The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From 'Into The Wild'  
The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  

Trista - November 12, 2019

‘Into the Wild’ is a non-fiction book-turned-movie written by Jon Krakauer about Christopher McCandless’s journey into the Alaskan wilderness. If you are unfamiliar with the film or novel, this real-life tale is a tragic one. The series of events that followed Christopher are sure to stay with you, too, long after you learn of his disastrous fate. Chances are good, like the thousands of people before you, that you will want to read ‘Into the Wild’ soon after this article. Yes, the story is that gripping and good — and by good we mean a jaw-dropping tear-jerker for the centuries.

However, like most Hollywood movies inspired by true stories, there are some areas that get lost in the bright lights to create a more exciting film. Keep reading to learn the truth about the man from ‘Into the Wild’.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Shenandoah Park Campground, similar to the one the McCandless Family camped at during Christopher’s childhood. Credit: NPS.gov

Chris Always Loved the Outdoors

Christopher’s sister fondly recalls their camping trips as children; Chris loved taking in the nature surrounding them. He appreciated the rugged outdoors, noting it’s “harsh honesty.” Their parents, Walt and Billie, taught Chris and Carine how to put up a tent or put on hiking boots, but most importantly, their family was peaceful. When the family went camping, Walt and Billie did not fight.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Candler Library at Emory University, where Christopher would have gone as a student. Credit: Wikipedia

Christopher Attended Emory University

Chris attended Emory University, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from Emory in May 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in history and anthropology, though he didn’t technically ever practice in either field. It did. however, make sense for him to have interest in these areas of studies since he enjoyed nature so much. So what exactly happened to him after he decided to trek across Alaska?

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
The abandoned bus, number 142. Credit: LA Times

He Lived in an Abandoned Bus for Over 100 Days

An old blue and white bus with the number 142 stamped on it was Chris’s shelter from the absolute wilderness. For the first 67 days of his trek, he hunted and poached small wild animals like porcupines, ptarmigan, and squirrels, denoting them in his journal. After about two months, he packed up what little belongings he had and decided to head back to civilization. He even shaved his head! However, upon reaching the Teklanika River, he found that it was swollen with glacier melts and was completely uncrossable, so he turned back to the bus.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher, in one of his self-timed pictures outside of the bus he would ultimately pass away in. Credit: Wikipedia

His Cause of Death was Most Likely from Wild Potato Poisoning

In August 1992, a moose hunter found an abandoned bus just off the Stampede Trail in a remote Alaskan area. Inside the bus, 24-year-old Christopher’s remains were found still curled up in his sleeping bag. When the body was initially discovered, the official ruling as to the cause of death was starvation. As the story of his death circled the world, speculation that he may have starved because of the ingestion of wild potato seeds spread. Wild potato seeds contain an amino acid known to prevent the absorption of nutrients and slowly paralyze the person ingesting them, making an already-weak body unable to hunt or gather any other sustenance.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Chris McCandless’s track photo. Credit: Chris McCandless’s Timeline

Christopher Ran Track in School

Christopher took up running in high school and was quite impressive. He eventually became the coach of his school’s cross country team and would motivate the other runners by telling them to imagine that they were running away from all of the evil and darkness in the world.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher’s senior yearbook photo. Credit: UK Survival Guides

Christopher Was Almost a Straight-A Student

As a student at W.T Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, Christopher was an intelligent student and could receive high grades whenever he wanted to. In fact, he earned all A’s throughout high school except for one F in Physics. Christopher refused to format his work the way the teacher wanted, which ended in his failing the class. Already, Christopher’s strict idealism was unequivocal.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher’s parents gaze out of the bus he was found. Credit: Joe Moss

His Relationship With His Father Was Non-Existent Before He Started His Trek

Walt McCandless, an aerospace engineer, met Wilhelmina Johnson, known as Billie, when she was his secretary. According to Carine, Chris’s sister, the two siblings, regularly saw their father degrade their mother and even abused her in front of them at times. Walt also disciplined the children harshly, often hitting them with belts. In March 2011, Walt and Billie traveled to the bus to celebrate the completion of a book of Chris’s photos.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Carine McCandless Credit: Penguin Random House

