When the body of a young male hiker is discovered in Alaska’s Denali National Park, Outside magazine assigns journalist Jon Krakauer to cover the story. The young man turns out to be the runaway son of a well-to-do East Coast family, Christopher (Chris) McCandless, who after graduating from Emory University in May 1990, gave away his savings to charity, abandoned his car, burned all his cash, and hitchhiked across the country “to live off the land” in the Alaskan wilderness.
Five months earlier, on April 28, 1992, Jim Gallien, driving on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska, spots a young hitchhiker and offers him a ride. The young man is Christopher McCandless, but he introduces himself as “Alex” and says that he intends to “live off the land for a few months” in Denali National Park. Gallien, noticing that Chris’s backpack is far too light to be carrying enough supplies for an extended camping trip, tries to dissuade from hiking alone into the woods. But Chris refuses Gallien’s advice, so Gallien insists that the young man take his lunch and boots with him. Chris reluctantly accepts these gifts and walks onto the snowy Stampede Trail. Gallien figures that the boy will reemerge out of the forest when he becomes hungry.
Later that year, in September, a trio of moose hunters, a couple from Anchorage and an ATV driver, happen upon an abandoned bus in Denali National Park, where they discover Chris’ decomposing body. Alaska State troopers recover the corpse, taking it to a crime lab, which determines the cause of death to be starvation.
Two months after the discovery of McCandless’ body, Krakauer interviews grain elevator operator Wayne Westerberg, who recounts the day he picked up Chris, (going by “Alex” at the time), on his way back to Carthage, South Dakota. Chris works so hard on Westerberg’s grain elevator crew that Wayne offers him a job. Yet Wayne is arrested for stealing satellite TV codes, forcing Chris to hit the road in search of work.
Going back to October 1990, McCandless’ yellow Datsun is found abandoned in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Through his research, Krakauer figures out that after a flash flood dampened the Datsun’s engine, Chris abandoned the malfunctioning car to conceal his predicament from his parents and the authorities.
Chris then hitchhikes throughout the west. Along the way, he camps with drifters Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob, flips burgers at McDonald’s in Bullhead City, canoes the Colorado River to Mexico, and befriends eighty-one-year-old Ronald Franz.
On March 14, 1992, Chris returns to Carthage to work for Wayne Westerberg, but leaves at the end of the month, having gathered just enough money and supplies to pursue his dream of living out in the Alaskan wilderness.
Hitchhiking north, Chris arrives in Alaska on April 18, 1992 and crosses the Teklanika River onto the Stampede Trail ten days later. Off the Sushana River, Chris discovers an abandoned city bus, where he makes camp. Throughout the summer, Chris hunts and forages, eventually shooting down a moose. Butchering the moose’s messy carcass to preserve its meat fills Chris with regret, but through reading, journaling and self-reflection, McCandless comes to terms with his kill and decides to return to civilization.
However, the thawing summer floodwaters of the Teklanika River prevent Chris from crossing, so he returns to the bus to regroup.
On July 30, Chris frantically writes in his journal that he is very weak and in grave danger, but also mentions potato seeds. Too weak to hunt or gather, McCandless dies soon thereafter, having spent his last days discovering that the greatest happinesses in life must be shared with others.
Investigating the potato seeds further, Krakauer theorizes that McCandless died of swainsonine poisoning after consuming wild potato seeds laced with a toxic mold.
Having solved the mystery of McCandless’s death, Krakauer accompanies Chris’ parents’, Walt and Billie, to pay their respects at the bus where Chris died. Though comforted by the surrounding landscape’s beauty, Walt and Billie leave still nursing heavy hearts.
The Wild Truth, the new memoir by Carine McCandless, is rough going at times. The book covers many years and a lot of ground, and much of it is emotionally powerful in a positive way, including new details that Carine offers about what the late Christopher McCandless was like as a brother. (Short answer: loving and protective.) But this family history features a startling amount of toxic behavior, most of it coming from Carine's and Chris’s parents, Walt and Billie McCandless. Carine describes them as a pair who, at their best, were good providers and fun, caring people. But at their worst, she writes, they were cruel and abusive, and this side of them was on display all too frequently when the kids were growing up in El Segundo, California, and, later, Annandale, Virginia.
