“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” –Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut.
In April 1992, Christopher McCandless, 24 years old, made a radical transformation. Renaming himself Alexander Supertramp, he left Virginia, gave his $24,000 savings to charity, and abandoned his middle-class existence to walk into the wilds of Alaska. The 1996 Jon Kraukauer book and the 2007 Sean Penn movie detailing his adventure created a cultural icon out of McCandless and a symbol out of the vehicle in which he died – Fairbanks City Transit Bus 142.
Situated 26 miles from Healy (a small town at the foot of Denali National Park) and to the south of Fairbanks, the bus is usually used as a hunting shelter. Chris stayed for 113 days in the refuge, living off the land, picking plants, and hunting game such as porcupines, squirrels, and ptarmigans.
As a 20-year-old CC student from Paris, I arrived in the United States five months ago for the first time. I did not know what a Dalmatian dog was, yet alone a ptarmigan. For winter break, I spent almost one month in the Anchorage area with some CC friends who I then abandoned for two days to go up North alone and experience the story I have always been fascinated with.
The day before flying to Fairbanks, I called Coke Wallace, a renowned hunter of the Healy area, to ask him for help reaching the bus. “Sure,” he answered. “Have you ever driven a snow machine?” And thus, the adventure started.
I met locals Patrick and Jennifer in the small Fairbanks International Airport, where they agreed to drive me to Healy in a three-hour road trip in full darkness. Their rock energy was as strong as the bohemian mood of the hippie couple in the Into the Wild movie. I was already projected into the story.
“May I offer you a coffee?” As a living French stereotype after a sleepless night, I could not refuse. It helped me to wake up before the sun and to check whether the car was okay in spite of the very icy road and the scattered presence of some moose that skated over it.
“Do you see this forest over there?” Wallace showed me a broad mass of trees covering an immense hill like a redoubtable green army. “We are going to cross it, then we will pass a frozen lake, and then we will just go ahead, and go, go, go!”
The night revealed the unusual beauty of the landscape when I jumped on my snow machine at 10:30 a.m. I had to be fast to get to the bus before the sun has its next rendezvous with the moon, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. After driving for four hours in the gorgeous and cold Alaskan wilderness, I had not seen a single person besides Wallace’s tiny silhouette in the distance.
I had continuously waited and depicted the moment when I would finally see the bus. Some say that seeing is believing, but I did not believe my eyes. Wallace left me alone for an hour and half in the intimacy of my thoughts while he cut wood. I was able to live and feel what Chris did 22 years ago.
I took the time to take pictures of all the details I had seen on older photos: the number 142, the chair outside, the two beds, and the suitcase. In the suitcase I found the memory book written by other “pilgrims,” as wanderers as I am are now identified; I read it and added a report of my personal excursion.
In the way people view the story today, two conceptions of McCandless are opposed: pragmatic vs. idealistic. Alaskan inhabitants usually consider Chris naive and unprepared, concluding that he went there to commit suicide and pointing out the idea of a Chris McCandless obsession “issue.”
Indeed, as the story has become increasingly publicized, some of McCandless’ followers have been hurt by the Teklanika River crossing on the difficult Stampede Trail leading to the bus. Claire Arckermann, a 29-year-old woman from Switzerland, died trying to cross in 2010.
Many of these followers uphold the more idealistic perspective that McCandless left not to commit suicide but to experience his own self, psychologically and physically, far from the imprint of civilization.
As Jon Kraukauer wrote, “I know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.”
I eventually had to leave the bus in the dark after drinking another near-liter of coffee to keep warm. I still had a long distance to cover with all these adventurers’ tales in mind.
Today, I keep in touch with both other Into the Wild adventurers to help them to prepare for their trips, as well as with the wonderful people who helped me to achieve mine.