His Sister Wrote a Memoir, The Wild Truth

Carine McCandless wrote about her brother’s personality, their shared childhood, and what drove him to walk into the wilderness. She considered him her protector and best friend. Christopher’s sister described him as “brilliant at creating diversions” when their parents started to fight. They were very close.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Family photo of the McCandlesses Credit: People

His Relationship With His Mother Was Also Troubled

Carine claims that Billie was just as harsh as Walt, and her anger was often directed at Christopher. Billie was heard to have said things like, “When I got pregnant with Chris, I got stuck with your father,” further burdening Chris with emotional stress and giving him another reason to abandon society.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Chris, Walt, Billie, and Carine at Christopher’s graduation dinner from Emory University. Credit: Carine McCandless Family Collection via OutsideOnline

In 1971, Chris Learned an Unfortunate Secret About His Parents

Before graduating from Emory, Christopher discovered that his father had an entirely separate family in California. Why? Because he had not been divorced from his first wife when he met Billie. Christopher would eventually stop speaking to his father.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Emory University Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Renounced His Upbringing and Gave His Money Away

After his graduation from Emory, Christopher was even more convinced that titles and degrees were worthless. He dubbed higher education a “20th-century fad.” The young man donated his remaining college funds, which was approximately $28,000.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher’s abandoned Datsun in Arizona. Credit: Back to the Wild

Chris Abandoned His Car After the Engine Flooded

Christopher was inspired by adventurers like John Muir and Jack London, so he headed westward towards the desert before his Alaskan trek. Christopher’s little yellow Datsun was flooded in a flash flood one night, which he took as a sign. Christopher left it on the side of the road with a note that anyone who could move it could have it. He also left the majority of his belongings in the car, including a guitar, $4.93 in change, a 25-pound bag of rice, a new electric razor, and the car keys. He subsequently burned the cash in his wallet and decided to hitchhike onward.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
The cover of the autobiography. Credit: Goodreads

Christopher Gave Himself a New Nickname

He started going by Alex Supertramp because he wanted to leave his former self behind. The Supertramp idea is reportedly inspired by the book “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp” by William H Davies. After giving his money away and burning his possessions, he was leaving society behind and choosing a new identity, a blank slate. With this act, he gave away the last thing his parents gave him. In his final moments, he reclaimed his name – choosing to sign his death note as Chris McCandless.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher, with the carcass of the moose. Credit: Neelke Vanderkerken

He Took a Moose Down, Then Regretted It

On his 43rd day in Alaska, based on his journal, Chris managed to shoot a small moose. The little moose still weighed around 600 ounds, which proved very difficult for the wanderer, as he had no survival training. He was initially so excited that he took a picture with the dead moose, but after trying to smoke the moose and failing, he wrote of his regrets in his journal, calling it a “tragedy.” The meat went bad, and he eventually left it for the wolves.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Chris McCandless’s Journal. Credit: NPR

He Wasn’t Prepared for the Wilderness

Though McCandless may have started well stocked, his supplies did not last long. He left a large bag of rice in his abandoned car but was able to live resourcefully. When his body was discovered, Christopher had some books, a camera, his diary, the sleeping bag he was found in, and his rifle – which Carine didn’t even realize Christopher owned. His journal also indicates that he brought a sack of rice and a compass, but no maps. Among his books were Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and some more commercial books written by Louis L’Amour and Michal Crichton.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Stampede Trail. Credit: Unusual Places

He Could Have Alerted a Group Nearby With a Fire but Chose Not To

Bus 142 was located along the Stampede Trail, which is a road and trail in the Denali Borough in Alaska that starts from the George Parks Highway. Though Chris left a note on the bus door, he did not do anything else to draw attention to his situation. The bus was not near any flight plans, but he could have lit a fire that would have been seen from the nearby town from Healy, or nearby hunting camps. Carine, his sister, contends that he wouldn’t have started a fire because he would never risk burning down a forest to save his life.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Hikers take a break near Bus 142. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bus 142

