Into the wild

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For Linda


In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.

Shortly after the discovery of the corpse, I was asked by the editor of Outside magazine to report on the puzzling circumstances of the boy’s death. His name turned out to be Christopher Johnson McCandless. He’d grown up, I learned, in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where he’d excelled academically and had been an elite athlete.

Immediately after graduating, with honors, from Emory University in the summer of 1990, McCandless dropped out of sight. He changed his name, gave the entire balance of a twenty-four-thousand-dollar savings account to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet. And then he invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience. His family had no idea where he was or what had become of him until his remains turned up in Alaska.

Working on a tight deadline, I wrote a nine-thousand-word article, which ran in the January 1993 issue of the magazine, but my fascination with McCandless remained long after that issue of Outside was replaced on the newsstands by more current journalistic fare. I was haunted by the particulars of the boy’s starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own. Unwilling to let McCandless go, I spent more than a year retracing the convoluted path that led to his death in the Alaska taiga, chasing down details of his peregrinations with an interest that bordered on obsession. In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons. The result of this meandering inquiry is the book now before you.

I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless’s strange tale struck a personal note that made a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried—and largely succeeded, I think—to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless’s story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

He was an extremely intense young man and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence. Long captivated by the writing of Leo Tolstoy, McCandless particularly admired how the great novelist had forsaken a life of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute. In college McCandless began emulating Tolstoy’s asceticism and moral rigor to a degree that first astonished, and then alarmed, those who were close to him. When the boy headed off into the Alaska bush, he entertained no illusions that he was trekking into a land of milk and honey; peril, adversity, and Tol-stoyan renunciation were precisely what he was seeking. And that is what he found, in abundance.

For most of the sixteen-week ordeal, nevertheless, McCandless more than held his own. Indeed, were it not for one or two seem-

ingly insignificant blunders, he would have walked out of the woods in August 1992 as anonymously as he had walked into them in April. Instead, his innocent mistakes turned out to be pivotal and irreversible, his name became the stuff of tabloid headlines, and his bewildered family was left clutching the shards of a fierce and painful love.

A surprising number of people have been affected by the story of Chris McCandless’s life and death. In the weeks and months following the publication of the article in Outside, it generated more mail than any other article in the magazines history. This correspondence, as one might expect, reflected sharply divergent points of view: Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity—and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received. My convictions should be apparent soon enough, but I will leave it to the reader to form his or her own opinion of Chris McCandless.



APRIL 1995

[See Map2]



April 27th, 1992

Greetings from Fairbanks! This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon Territory. But I finally got here.

Please return all mail I receive to the sender. 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. P


in carthage, south dakota

Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn. He didn’t appear to be very old: eighteen, maybe nineteen at most. A rifle protruded from the young man’s backpack, but he looked friendly enough; a hitchhiker with a Remington semiautomatic isn’t the sort of thing that gives motorists pause in the forty-ninth state. Gallien steered his truck onto the shoulder and told the kid to climb in.

The hitchhiker swung his pack into the bed of the Ford and introduced himself as Alex. “Alex?” Gallien responded, fishing for a last name.

“Just Alex,” the young man replied, pointedly rejecting the bait. Five feet seven or eight with a wiry build, he claimed to be twenty-four years old and said he was from South Dakota. He explained that he wanted a ride as far as the edge of Denali National Park, where he intended to walk deep into the bush and “live off the land for a few months.”

Gallien, a union electrician, was on his way to Anchorage, 240 miles beyond Denali on the George Parks Highway; he told Alex he’d drop him off wherever he wanted. Alex’s backpack looked as though it weighed only twenty-five or thirty pounds, which struck Gallien—an accomplished hunter and woodsman—as an improbably light load for a stay of several months in the back-country, especially so early in the spring. “He wasn’t carrying anywhere near as much food and gear as you’d expect a guy to be carrying for that kind of trip,” Gallien recalls.

The sun came up. As they rolled down from the forested ridges above the Tanana River, Alex gazed across the expanse of windswept muskeg stretching to the south. Gallien wondered whether he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.

“People from Outside,” reports Gallien in a slow, sonorous drawl, “they’ll pick up a copy of Alaska magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin’ ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.’ But when they get here and actually head out into the bush—well, it isn’t like the magazines make it out to be. The rivers are big and fast. The mosquitoes eat you alive. Most places, there aren’t a lot of animals to hunt. Livin’ in the bush isn’t no picnic.”

It was a two-hour drive from Fairbanks to the edge of Denali Park. The more they talked, the less Alex struck Gallien as a nutcase. He was congenial and seemed well educated. He peppered Gallien with thoughtful questions about the kind of small game that live in the country, the kinds of berries he could eat—”that kind of thing.”

Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. Alex’s cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he’d scrounged at a gas station.

