Looking Back at 25 Years

Foreword: Wes Nelson and Walt McCandless

In virtually any city today, you will find them: drifters, their steps mostly anonymous, rarely garnering thoughtful attention, save for the occasional survey by organizations tracking homelessness, or police checking for criminal backgrounds. Their growing numbers often produce a numbness, a conditioned dismissal, so it is easy to pass them by.

It hasn’t always been this way. Twenty-seven years ago, a young wanderer, Chris McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp,  began a trek through much of North America, the dust of deserts sticking to his boots, the clang and congestion of cities in his ears, the voices of strangers who befriended him sealed in heart and memory. In the two years he walked the earth – “no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes” – he declared his “home is the road,” an escape, a yearning for “ultimate freedom.”

Twenty-five years have passed since Chris McCandless, known simply as Alex to many, left the road Aug. 18, 1992, in an abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail in the Denali wilderness near Fairbanks, Alaska.  What began as a simple news brief about an unidentified hiker would explode into a myriad of questions about his origins and motivations. Magazine articles penned by New Yorker writer Chip Brown and Outside’s Jon Krakauer were among the first stabs for answers.

To commemorate this life and journey, now chronicled worldwide in books, films, web sites, and virtually every forum of expression of the modern age, we begin with Wes Nelson, a longtime journalist and currently an English teacher in the state of Washington. Wes and Walt McCandless, Chris’ father, have collaborated in a reflection representing different perspectives and approaches. Wes’ journalistic curiosity led him to go beyond the final page of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling novel, “Into the Wild,” and the credits in Sean Penn’s 2007 film by the same title. Wes has reached out to  Walt and Billie,  and has visited with others who came to know Chris during his travels. This story’s impact upon him has been indelible, and his perspective is as varied as the accounts of Chris’s life he has received.

A World Wide Audience looks from afar at Chris McCandless- Wes Nelson

Chris McCandless has given me pause. I often slow my pace to speak to drifters I encounter. It is true that many fall into the category of avoidable – some have criminal records; others have mental illness strapped upon their shoulders like a weathered backpack.

Here and there, however, is a sprinkling of adventurous optimism and a spirit free of the trappings into which so many of us willingly accept. Forever young, Chris brings to mind one of the characters in Richard Grant’s documentary, “American Nomads,” which features an 18-year-old calling himself “Comfrey Root.” On the road through much of his teen years, Root decries societal demands to “live life in a box.” Instead, he extols the unfettered freedom of riding the rails and walking the broken lines of America’s highways. I still hear his and others’ sharp yawp of resistance to 21st century pressures to forge careers, build four-car garages and capitulate to the dollar sign.

In 2011, I penned an axiom I have displayed in my classrooms to encourage students to consider their priorities in life: “The pathway of acquiescence and conformity is an easy one to traverse, but nowhere will you stir up any meaningful dust, and everywhere you will trample the truth.”

A similar theme which I’ve shared comes from American poet, naturalist and essayist Diane Ackerman: “Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography – only a length.”

Christopher found meaningful dust in places and people most of us can’t or refuse to see, and he embraced the risks along the way. When telling a couple in Carthage, South Dakota, of his plan to venture to Alaska with minimal supplies and a .22-caliber rifle, Chris received a stern warning. The couple, who had lived in Alaska, shook their heads. “You’re going to die,” one of them said.  A business owner present for the conversation told me, “Chris would have none of that.”

Others encountered McCandless when he visited Lodi, Calif., where he stayed with strangers or camped near a trestle bridge spanning the Mokelumne River. Ray Snapp and Tracy Espinosa said Chris, as he identified himself, regaled them and friends with stories of life on the road – tangling with railroad “bulls” and nearly drowning in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.  An initial wariness soon faded as they and Mike “Rambo” Green came to embrace Chris’s smile, gift of gab, and good nature as shown when he handed candy to children on Halloween. Chris talked about breaking away from society and his family, but the intensity in his eyes and voice grew when he learned Ray had just returned from Alaska. Tracy said it was the first time Chris would hear of the Stampede Trail – a meandering old mining road that would later capture the imagination of millions, many of whom embraced it as a kind of metaphor for a direction missing in their own lives. Ray happened upon a map of the trail while visiting a friend in Alaska. With Chris looking on, Ray recreated the map by hand in his living room. Chris had the map in his pack several days later when he hitched a ride with a trucker, heading south to the desert.

I have taken to similar trails, often alone, with Chris very much in mind. I’ve kicked up dust along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wild between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, jumping into trees to avoid rampaging elk, and shuddering at the howling of wolves. My steps, however, are sometimes a mix of inspiration and bewilderment, a confounded state that I have learned many others share.

Eric Hathaway, a high school classmate of Chris’s, told me that many things about Chris still resonate:  “I think of that guy often, mostly with affection from our growing up together and how different and unafraid he was … his maturity and his different view of things,” Hathaway said. “I sometimes feel sad and I am filled with a disappointment and frustration that he kind of left us all behind because of his stupidity and ignorance toward nature. Knowing how darn smart that kid was, it is still baffling to me.”

Many of my students share this bewilderment. Some shake their heads over how Chris abandoned his family – both immediate and his half brothers and sisters from his father’s first marriage. Citing their own domestic hardships, many question if severing ties hurt more than it helped. But Chris’s thirst for adventure is something most admire, regardless of questions about his recklessness and disregard for the inherent challenge nature presents. They see Ackerman’s point about risk and rapture.

This is a story no one would have known had the more than 600 photographs Chris took and the logs and letters he created and maintained to chronicle his journey not been carried further by others. The materials were the nucleus of Jon Krakauer’s reconstruction of events in his epic book, “Into The Wild,” published in 1996, which led to the Sean Penn film bearing the same name a decade later. In 2011, the Christopher Johnson McCandless Memorial Foundation created by Chris’s parents copyrighted the treasure trove of photographs Chris took to document his journey. These, along with his logs, letters, and postcards, were crafted into the book entitled “Back To The Wild” and released by the foundation.  This placed millions even closer to a journey already known the world over.

For myself, the story has brought about a direct connection to those at the heart of a life that has both inspired and confounded me. Walt McCandless recently told me that my conscientious “outsider looking-in” approach complements the living, breathing memory Chris’s  parents hold dear. My views of Chris continue to evolve, as I learn more from those who shared meals, laughter, campfires, and tales of both sad and happy times with a drifter who was impossible to ignore. This reflection, 25 years later, of a life on a trail, a road so few of us know, is likely to continue.

Memories of Chris that portend much about his future life – Walt McCandless

At an elevation of 13,000 feet, 37 years ago in Colorado near the summit of Longs Peak, I, Chris, and his half-brother Quinn stood at a notch known as the Keyhole.  Feeling the altitude with more than 1,250 feet yet to go, I turned to the two of them and declared that “we’d have to turn back.”  Billie and I had started out early in the morning with most of the extended family of Chris’, sister Carine and their half brothers and sisters.  After a long day only the three of us made it to the Keyhole. The time of our arrival didn’t correlate with the trail signs’ warning: “If you are not here by X-O’ clock please turn back.”  Longs Peak had a history of violent lightning storms in the afternoon and the trail ahead was wrought with danger. Chris and Quinn both brushed aside my concern, especially Chris, as his adventurous spirit seemed to nearly burst. Had he been older, I couldn’t have stopped him.

Many often wonder why Chris became such an adventurer, an explorer, following his graduation from Emory University in May 1992. Why did he suddenly show such great empathy toward the needy? The answer, emphatically, is simple: his sense of adventure, the heart for those less fortunate, had long been stirring within.  These were traits that he was born with and shared with his mother “Billie,” who in turn, upon her son’s death, created the foundation that bears Chris’s name and continues his heritage of giving.

Allow me to trace his path of exploration and giving while he was growing up.

At the age of 3, Chris exited the family home in El Segundo, California, while Billie was occupied changing sister Carine’s diaper, and trotted down the street.  After a quick, frantic search, Billie called the police to discover that Chris has been picked up by a passing officer and was at the station house.

During his years as the W.T. Woodson High School Cross Country team leader, he took his teammates to unusual places. Instead of confining them to the usual conditioning under the direction of Coach Matt Murray, Chris would occasionally lead his fellow runners, which he dubbed ”The Road Warriors,”  on a full-bore run to parts unknown.  They would often end up lost and left to search their way home.

Other runs were as memorable. He would take some of his teammates with him in the evening to nearby Georgetown where he would invite some of the “Grate People” to share a meal with him. The “Grate People” are homeless and live in the parks near the White House and sleep on the heated grates that provide heating to the museums and nearby government buildings.  On one occasion, he secretly brought one of the “Grate People” home to nurse him back to health, housing him in the family Air Stream Trailer for a week.

His outreach to the “Grate People” was “trail blazed” a few years before by Chris’s mom  Billie. She was helping out the family by working for a Travel Agency with offices near the White House.  Nearly every week, Walt, who worked just down the mall at NASA Headquarters, would journey over to Billie’s office to take her to lunch.  For weeks now he had a strange feeling as he passed by a group of homeless people usually congregating near the grates.  Finally it came to him that they were wearing his “old clothes,” which were dropped off anonymously by Billie near the grates. The nexus between these simple acts and Chris’s handing cheeseburgers and canned food to the destitute is one we still hold dear.

On the subject of “exploring,” Chris used the money he earned his senior year in high school going door-to-door making sales for a kitchen remodeling company to purchase the now famous yellow Datsun, from which he spent the summer after his high school graduation exploring the United States.  First came a visit to New York to see Aunt Jan, then south to New Orleans and finally all the way west to California. His promise to call us every three days vanished in the haze of journeys through the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Mohave Desert. At last, Chris had gone through the keyhole.

It was the first and, regrettably, not the last, very hard time for us. Our hearts were heavy with worry, but after two trying months Chris called and said he would be back the week before he was due for his freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  He arrived home bearing a striking resemblance to Jeremiah Johnson.  He had a beard, a deep wilderness tan, a 30:06 rifle and a threatening-looking machete.  He insisted that he take them with him to Emory, but his car stayed at home because Emory students were dorm bound with no car until their junior year. Shortly after our arrival, the Thompson Hall dorm leader sent the rifle and machete home with us.  He kept Chris.

Chris worked for us helping our company User Systems, Inc. during the summer months until he took his prized Datsun to Emory as he entered his junior year. He moved off campus to a nearby apartment by himself. That summer he once again set out to explore behind the wheel of the Datsun. The keyhole was a veritable canyon at this point. Only two postcards came home to us. The first was post-marked “El Paso, Texas,” and said, “Headed South.” Once again during the coming, very trying months, we envisioned him disappearing in Mexico or Central America, but as the summer waned a second post card arrived once again saying ‘Headed South,” but bearing the postmark of Fairbanks, Alaska – the gateway to what would become his final and greatest adventure.

My memories of Chris always harken back to the first time we climbed Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah Park.  Two friends, Al Robinson and Don Montgomery wanted to climb Old Rag.  I suggested that we take Chris along.  He was 8 years old.  Al cautioned me asking, “Can he carry a pack,” making sure I understood that we weren’t going to carry Chris up or down the mountain.  Chris wanted to go, so off we went and Chris made the mark.

Chris and I climbed the mountain several more times as the years rolled by.  The trek always started at the eastern base of the mountain. We would climb to the peak, then camp overnight at the Byrd Shelter.  In the morning we would make our breakfast then descend using an easy road down that was used for park vehicles.

Our last climb was in the summer of Chris’ junior year in high school, and Chris, no longer the 12 year old on Longs Peak, was a little more commanding and discerning.  We were in the Byrd Shelter preparing our breakfast when we heard hikers approaching accompanied by a bell like sound in sync with their hiking steps.  Soon two young hikers came into view. One of them had a large black iron skillet strapped to his belt and it was clanging against his canteen.  Both hikers had really basic gear, even Army Surplus brown blankets loosely tied to their pack.  They passed by and their cadence slowly dimmed as they hiked on.

Chris, turned to me with emphasis and said, “That’s the way to do it, dad—We don’t need your light weight tent, the alcohol stove and the rest of our fancy, high tech gear.”

That was Chris evolving, and his words still ring in my ear from time-to-time.  Looking back, his words soar as a choir of what was yet to come.

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