Chris McCandless comes to his own understudying of what's important in life. 

Wonderfully inspiring, Into the Wild is an examination of the human spirit. Krakuaer isn’t merely trying to make sense of the tragedy. He sets out to explore humankind’s need for adventure and purpose, because there’s something about the wild that calls to us all. It’s the idea of the untamed and the undiscovered. Finding something that you can call yours.

For those with a knack for adventure, his story will seem more personal to you, as it was for me. 

Get lost in this book in order to be found.

Title: Into the Wild

Author: Jon Krakauer

Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel Essay

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: Adults, Outdoorsy People

Final Rating: Five out of Five Bumble Bees

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