Experiencing life to the fullest was the adventure worth living and Chris set out to live his life with that thought foremost in his mind. As a dedicated and experienced explorer, he developed a passion and talent for seeking the unbeaten path that stretched back to his youth. At 8 years old Chris backpacked Old Rag Mountain carrying his own pack, a notable achievement for someone twice his age. This was the beginning of a lifetime of unrelenting self-reliant adventure. During high school he took a job going door to door for a remodeling company and made enough money to buy “The Yellow Datsun”, which allowed him to take his first trip cross country after graduation. Before his senior year of college Chris completed his first trip to the Pacific Northwest covering territory from El Paso, Texas to Fairbanks, Alaska. This thirst for adventure led him to venture through western North America twice before his final trek into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.
Thanks to the generosity of “Into The Wild” author Jon Krakauer, who donates a percentage of the book’s sales, and the success of the photographic journal “Back to The Wild” and the Sean Penn-directed film; the Christopher Johnson McCandless Memorial Foundation continues to fund nonprofit organizations — largely faith-based — dedicated to improving the lives of women and children who have fallen on hard times over the past decade and into the future.
Amid the pain of tragically losing their son and a flurry of media inquiries, Chris’s parents Billie and Walt McCandless had an important decision to make when checks from publications arrived to pay for use of Chris’s photography. “Immediately, the reaction from Bille was classic — she said, ‘This is not our money and I don’t want anything to do with it.’” A charitable change of heart followed as Billie and Walt opened up a bank account to collect the modest funds from media publications. The funds were redistributed to a local family in need, aiding in the medical and funerary costs of their grandson who recently passed away. With that act of kindness, Chris’s Purpose was born.
Enter Jon Krakauer. The adventure writer found his way past a media firewall created by friend Dennis Burnett, who was a fan of Krakauer’s book “Eiger Dreams” being a rock climbing enthusiast himself. Krakauer had a grand vision for telling a more substantial and encompassing story than the initial media reports conveyed, first with an article published in Outside Magazine followed by “Into The Wild,” in which Jon retraced the footsteps of Chris’s final trek in 1992. The book became a national bestseller upon its release in 1996, which immediately flooded Billie and Walt with funds from Krakauer’s donation. The McCandless’ world changed yet again. True to Billie’s classic reaction, all of the money was to be given to charity, though now doing so required much more focus and attention. “All of this was something that we never forecasted at all. It was a big surprise,” Walt says. “We became engaged on what foundations do and how they do it, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
In 2006, the fund officially became a foundation, achieving 501(c)3 status ahead of the 2007 release of the Sean Penn-directed “Into The Wild” film, from which Chris’s Purpose received additional funding. The McCandless’ then published “Back to the Wild,” a book featuring a deep collection of photos and writings from Chris’s two-year journey through western North America, providing the foundation with another reliable funding source. The inspiration to publish “Back to the Wild” came to Walt as he worked to copyright and file the full collection of Chris’s photos with the Library of Congress. “I had an epiphany. I asked myself, ‘Why did he take all of these photographs?’ He didn’t write much, so it’s a phenomenal photographic record. You can actually feel his pulse as he’s traveling. When he’s moving, he’s taking a lot of pictures. Every day is a new day, every day is a new scene. It’s likely that no one will ever see that scene again.”
Following the release of Back to the Wild in 2012 the Hampton, VA based M2 Pictures produced an award winning TV documentary that aired on TV’s Animal Planet. This documentary followed Chris’s Journey from a unique perspective, and continued to shed new light on Chris’s journey.
While it’s impossible to determine the fate the photos would have had if Chris had survived, there’s no doubt that images contained immense transformative power through inspiring Krakauer’s iconic tale that has established itself as a modern classic — it and the CJM Foundation’s Back to the Wild Book and DVD are widely included in high school and college reading curriculums, and are becoming the CJM Foundations charitable wellspring.
Chris’ Purpose supports a core of largely faith-based nonprofits featuring programs to help women and children create and maintain better lives for themselves. Though Christian in faith themselves, Billie and Walt actually choose to fund faith-based groups for a more intrinsic reason — they produce results. Walt says: “One of the things we learned years ago is that faith-based organizations have a much lower recidivism rate, a fall-back rate, than others, and that’s a fact. If you have strong convictions about how to live a better life, it’s going to help you when times get tough, which they inevitably do. It’s then you need something more powerful to help you though it all.” The McCandless’ and the CJM Board members and volunteers take a very hands-on approach when working with their beneficiaries, ensuring their funds are directed at programs that produce results within organizations of utmost integrity. Chris’s Purpose mainly funds organizations located in the Virginia Beach, VA and Tucson, AZ areas where Billie and Walt reside.