Jon Krakauer has a way of covering his subjects where he extends such dignity to the topic and the people involved, that it makes for such compelling, empathetic reading. Like with Into Thin Air, I was a bit young to grasp the gravity of these accounts of people succumbing to the perils of nature. The most that I had heard about either case was noises like “Of course it’s a tragedy, but what do people expect when they are underprepared/he was some kind of idiot to think he could succeed.”
To recap, Into the Wild is a deep dive into the journey that led Chris McCandless, a promising Emory University graduate, to donate some $25K savings to charity and then take off traveling cross country without having said so much as a goodbye to his family. After years of bouncing from small town to small town performing odd jobs and relishing in a vagabond lifestyle, McCandless was found dead in the Alaskan wilderness, having apparently set off to live off the land by himself for several months.
When this news first broke, the reaction from many was not unlike what I suggested above: various disdainful responses that suggested McCandless was little more than a Darwin Award winner. Krakauer, who had initially reported on McCandless in short form for Outside Magazine, saw a bit of himself in McCandless and felt compelled to learn more about the young man. Tracing his complicated path, from his graduation to his end, Krakauer humanized McCandless: he interviewed people who had known him along the way, who had met him in passing, and who had taught him various skills beneficial to ascetic living. The common thread among these, people who had personal accounts of him, is that he was an intelligent, passionate young man who, contrary to the popular refrain that he didn’t respect nature enough, felt more at home in nature than anywhere else even vaguely resembling an organized society. Further, Krakauer notes that McCandless was in fact far from the clueless greenhorn that he is posthumously remembered as: he had survived with the same preparation and provisions on multiple previous occasions, and in fact significantly outlasted similar, previous expeditions in the same Alaskan back-country.
It’s worth reading the whole book to experience Krakauer’s attempt to redeem McCandless, as he shapes the point that for most of us, who seek comfort in our homes and possessions, it’s easy to turn to contempt toward someone who rejects that, who engages in behavior that is deviant from our lifestyles of convenience. In fact, as the book points out, it’s probably only because McCandless died that people dismiss him as a serious naturalist. Had that not happened, it would be easier to accept his ethos as entirely similar to other classic wanderers who we now admire.