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Self-portrait of McCandless on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death.
|Born||Christopher Johnson McCandless
February 12, 1968
El Segundo, California, U.S.
|Disappeared||April 28, 1992|
|Died||c. August 1992 (aged 24)
Stampede Trail, Alaska, U.S.
|Cause of death||Starvation, possibly brought on by poisoning|
|Body discovered||September 6, 1992|
|Education||Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School|
|Alma mater||Emory University|
Christopher Johnson McCandless (//; February 12, 1968 – c. August 1992) was an American hiker and itinerant traveler, who also went by the name "Alexander Supertramp". After graduating from college in 1990, McCandless traveled across the North American continent and eventually hitchhiked to Alaska in April 1992. There, he set out along an old mining road known as the Stampede Trail, with minimal supplies, hoping to live simply off the land. In September, McCandless' decomposing body, weighing only 30 kilograms (66 lb), was found by a hunter in a converted bus, Fairbanks Bus 142, used as a backcountry shelter along the Stampede Trail, on the eastern bank of the Sushana River. His cause of death was officially ruled to be starvation, although the exact cause remains the subject of some debate.
In January 1993, Jon Krakauer published McCandless' story in that month's issue of Outside magazine. He had been assigned the story and had written it under a tight deadline. Inspired by the details of McCandless' story, Krakauer wrote and published the more extensive biographical book Into the Wild (1996), about McCandless' travels. The book was subsequently adapted into a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn, with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless' story also became the subject of Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild (2007).
Christopher Johnson McCandless was born in El Segundo, California. He was the first child of Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless (née Johnson) and Walter "Walt" McCandless. The couple subsequently had one more child, a daughter named Carine. McCandless also had six half-siblings from Walt McCandless' first marriage, who lived with their mother in California. Author Jon Krakauer later speculated that Walt's transition between these two marriages may have deeply affected and profoundly shaped McCandless' world-view.
In 1976, the family relocated to Washington, D.C., and settled in suburban Annandale, Virginia, when McCandless' father was hired as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); McCandless' mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft. The couple went on to establish a successful consultancy business out of their home, specializing in Walt's area of expertise.
McCandless graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1986. He excelled academically, although a number of teachers and fellow students observed that he "marched to the beat of a different drummer." McCandless also served as captain of the cross-country team, where he would urge teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred."
In the summer of 1986, McCandless traveled to Southern California and reconnected with distant relatives and friends. It was during this journey he learned that his father had not yet divorced his first wife when McCandless and his sister Carine were born, and had apparently maintained somewhat of a double life before the move to Virginia. It is speculated that this discovery had a profound impact on the younger McCandless.
McCandless graduated from Emory University in May 1990, with a bachelor's degree in the double majors of history and anthropology. After graduating, McCandless donated most of his savings to charity and adopted a vagabond lifestyle, working when necessary as a restaurant food preparer and farm hand. An avid outdoorsman, McCandless completed several lengthy wilderness hiking trips and paddled a canoe down a portion of the Colorado River before hitchhiking to Alaska, in April 1992.
By the end of summer in 1990, McCandless had driven his Datsun through Arizona, California, and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. A flash flood disabled his car, at which point he removed its license plates, took what he could carry, and kept moving on foot. His car was later found, repaired, and put into service as an undercover vehicle for the local police department.
In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Carthage, South Dakota, to Fairbanks, Alaska. As noted by Krakauer, McCandless was last seen alive at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992, by a local electrician named Jim Gallien. Gallien had given McCandless a ride from Fairbanks to the start of the rugged track just outside the small town of Healy. Gallien later said he had been seriously concerned about the safety of McCandless (who introduced himself as "Alex"), after noticing McCandless' light pack, minimal equipment, meager rations, and obvious lack of experience. Gallien said he had deep doubts about "Alex"'s ability to survive the harsh and unforgiving Alaskan bush.
Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade McCandless to defer the trip, at one point offering to detour to Anchorage, and buy him suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien's persistent warnings and refused his offers of assistance (though McCandless did accept a pair of Wellington boots, two sandwiches, and a packet of corn chips from Gallien). Gallien dropped McCandless off believing McCandless would head back towards the highway within a few days as hunger set in.
After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless came upon an abandoned bus (about 28 miles (45 km) west of Healy at ) alongside an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park. McCandless, according to Into the Wild, attempted to continue "heading west until I hit the Bering Sea." However, he was deterred by the thick Alaskan bush and returned to the bus, where he set up camp and attempted to live off the land. He had 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, a number of books, including one on local plant life, some personal effects, and a few items of camping equipment. Self-portrait photographs and journal entries indicate he foraged for edible plants and hunted game. McCandless hunted porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he stalked and shot a moose. However, the meat spoiled within days after McCandless failed to properly preserve it.
It has been speculated that McCandless may have been responsible for vandalizing several cabins in the area that were stocked with food, survival equipment, and emergency supplies. In response, Denali National Park Chief Ranger Ken Kehrer has categorically stated that McCandless was not considered a viable suspect by the National Park Service.