A hundred miles out of Fairbanks the highway begins to climb into the foothills of the Alaska Range. As the truck lurched over a bridge across the Nenana River, Alex looked down at the swift current and remarked that he was afraid of the water. “A year ago down in Mexico,” he told Gallien, “I was out on the ocean in a canoe, and I almost drowned when a storm came up.”

A little later Alex pulled out his crude map and pointed to a dashed red line that intersected the road near the coal-mining town of Healy. It represented a route called the Stampede Trail. Seldom traveled, it isn’t even marked on most road maps of Alaska. On Alex’s map, nevertheless, the broken line meandered west from the Parks Highway for forty miles or so before petering out in the middle of trackless wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. This, Alex announced to Gallien, was where he intended to go.

Gallien thought the hitchhiker’s scheme was foolhardy and tried repeatedly to dissuade him: “I said the hunting wasn’t easy where he was going, that he could go for days without killing any game. When that didn’t work, I tried to scare him with bear stories. I told him that a twenty-two probably wouldn’t do anything to a grizzly except make him mad. Alex didn’t seem too worried. Til climb a tree’ is all he said. So I explained that trees don’t grow real big in that part of the state, that a bear could knock down one of them skinny little black spruce without even trying. But he wouldn’t give an inch. He had an answer for everything I threw at him.”

Gallien offered to drive Alex all the way to Anchorage, buy him some decent gear, and then drive him back to wherever he wanted to go.

“No, thanks anyway,” Alex replied, “I’ll be fine with what I’ve got.”

Gallien asked whether he had a hunting license.

“Hell, no,” Alex scoffed. “How I feed myself is none of the government’s business. Fuck their stupid rules.”

When Gallien asked whether his parents or a friend knew what he was up to—whether there was anyone who would sound the alarm if he got into trouble and was overdue—Alex answered calmly that no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn’t spoken to his family in nearly two years. “I’m absolutely positive,” he assured Gallien, “I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own.”

“There was just no talking the guy out of it,” Gallien remembers. “He was determined. Real gung ho. The word that comes to mind is excited. He couldn’t wait to head out there and get started.”

Three hours out of Fairbanks, Gallien turned off the highway and steered his beat-up 4x4 down a snow-packed side road. For the first few miles the Stampede Trail was well graded and led past cabins scattered among weedy stands of spruce and aspen. Beyond the last of the log shacks, however, the road rapidly deteriorated. Washed out and overgrown with alders, it turned into a rough, unmaintained track.

In summer the road here would have been sketchy but passable; now it was made unnavigable by a foot and a half of mushy spring snow. Ten miles from the highway, worried that he’d get stuck if he drove farther, Gallien stopped his rig on the crest of a low rise. The icy summits of the highest mountain range in North America gleamed on the southwestern horizon.

Alex insisted on giving Gallien his watch, his comb, and what he said was all his money: eighty-five cents in loose change. “I don’t want your money,” Gallien protested, “and I already have a watch.”

“If you don’t take it, I’m going to throw it away,” Alex cheerfully retorted. “I don’t want to know what time it is. I don’t want to know what day it is or where I am. None of that matters.”

Before Alex left the pickup, Gallien reached behind the seat, pulled out an old pair of rubber work boots, and persuaded the boy to take them. “They were too big for him,” Gallien recalls. “But I said, ‘Wear two pair of socks, and your feet ought to stay halfway warm and dry.’”

“How much do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Gallien answered. Then he gave the kid a slip of paper with his phone number on it, which Alex carefully tucked into a nylon wallet.

“If you make it out alive, give me a call, and I’ll tell you how to get the boots back to me.”

Gallien’s wife had packed him two grilled-cheese-and-tuna sandwiches and a bag of corn chips for lunch; he persuaded the young hitchhiker to accept the food as well. Alex pulled a camera from his backpack and asked Gallien to snap a picture of him shouldering his rifle at the trailhead. Then, smiling broadly, he disappeared down the snow-covered track. The date was Tuesday, April 28, 1992.

Gallien turned the truck around, made his way back to the Parks Highway, and continued toward Anchorage. A few miles down the road he came to the small community of Healy, where the Alaska State Troopers maintain a post. Gallien briefly considered stopping and telling the authorities about Alex, then thought better of it. “I figured he’d be OK,” he explains. “I thought he’d probably get hungry pretty quick and just walk out to the highway. That’s what any normal person would do.”

[See Map Page 8]



Jack London is King

Alexander Supertramp

May 1992



Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.


On the northern margin of the Alaska Range, just before the hulking ramparts of Mt. McKinley and its satellites surrender to the low Kantishna plain, a series of lesser ridges, known as the Outer Range, sprawls across the flats like a rumpled blanket on an unmade bed. Between the flinty crests of the two outermost escarpments of the Outer Range runs an east-west trough, maybe five miles across, carpeted in a boggy amalgam of muskeg, alder thickets, and veins of scrawny spruce. Meandering through the tangled, rolling bottomland is the Stampede Trail, the route Chris McCandless followed into the wilderness.

