The greatest riddle of human life is to find true happiness and, through a variety of experiences, find meaning in our years. As we proceed through the chapters of our lives, this concept and its journey becomes even more prevalent. It can come with great ease or, for others, it takes a little searching… Soul searching. It goes without saying that there are an infinite amount of sources in which both the search for happiness and happiness itself can be sought. For college graduate Christopher McCandless, the answer to both was Alaska.
Christopher McCandless’s journey for happiness and meaning in life eventually became an epic tale of both inspiration and extreme caution. For those of age in the ‘90s, the name Christopher McCandless was unfortunately associated with “death” and “inexperience” upon the conclusion of his excursions across the United States. But thanks to the incredible research of established writer Jon Krakauer - whether it be his original article in a 1993 issue of Outside magazine, his 1996 national bestselling novel Into the Wild, or its eponymous 2007 film directed by Sean Penn - we are able to learn that despite the outcome, Christopher McCandless was much so much more than the embodiment of his mistakes; he was a great mind and a posthumous muse for the life of many individuals.
The novel Into the Wild actually begins near the end of McCandless’s journey. We receive recollections from the driver that had dropped off McCandless at the edge of the Denali State Park just north of Mount McKinley, followed by the discovery of McCandless’s body in the Alaskan wilderness by hunters four months later. There is no beating around the bush with this novel; those that have not heard of this tale will know right away that Christopher McCandless does not survive his endeavor. It is, however, through Krakauer’s investigation into the series of events leading up to McCandless’s time in Alaska that we not only discover how he was able to hitchhike his way into the Alaskan wilderness, but also gain a closer look into the life of an extraordinary young man. Through discussions with those that spent any amount of time with him, as well as conversations with the McCandless family, readers of Into the Wild realize just how much Christopher McCandless touched the lives and hearts of others, no matter if he sometimes went by the made up names of “Alexander Supertramp,” “Alexander McCandless,” or simply “Alex.” It is through each interaction that we attempt to understand - as I’m sure both Krakauer and the McCandless family still are - why a young man who had just graduated college would give away his savings (around $25,000), abandon his car and his possessions, burn whatever cash he had, and find a whole new way of life for himself.
When I was looking over reviews for Into the Wild on Goodreads, I noticed that there were two categories of reviews: there were those that saw the shining light in Christopher’s words and enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s novel, or there were those that called McCandless stupid and selfish for not only doing what he did but also how he did it to his family, and felt that Krakauer’s book was no more than an extension of his magazine article (even though that’s exactly how the book is described). Everyone is welcome to their opinions, of course, but the latter might suggest that some people were not able to relate to or understand just how McCandless lived his life. These people didn’t realize that it was never about his family and the societal acceptance they represent; it was about Christopher, his choices, and his life, which may be something that only those who thirst for that freedom, the freedom of making decisions and living life entirely for oneself, could understand.
For anyone that has or will read this book, it is an obvious aid for our common sense to not trek aimlessly into the wilderness without extensive research and planning to ensure our survival. It is something Krakauer illustrates in the book, with portions documenting other similar adventurers who have went into the wild and did not survive. There is no doubt that Into the Wild plays a dual role of cautionary tale amongst the narrative of Christopher McCandless’s travels. But it is beyond the woes of McCandless’s death or the details of his endeavors that the true takeaways of this novel can be found. Within the correspondences to his various companions, his journal entries, and the passages underlined or highlighted in his book collection are the hidden nuggets of wisdom capable of affecting the reader and how that reader views the world after reading it. Some of these are found in simple phrases; others comprise multiple pages.
One of the most well-known quotes from Christopher McCandless is that, “Happiness [is] only real when shared,” which sadly was a quote written by McCandless as he was dying. But the passage of Into the Wild that I believe to be the greatest and most important of the entire book - a passage that I was able to recall despite getting so enthralled in this book that I forgot to take my usual notes when reading - is that of McCandless’s letter to Ronald Franz, an 81-year-old man who seemed to be the most affected by Christopher despite the shortness of their time together. This particular passage, taking up roughly two pages in my copy of the book, is more than just a letter to Ron Franz; the words of McCandless’s letter are a message to us all.
The best portions of the letter (though really, these quotes make up a majority of the letter) include:
“I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt…In reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”
“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
“If you want to get more out of life… you must lose your inclination for monotonous security.”
“Don’t settle down and sit in on place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time... and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.”
“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships… It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”
“... You do not need [Chris] or anyone else around to bring this new kind of light into your life. It is simply waiting out there for you to grasp it, and all you have to do is reach for it. The only person you are fighting is yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances.”
“You will see things and meet people and there is much to learn from them.”
And lastly, “Don’t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.”
Most, if not all of these quotes, are quotes about changing your life, but it is the one thing about life that people are inherently fearful to do. As a woman in my early twenties that just graduated from a university, still riding the fringes of that major life change, everything about this letter to Ronald Franz struck a chord within me and helped me better understand what “change” means. If you’re looking for a message… a sign… a nudge to make your own change… it won’t matter when you read it; this passage, these quotes, this book will be entirely relevant to your life. To say I would recommend Into the Wild is an understatement; it is a reading requirement.
First published January 1st, 1996 by Villard
Learn more about Into the Wild on Goodreads