According to Carine, Walt was a violent bully who drank heavily and sometimes flew into rages that ended with whippings and beatings for his wife and children. Billie was the primary victim, Carine writes, but she was also a victimizer, belittling and betraying both kids at crucial junctures. A vivid example occurred a week after Carine graduated from high school in 1989, when she came home from a date just before a household curfew. Walt, she writes, was waiting for her at the door, intoxicated, and he jerked her violently into the house.
“My feet crossed over the threshold without touching it,” she writes, “my sandals falling to the floor as he lifted me by the neck and shoulders, repeatedly slamming me against the wall. A deep, fierce roar escaped him as he threw me onto the couch and trapped me under his weight.” Walt soon let Carine go, but not before putting his hands around her throat and calling her a “fucking bitch.” Billie was away that night, at a family beach house in Maryland. Carine says that when she got Billie on the phone and told her what had happened, her mother said: “You know what, Carine? I think you’re a lying bitch.”
The book also explores in great detail another McCandless family drama: the fact that Chris and Carine were illegitimate. In the early 1960s, when Walt was working at Hughes Aircraft in southern California, he was married to a woman named Marcia, with whom he eventually had six children. Billie worked at Hughes as a secretary, and she and Walt began having an affair. For years, Walt kept two households: one for Marcia and her kids, one for Billie, Chris, and Carine. Chris was born to Billie in 1968, only three months after Marcia had given birth to a fifth child, a boy named Shannon. Quinn McCandless, Walt and Marcia’s sixth child, was born in 1969. Carine, the youngest of Walt’s eight children, was born to Billie in 1971. Walt and Billie finally married a few years after Marcia divorced Walt in 1972.
This second family proved to be a godsend for Carine over the long haul—she’s close with them still—but the legacy of abuse and deception weighed heavily on Chris, and one of the driving points of The Wild Truth is that his famous, ultimately fatal journey of adventure and discovery was motivated in large part by a desire to escape his parents, a theme that will be familiar to anyone who saw Sean Penn’s film version of Into the Wild, released in 2007. But Carine’s new book fleshes out the causes of Chris’s actions with much more detail and impact. “People think they understand our story because they know how his ended,” she writes, “but they don’t know how it all began.”
Finally, the book includes another fascinating piece of backstory, unknown until now: Carine told Jon Krakauer, author of 1996’s best selling Into the Wild, about Walt and Billie’s flaws when he was researching his book. At the time, Carine wasn’t ready to go public with this information, and she asked Krakauer to keep that part of the story private. In a foreword to The Wild Truth, he says that honoring this promise was no problem—journalists keep information off the record all the time. In addition, he writes: “I shared Carine’s desire to avoid causing undue pain to Walt, Billie, and Carine’s siblings from Walt’s first marriage.”
Krakauer also thought people would be able to grasp, from “indirect clues” in his narrative, that Chris’s behavior during his final years was explained by “the volatile dynamics” of his upbringing.
“Many readers did understand this, as it turned out,” Krakauer writes. “But many did not. A lot of people came away from reading Into the Wild without grasping why Chris did what he did. Lacking explicit facts, they concluded that he was merely self-absorbed, unforgivably cruel to his parents, mentally ill, suicidal, and/or witless.”
The Wild Truth will be published on November 11, and what remains to be seen is how Walt and Billie respond to a work that purports to lay everything bare and could be extremely damaging to their reputations. They have made only one blanket public statement so far, in response to a request from ABC’s 20/20 that they comment for a segment about The Wild Truththat aired on November 7.
“After a brief review of its contents and intention, we concluded that this fictionalized writing has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, or his character,” they wrote. “The whole unfortunate event in Chris’s life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams—not a spiteful, hyped up, attention-getting story about his family.” Walt and Billie declined a request from Outside to comment further on the book.
In advance of The Wild Truth’s release, Carine McCandless spoke with Outside editorial director Alex Heard about the what, why, and why now of a memoir that seems destined to arrive with a bang.
Readers will be shocked by the abuse you describe in the book, which is very frightening. What was it like living with this, and why did you decide it was time to tell people what really happened?