The trail was blazed in the 1930s by a legendary Alaska miner named Earl Pilgrim; it led to antimony claims he’d staked on Stampede Creek, above the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River. In 1961, a Fairbanks company, Yutan Construction, won a contract from the new state of Alaska (statehood having been granted just two years earlier) to upgrade the trail, building it into a road on which trucks could haul ore from the mine year-round. To house construction workers while the road was going in, Yutan purchased three junked buses, outfitted each with bunks and a simple barrel stove, and skidded them into the wilderness behind a D-9 Caterpillar.

The project was halted in 1963: some fifty miles of road were eventually built, but no bridges were ever erected over the many rivers it transected, and the route was shortly rendered impassable by thawing permafrost and seasonal floods. Yutan hauled two of the buses back to the highway. The third bus was left about halfway out the trail to serve as backcountry shelter for hunters and trappers. In the three decades since construction ended, much of the roadbed has been obliterated by washouts, brush, and beaver ponds, but the bus is still there.

A vintage International Harvester from the 1940s, the derelict vehicle is located twenty-five miles west of Healy as the raven flies, rusting incongruously in the fireweed beside the Stampede Trail, just beyond the boundary of Denali National Park. The engine is gone. Several windows are cracked or missing altogether, and broken whiskey bottles litter the floor. The green-and-white paint is badly oxidized. Weathered lettering indicates that the old machine was once part of the Fairbanks City Transit System: bus 142. These days it isn’t unusual for six or seven months to pass without the bus seeing a human visitor, but in early September 1992, six people in three separate parties happened to visit the remote vehicle on the same afternoon.

In 1980, Denali National Park was expanded to include the Kantishna Hills and the northernmost cordillera of the Outer Range, but a parcel of low terrain within the new park acreage was omitted: a long arm of land known as the Wolf Townships, which encompasses the first half of the Stampede Trail. Because this seven-by-twenty-mile tract is surrounded on three sides by the protected acreage of the national park, it harbors more than its share of wolf, bear, caribou, moose, and other game, a local secret that’s jealously guarded by those hunters and trappers who are aware of the anomaly. As soon as moose season opens in the fall, a handful of hunters typically pays a visit to the old bus, which sits beside the Sushana River at the westernmost end of the nonpark tract, within two miles of the park boundary.

Ken Thompson, the owner of an Anchorage auto-body shop, Gordon Samel, his employee, and their friend Ferdie Swanson, a construction worker, set out for the bus on September 6, 1992, stalking moose. It isn’t an easy place to reach. About ten miles past the end of the improved road the Stampede Trail crosses the Teklanika River, a fast, icy stream whose waters are opaque with glacial till. The trail comes down to the riverbank just upstream from a narrow gorge, through which the Teklanika surges in a boil of white water. The prospect of fording this /affe-colored torrent discourages most people from traveling any farther.

Thompson, Samel, and Swanson, however, are contumacious Alaskans with a special fondness for driving motor vehicles where motor vehicles aren’t really designed to be driven. Upon arriving at the Teklanika, they scouted the banks until they located a wide, braided section with relatively shallow channels, and then they steered headlong into the flood.

“I went first,” Thompson says. “The river was probably seventy-five feet across and real swift. My rig is a jacked-up eighty-two Dodge four by four with thirty-eight-inch rubber on it, and the water was right up to the hood. At one point I didn’t think I’d get across. Gordon has a eight-thousand-pound winch on the front of his rig; I had him follow right behind so he could pull me out if I went out of sight.”

Thompson made it to the far bank without incident, followed by Samel and Swanson in their trucks. In the beds of two of the pickups were light-weight all-terrain vehicles: a three-wheeler and a four-wheeler. They parked the big rigs on a gravel bar, unloaded the ATVs, and continued toward the bus in the smaller, more maneuverable machines.

A few hundred yards beyond the river the trail disappeared into a series of chest-deep beaver ponds. Undeterred, the three Alaskans dynamited the offending stick dams and drained the ponds. Then they motored onward, up a rocky creek bed and through dense alder thickets. It was late afternoon by the time they finally arrived at the bus. When they got there, according to Thompson, they found “a guy and a girl from Anchorage standing fifty feet away, looking kinda spooked.”

