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This Is The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Man Whose Journey Became The Film Into The Wild

Image: Christopher McCandless
At first, nobody knew who the body belonged to, only that it was that of a young man. He was 5 foot 8 inches tall, and weighed only 67 pounds when he died. He had obviously lain there, on an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, for days. And although the mystery of the dead hiker’s identity would eventually be solved, he would always remain an enigma.
Image: Carine McCandless via Outside
Christopher Johnson McCandless was born on February 12, 1968, in El Segundo, California. His parents were Walt and Wilhelmina McCandless, and he had a younger sister called Carine. His father also had six other children from a previous marriage, all of whom lived with their mother.
Image: Carine McCandless via Outside
When Chris McCandless was about eight years old, his family moved to Virginia in Washington, DC. His father was employed by NASA while his mother worked at an aerospace and defense company. Later, the pair formed their own profitable business and worked from home. At high school McCandless did well both in academics and sports, making captain of the cross-country team.
Image: Carine McCandless via Destinations Magazine
McCandless made his first long journey before starting university, touring 10,000 miles in his car with just himself for company. Then, straight after graduating from Emory University with honors, he took to traveling even more earnestly. Giving the bulk of his money away to charity and severing links with his family, the young graduate took odd jobs to subsidize his nomadic way of life.
Image: Bismarck Tribune
During the early 1990s, McCandless made his way through Arizona and California to South Dakota. By now going by the alias “Alexander Supertramp,” in Arizona he ditched his car and began hitchhiking. “Alex” spent October 1990 working in South Dakota for grain elevator owner Wayne Westerberg. Then, after an illegal excursion into Mexico, he returned to work for Westerberg again in January 1992.
Image: Jon Krakauer via The New Yorker
Three months later, in April 1992, McCandless began his journey north. He sent Westerberg a final postcard from Fairbanks, Alaska on April 27 of that year. “This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne,” he wrote. “It might be a very long time before I return south. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild. Alex.”
Image: WildWildWiki
The last person to see Chris McCandless alive was Fairbanks resident Jim Gallien. The local electrician gave McCandless a lift to the start of the Stampede Trail, the challenging hiking track where McCandless was headed. Gallien told The New Yorker in 1993 that he asked the young adventurer if was carrying a compass. “I don’t want a compass,” came the reply. “I don’t have to know where I am.”
Image: YouTube/Smithsonian Channel
McCandless lacked more than a compass, however. Gallien noted that the hiker carried only a light backpack and appeared woefully unprepared for the tough trail ahead. But despite the older man’s repeated warnings, McCandless would not be dissuaded. The only concession Alex, as he’d introduced himself, made was to accept a sandwich and a pair of rubber boots from Gallien.
Image: Travis
The next time anyone saw Chris McCandless, at least as far as we know, was on September 6, 1992. That day, hunters Gordon Samel and Ken Thompson were among six people who happened to arrive at the converted bus McCandless had been living in. It was parked next to the Stampede Trail near the Denali National Park boundary.
Image: YouTube/Smithsonian Channel
On the door of the bus was a note. “S.O.S. I need your help, I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here,” it read. “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. August?” The note, along with a terrible stench, were ominous signs.
Image: Paxson Woelber
Through the window, Thompson and Samel saw a blue sleeping bag on a bunk. “I stood on a stump, reached through a back window, and gave the bag a shake,” Samel told Jon Krakauer, writing for Outside magazine in 1993. “It wasn’t until I walked around to the other side and saw a head sticking out that I knew for certain what it was.”
Image: YouTube/Smithsonian Channel
The following morning, the body of Chris McCandless was airlifted out by helicopter. It had been lying there for about two and a half weeks. Starvation was considered the most likely cause of death, but the deceased’s identity was a mystery. That is, until his last employer, Wayne Westerberg, heard about the dead hiker on a radio broadcast and helped to identify McCandless.
Image: Devon Christopher Adams
One of the first people to be fascinated by the Chris McCandless story was journalist Jon Krakauer. After writing his article about the tragedy for Outside, he went on to author a best-selling book on the subject. That book, Into the Wild, captured the imagination of millions, and in 2007 it was made into an award-winning Hollywood movie by Sean Penn.
Image: YouTube/izaclick
Every year now, people from around the globe visit the site where Chris McCandless died. These modern-day pilgrims brave cold river waters and mosquito swarms to leave notes on the dilapidated bus. Moreover, many of them are as unprepared for the hike as McCandless was. Sadly, one visitor from Switzerland drowned in a river while on the trail to the bus.
Image: via Appalachiantrailnoir
However, not everyone is so admiring – some Alaskans in particular. “He’s been glorified in death because he was unprepared,” according to Dermot Cole, a columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Meanwhile, Craig Medred from the Anchorage Daily News went even further in a 2013 article in which he called McCandless a “suicidal narcissist” and a “bum, thief and poacher.”
Image: YouTube Movies/Paramount
Brave adventurer or clueless greenhorn, the debate around McCandless continues. He has had plenty of defenders, among them Sean Penn. “I think he did very well by any standard, including Alaskan,” the actor and director told Men’s Journal in 2012. Krakauer, too, is on McCandless’ side. “He wasn’t incompetent,” he wrote in his book, “he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were.”
Image: via Appalachiantrailnoir
How McCandless supported himself during his time in the wilderness is recorded in his diary. The young man lived on a meager diet of squirrels, birds and berries. Only once did he manage to snare something sizeable when he shot a moose, but sadly he didn’t know how to preserve the meat. Wracked by hunger, at one point he unsuccessfully tried to walk to the highway, before returning to the bus to continue his descent into starvation.
Image: via The New Yorker
Moreover, Krakauer does not believe it was unpreparedness that killed McCandless. In his book, he speculates that the hapless backpacker was poisoned by the seeds of the wild potato. Indeed, since the book’s publication, Krakauer has had these seeds tested extensively. Based on the results, the author believes toxins in the seeds, not simply starvation, are likely responsible for McCandless’ tragic death.
Image: Baltimore Public Library
Even if the “how” of Chris McCandless’ death was ever to be agreed upon, the “why” will always be a puzzle. In 2014 his sister Carine published a book, The Wild Truth, about her brother and their family. In it, she details the abuse she and Chris suffered at the hands of their parents. She thinks this is what drove her sibling to leave home and cut all family ties. Still, she does not blame their parents for his death.
Image: Wayne Westerberg via Men’s Journal
“I think Chris would have been an adventurer and drawn to nature no matter what,” Carine told Outside in 2014. “I think it was just innate. There are a lot of people who go off and do extreme adventures, but the difference is that they let someone know where they’re going.”

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