Yesterday afternoon, after a long day of meetings and interviews, I walked around the university bookstore looking for something to read for the interim time between my interview and my work shift at 7 pm. I had about 3 hours to kill, knowing I usually liked to catch up on my Netflix queue during work I wanted something to hold me over until I was on the clock.
I decided to pick up Into the Wild. I’m not entirely sure why I hadn’t read the book before yesterday. My mom recommended the movie and I heard about it incessantly from every pseudo-hippie in my hometown upon the movie’s release. In fact, that may be why I shied away. I’ve read two of Jon Krakauer’s other best-sellers: Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven. Into Thin Air rests comfortably near the top of my ‘favorite books ever’ list. Something about Into the Wild never really interested me. Juxtaposed with Bill O’Reilly and E.L. James, though, it seemed wildly (eh?) appealing.
I started reading it around 4 p.m. yesterday and finished at 10:52 (8 minutes before I was to close the desk for the evening). At 200 pages, it’s a quick but intoxicating read. I was surprised by how moved I was by the story of Chris McCandless. I suppose I’d always written him off like the critics Krakauer addresses in the book: as a naive, ill-prepared literary nerd who thought he knew what he was doing. Instead, I found myself identifying with him in ways that left me uncomfortable and bordering on tears at certain points.
McCandless is characterized as a gregarious but intensely private person; he held grudges for years that picked away at his relationships until eventually he left them in the dust. Unable to verbalize his hurt and anger toward his father, Krakauer postulates that the dissemination of that relationship contributed to the extreme nature of McCandless’ “Great Alaskan Journey.” Introverted and emotionally withdrawn myself, I identify with McCandless’ belief that escaping from the everyday hustle and bustle would provide some sort of cosmic relief and alleviate all that ails me. (Which really isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s all relative.) Especially recently, bogged down with the stress of university, planning study abroad, searching for an internship, and planning for my future in general, I’ve caught myself more than a handful of times wishing I could drop out of school, move to Barbados and open a banana stand. The romance of island life will always hold a firm stake in my heart, but the thoughts of leaving and never looking back have been stronger than they’ve ever been for me these past few months. What I realize, along with most other people, is that running away doesn’t solve anything. McCandless, it seems, felt that nature held all the answers. It seems from his journal entries toward the end of his life that he did find some clarity. Whether fortunately or unfortunately (it really depends on how you view his whole ‘adventure’), he really confirmed what is commonly written off as mushy, motherly advice: happiness is only real when shared. The stars and the skies above us may lead us to those conclusions, but once they do it will always bring us back home. Unfortunately for Chris, he never had that chance.
Another trait that I find myself exemplifying is romanticizing the past. It’s common in extreme adventurers if Krakauer’s brief histories of stories similar to Chris are anything tho go by. It’s also common among those of us some people may deem ‘too educated.’ While I believe there is no such thing as too educated, I will not deny the lure of the past has undoubtedly ensnared me. There are many appealing qualities to staying stuck in history and literary texts forever but the strongest one, I believe, is this: we know how the story ends. My immediate family and friends can confirm my desire to live in revolutionary America. The Founders! The risks! The tea-throwing! In private, though, I’ve realized that if I were alive and well in 1776, I’d most likely be a Loyalist, afraid to stick my neck out too far without knowing what the outcome would be. From my cozy residence in 2012, I see the allure of revolting but if a rebellion were to start today, I’d most likely stay in my chair and analyze it from afar.
Adventurers, on the other hand, romanticize “living off the land.” This, I honestly cannot fathom ever attempting, but I recognize from where it stems. The tricky, seedy, destructive feeling about which volumes have been written: nostalgia. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” taught me my first lesson in nostalgia. It seems Chris McCandless taught me the second.
It is easy to look to the past and imagine everything was better, cleaner, happier, perfect. In reality, though, the past was not so different from today: people searching for some greater meaning while trying so desperately to make their way through life unscathed. With only 20 years behind me, I can firmly say that no one comes away unmarked from the adventure that is life. The best we can do is learn, laugh, think, dream, and love. I believe Chris realized an ultimate truth in his last few days. It’s terribly sad to me that he had to isolate himself in Alaska to discover it. Maybe his purpose was to teach all of us the lesson, so we don’t make the same mistake of believing that an escape, whether it’s an island, a forest, or a bottle or a pill, will solve all of our problems.
Into the Wild, for me, was about remembering all that I’d leave behind if someday escape does appear like the best answer. It’s not. Happiness is only real when shared.