McCandless' journal documents 113 days in the area. In July, after living in the bus for three months, he decided to head back to civilization – but the trail was blocked by the swollen Teklanika River; the watercourse by that stage was considerably higher and swifter than when he had crossed in April. McCandless did not have a detailed topographical map of the region and was unaware of a hand-operated tramway that crossed the river eight-tenths of a mile away from where he had previously crossed. At this point, McCandless headed back to the bus and re-established his camp. He posted an S.O.S. note on the bus, which stated:
Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?
On September 6, 1992, a hunter who was looking for shelter for the night came upon the converted bus McCandless had been staying in. Upon entering, he smelled what he thought was rotting food and discovered "a lump" in a sleeping bag. The hunter quickly radioed police, who arrived the following day. They found McCandless' decomposing body in the sleeping bag. He had died of starvation sometime in August.
In his book Into the Wild (1997), Jon Krakauer suggests two factors may have contributed to McCandless' death. First, he offered that McCandless was running the risk of a phenomenon known as "rabbit starvation", from overrelying on lean game for nutrition. Krakauer also speculated that McCandless might have been poisoned by a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine, by ingesting seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii) containing the toxin, or possibly by a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola) when he put them damp into a plastic bag. Swainsonine inhibits metabolism of glycoproteins, which causes starvation despite ample caloric intake.
However, an article in the September 2007 issue of Men's Journal, by Matthew Powers, states that extensive laboratory testing showed there were no toxins or alkaloids present in the H. alpinum seeds McCandless had been eating. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF, said, "I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I'd eat it myself". Analysis of the wild sweet peas, given as the cause of McCandless' death in Into the Wild, found no toxic compounds, and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant. As Powers put it: "He didn't find a way out of the bush, couldn't catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death".
In 2013, a new hypothesis was proposed. Ronald Hamilton, a retired bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, suggested a link between the symptoms described by McCandless and the poisoning of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp in Vapniarca. He put forward the proposal that McCandless starved to death because he was suffering from paralysis in his legs induced by lathyrism, which prevented him from gathering food or hiking out. Lathyrism may be caused by ODAP poisoning from seeds of Hedysarum alpinum (commonly called wild potato). The ODAP, a toxic amino acid, had not been detected by the previous studies of the seeds because they had suspected and tested for a toxic alkaloid, rather than an amino acid, and nobody had previously suspected that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contained this toxin. The protein would be relatively harmless to someone who was well-fed and on a normal diet, but toxic to someone who was malnourished, physically stressed, and on an irregular and insufficient diet, as McCandless was. As Krakauer points out, McCandless' field guide did not warn of any dangers of eating the seeds, which were not yet known to be toxic. Krakauer suspects this is the meaning of McCandless' journal entry of July 30, which states "EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY."
In September 2013, Krakauer published an article in The New Yorker following up on Ronald Hamilton's claims. A sample of fresh Hedysarum alpinum seeds was sent to a laboratory for HPLC analysis. Results suggest that the seeds contained 0.394% beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans, although the interpretation of the results was disputed by other chemists. The article notes that while occasional ingestion of foodstuffs containing ODAP is not hazardous for healthy individuals eating a balanced diet, "individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin".
Anchorage, Alaska, reporter Craig Medred pointed out in a January 2015 article in the Alaska Dispatch News that mushrooms which McCandless collected, photographed, and consumed may have also contributed to his death.
In February 2015, Krakauer published a follow up article in The New Yorker that reported on scientific analysis of the H. alpinum seeds McCandless ate. A report in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine demonstrated relatively high levels of L-canavanine in Hedysarum alpinum seeds and suggests this as the toxic component in McCandless' diet, rather than ODAP, as originally supposed by Ronald Hamilton. In his New Yorker article Krakauer goes on to speculate that L-canavanine "was a contributing factor to" McCandless' death.
The converted bus where McCandless lived and died has since become a well-known destination for hikers. Known as "The Magic Bus", the 1946 International Harvester was abandoned by road workers in 1961 on the Stampede Trail where it remains today. A plaque in McCandless' memory is affixed to the interior.
McCandless' life became the subject of a number of articles, books, films, and documentaries, which helped elevate his life to the status of modern myth. He became a romantic figure to some inspired by what they see as his free-spirited idealism, but to others a controversial misguided figure. "The Magic Bus" has become a pilgrimage destination for trekkers who camp at the vehicle, some of whom have also gotten into difficulties due to the Teklanika River.
McCandless has been a polarizing figure since his story came to widespread public attention, with the publication of Krakauer's January 1993 Outside article. While the author and many others have a sympathetic view of the young traveler, others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate.
Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:
When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [...] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.
Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:
Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero.
Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless' desire for "being the first to explore a blank spot on the map." Krakauer continues: "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."
Carine McCandless, Chris' younger sister, wrote the memoir The Wild Truth (November 2014), published by HarperCollins. In the book, Carine describes the verbal, physical and sexual abuse her parents inflicted upon each other and their children, often fueled by gin and wine. Carine cites her and her brother's abusive childhoods as one of the motivating factors in Chris' desire to "disappear" into the wilderness. In a statement released to the media shortly before the memoir was released, Walt and Billie McCandless denied their daughter's accusations, stating that her book is, "fictionalized writing [that] has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, his journey or his character. This whole unfortunate event in Chris' life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams."