Author Jon Krakauer brought the captivating yet sorrowful narrative of Christopher McCandless to public consciousness through his 1996 literary work “Into the Wild,” which was subsequently adapted into a film in 2007.
A twenty-four-year-old McCandless embraced an audacious existence that culminated in his tragic demise within the untamed Alaskan hinterlands. Renouncing his life’s savings and possessions, McCandless embraced a nomadic way of life, relying on nature’s resources for sustenance.
After traversing the expanse of the United States and Mexico, he embarked on a northward journey in the spring of 1992, leading him into the heart of Alaska’s wild terrain. He took refuge within an abandoned bus nestled along an antiquated mining route.
For over two months, McCandless called this bus his home, delving into a life of isolation and self-sufficiency. However, as July arrived, a decisive turn unfolded as he endeavored to return to civilization. His journal entries indicate that he embarked on this journey only to encounter an insurmountable obstacle: the now unpassable Teklanika River.
Faced with this impediment, McCandless retraced his steps to the bus, reestablishing his base of operations. After enduring a grueling 113 days of wilderness isolation, the toll on his body became inescapable. By late August, he is believed to have succumbed to the combined effects of starvation and exhaustion.
Twenty-two years ago this September, precisely on September 6, 1992, the decomposed remains of Christopher McCandless were discovered by moose hunters near the northern periphery of Denali National Park. McCandless had succumbed within a decaying bus that doubled as an improvised haven for trappers, dog mushers, and other off-the-grid visitors.
Affixed to the bus’s entrance was a message hastily penned on a torn page extracted from a novel by Nikolai Gogol:
Attention possible visitors.
I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone; this is no joke. In the name of god, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you,
Unveiled amidst his belongings was a mysterious journal, wherein it seemed that McCandless had been lifeless for nineteen days. An identification card issued eight months before his passing indicated his age as twenty-four and his weight at a hundred and forty pounds.
Yet, following the transportation of his remains from the wilderness, a post-mortem examination revealed that he weighed a mere sixty-seven pounds and displayed negligible subcutaneous fat. The likely cause of his demise, as stipulated by the coroner’s assessment, was attributed to starvation.
Who Was Christopher McCandless?
Christopher Johnson McCandless, also known under the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp,” stood as an American adventurer driven by an evolving inclination toward a peripatetic lifestyle during his upbringing.
McCandless became the focal point of “Into the Wild,” a factual account penned by Jon Krakauer that subsequently metamorphosed into a feature-length cinematic creation.
Following his graduation from Emory University in Georgia in 1990, McCandless embarked on an odyssey that spanned the breadth of North America, ultimately embarking on an April 1992 voyage to Alaska by way of hitchhiking.
In this remote locale, he ventured into the Alaskan wilderness with only rudimentary provisions, harboring the aspiration to subsist primitively from the surrounding environment. Along the eastern bank of the Sushana River, McCandless stumbled upon an abandoned bus identified as Fairbanks Bus 142, a structure he repurposed into an improvised refuge until his demise.
As September unfolded, a hunter discovered the emaciated remains of McCandless, weighing a mere 67 pounds (30 kg) within the confines of the bus. Officially attributed to starvation, McCandless’s cause of death, while established, remains a subject of deliberation regarding the specific circumstances that led to his untimely passing.
Early Life of Christopher McCandless
Christopher McCandless spent his formative years in El Segundo, California. He held the distinction of being the eldest progeny of Wilhelmina Marie “Billie” McCandless (née Johnson) and Walter “Walt” McCandless, his familial unit encompassing a younger sister named Carine.
Augmenting the family dynamic were six half-siblings emanating from Walt’s prior matrimony. Under their mother’s care, these siblings inhabited locales spanning California and Denver, Colorado. In a pivotal juncture, 1976 witnessed the family’s relocation to Annandale, Virginia, as McCandless’s father secured a role as an antenna specialist with NASA.
Meanwhile, McCandless’s mother contributed to the household as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft. In due course, the couple established a thriving consultancy enterprise from their residence, specializing in Walt’s expertise.
In her memoir “The Wild Truth,” Carine McCandless recounted verbal and physical abuse perpetrated by her parents, an environment exacerbated by her father’s struggle with alcoholism. She ascribed this tumultuous upbringing and her father’s reading of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” as pivotal influences, prompting her brother’s yearning for a “disappearance” into the wilderness.
In anticipation of the memoir’s release, Walt and Billie McCandless issued a statement refuting their daughter’s allegations, asserting that her narrative constitutes “fictionalized writing” not relevant to their cherished son Chris, his odyssey, or his character. They emphasized that the events of Chris’s life from 22 years prior pertain solely to him and his aspirations.
In 1986, McCandless earned his diploma from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Evidencing academic prowess, he notably charted his course, displaying a distinct identity. Additionally, he assumed leadership as captain of the cross-country team, wherein he encouraged teammates to perceive running as an act of spiritual transcendence, a means of combating the world’s darkness and animosity.
In the summer of 1986, McCandless journeyed to Southern California, renewing connections with extended family and friends. During this sojourn, he revealed that his father had engaged in a bigamous relationship and fathered another child while retaining ties to his first spouse.
Jon Krakauer suggests that this revelation might have deeply affected McCandless’s psyche.
Graduating with distinction from Emory University in May 1990, McCandless secured a bachelor’s degree encompassing dual majors in history and anthropology. He was a shining scholar. Post-graduation, he exhibited altruism by donating over $24,000 of his college savings (approximately $54,000 in 2022) to Oxfam.
He embraced an itinerant lifestyle, involving roles as a restaurant food preparer and farm laborer when needed. Animated by a fervor for the outdoors, McCandless undertook extensive wilderness expeditions and even navigated a canoe along a segment of the Colorado River. His ultimate journey led him to hitchhike to Alaska in April 1992.
Christopher McCandless Starts His Ill-Fated Journey
In the summer of 1990, McCandless initiated a journey from Virginia, commencing a cross-country expedition to California behind the wheel of a Datsun. Unfortunately, the vehicle was far from pristine, succumbing to multiple breakdowns as he traversed the expanse of the eastern United States.
Moreover, he undertook this voyage without car insurance protection, and his car bore expired license plates. As the summer drew close, McCandless reached the Lake Mead National Recreation Area precincts, where a sudden deluge incapacitated his vehicle.
Fearing the repercussions of operating a vehicle without a valid license, registration, and insurance, McCandless removed the license plates, retaining only what he could carry, and continued by foot. In due course, his abandoned car was discovered, restored, and put to use as an undercover vehicle by the local police department.
Continuing his trajectory, McCandless proceeded northwest, relying on hitchhiking to propel himself into the embrace of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Here, he resorted to breaking into an unoccupied cabin, appropriating provisions encompassing sustenance, supplies, and currency.
Throughout the winter spanning 1990 and 1991, McCandless seems to have established a hermitic existence, dwelling within encampments shared with fellow vagrants in the Sierra Nevada region. Accounts point toward suspicions of him pilfering from other cabins when his resources grew scarce.
However, it’s important to note that only one such instance was unequivocally verified by authorities after his passing.
At the inception of 1991, McCandless’s peregrinations drew him away from the Sierra Nevada. His route traced a circular trajectory that commenced in the southern reaches of California, ventured through Arizona, and subsequently meandered northward into South Dakota. Plunged into financial destitution and bereft of viable means for sustenance, he secured employment as a grain elevator operator in Carthage, South Dakota.
This occupation sustained him throughout the year until an unexpected turn of events unfolded. McCandless abruptly resigned from his position, leaving behind a postcard for his supervisor containing the following message:
“The ease of tramping diminishes with all this wealth. My days were far more exhilarating when I faced destitution and was compelled to scrounge for my next meal… I’ve determined to embrace this existence for the foreseeable future.”
After this decision, McCandless redirected himself to Colorado, utilizing his earnings to procure kayak equipment and a firearm. He embarked on a journey along the Colorado River, navigating its waters without an official permit.
His exploits became a topic of conversation among wildlife officials and park rangers, who had gathered accounts from fellow river travelers. Concerns about McCandless’s engagement in perilous white-water rafting segments sans proper safety gear were raised. The trail of reports trailed him from Lake Havasu to the Bill Williams River, the Colorado River Reservoir, Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, and Yuma Proving Ground. Despite diligent efforts, authorities remained unsuccessful in locating McCandless, who found himself under scrutiny due to his lack of formal river training and kayaking without the requisite boating license.
McCandless’s odyssey carried him all the way to Mexico, wherein he traversed the international border through a spillway at the Morelos Dam. His journey along the Colorado River was punctuated by waterfalls that impeded his canoe’s passage, prompting him to relinquish his river-bound expedition. Subsequently, he spent a brief interlude in the solitude of El Golfo de Santa Clara in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
However, the environment proved overwhelming, coupled with a lack of viable means of sustenance, leading him to entertain thoughts of reentry into the United States. This endeavor was met with an encounter at a border checkpoint, where McCandless was apprehended for carrying a firearm. His brief detainment culminated with confiscating his firearm, and he was subsequently released without any charges pressed against him. Following this episode in Mexico, McCandless’s trajectory took him on a hitchhiking journey northward, culminating in his return to South Dakota.
The Long Road to Alaska
In April 1992, McCandless embarked on a journey from South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska, reliant on the mode of hitchhiking to propel him toward his destination. Following his passing accounts from observers came to light, attesting to their encounters with McCandless in the Alaskan terrain.
Initially sighted at Dot Lake, his presence was subsequently noted in Fairbanks. McCandless’s appearance was characterized by his distinctive “big backpack,” When confronted about his identity, he would supply a fictitious name.
Witnesses’ depictions of him concur that he exhibited an air of profound wariness toward those in his vicinity. The toll of his journey was evident in his disheveled state and a noticeable absence of personal hygiene, giving rise to an unpleasing aroma. One observer characterized McCandless as “uncommonly peculiar,” marked by an eccentric demeanor and an unusual aura.
McCandless’s final sighting transpired at the inception of the Stampede Trail on April 28. The observer in question was a local electrician named Jim Gallien. Gallien, who extended a ride to McCandless from Fairbanks to the trailhead near the modest community of Healy, later disclosed his profound apprehensions regarding McCandless’s well-being.
McCandless, who introduced himself as “Alex,” aroused Gallien’s anxiety due to his conspicuously lightweight pack, sparse gear, meager provisions, and palpable dearth of wilderness expertise. Gallien’s reservations about “Alex’s” capacity to endure the rigors of the harsh and formidable Alaskan wilderness were deeply rooted, casting a shadow over the young adventurer’s prospects for survival in this unforgiving environment.
McCandless In Alaska
Despite Gallien’s persistent efforts to dissuade McCandless and his offers of assistance, McCandless remained steadfast in his determination to proceed with his journey. Gallien even offered to reroute the trip to Anchorage to procure suitable equipment and supplies for McCandless, but his appeals were rejected.
However, McCandless did accept a pair of Xtratuf boots, two sandwiches, and a packet of corn chips from Gallien. With a mix of concern and hope, Gallien left McCandless, believing he would eventually return to the highway as hunger and practicality took hold.
Following his hike along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless discovered an abandoned bus approximately 28 miles (45 km) west of Healy, adjacent to an overgrown trail near Denali National Park. His aspiration, as described by Krakauer, was to continue his westward journey until reaching the Bering Sea.
However, the dense Alaskan wilderness thwarted his progress, compelling him to return to the bus. McCandless established his camp at the bus site, relying on its shelter and the resources of the land. His provisions included 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington Nylon 66 semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, several books, including one on local plant life, personal belongings, and camping gear.
His journal entries and self-portraits offer insights into his foraging for edible plants and hunting endeavors, which included porcupines, squirrels, ptarmigans, and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he managed to hunt a moose illegally, but his efforts to preserve the meat were in vain, resulting in spoilage.
There were speculations surrounding McCandless’s potential involvement in the vandalism of nearby cabins containing food, survival gear, and emergency supplies. However, Denali National Park Chief Ranger Ken Kehrer has refuted any National Park Service considerations of McCandless as a suspect in these incidents.
McCandless’s journal entries chronicle his 113-day stay in the area. In July, having resided in the bus for over two months, he decided to return to civilization. Regrettably, the trail back was obstructed by the Teklanika River, swollen with the late-summer runoff from the Cantwell Glacier, rendering it impassable.
McCandless was unaware of an abandoned hand-operated cable car downstream that could have facilitated his crossing. Lacking a detailed topographical map, he retraced his steps to the bus site and reinstated his camp. To attract assistance, he pinned an S.O.S. note to the bus:
“Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone; this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening.
Thank you, Chris McCandless.
The Death of Christopher McCandless
McCandless’s final journal entry, marked as “Day 107,” contained the simple phrase “BEAUTIFUL BLUE BERRIES.” Following this notation, entries on Days 108 through 112 were absent of words, replaced solely with slashes, and Day 113 bore no entry.
The exact date and time of his demise remain obscured. In the proximity of his passing, McCandless captured a self-portrait while waving and holding a handwritten note:
“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”
On September 6, 1992, a group of hunters seeking shelter encountered the converted bus that had served as McCandless’s dwelling. Upon entry, they were met with a pungent odor resembling decayed food, which led them to discover “a lump” within a sleeping bag positioned at the rear of the bus.
Promptly contacting the police via radio, the hunters’ report prompted a response the subsequent day. When authorities arrived at the scene, they uncovered McCandless’s decomposed remains within the confines of the sleeping bag. The prevailing theory suggests that he succumbed to starvation approximately two weeks before the discovery of his body.
How Did Christopher McCandless actually Die?
Among the hypotheses surrounding McCandless’s demise, one posited in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild” (1996) entails two potential contributing factors. First, there is the notion of “rabbit starvation,” where McCandless’s reliance on lean meat as a primary source of sustenance could have had negative repercussions on his health.
Krakauer’s exploration delved into various hypotheses regarding the circumstances surrounding McCandless’s passing. Initially, one conjecture revolved around the possibility that McCandless ingested the toxic alkaloid swainsonine found in sweet-vetch seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii), which could have led to his demise.
Krakauer notes that McCandless’s field guide did not caution against consuming these seeds, as their toxicity was unknown at publication. This leads Krakauer to speculate about the significance of McCandless’s journal entry on July 30, stating, “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.”
In September 2013, Krakauer’s article in The New Yorker delved further into Ronald Hamilton’s claims. Laboratory analysis of fresh Hedysarum alpinum seeds revealed the presence of 0.394% beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration within the range known to cause lathyrism in humans. Other chemists have debated this conclusion.
The article underscores that while occasional ODAP ingestion isn’t hazardous for individuals with balanced diets, those grappling with malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially susceptible to the debilitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting this neurotoxin.
A subsequent hypothesis emerged in March 2015, this time linking McCandless’s consumption of Hedysarum alpinum seeds to high levels of L-canavanine, an antimetabolite toxic to mammals. Krakauer co-authored a scientific analysis that concluded “it is highly likely that the consumption of H. alpinum seeds contributed to the death of Chris McCandless.”
Another proposition was that a mold growing on these seeds, stored in a plastic bag, might have contributed to his poisoning. The presence of swainsonine impedes the metabolism of glycoproteins, resulting in starvation despite sufficient food intake.
However, in a September 2007 article in Men’s Journal, correspondent Matthew Power reported extensive laboratory testing that debunked the presence of toxins or alkaloids in the sweet-vetch seeds McCandless had consumed.
Thomas Clausen, who headed the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stated unequivocally that no toxins or alkaloids were present. Power argued that McCandless’s inability to secure enough sustenance ultimately led to his demise.
A new hypothesis emerged in 2013, linking McCandless’s symptoms with the poisoning experienced by Jewish prisoners in the Vapniarca concentration camp. This theory posits that McCandless perished due to paralysis induced by lathyrism, which could have prevented him from gathering food or traveling. Lathyrism could be attributed to oxalyldiaminopropionic acid (ODAP) poisoning from Hedysarum alpinum seeds.
The presence of ODAP, a toxic amino acid, had not been identified in previous studies due to a focus on toxic alkaloids. ODAP’s impact would be minimal on well-nourished individuals with access to a balanced diet. Still, the effects could be lethal if someone is malnourished, physically stressed, and subsisting on an irregular and insufficient diet like McCandless.
Further Incidents Regarding Christopher McCandless
The transformed green and white bus in which McCandless lived and ultimately met his fate gained widespread recognition as a destination for hikers. Dubbed “The Magic Bus,” this 1946 International Harvester was abandoned by road workers on the Stampede Trail in 1961.
His father, Walt McCandless, placed a commemorative plaque on the bus as a tribute to his memory. McCandless’s life garnered substantial attention through articles, books, films, and documentaries, bestowing him the status of a contemporary myth. While some admired his spirited idealism, others found him to be polarizing and misguided.
“The Magic Bus” evolved into a pilgrimage site for trekkers who would encamp around the vehicle. Some of these trekkers faced their challenges, with unfortunate incidents occurring, including fatalities, as they endeavored to cross the treacherous Teklanika River. To address the safety concerns arising from these occurrences, a joint effort among various government agencies and the Alaska Army National Guard was orchestrated on June 18, 2020.
The decision was made to extract the bus, thus eliminating the public safety hazard. This action followed at least 15 rescue missions and two fatalities linked to attempts to reach the bus by crossing the Teklanika River. The bus was airlifted via a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to Healy and transported on a flatbed truck to an undisclosed location.
After these events, on September 24, 2020, the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks revealed that it had become the permanent custodian of McCandless’s ‘Magic Bus 142’. The bus is set to undergo restoration, and an outdoor exhibit will be established, commemorating McCandless’s journey and experiences.
RIP Christopher McCandless.
Next, if you’re interested in the Disturbing Story of UK’s Most Prolific Serial Killer, then, if you’re interested in True Crime, read about the story of Josh Phillips and The Murder of Maddie Clifton!
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Let us improve this post!
Tell us how we can improve this post?