Life of Chris McCandless
Into the Wild is a true story about someone with an extreme need to challenge himself and died from doing it. The book leaves you wondering, “Why would someone want to live so extremely?” Why would Chris turn away from the world, give away all his money, abandon his car, and leave his parents without even telling them where he was going? It wasn’t because his parents didn’t love him. He had a happy childhood and got to do a lot of things most kids can only dream about. His parents were very interested in him.
Something must have happened to him. At the beginning of Chapter 7, the author Jon Krakauer uses a quotation by Anthony Storr. It suggests that something bad happened to Chris that made him think he couldn’t trust people or relationships to make him happy. Chris’ “principle need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely, or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships” (Krakauer 61). He might have gone this way because of the shock when he found out his father was a bigamist and had another wife while he was married to Chris’ mother. He couldn’t forgive his father for being unfaithful to his mother and the family. When he found out about it, his family life lost its meaning.
Maybe this is why Chris was so hungry for meaning. Maybe this is why he looked for meaning in the wilderness. He believed that he would learn something from the wilderness that would change and transform him, and that is what made him go to such an extreme. The need for meaning and the promise of transformation is what leads people to live extreme lives.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a book about finding meaning in life. Frankl believes all human beings are born with a huge need for meaning. We look for it in everything we do, hear, and say. According to Frankl, all psychological problems come from not finding enough meaning in life. He tells about people in the nazi concentration camp who lived through it because they had important things they needed to do — things that were meaningful to them — and how those who thought life had lost its meaning died.
But Chris’ need for meaning was more than the average person’s. Most people find meaning in home, school, friendships, and work. Chris’s need was more like an addict’s, always looking for the next fix, never satisfied, and putting everything else in second place to his addiction. Instead of using drugs, overeating, or being a compulsive gambler, Chris found his excitement in nature. In fact, he was like a religious fanatic and worshiped nature instead of God. He saw nature as the way to find “enlightenment” and the meaning of his life and be changed forever into a new person. it’s possible that a lack of self-esteem was at the bottom of it. He certainly didn’t need more self-confidence than he had, but maybe he wanted to be transformed because he wanted to feel better about himself. Self-esteem is defined as “the way individuals perceive themselves and their self-value” (Answers.com web site). One way to increase self-esteem is to accomplish something difficult. In an article about how to increase a child’s self-esteem, Jada Ledford Daves, an educational psychologist tells parents, “Keep expectations high by consistently offering new challenges to your child” (Daves 53).
One way to provide a challenge is to send kids on an outdoor adventure. An article titled “Extreme Fun” tells about “rock climbing, caving, kayaking, and whitewater rafting” for new challenges instead of boring hiking trails and “still-water canoe rides of traditional day camps” (Blair 161). But what will these kids do when they get older? What will be the next challenge? Perhaps, like Chris they will need to take on bigger and bigger adventures. Meeting a challenge will make them grow, and wanting to grow made Chris — and other people who set dangerous challenges for themselves — do extreme things. An article about wilderness challenges tells about a girl name Meghan McClure whose mountain climbing goal was “See it, go for it, conquer it.” (Wilson 5). The writer goes on to say that a wilderness challenge can help teenagers learn “how to push themselves to new heights” (5). This was definitely one of Chris’s goals.
Chris was so focused on nature and his plan to test himself in the Alaskan wilderness, he couldn’t even let himself get close to people. For instance, Wayne Westerberg wanted Chris to stay the summer and travel cross-country with him, and that’s when Chris decided it was time to go. He left, not because he didn’t care for Wayne, but because he did. Getting too close to people was dangerous to his plan. Ronald Franz also liked Chris, even loved him. He had lost his only son and saw Chris as the only person who could bring joy back to his life again. He took Chris in, entertained him, fed him lobster and steak, and really would have done anything for him. He wanted to legally adopt Chris as his own son. That was when Chris decided it was time to go. They were getting too close. Meaning wasn’t in his relationships. He found meaning in nature, adventure, exploring the unknown, in danger and testing his ability to survive.
Chris set goals for himself like everybody does, if they want to live a life that means something. Students in school are always hearing they should set goals for themselves and make plans for how to attain them. Most students set goals like winning a game, passing algebra, or getting into college. They pick goals that are possible to do if they work at it and stay focused. But every now and then, a person comes along who chooses an unusual or dangerous goal — like climbing the Siskine Ice Cap or living in the wilderness alone. In an article titled “Hunger,” Jane Stevenson talks about why some people choose goals that could lead to their death. In fact, she tells about three women whose goal was starvation. The Mulrooney sisters decided on a daring act to willingly starve themselves in a locked-up house and die as a result. Similarly (because both had spiritual reasons for doing what they did) Chris McCandless dared death when he went into the Alaskan wilderness unprepared because he wanted to prove he could be completely self-reliant.