Neither of them had been in the bus, but they’d been close enough to notice “a real bad smell from inside.” A makeshift signal flag—a red knitted leg warmer of the sort worn by dancers— was knotted to the end of an alder branch by the vehicle’s rear exit. The door was ajar, and taped to it was a disquieting note. Handwritten in neat block letters on a page torn from a novel by Nikolay Gogol, it read:


The Anchorage couple had been too upset by the implication of the note and the overpowering odor of decay to examine the bus’s interior, so Samel steeled himself to take a look. A peek through a window revealed a Remington rifle, a plastic box of shells, eight or nine paperback books, some torn jeans, cooking utensils, and an expensive backpack. In the very rear of the vehicle, on a jerry-built bunk, was a blue sleeping bag that appeared to have something or someone inside it, although, says Samel, “it was hard to be absolutely sure.

“I stood on a stump,” Samel continues, “reached through a

back window, and gave the bag a shake. There was definitely something in it, but whatever it was didn’t weigh much. 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.” Chris McCandless had been dead for two and a half weeks.

Samel, a man of strong opinions, decided the body should be evacuated right away. There wasn’t room on his or Thompson’s small machine to haul the dead person out, however, nor was there space on the Anchorage couple’s ATV. A short while later a sixth person appeared on the scene, a hunter from Healy named Butch Killian. Because Killian was driving an Argo—a large amphibious eight-wheeled ATV—Samel suggested that Killian evacuate the remains, but Killian declined, insisting it was a task more properly left to the Alaska State Troopers.

Killian, a coal miner who moonlights as an emergency medical technician for the Healy Volunteer Fire Department, had a two-way radio on the Argo. When he couldn’t raise anybody from where he was, he started driving back toward the highway; five miles down the trail, just before dark, he managed to make contact with the radio operator at the Healy power plant. “Dispatch,” he reported, “this is Butch. You better call the troopers. There’s a man back in the bus by the Sushana. Looks like he’s been dead for a while.”

At eight-thirty the next morning, a police helicopter touched down noisily beside the bus in a blizzard of dust and swirling aspen leaves. The troopers made a cursory examination of the vehicle and its environs for signs of foul play and then departed. When they flew away, they took McCandless s remains, a camera with five rolls of exposed film, the SOS note, and a diary—written across the last two pages of a field guide to edible plants— that recorded the young man’s final weeks in 113 terse, enigmatic entries.

The body was taken to Anchorage, where an autopsy was performed at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory. The remains were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine exactly when McCandless had died, but the coroner could find no sign of massive internal injuries or broken bones.

Virtually no subcutaneous fat remained on the body, and the muscles had withered significantly in the days or weeks prior to death. At the time of the autopsy, McCandless’s remains weighed sixty-seven pounds. Starvation was posited as the most probable cause of death.

McCandless’s signature had been penned at the bottom of the SOS note, and the photos, when developed, included many self-portraits. But because he had been carrying no identification, the authorities didn’t know who he was, where he was from, or why he was there.



/ wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.




It should not be denied... that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west.


Carthage, South Dakota, population 274, is a sleepy little cluster of clapboard houses, tidy yards, and weathered brick storefronts rising humbly from the immensity of the northern plains, set adrift in time. Stately rows of cottonwoods shade a grid of streets seldom disturbed by moving vehicles. There’s one grocery in town, one bank, a single gas station, a lone bar—the Cabaret, where Wayne Westerberg is sipping a cocktail and chewing on a sweet cigar, remembering the odd young man he knew as Alex.

The Cabaret’s plywood-paneled walls are hung with deer antlers, Old Milwaukee beer promos, and mawkish paintings of game birds taking flight. Tendrils of cigarette smoke rise from clumps of farmers in overalls and dusty feed caps, their tired faces as grimy as coal miners’. Speaking in short, matter-of-fact phrases, they worry aloud over the fickle weather and fields of sunflowers still too wet to cut, while above their heads Ross Perot s sneering visage flickers across a silent television screen. In eight days the nation will elect Bill Clinton president. It’s been nearly two months now since the body of Chris McCandless turned up in Alaska.

“These are what Alex used to drink,” says Westerberg with a frown, swirling the ice in his White Russian. “He used to sit right there at the end of the bar and tell us these amazing stories of his travels. He could talk for hours. A lot of folks here in town got pretty attached to old Alex. Kind of a strange deal what happened to him.”

Westerberg, a hyperkinetic man with thick shoulders and a black goatee, owns a grain elevator in Carthage and another one a few miles out of town but spends every summer running a custom combine crew that follows the harvest from Texas north to the Canadian border. In the fall of 1990, he was wrapping up the season in north-central Montana, cutting barley for Coors and Anheuser-Busch. On the afternoon of September 10, driving out of Cut Bank after buying some parts for a malfunctioning combine, he pulled over for a hitchhiker, an amiable kid who said his name was Alex McCandless.

McCandless was smallish with the hard, stringy physique of an itinerant laborer. There was something arresting about the youngster’s eyes. Dark and emotive, they suggested a trace of exotic blood in his heritage—Greek, maybe, or Chippewa—and conveyed a vulnerability that made Westerberg want to take the kid under his wing. He had the kind of sensitive good looks that women made a big fuss over, Westerberg imagined. His face had a strange elasticity: It would be slack and expressionless one minute, only to twist suddenly into a gaping, oversize grin that distorted his features and exposed a mouthful of horsy teeth. He was nearsighted and wore steel-rimmed glasses. He looked hungry.

Ten minutes after picking up McCandless, Westerberg stopped in the town of Ethridge to deliver a package to a friend. “He offered us both a beer,” says Westerberg, “and asked Alex how long it’d been since he ate. Alex allowed how it’d been a couple of days. Said he’d kind of run out of money.” Overhearing this, the friend s wife insisted on cooking Alex a big dinner, which he wolfed down, and then he fell asleep at the table.

McCandless had told Westerberg that his destination was Saco Hot Springs, 240 miles to the east on U.S. Highway 2, a place he’d heard about from some “rubber tramps” (i.e., vagabonds who owned a vehicle; as distinguished from “leather tramps,” who lacked personal transportation and were thus forced to hitchhike or walk). Westerberg had replied that he could take McCandless only ten miles down the road, at which point he would be turning north toward Sunburst, where he kept a trailer near the fields he was cutting. By the time Westerberg steered over to the shoulder to drop McCandless off, it was ten-thirty at night and raining hard. “Jeeze,” Westerberg told him, “I hate to leave you out here in the goddamn rain. You got a sleeping bag—why don’t you come on up to Sunburst, spend the night in the trailer?”

McCandless stayed with Westerberg for three days, riding out with his crew each morning as the workers piloted their lumbering machines across the ocean of ripe blond grain. Before McCandless and Westerberg went their separate ways, Westerberg told the young man to look him up in Carthage if he ever needed a job.

“Was only a couple of weeks that went by before Alex showed up in town,” Westerberg remembers. He gave McCandless employment at the grain elevator and rented him a cheap room in one of the two houses he owned.

“I’ve given jobs to lots of hitchhikers over the years,” says Westerberg. “Most of them weren’t much good, didn’t really want to work. It was a different story with Alex. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. Didn’t matter what it was, he’d do it: hard physical labor, mucking rotten grain and dead rats out of the bottom of the hole—jobs where you’d get so damn dirty you couldn’t even tell what you looked like at the end of the day. And he never quit in the middle of something. If he started a job, he’d finish it. It was almost like a moral thing for him. He was what you’d call extremely ethical. He set pretty high standards for himself.

“You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent,” Wester-berg reflects, draining his third drink. “He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.”

At one point Westerberg discovered from a tax form that McCandless’s real name was Chris, not Alex. “He never explained why he’d changed his name,” says Westerberg. “From things he said, you could tell something wasn’t right between him and his family, but I don’t like to pry into other people’s business, so I never asked about it.”

If McCandless felt estranged from his parents and siblings, he found a surrogate family in Westerberg and his employees, most of whom lived in Westerberg’s Carthage home. A few blocks from the center of town, it is a simple, two-story Victorian in the Queen Anne style, with a big cottonwood towering over the front yard. The living arrangements were loose and convivial. The four or five inhabitants took turns cooking for one another, went drinking together, and chased women together, without success.

McCandless quickly became enamored of Carthage. He liked the community’s stasis, its plebeian virtues and unassuming mien. The place was a back eddy, a pool of jetsam beyond the pull of the main current, and that suited him just fine. That fall he developed a lasting bond with both the town and Wayne Westerberg.

Westerberg, in his mid-thirties, was brought to Carthage as a young boy by adoptive parents. A Renaissance man of the plains, he is a farmer, welder, businessman, machinist, ace mechanic, commodities speculator, licensed airplane pilot, computer programmer, electronics troubleshooter, video-game repairman. Shortly before he met McCandless, however, one of his talents had got him in trouble with the law.

Westerberg had been drawn into a scheme to build and sell “black boxes,” which illegally unscramble satellite-television transmissions, allowing people to watch encrypted cable programming without paying for it. The FBI caught wind of this, set up a sting, and arrested Westerberg. Contrite, he copped a plea to a single felony count and on October 10, 1990, some two weeks after McCandless arrived in Carthage, began serving a four-month sentence in Sioux Falls. With Westerberg in stir, there was no work at the grain elevator for McCandless, so on October 23, sooner than he might have under different circumstances, the boy left town and resumed a nomadic existence.

The attachment McCandless felt for Carthage remained powerful, however. Before departing, he gave Westerberg a treasured 1942 edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. On the title page he inscribed, “Transferred to Wayne Westerberg from Alexander. October, 1990. Listen to Pierre.” (The latter is a reference to Tolstoy’s protagonist and alter ego, Pierre Bezuhov—altruistic, questing, illegitimately born.) And McCandless stayed in touch with Westerberg as he roamed the West, calling or writing Carthage every month or two. He had all his mail forwarded to Westerberg’s address and told almost everyone he met thereafter that South Dakota was his home.

In truth McCandless had been raised in the comfortable upper-middle-class environs of Annandale, Virginia. His father, Walt, is an eminent aerospace engineer who designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle and other high-profile projects while in the employ of NASA and Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s and 70s. In 1978, Walt went into business for himself, launching a small but eventually prosperous consulting firm, User Systems, Incorporated. His partner in the venture was Chris’s mother, Bil-lie. There were eight children in the extended family: a younger sister, Carine, with whom Chris was extremely close, and six half-brothers and sisters from Walt’s first marriage.

In May 1990, Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where he’d been a columnist for, and editor of, the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, and had distinguished himself as a history and anthropology major with a 3.72 grade-point average. He was offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa but declined, insisting that titles and honors are irrelevant.

The final two years of his college education had been paid for with a forty-thousand-dollar bequest left by a friend of the family’s; more than twenty-four thousand dollars remained at the time of Chris’s graduation, money his parents thought he intended to use for law school. “We misread him,” his father admits. What Walt, Billie, and Carine didn’t know when they flew down to Atlanta to attend Chris’s commencement—what nobody knew—was that he would shortly donate all the money in his college fund to OXFAM America, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger.

The graduation ceremony was on May 12, a Saturday. The family sat through a long-winded commencement address delivered by Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, and then Billie snapped pictures of a grinning Chris traversing the stage to receive his diploma.

The next day was Mother’s Day. Chris gave Billie candy, flowers, a sentimental card. She was surprised and extremely touched: It was the first present she had received from her son in more than two years, since he had announced to his parents that, on principle, he would no longer give or accept gifts. Indeed, Chris had only recently upbraided Walt and Billie for expressing their desire to buy him a new car as a graduation present and offering to pay for law school if there wasn’t enough money left in his college fund to cover it.

He already had a perfectly good car, he insisted: a beloved 1982 Datsun B210, slightly dented but mechanically sound, with 128,000 miles on the odometer. “I can’t believe they’d try and buy me a car,” he later complained in a letter to Carine,

or that they think I’d actually let them pay for my law school if I was going to go.... I’ve told them a million times that I have the best car in the world, a car that has spanned the continent from Miami to Alaska, a car that has in all those thousands of miles not given me a single problem, a car that I will never trade in, a car that I am very strongly attached to—yet they ignore what I say and think I’d actually accept a new car from them! I’m going to have to be real careful not to accept any gifts from them in the future because they will think they have bought my respect.

Chris had purchased the secondhand yellow Datsun when he was a senior in high school. In the years since, he’d been in the habit of taking it on extended solo road trips when classes weren’t in session, and during that graduation weekend he casually mentioned to his parents that he intended to spend the upcoming summer on the road as well. His exact words were “I think I’m going to disappear for a while.”

Neither parent made anything of this announcement at the time, although Walt did gently admonish his son, saying “Hey, make sure you come see us before you go.” Chris smiled and sort of nodded, a response that Walt and Billie took as an affirmation that he would visit them in Annandale before the summer was out, and then they said their good-byes.

Toward the end of June, Chris, still in Atlanta, mailed his parents a copy of his final grade report: A in Apartheid and South African Society and History of Anthropological Thought; A minus in Contemporary African Politics and the Food Crisis in Africa. A brief note was attached:

Here is a copy of my final transcript. Gradewise things went pretty well and I ended up with a high cumulative average.

Thankyou for the pictures, the shaving gear, and the postcard from Paris. It seems that you really enjoyed your trip there. It must have been a lot of fun.

I gave Lloyd [Chris’s closest friend at Emory] his picture, and he was very grateful; he did not have a shot of his diploma getting handed to him.

Not much else happening, but it’s starting to get real hot and humid down here. Say Hi to everyone for me.

It was the last anyone in Chris’s family would ever hear from him.

During that final year in Atlanta, Chris had lived off campus in a monkish room furnished with little more than a thin mattress on the floor, milk crates, and a table. He kept it as orderly and spotless as a military barracks. And he didn’t have a phone, so Walt and Billie had no way of calling him.

By the beginning of August 1990, Chris’s parents had heard nothing from their son since they’d received his grades in the mail, so they decided to drive down to Atlanta for a visit. When they arrived at his apartment, it was empty and a FOR RENT sign was taped to the window. The manager said that Chris had moved out at the end of June. Walt and Billie returned home to find that all the letters they’d sent their son that summer had been returned in a bundle. “Chris had instructed the post office to hold them until August 1, apparently so we wouldn’t know anything was up,” says Billie. “It made us very, very worried.”