Bus 142 is an abandoned 1946 bus along the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park. It was initially one of a small number of buses used by a construction company to provide remote accommodations for the construction crew from Fairbanks that worked on the road upgrades between 1960 and 1961. The bus engine was removed, and beds and a wood-burning stove were placed inside the bus instead. When the Stampede Mine closed in the 1970s, all but this one bus were removed, as this bus had a broken rear axle. It now serves as a back-country shelter for passing hunters, trappers, and visitors. It is also a landmark for anyone interested in the Chris McCandless story.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
The Teklanika River Credit: Outside Magazine

The Trail to the Bus Washed Out Before He Could Get Back Home

Once Chris decided to go home, he set out to take the trail from Bus 142 to the main park entrance. Chris soon discovered the Teklanika River was overflowing with glacier melt and was completely uncrossable, so he turned back intending to wait until the water would decrease. Unfortunately, Chris did not realize that there was another way across the river. If he had traveled upstream, he would have seen better options ahead. Had he been a more experienced hiker, he would have also known to try to traverse the river in the morning, which is when the waters reach their lowest point.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Photo from inside the bus, where Chris was found. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Improper Food Storage May Have Exposed Him To Mold

Another theory about Chris’s passing involves the method he used to store his food. In 2007, chemists theorized that the seeds he ate were contaminated with the mold that causes swainsonine (Rhizoctonia leguminicola). As a substance, it can cause a variety of neurological disorders, reduced appetite, and loss of weight. This also aligns with his death due to starvation.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher McCandless’s last photo. Credit: Francisco Cravo

He Left a Good-Bye Note

Aside from his last note, taped onto the bus door, Christopher had taken a self-timer photo holding a sign that said, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye, and may God bless all!” Also found in his journal, a final line was inscribed: “Happiness is only real when shared.”

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
The Outside Magazine Cover with the Chris McCandless Article Credit: Worthpoint

Outside Magazine Featured a Profile On His Life

Jon Krakauer wrote an article in 1993 titled “Death of an Innocent” for Outside Magazine, which publicized Chris’s story and placed it in a national spotlight. Jon Krakauer was already a frequent writer for the magazine, and Chris’s story struck a chord with him. Apparently, it also did with the readers.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Journal entry of days 109 – 113. Credit: Huis Hortense

Circumstances of His Death

McCandless’ final full journal entry was denoted as “Day 107” and simply said, “Beautiful Blue Berries.” Days 108 – 112 had no words; they were marked only with slashes. Day 113 had no entry at all. On September 6th, 1992, hunters seeking shelter entered Bus 142 and immediately smelled something terrible. As soon as they discovered a “lump” in the sleeping bag, they called for the police, who arrived the next day and were able to narrow down his date of death to approximately two weeks before he was discovered.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Trekkers pose in front of Bus 142. Credit: Paxson Woelber

The Bus Where He Was Found Is Now a Mecca

The bus where Chris passed still remains where it was when he found it, and it has become a sort of shrine for adventurers that share his philosophy and desire to abandon society. Since Christopher’s story was published, hundreds have tried to follow his trail to the “Magic Bus,” though many of them encounter the same problems he did. Authorities tend to frown upon risk-taking when it is in pursuit of a philosophical journey.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Chris McCandless in High School. Credit: Adelia Weber

Chris Wanted His Girlfriend, Julie, to Go With Him to Alaska

Christopher’s high school girlfriend, Julie Carnes, was petite, pretty, and smart, and Chris adored her. His attachment to her grew stronger while they dated, but she soon became overwhelmed with his plans for their future and his ideas for adventures in Alaska and broke up with him shortly after. On the night she broke up with him, he was irate and accused her of “being like all the other girls,” but then calmed down, held her for a long time, and then never spoke to her again.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Chris poses with another of his hunted animals. Credit: Today Show