Stevenson thinks people like them attempt dangerous feats because they want to be heroes. They believe doing something difficult or scary will teach them something that will change who they are, somehow. But how do they imagine they will be once they are transformed? Who do they think will they turn into? Maybe what they really want is to feel a connection to God, but they choose a way that isn’t appropriate — like starving themselves to death the way the Mulrooney sisters did. The Mulrooneys believed that if they voluntarily chose a horrible death, they would immediately get into heaven. “She would demand Heaven and straight way, slapping the payment on the counter, cash down” (p. 17). In other words the Mulrooneys fasted themselves to death on purpose because they wanted to be in Heaven and have a stronger, more direct connection to God. Stevenson talks about entry into the “death zone” where extreme mountain climbers and other risk-takers find “intellectual and spiritual beauty” (p. 14). At least, they think they will. Suicide bombers think that, too. Throughout history heroism has been linked with suffering.
A person can learn a lot about himself by trying something difficult that he isn’t sure he can do. The person may learn to endure, for instance, overcome fear, or be courageous. When suffering and risk are part of the challenge, this makes doing it all the more likely to result in transformation — maybe into something more like “the image and likeness” of God. But people who do extreme things don’t necessarily think death might be the result.
I was relieved when I found out what caused Chris McCandless’s death. Up to then, I thought maybe he wanted to die because he went into the wild without proper equipment. There was snow on the ground, but he didn’t wear boots. All he took for food was a 25-pound bag of rice when he was going to stay three months. His gun was only a.22. He didn’t take a compass or a map (a fatal mistake). He did send post cards to two of his friends saying he might not come back, but I think that was for drama. I don’t think he really thought he would die.
He was over-confident, though. He thought he could survive the harsh Alaska wilderness. Some people call it arrogance because he wouldn’t listen to anybody. Jim Gallien, tried to warn him, but Chris had an answer for everything. Chris was naive about the true nature of the Alaskan wilderness. Maybe he thought because he loved the wilderness so much that the wilderness would love him back and not kill him. He knew there was a chance he could die, but he didn’t think it would really happen to him.
The book Chris bought that told about wild plants he could eat didn’t say anything about the wild potato seeds being poison. Chris had been eating fairly well up to that point. He hunted everyday and wrote down the small animals he shot and cooked for food. He picked berries and other plants he found in the woods to eat. He had been eating wild potatoes for several weeks, but towards the end of summer the roots of wild potatoes get tough and stringy. They probably didn’t taste good anymore. He was hungry. He had a large stash of seeds and pods, more than enough to plant, and so he decided to eat them. It wasn’t much different from eating sunflower seeds. He had no idea they were poison! How could he know? And it made sense to think they were edible since the rest of the plant was edible.
Chris didn’t die from an “extreme” act. It was a mistake. Of course, he wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t tried to live alone in the wilderness. Like mountain climbers wouldn’t freeze to death or fall or get caught in an avalanche if they hadn’t chosen to climb the mountain in the first place. Soldiers wouldn’t get killed in Iraq if they hadn’t decided to go in the military. The point is that Chris McCandless could not be happy until he lived out his dream of a journey into Alaska. He refused to see the risk. “He didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were always trying to pull him back from the edge” his father said (p. 109). Chris’s friend Andy Horowitz said Chris always wanted more of life and was never satisfied. He was curious and hungry for experiences. Andy said, “He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people” (p. 174). Chris’s dream was for adventure. He wanted to be free, live off the land, and be completely self-reliant.
Living extremely was a spiritual quest. Christ saw his time alone in the wilderness as a way to grow spiritually, to find himself, and know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He read books by people like Emerson and Thoreau and took them very seriously. He read them over and underlined them and made notes in the margins. It was like he had a cause he believed in, and he wanted to be obedient to it. For example, he took as little as possible with him into the bush and refused to fly to Alaska because he thought that would be cheating. He wanted to do everything right so he could get the most out of the experience. He took books with him into the wild instead of equipment, food and supplies! (He left behind his long underwear and the warm clothing his friend Burres had given him.) This shows he thought of it as a spiritual quest more than a physical challenge. The whole point was to gain meaning and be transformed. He called his trip the “great Alaskan odyssey” (Krakauer 45). Webster defines the word odyssey as “an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest.”
At the beginning of Chapter 16 the author put a quotation by Estwick Evans who was talking about his own journey into the wilderness: “I wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life; to divest myself of the factitious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilization; and to find, admidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and the true interests of man. The season of snows was preferred, that I might experience the pleasure of suffering, and the novelty of danger” (Krakauer 157). If Chris McCandless, or any other adventurer, were explaining his reasons for living an extreme life, these could be them exactly.
Although some people thought Chris was arrogant, many people thought he was a hero. They admired what he tried to do. He had a dream and he lived it. It wasn’t really his fault that it turned out so badly. He was trying to get meaning out of life. As Dr. Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Frankl 172).
Answers.com web site: self-esteem. http://www.answers.com/self-esteem
Blair, Rob. “Extreme Fun,” Washintonian, 39:5, 161-2, 164-6, February, 2004.
Daves, Jada Ledford. “Improving your Child’s Self-Esteem,” the Exceptional Parent, 29:9,
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Villard, 1996.
Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: buccaneer Books, 1993.
Stevenson, J. “Hunger,” in New Writing. Great Britain: Picado.
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Miriam-Webster, Inc.,
Wilson, Suzanne. “Wilderness Challenge,” National Geographic World, no. 297, 5-8, May,
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