By then Chris was long gone. Five weeks earlier he’d loaded all his belongings into his little car and headed west without an itinerary. The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything. He had spent the previous four years, as he saw it, preparing to fulfill an absurd and onerous duty: to graduate from college. At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.

Driving west out of Atlanta, he intended to invent an utterly

new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience. To symbolize the complete severance from his previous life, he even adopted a new name. No longer would he answer to Chris McCandless; he was now Alexander Super-tramp, master of his own destiny.



The desert is the environment of revelation, genetically and physiologically alien, sensorily austere, esthetically abstract, historically inimical.... Its forms are bold and suggestive. The mind is beset by light and space, the kinesthetic novelty of aridity, high temperature, and wind. The desert sky is encircling, majestic, terrible. In other habitats, the rim of sky above the horizontal is broken or obscured; here, together with the overhead portion, it is infinitely vaster than that of rolling countryside and forest lands... In an unobstructed sky the clouds seem more massive, sometimes grandly reflecting the earth’s curvature on their concave undersides. The angularity of desert landforms imparts a monumental architecture to the clouds as well as to the land....

To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.



The bear-paw poppy, Arctomecon califomica, is a wildflower found in an isolated corner of the Mojave Desert and nowhere else in the world. In late spring it briefly produces a delicate golden bloom, but for most of the year the plant huddles unadorned and unnoticed on the parched earth. A. califomica is sufficiently rare that it has been classified as an endangered species. In October 1990, more than three months after McCan-dless left Atlanta, a National Park Service ranger named Bud Walsh was sent into the backcountry of Lake Mead National Recreation Area to tally bear-paw poppies so that the federal government might better know just how scarce the plants were.

A. califomica grows only in gypsum soil of a sort that occurs in abundance along the south shore of Lake Mead, so that is where Walsh led his team of rangers to conduct the botanical survey. They turned off Temple Bar Road, drove two roadless miles down the bed of Detrital Wash, parked their rigs near the lakeshore, and started scrambling up the steep east bank of the wash, a slope of crumbly white gypsum. A few minutes later, as they neared the top of the bank, one of the rangers happened to glance back down into the wash while pausing to catch his breath. “Hey! Look down there!” he yelled. “What the hell is that?”

At the edge of the dry riverbed, in a thicket of saltbush not far from where they had parked, a large object was concealed beneath a dun-colored tarpaulin. When the rangers pulled off the tarp, they found an old yellow Datsun without license plates. A note taped to the windshield read, “This piece of shit has been abandoned. Whoever can get it out of here can have it.”

The doors had been left unlocked. The floorboards were plastered with mud, apparently from a recent flash flood. When he looked inside, Walsh found a Gianini guitar, a saucepan containing $4.93 in loose change, a football, a garbage bag full of old clothes, a fishing rod and tackle, a new electric razor, a harmonica, a set of jumper cables, twenty-five pounds of rice, and in the glove compartment, the keys to the vehicle’s ignition.

The rangers searched the surrounding area “for anything suspicious,” according to Walsh, and then departed. Five days later another ranger returned to the abandoned vehicle, managed to jump-start it without difficulty and drove it out to the National Park Service maintenance yard at Temple Bar. “He drove it back at sixty miles an hour,” Walsh recalls. “Said the thing ran like a champ.” Attempting to learn who owned the car, the rangers sent out a bulletin over the Teletype to relevant law-enforcement agencies and ran a detailed search of computer records across the Southwest to see if the Datsun s VIN was associated with any crimes. Nothing turned up.

By and by the rangers traced the car’s serial number to the Hertz Corporation, the vehicle’s original owner; Hertz said they had sold it as a used rental car many years earlier and had no interest in reclaiming it. “Whoa! Great!” Walsh remembers thinking. “A freebie from the road gods—a car like this will make a great undercover vehicle for drug interdiction.” And indeed it did. Over the next three years the Park Service used the Datsun to make undercover drug buys that led to numerous arrests in the crime-plagued national recreation area, including the bust of a high-volume methamphetamine dealer operating out of a trailer park near Bullhead City.

“We’re still getting a lot of mileage out of that old car even now,” Walsh proudly reports two and a half years after finding the Datsun. “Put a few bucks of gas in the thing, and it will go all day. Real reliable. I kind of wondered why nobody ever showed up to reclaim it.”

The Datsun, of course, belonged to Chris McCandless. After piloting it west out of Atlanta, he’d arrived in Lake Mead National Recreation Area on July 6, riding a giddy Emersonian high. Ignoring posted warnings that off-road driving is strictly forbidden, McCandless steered the Datsun off the pavement where it crossed a broad, sandy wash. He drove two miles down the riverbed to the south shore of the lake. The temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The empty desert stretched into the distance, shimmering in the heat. Surrounded by chollas, bur sage, and the comical scurrying of collared lizards, McCandless pitched his tent in the puny shade of a tamarisk and basked in his newfound freedom.