Chris was Actually a Decent Singer

One of Carine’s fond memories of her brother was his singing voice. She remembers his “powerful, perfect pitch of his voice as he belted out lyrics and played the piano.” Walt, their father, would sometimes sing silly songs to them during happier times, and would even encourage Chris to sing to guests, but Chris denied that request, indicating that he had no interest in performing for their parents.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Into the Wild paperback cover. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Christopher McCandless’s Life Becomes a Book

Due to the enormous response that Jon Krakauer’s article, Death of an Innocent, received, Jon then decided to write an expansion of the material. The book, Into the Wild, has become an international bestseller which has been printed in 30 languages and 173 editions and formats. Most reviewers have lauded the book as factual and well-researched, but at least one Alaskan reporter, Craig Medred, has claimed that it is “something invented” by Jon.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Movie poster of Into the Wild. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Christopher’s Life-Turned-Book Also Becomes a Movie

A film adaptation of the book was released in September 2007, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless. The Call of the Wild was also released in 2007, which was a documentary by Ron Lamothe. A survival show set in Alaska, named Out of the Wild, has also been inspired by Chris’s story.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
A river crossing with a bridge on the Denali National Park road, close to the bridge Christopher would have found if he would have walked further up north. Credit: Willhite Web

On July 25, 2019, a Young Woman Drowned Following McCandless’s Path

A 24-year-old woman drowned while attempting to reach the same bus Christopher spent his final days. Veranika Nikanava and, her husband, Piotr Markielau, were crossing Teklanika River when Veranika was swept away by the current. Alaska State Troopers were contacted, but it was unfortunately too late. In a statement, the State Troopers encourage travelers to be prepared for the Alaskan wilderness and its challenging weather, water, and geographical conditions.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
The Stampede Trail is 8 miles long. Credit: Rove

75 Percent of the Rescues Performed in the Area Happen on the Stampede Trail

In an interview, one Outside Magazine writer conducted with an Alaska State Trooper, the trooper estimated that 75% of all rescues performed in the area happen on the Stampede Trail. He also questioned why people would try to follow Christopher’s trail to the bus, pointing out that he was unprepared and died because of it.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Walt and Billie McCandless Credit: Backtothewild.org

Christopher’s Parents Also Published a Book

Back to the Wild is a published compilation of images from Christopher’s camera, all under copyright by his parents. The format of the book is split into twelve treks and includes photos and letters from his journey. Walt and Billie also copied the book to a DVD with different memories and narrators.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Bus 142 in the sunrise Credit: Chris’s Purpose

His Death Spurred the Creation of a New Charity Organization, Chris’s Purpose

Chris’s purpose is a 501(c) charity that was started when Walt and Billie McCandless began receiving money from Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild. They decided to redistribute the funds to families in need, mainly on a faith-based foundation. They claim to have chosen religious programs due to their lower recidivism rates. The mission of the foundation is to assist women and children in creating and maintaining better lives for themselves.

The Sad Story Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’  
Christopher, or Alex, as he preferred, is in the middle with a few friends. Credit: Leathan Maddix

Chris Was Intense

Carine says she was often told that her brother was “intense,” but she thinks that it was due to the fact that people simply didn’t understand him. She recalls Andy, Chris’s friend, who understood the balance between Chris’s serious side and his sense of humor, but he seemed to be one of the very few people who did so.

 

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our References:

Colleen Conroy, “The Sad Tale Of Christopher McCandless, The Man From ‘Into The Wild’.” Ranker. Online

Melissa Sartore, Everything We Learned About Christopher McCandless From His Sister’s Memoir, ‘The Wild Truth’. Ranker. Online

Melissa Sartore, Everything That Had To Go Wrong For Chris McCandless To Meet His Fate, Ranker. Online

Eva Holland, Jul 29, 2019. Another ‘Into the Wild’ Pilgrimage Has Ended in Death. Outside Online

Diana Saverin, Dec 18, 2013. The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem. Outside Online

Chris McCandless. Timeline.

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