Christopher McCandless is drawing travellers to the wilderness of Alaska

travel-alaska.jpgThroughout history, there are individuals that make their mark more so than others once they are gone. It is a simple reality, and yet it is a reality that is difficult to comprehend – how one person’s life can render so much more global awareness than another. Inventors, great minds, celebrities…even ordinary people that did what many consider to be radical things to find who they really are, who they want to be. Christopher McCandless is one of these “ordinary” people. But while great inventors inspire people to bring their ideas to life, McCandless (or as he came to identify himself, Alexander Supertramp) inspired – and continues to inspire – people to step out of their comfort zones, to travel to places less known, to explore the vast expanses of the wilderness, rather than sticking to the comfortable confines of civilisation. McCandless’ story of travel beyond the point of return was so awe-inspiring, so heartbreakingly devastating, that it has drawn people in from all over the world. The story of a young man that abandoned his privileged life in search of something more profound is also sadly the story of a young man that died alone in a broken down blue bus, in the Alaskan wilderness.

Christopher McCandless wanted more out of life, and so he literally abandoned his old life (and his vehicle) in search of a great beyond. The ultimate travelling experience was, in his eyes, one that took him as far away from civilisation as humanly possible. This is not your usual tale of travel – it has all the same ingredients…a hungry and inspired traveller, a gem of natural beauty that drew them in, stories along the way that make the experience memorable for a lifetime. But McCandless never returned from immersing himself in the Alaskan wilderness. In August of 1992, McCandless died alone in a bus by the Stampede Trail. There was fierce debate about McCandless’ cause of death, as some believed it to be starvation and others poisoning due to ingesting wild potato seeds. A few years ago, the debate was laid to rest when a researcher by the name of Ronald Hamilton wrote a gripping paper detailing his reasoning and the logic behind the conclusion that McCandless had in face died due to the consumption of wild potato seeds. Hamilton stated that McCandless’ diet and malnutrition in the wild had made him susceptible – and, ultimately, a victim of – a rare affliction known as lathyrism, a condition that paralyses the body, rending the victim unable to feed themselves.

McCandless’ ultimate travel story, his grand beginning, became his untimely end. A simple mistake took his life, and yet even has he lay dying in the broken down blue bus, he was in the place that he had fought so hard to find…he had travelled into the wild, and there he would stay, infinitely a part of the wilderness that inspired him so many years before. The old blue bus in which McCandless died has become something of an attraction for the wild at heart, the adventurous souls. His family installed a plaque to commemorate his young life.

McCandless’ sister Carine insisted at the time – and still does to this day – that his journey into the wild was not the result of reckless insanity, but instead a determined decision to cut ties with his parents entirely. Carine McCandless’ novel detailing her brother’s life and the darkness behind closed doors, was released in 2014. Titled The Wild Truth, Carine’s detailing of the life and the events that led to her beloved brother Chris abandoning his life of comfort for one of wild uncertainty is, frankly, astounding.

After McCandless’ body was found, so was his diary. The discovery of this collection of handwritten notes in the back of a book about edible plants gained so much traction that a book and then a film were made. Today, hundreds upon hundreds of people that have heard, read, or seen McCandless’ story on the big screen go to that broken down blue bus. They travel there, in treacherous weather conditions and against the advice of locals, and they see the place that an inspired young man travelled to against all advice. They follow in his footsteps. But then they leave (though some have made near-fatal mistakes in their pursuit of the resting place of the great Alexander Supertramp). McCandless had many stops on his route to the wild. He drove his car to begin with, sleeping in it between stints of driving. For all those that want to take inspiration from McCandless and explore the wilderness, this story is one of caution gone astray. Where he abandoned his vehicle, you should obviously not do so. Where he burned his money, one should keep theirs safe. And where he dragged his kayak up the side of the Colorado river, you should do two things. Firstly, get the permit (there is a waiting list at times in the year, so get on that as soon as you can). And secondly, take your car – don’t drag your kayak alongside the road – and get a kayak roof rack for your car, to allow easy transport. Where McCandless chose to take simplification to a new level, keep the important belongings close to you – Alaska gets cold, so wear layers. And where McCandless exercised ignorance in the face of caution, ensure that you do not take uncalculated risks – protect yourself or risk perishing amongst the natural beauty that you so desperately sought out.

Christopher McCandless – known to avid readers and film enthusiasts now as Alexander Supertramp – risked everything, literally everything, for the chance to escape his life in the pursuit of a life of less complexity and more meaning. While he died because of this wild notion of solo travel, his story has inspired millions around the world, egging them on to visit the broken down blue bus in the Alaskan wilderness, to see the plaque that marks the life of a young man that understood that travel and nature is more meaningful than the paper in our wallets and the material things that we own.

While the pursuit of millions to see the final resting place of such a young man is treacherous, it also brings to the forefront one very important lesson: that travel is worth everything, and the material things that we all hold so dearly mean nothing. At the end of your life, you will remember your experiences and your loved ones, not the riches that brought you material wealth. And after you are gone, the natural wonders that hold some of your fondest experiences in their hands will remain…and will long outlive any material possessions you had in your lifetime. Travel truly is the only thing that we can buy that makes us richer…even if it costs us everything.  

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