My hope is that this new information about a very well-known story is going to be helpful to people, and eye-opening. I want to empower others who face tough circumstances, specifically domestic violence. My point was not to villainize my parents in any way, shape, or form. People don’t learn from villains. My point is to humanize them, so that people can learn from the situation.
I don’t like to use the word “expose.” This is just the truth, the information, the answers to all the “why” questions that have been lingering about why Chris felt the way he did, why he left the way he did, and what pushed him to the extreme.
What kind of reactions are you getting from your extended family—the sons and daughters that Walt had with Marcia?
It’s important to acknowledge that, while all my siblings were supportive of me and gave me their trust and respect for why I felt I needed to do this, there were a couple who wished I wasn’t doing it. Because it’s tough having your family in the public eye so much, and then being thrust into it again. I really want it to be clear how much I worked, in the writing of this, to respect my family’s space and their comfort level. I worked very hard not to speak for anyone who chose not to have their voice directly present outside of the facts, including my siblings, and I also was careful not to speak for Chris, unless it’s something he directly said to me or wrote to me in a letter.
There are three different episodes in the book in which Chris, you, and you and Marcia’s kids together try to confront Walt and Billie—either by letter, e-mail, or in person—and have a healthy, if confrontational, discussion about their behavior and why you think it needs to change. Every time, they give a sort of flippant, dismissive response, which doesn’t indicate that they see much need to self-assess. Have they read the book, and do you have any sense yet of how they’re reacting?
My parents were sent a copy of the book ahead of time, because I did want to allow them, with all due respect, the opportunity to respond however they wished to. And I didn’t want them to be blindsided, you know, by the media or in an e-mail.
Have you heard anything about how they’re taking it?
Nothing has come directly to me. I don’t want to speak for Walt and Billie, but I’ll just tell you what I personally expect. I think their history has shown that denial would be very likely. My mother has told me in the past that, because of her and my dad’s religious beliefs, the slate has been wiped clean, and that the events of our past just don’t matter anymore—they’re non-existent. But I believe honesty is imperative in the process of healing from family turmoil and tragedy. In the book, I write of having raw and selfish optimism, holding out a slight hope that removing the final masks from my parents might bring upon them some relief and allow some healing within my family. This is certainly not my expectation, but again, I want to be respectful and not speak for them.
And, obviously, you can’t try to predict what they’ll do.
I don’t expect it to be a pleasant situation. But over the years, I’ve really come to feel that I did a disservice to Chris and my extended family—maybe even to my parents—by allowing these things to be buried and to manifest as misconceptions about Chris.
I also want to make it clear that I have the highest respect for Jon Krakauer, who did a remarkable job writing Into the Wild. I realized when I was writing my book what a difficult task I put on him when I shared a lot of the struggles and details about the family dysfunction in order for him to better understand Chris. But I made him promise—before I let him read Chris’s letters, before I told him these things—that he wouldn’t expose any of it in the book. He had such high integrity in doing that, and I admire him for it.
A key moment in your memoir comes around the time of Chris’s graduation from Emory University in 1990. He tells you he’s going to allow your parents to fool themselves into believing that their dysfunctional relationship with him is stabilizing. But then he tells you what he really has in mind, in a letter that you’re sharing for the first time in your book: “I’m going to completely knock them out of my life … I’m going to divorce them as my parents.” And you make it clear that, when Chris set a course like that, he stuck with it.
Yes, that’s right.
You also emphasize that Chris had a sense of adventure at a very young age, a love of nature, and that he was drawn to Alaska by the books he liked as a boy. Have you ever thought about whether—without the catalyst of him wanting to get away from your parents—he would have gone off wandering anyway?
I think Chris would have been an adventurer and drawn to nature no matter what. 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.
Chris was a smart and reasonable young man, but he was also a young man. From conversations I’ve had with Jon, I know that he, his friends, and fellow mountaineers remember when they were young and how many times they came out of a situation where they nearly didn’t make it out alive. It might seem reckless to them now, when they’re older, wiser, and more experienced. But at the time their boldness could be blinding, or perhaps that was the point.
