On Walking Into and Back Out of the Wild

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On September 11, 2017, eight people from five different countries congregated at a deserted campground behind a gas station in the small town of Healy, Alaska. Most of us had traveled by thumb from various points north or south along the George Parks Highway, the major artery of the Alaskan interior. Only a few of the group had ever met, but all shared the common goal of traveling 20 miles down an old mining road called the Stampede Trail to a broken down Fairbanks city transit bus- number 142- where 25 years ago a 23 year old man named Christopher McCandless lived and died his fantasy of living off the land in the Alaskan wild.

Chances are many of you have read the book or seen the movie version of Into the Wild, which brought McCandless posthumous international fame and a cult following of passionate, idealistic youths who identify with the life and character of Chris McCandless as he has been presented to them. I’m not going to provide a Cliff Notes-esque version of the Into the Wild story here. If you’re interested, read John Krakauer’s excellent book, an impressive feat of journalistic sleuthing that rightly belongs in the canon of outdoor adventure literature. See the Sean Penn-directed film version, an entertaining and powerful piece of cinema, though it seems to me at times to portray more a quasi-messianic hero than the real person only Chris’s friends and family know. I’ll go on record at this point as admitting that McCandless is not a hero of mine, although he seems like someone I might have enjoyed having a philosophical conversation, a hike, and a beer with. To me, Into the Wild is a fascinating story about a brave, reckless young man who succumbed to the classic hubris of the young and passionate. But for a single spin of the Great Wheel, the risks he knowingly took and the foolish mistakes that killed him might belong to any of us who choose to play our lives close to the foul lines. McCandless played for higher stakes than some, sure enough, but to my way of thinking, the choice to ante up with the Big Poker Chip of mortality is one of the most basic rights of all freedom-loving people.

I’m still not entirely sure why I decided to follow McCandless’s one-way trail to the “magic bus,” as one of his journal entries has caused it to be known. Posing for a photo at the Hollywood replica bus now parked outside 49th State Brewing Co. on my first pass through Healy, I began to realize that reasonable or not, I was going to wind up making for the actual bus. I have a taste for adventures involving some degree of mortal risk, am incurably morbid, and will go to inadvisable lengths for the sake of a good story. When asked in 1923 why he would attempt to climb Mount Everest, mountaineer George Mallory, whose frozen body was only recently identified on the mountain, replied, “because it’s there.” I’m gonna borrow that. You can consider that my reason for doing almost anything I do.

Bus 142 still sits where it did when Chris McCandless’s emaciated body was found by moose hunters in September of 1992. The vehicle, one of several outfitted as mobile living quarters by employees of a mining company, was dragged down the stampede trail and eventually abandoned in a clearing when an axle broke. The 20 mile trek to the bus through boreal forest is anathema to many locals, who have been known to use lies and scare tactics to divert the steady stream of McCandless “pilgrims” who attempt the journey every year. Smashed windows and scores of bullet holes in the bus also attest to these feelings, which are partially because they don’t understand the idolization of McCandless but mostly because they’re tired of having to rescue his fans. Troopers around Healy say they send around a half dozen rescue teams down the Stampede Trail every year, almost all of which owe to the 2nd of two river crossings, the dangerous Teklanika. Indeed, it was the Teklanika crossing that stamped McCandless’s passport to the netherworld as he attempted the return trip in July, when snowmelt made the rapids rage, preventing his crossing. Chris hiked back to the bus and died of starvation. Since then, many hikers have been trapped or swept away by the Teklanika; in 2010 a young woman drowned when she made the mistake of tying herself to a rope spanning the river.

Researching the hike, I didn’t have much confidence in my ability to distinguish a safely-crossable Alaskan river from a fatal plunge into a dastardly drink, so I connected through a social media group with a fellow who has become a sort of go-to guy for info on the hike and who accompanies a group of anyone who cares to tag along to the bus each year. His name is Mike, and he has appeared on numerous occasions in media stories about the bus trip. One filming a few years ago documented his trip with McCandless’s sister, Carine. Last year a television crew followed Mike’s group “into the wild,” where they were all forced to turn back by an unmanageable Teklanika crossing. This year he declined the Travel Channel’s request to accompany him, and I’m very grateful to him that I was able to enjoy the adventure without a camera or boom mic up my arse. Mike is an interesting character. He really hates the government- ALL government- and enjoys talking about that a whole lot. His policy is that while the group will of course help each other in any way possible, each member is solely responsible for his own decisions, preferences, and safe passage.

I’m going to respect the privacy of my hiking companions and say only that they were all friendly, fun, competent, and brave, and I look forward to visiting them when traveling in their respective countries. Good company is critical- I’ve now heard a number of first-hand accounts of meltdowns on the trail. One young lady sat down, crying hysterically for rescue, although they’d not yet reached the river and she was in no ostensible danger. One hiker we met had to abandon some of his gear and chase his friend back towards the road when the friend freaked out, wailing that he was “going to die out here.” A group we met near the trailhead had aborted their trip before the first river crossing, insisting they had “smelled bears.” I personally witnessed a young man who declined our invitation to cross the Tek with us plunge straight from the trail into the waist deep rapids without even pausing to scout the banks for a safer crossing point. He hadn’t made it half way before the current overwhelmed him and he froze in mute panic; I doubt I’ll ever forget the expression of terror on his face, staring up at us wide-eyed as we shouted to him to turn back. He was knocked down twice, struggled back to the bank, fell to his knees and babbled thanks for his life. He never made the bus, turned back the next day. I have heard of people who attempted the hike with no food, no gear. Perhaps the fact that McCandless dove headlong into his adventure without sufficient experience or provisions inspires some of his young fans to be similarly impetuous. Perhaps in their enthusiasm they lose sight of the fact that Chris never walked back out.

Through a combination of good sense and good fortune we all made it safely to the bus and back, and to balance the previous scare-agraph I should mention that this can be easily done. If it is important to you to visit bus 142, the hike is very doable with the caveat that the Teklanika will ultimately determine whether you succeed. There is very little elevation change along the entire route. If a visit to the bus isn’t particularly high on your bucket list, consider doing something else. As hiking trails go (and I’ve seen quite a few), the Stampede is rather miserable. You will spend at least 50% of your hike slogging through ankle, calf, even waist-deep water punctuated by pits and fields of black mud that can suck the shoes off your feet. The Teklanika crossing should be taken very seriously- my return crossing with two other guys who’d decided to hike out ahead of the group was very, very scary. Like Mccandless, we returned to our marked crossing place to find the water deeper and faster than the day before. We scouted the bank until we found a less terrifying (though not confidence-inspiring) spot, linked arms, and carefully waded into the waist-deep rapids that had come only to mid-thigh on our first crossing. Pausing after every step, shouting instructions to each other, we worked to suppress and conceal the fear we all later admitted we’d felt. We let out loud victory whoops on reaching the opposite shore. Looking back out across the river, we saw that moose hunters on ATV’s had been watching our crossing, most likely waiting for us to eat shit. They grinned across the river at us, no doubt relieved we hadn’t ruined their day by requiring rescue, mounted their 4 wheelers, and motored off in search of giant ungulates.

Yes, if it is important to you to see the bus, it’s still there. Or perhaps you’re like me, and the fact that it’s there is reason enough.

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