Because of Chris’s childhood situation, he felt this need to push himself to extremes and prove something. Things came pretty easily to Chris—and by that I mean he was smart and he was good at everything he tried to do—so he had to up the ante a bit and make things harder. Chris believed firmly that if you knew exactly how the adventure was going to turn out, it wasn’t really an adventure. He understood the risks he was taking, and they were calculated, and there was a reason for it.
But to answer the crux of your question: People ask me all the time if I blame Walt and Billie for Chris’s death. I don’t. Chris made certain decisions and placed himself in that perilous situation. He also accepted responsibility for his mistakes, and accepted his fate bravely at the end. I do, however, hold Walt and Billie accountable for Chris’s disappearance and for us not knowing where he was. That was absolutely related to his feeling a need to escape and disconnect.
Your decision to write the book was a long time coming, and you’ve indicated that it stemmed from years of watching Walt and Billie self-interpret events to their benefit. You offer a particularly telling scene. It’s the morning after Chris’s wake in Virginia, during a breakfast at your parents’ home, and your mother says, “Everyone was so kind and forgiving of Chris for what he’s done to this family.” That must have been—
Yeah, I remember that morning! I was in this haze of not even being able to fathom that Chris was gone. And I’m balancing my anger with why I know that he left, in the way that he did, and why we didn’t know where he was. I’m struggling with that anger, along with the empathy my parents deserve for having lost their son.
Chris was not just some insolent teen rebel who had nothing to complain about and took off, and I didn’t write this book in defense of him. But what really made it difficult for me to continue to allow the unspoken to remain unspoken was that, with that information not being out there, it gave my parents the opportunity to almost bury themselves. I saw it coming and I warned them many times, when they would do outreach and were speaking about Chris and portraying themselves as martyrs who were honoring him, no matter how much he had hurt them.
I begged them many times, “Please, you need to stop doing that.” In reply, they kind of used Jon’s book as a bible: “It’s not in here, so it didn’t happen, Carine. We don’t know what you’re talking about.” And that angered me very much, because I had protected them in that book.
Meanwhile, Jon was keeping his mouth shut and I was keeping my mouth shut, and I kept waiting for my parents to learn a lesson. And while I’m waiting, I’m keeping the rest of that lesson from millions of people around the world who are learning about this story.
What made you finally decide “now”?
It came full circle for me when I started speaking with students. In places where Into the Wild was required reading, I saw what an amazing effect it had on them, and I became more and more comfortable answering their questions. I would always answer the students honestly, and I just started giving out more information. Then I would receive letters from professors, saying, “Your visit here has changed the way I’m teaching this book.” Or when I talked to some student who I just knew was dealing with violence at home, or I could tell they were going through some abusive situation. To hear so many times how these young people finally reached out for help, for the first time, I knew I had to tell this story.
On that score, the book is not just about Chris and your parents and Into the Wild. A lot of it is about you, as an adult survivor of domestic violence and emotional trauma.
Yes, and I want people to understand that, because my intent is not to retell Into the Wild. There will be people who don’t understand why I’m talking about having kids and failed marriages and having a special-needs child with Down syndrome, when they just want to know about Chris.
The book is about Chris, but it’s more of a survival story. The best way I can help people learn from Chris and our experiences and our childhood is to show them directly how I learned from Chris and how I learned from our family’s dysfunction, how I survived. So I utilize myself in both positive and self-deprecating ways. I can’t criticize other people for not learning from mistakes if I don’t acknowledge my own mistakes and what I learned. This book very much goes into all of that.
There’s a moment when you and Chris are both little kids and you’re walking to church. You’re reminded of a waterfall you both saw during a family trip to the Shenandoah, and you recall Chris saying, “See, Carine? That’s the purity of nature, it may be harsh in its honesty but it never lies to you.”
Truth was so important to Chris, and I want people, when they turn the last page of this book, to feel empowered in knowing that all things that happen in life, both good and bad, have a purpose. Chris used to talk to me about how everything that happens brings with it an opportunity, and we used to talk about how even negative things that occur are fuel and you can use that energy—it’s all energy, you’re in charge of how it affects you, and you can use it to launch yourself in a positive direction. I think Chris saw nature as an escape from all the things that he was lacking in his childhood. Things might be harsh, and nature is sometimes harsh, but nature is not going to manipulate you.
Chris and I knew the good things that we had, just by virtue of being kids who grew up in America, but that didn’t make the negative things any less real. I had to navigate my way through that, and it took me a long time, and I had to face that I couldn’t navigate successfully without acknowledging the full truth. I know this book is going to be the beginning of a long, really tough process. I know I’ll be heralded as brave by some and I’ll be criticized as cruel by others. But I believe these lessons can help those who read them as much as it helped me to write them down. I wrote this book with a focus on truth and with pure intent. The person who taught me that this is the only thing that matters is Chris.
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Behind The Famous Story, A Difficult 'Wild Truth'
The Wild Truth
by Carine McCandless and Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into the Wild delved into the riveting story of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old man from an affluent family outside Washington, D.C., who graduated with honors from Emory, then gave away the bulk of his money, burned the rest and severed all ties with his family. After tramping around the country for nearly two years, he headed into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992. His emaciated body was found a little over four months later.
Krakauer's book struck a nerve with readers. But he never fully answered what motivated McCandless' ascetic renunciation, and the book drew scores of letters accusing him of arrogance, ignorance and selfishness.
In a fascinating 2013 followup article in The New Yorker, Krakauer finally confirmed the cause of McCandless' death: a toxic amino acid in wild potato seeds, previously thought to be benign. He hoped that the new findings would squelch some of those accusations.
Now Chris' younger sister, Carine McCandless, 21 at the time of her brother's death, has come out with The Wild Truth, which tells a story as poisonous as wild potato seeds. Her memoir reveals what Chris was running from — and should lay to rest allegations that her brother's behavior was cruel to their parents.
Carine McCandless gets the grim truth out of the way up front in her introduction, with the quick determination of someone tearing off a painful Band-Aid: She and her brother Chris grew up with a volatile, viciously abusive father who made their weak-willed yet hyper-competent mother both his victim and his accomplice.
Carine, who was a valuable source for both Krakauer's book and Sean Penn's movie adaptation, had shared this dark family history with Krakauer back in the early 1990s, though strictly off the record in order to protect her parents "from full exposure in case they could change for the better." (Not surprisingly, they didn't.) And even though it compromised his book, Krakauer honored Carine's restrictions. Instead, he hinted at the truth with repeated allusions to an "overbearing" father, which some readers caught, though many did not.
The Wild Truth opens with several harrowing scenes. After vividly describing one of their father's attacks on her mother, McCandless moves on to the double beatings she and her brother suffered, "forced down, side by side" across his lap. She writes, "The snap of the leather was sharp and quick between our wails. I will never forget craning my neck in search of leniency, only to see the look of sadistic pleasure that lit up my father's eyes and his terrifying smile — like an addict in the climax of his high."
Fortunately, McCandless — while searingly honest — doesn't sustain this level of distressing intensity, or I doubt I would have been able to make it through. What she does do is chronicle Billie and Walt McCandless' miserable wine- and gin-fueled marriage and its lasting repercussions on their children.
In her efforts to present a balanced picture, Carine flags happier times, too — like the camping trips her brother loved. Family photos paint a sunnier picture, though she makes clear that these command performances were part of an elaborate false front.
Billie and Walt's relationship began at Hughes Aircraft, where she was a young secretary and he was her married boss, a rising star electrical engineer. In the next few years, he would father two more children with his wife, Marcia, and two with Billie — Chris and Carine — while brutalizing and lying to both women. When Carine was 1 year old, Marcia finally escaped with her six children. But although Billie repeatedly vowed to leave Walt, raising her children's hopes, she never followed through.
The Wild Truth moves swiftly from Carine's closeness with her brother — invariably pictured hugging her protectively — to a candid (though, not surprisingly, less compelling) account of her lifelong search for unconditional love and self-worth through three marriages, close bonding with her half-siblings, devoted motherhood and owning a successful business. Interestingly, she accepts her beloved brother's abandonment without bitterness, seeing it as an unfortunate casualty of his clean break with their parents.
The Wild Truth is undoubtedly a "courageous book," as Krakauer asserts in his gracious foreword, and Carine McCandless comes across above all as a resilient survivor. It lacks the resonance of great literature (including Into the Wild ), which less focus on her marriages and a deeper exploration of the journalistic ramifications of restricting information, or of the psychology of abusers might have provided.
But The Wild Truth is an important book on two fronts: It sets the record straight about a story that has touched thousands of readers, and it opens up a conversation about hideous domestic violence hidden behind a mask of prosperity and propriety.
Off the road
Sean Penn's spellbinding film adaptation of this book stays close to the source. We meet Christopher (Emile Hirsch) as an idealistic dreamer, in reaction against his proud parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and his bewildered sister (Jena Malone).
He had good grades at Emory; his future in law school was right there in his grasp. Why did he disappear from their lives, why was his car found abandoned, where was he, and why, why, why?
He keeps journals in which he sees himself in the third person as a heroic loner, renouncing civilization, returning to the embrace of nature. In centuries past such men might have been saints, retreating to a cave or hidden hermitage, denying themselves all pleasures except subsistence. He sees himself not as homeless, but as a man freed from homes.
In the book, Krakauer traces his movements through the memories of people he encounters on his journey. It was an impressive reporting achievement to track them down, and Penn's film affectionately embodies them in strong performances. These are people who take in the odd youth, feed him, shelter him, give him clothes, share their lives, mentor him and worry as he leaves to continue his quest, which seems to them, correctly, as doomed.
By now McCandless has renamed himself Alexander Supertramp. He is validated by his lifestyle choice. He meets such people as Rainey and Jan (Brian Dieker and Catherine Keener), leftover hippies still happily rejecting society, and Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a hard-drinking, friendly farmer. The most touching contact he makes is with Ron (Hal Holbrook), an older man who sees him clearly and with apprehension, and begins to think of him as a wayward grandson. Christopher lectures this man, who has seen it all, on what he is missing and asks him to follow him up a steep hillside to see the next horizon. Ron tries, before he admits he is no longer in condition.
And then McCandless disappears from the maps of memory, into unforgiving Alaska. Yes, it looks beautiful. It is all he dreamed of. He finds an abandoned bus where no bus should be and makes it his home. He tries hunting, not very successfully. He lives off the land, but the land is a zero-tolerance system. From his journals and other evidence, Penn reconstructs his final weeks. Emile Hirsch plays him in a hypnotic performance, turning skeletal, his eyes sinking into his skull while they still burn with zeal. It is great acting, and more than acting.
Into the wild sparknotes
After graduating from Emory University, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.
Based on a true story. After graduating from Emory University, Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire savings account to charity, and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters who shape his life.
A young man bravely sets out alone on what turns into a majestic journey to explore the beauty and wonder of the world. Throughout his travels, which ultimatelty lead him into the wild and wilderness, he seeks and ultimately finds pleasure and joy along with a sense of truth and purpose he has been yearning for all his life. Along the way he meets and deeply touches a cast of others who are all in their own ways also looking to escape or move on from the past and enjoy life again.
Based on the true story of 19 year-old Christopher McCandless who walked out of his privileged life and promising future to become a back-to-nature wanderer in the 1990s. On the way, he encounters a series of adventures and people that will all shape him in a unique, meaningful way.
In the spring of 1990, Christopher McCandless obtains his undergraduate degree from Emory. Watching him get his degree are his wealthy parents, Walt McCandless and Billie McCandless, and his teenaged sister, Carine McCandless. Before his parents and sister head home to Virginia following the convocation, Chris, refusing his parents' gift of a new car to replace his old Datsun which he states works perfectly fine, tells them that he has thoughts of going into Harvard Law, he having received excellent grades in what were largely classes focusing on global social consciousness. Walt, Billie and Carine will learn by the end of the summer that Chris had no intention of going to Harvard as he has since moved from his apartment in Atlanta without a word to them, he arranging with the post office to hold his mail for a couple of months before being "returned to sender" to give him a head start in his escape from his family. Chris' Datsun is eventually discovered abandoned in the Arizona desert, the authorities believing it being done on purpose as opposed to Chris being abducted. Walt and Billie intend to continue to search for Chris until they know conclusively what has happened to him. Carine, having had much the same upbringing as Chris, believes she understands what he is doing in making this escape. What he has done is either donated most of his money to Oxfam or burned it, and has destroyed all of his ID in an effort to start life anew as a child of the Earth, he rechristening himself Alexander Supertramp. This move is in rebellion to much of western society, and most specifically against the type of life his parents epitomize, they who he believes should never have gotten married and are hypocrites in portraying what they believe society expects of them, being generally unhappy with each other and life in the process. He ultimately wants to live off the land, carrying with him only what material possessions he will need, but wants to experience freedom by traveling the country by thumbing rides or riding the rails, working the odd job until he earns enough to purchase what he needs at any give time, and obtaining some skills he knows he will need to survive in the destination he has in mind when he is ready: the wilds of Alaska. Despite stating that he does not want or need attachments, he does make some human connections along the way, and not necessarily to/with like-minded people.
The synopsis below may give away important plot points.
- A young man leaves his middle class existence in pursuit of freedom from relationships and obligation. Giving up his home, family, all possessions but the few he carried on his back, and donating all his savings to charity, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) embarks on a journey throughout America. His eventual aim is to travel into Alaska, into the wild, to spend time with nature, with 'real' existence, away from the trappings of the modern world.
In the 20 months leading up to his Great Alaskan Adventure, his travels lead him on a path of self-discovery, to examine and appreciate the world around him and to reflect on and heal from his troubled childhood and parents' sordid and abusive relationship.
When he reaches Alaska, he finds he is insufficiently prepared and despite making it through the winter he prepares to return home in spring, only to find the frozen stream he crossed in the snow has become an impassable, raging torrent, and that he is trapped. With no means of sustaining himself adequately, he eventually starves to death in his so-sought-after isolation.
Throughout his epic journey the people he meets both influence and are influenced by the person he is and bring him to the final and tragic realization that "Happiness is only real when shared".
It must be noted that this is not the true story, it is the synopsis of the film. Any background information on the film or its characters and setting can and should be found in the user comments section of this film.
In April 1992, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) arrives in a remote area of the Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and sets up a campsite in an abandoned bus. At first, McCandless is content with the isolation, the beauty of nature, and the thrill of living off the land. He hunts wild animals with a .22-caliber rifle, reads books, and keeps a diary as he prepares for himself a new life in the wild.
Two years earlier in May 1990, McCandless graduated with high honors from Emory University. Shortly afterwards, McCandless rejects his conventional life by destroying all of his credit cards and identification documents. He donates nearly his entire savings of $24,000 to Oxfam, and sets out on a cross-country drive in his well-used yet reliable Datsun to experience life in the wilderness. However, McCandless does not tell his parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie McCandless (Marcia Gay Harden) or his sister Carine (Jena Malone) what he is doing or where he is going, and refuses to keep in touch with them after his departure, leaving them to become increasingly anxious and eventually desperate.
At Lake Mead, McCandless' automobile is caught in a flash flood. forcing him to abandon it and begin hitchhiking. He burns what remains of his dwindling cash supply and assumes a new name: Alexander Supertramp. In northern California, McCandless encounters a hippie couple named Jan Burres (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian H. Dierker). Rainey tells McCandless about his failing relationship with Jan, which McCandless would rekindle. By September, McCandless stops in Carthage, South Dakota to work for a contract harvesting company owned by Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), but he is forced to leave after Westerberg is arrested for satellite piracy.
McCandless then travels to the Colorado River and, though he is told by park rangers that he may not kayak down it without a license, he ignores their warnings and paddles downriver until he eventually arrives in Mexico. There, his kayak is lost in a dust storm and he crosses back into the United States on foot. Unable to get a ride, he starts traveling via freight train to Los Angeles. Not long after arriving, however, he starts feeling corrupted by modern civilization and decides to leave. Later, McCandless is forced to switch his traveling method back to hitchhiking after he is beaten by a railroad bull.
In December 1991, McCandless arrives at Slab City in the Imperial Valley of California, and encounters Jan and Rainey again. There he meets Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart), a teenager who falls for McCandless. After the holidays, McCandless decides to continue heading for Alaska, much to everyone's sadness. While camping near Salton City, California, McCandless encounters Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), a retiree who recounts the story of the loss of his family in a car accident while he was serving in the army. He now occupies his time in a workshop as an amateur leather worker. Franz teaches McCandless the craft of leatherwork, resulting in the making of a belt that details McCandless' travels. After spending several months with Franz, McCandless decides to leave for Alaska despite the upset of Franz, who has become quite close to McCandless. On parting, Franz gives McCandless his old camping and travel gear along with the offer to adopt him as his grandchild, but McCandless simply tells him that they should discuss it after he returns from Alaska, and then departs.
Months later at the abandoned bus, life for McCandless becomes harder and he becomes less discerning. As his supplies begin to run out, he realizes that nature is also harsh and uncaring. In the pain of realization, McCandless concludes that true happiness can only be found when shared with others, and seeks to return from the wild to his friends and family. However, he finds that the stream he had crossed during the winter has become wide, deep, and violent due to the thaw, and he is unable to cross.
Saddened, he returns to the bus, now as a prisoner who is no longer in control of his fate and can only hope for help from the outside. In a desperate act, McCandless is forced to gather and eat roots and plants, but he confuses similar plants and becomes ill as a result. Slowly dying, he continues to document his process of self-realization and accepts his fate, as he imagines his family for one last time. He writes a farewell to the world and crawls into his sleeping bag to die. Two weeks later, his body is found by moose hunters. Shortly afterwards, Carine returns her brother's ashes by airplane from Alaska to Virginia in her backpack.
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Into the Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young Emory graduate who is found dead in the Alaskan wilderness in September 1992, when he is twenty-four. McCandless grows up in wealthy Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and is a very gifted athlete and scholar, who from an early age shows deep intensity, passion, and a strict moral compass. After graduating from high school McCandless spends the summer alone on a road trip across the country, during which he discovers that his father secretly had a second family during Chris’s childhood. McCandless returns home and starts as a freshman at Emory, but his anger over this betrayal and his parents’ keeping it from him grows worse over time.
By the time that McCandless is a senior at Emory, he lives monastically, has driven away most of his friends with his intensity and moral certitude, and barely keeps in touch with his parents. He lets his parents think that he is interested in law school, but instead, after graduating with honors, he donates his $24,000 savings anonymously to charity, gets in his car, and drives away without telling anyone where he is going, abandoning the use of his real name along the way. He never contacts his parents or sister, Carine, again.
Not too long after leaving Atlanta, McCandless deserts his car in the desert after a flash flood wets the engine, and from then on, he hitchhikes around the Northwest, getting jobs here and there but not staying anywhere for long, often living on the streets, and keeping as little money and as few possessions as he can. During this time he gets to know a few people rather closely, and everyone admires his intensity and willingness to live completely by his beliefs, but he avoids true intimacy.
After about two years of itinerant travel, McCandless settles on a plan to go to Alaska and truly live in the wilderness, completely alone, and with very few supplies, to see if he can do it, to push himself to the very extremes. He spends a few months preparing, learning all he can about hunting, edible plants, etc, and then he leaves South Dakota, where he’d been working, and hitchhikes to Fairbanks. Those whom he tells about the plan all warn him that he needs to be better prepared, or should wait until later in the spring, but he is adamant and stubborn.
In April of 1992 McCandless gets dropped off near Mt. McKinley, and hikes into the wilderness. He spends the next sixteen weeks hunting small game, foraging, reading, and living in a deserted bus made to be a shelter for hunters, not seeing a single human the entire time. He is successful for the most part, although he loses significant weight. In late July, however, McCandless probably eats some moldy seeds, and the mold contains a poison that essentially causes him to starve to death, no matter how much he eats, and he is too weak to gather food anyway. McCandless is quickly incapacitated by the poison. Realizing he is going to die, he writes a goodbye message, and a few weeks later some hunters find his body in the bus.
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What to do, what to do. - thoughts were spinning in her head. - Crab, pick up that bastard's wand.