Detrital Wash extends for some fifty miles from Lake Mead into the mountains north of Kingman; it drains a big chunk of country. Most of the year the wash is as dry as chalk. During the summer months, however, superheated air rises from the scorched earth like bubbles from the bottom of a boiling kettle, rushing heavenward in turbulent convection currents. Frequently the updrafts create cells of muscular, anvil-headed cumulonimbus clouds that can rise thirty thousand feet or more above the Mojave. Two days after McCandless set up camp beside Lake Mead, an unusually robust wall of thunderheads reared up in the afternoon sky, and it began to rain, very hard, over much of the Detrital Valley.

McCandless was camped at the edge of the wash, a couple of feet higher than the main channel, so when the bore of brown water came rushing down from the high country, he had just enough time to gather his tent and belongings and save them from being swept away. There was nowhere to move the car, however, as the only route of egress was now a foaming, full-blown river. As it turned out, the flash flood didn’t have enough power to carry away the vehicle or even to do any lasting damage. But it did get the engine wet, so wet that when McCandless tried to start the car soon thereafter, the engine wouldn’t catch, and in his impatience he drained the battery.

With the battery dead there was no way to get the Datsun running. If he hoped to get the car back to a paved road, McCandless had no choice but to walk out and notify the authorities of his predicament. If he went to the rangers, however, they would have some irksome questions for him: Why had he ignored posted regulations and driven down the wash in the first place? Was he aware that the vehicle’s registration had expired two years before and had not been renewed? Did he know that his drivers license had also expired, and the vehicle was uninsured as well?

Truthful responses to these queries were not likely to be well received by the rangers. McCandless could endeavor to explain that he answered to statutes of a higher order—that as a latter-day adherent of Henry David Thoreau, he took as gospel the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and thus considered it his moral responsibility to flout the laws of the state. It was improbable, however, that deputies of the federal government would share his point of view. There would be thickets of red tape to negotiate and fines to pay. His parents would no doubt be contacted. But there was a way to avoid such aggravation: He could simply abandon the Datsun and resume his odyssey on foot. And that’s what he decided to do.

Instead of feeling distraught over this turn of events, moreover, McCandless was exhilarated: He saw the flash flood as an opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage. He concealed the car as best he could beneath a brown tarp, stripped it of its Virginia plates, and hid them. He buried his Winchester deer-hunting rifle and a few other possessions that he might one day want to recover. Then, in a gesture that would have done both Thoreau and Tolstoy proud, he arranged all his paper currency in a pile on the sand—a pathetic little stack of ones and fives and twenties—and put a match to it. One hundred twenty-three dollars in legal tender was promptly reduced to ash and smoke.

We know all of this because McCandless documented the burning of his money and most of the events that followed in a journal-snapshot album he would later leave with Wayne West-erberg for safekeeping before departing for Alaska. Although the tone of the journal—written in the third person in a stilted, self-consciousness voice—often veers toward melodrama, the available evidence indicates that McCandless did not misrepresent the facts; telling the truth was a credo he took seriously.

After loading his few remaining possessions into a backpack, McCandless set out on July 10 to hike around Lake Mead. This, his journal acknowledges, turned out to be a “tremendous mistake... In extreme July temperatures becomes delirious.” Suffering from heat stroke, he managed to flag down some passing boaters, who gave him a lift to Callville Bay, a marina near the west end of the lake, where he stuck out his thumb and took to the road.

McCandless tramped around the West for the next two months, spellbound by the scale and power of the landscape, thrilled by minor brushes with the law, savoring the intermittent company of other vagabonds he met along the way. Allowing his life to be shaped by circumstance, he hitched to Lake Tahoe, hiked into the Sierra Nevada, and spent a week walking north on the Pacific Crest Trail before exiting the mountains and returning to the pavement.

At the end of July, he accepted a ride from a man who called himself Crazy Ernie and offered McCandless a job on a ranch in northern California; photographs of the place show an un-painted, tumbledown house surrounded by goats and chickens, bedsprings, broken televisions, shopping carts, old appliances, and mounds and mounds of garbage. After working there eleven days with six other vagabonds, it became clear to McCandless that Ernie had no intention of ever paying him, so he stole a red ten-speed bicycle from the clutter in the yard, pedaled into Chico, and ditched the bike in a mall parking lot. Then he resumed a life of constant motion, riding his thumb north and west through Red Bluff, Weaverville, and Willow Creek.

At Arcata, California, in the dripping redwood forests of the Pacific shore, McCandless turned right on U.S. Highway 101 and headed up the coast. Sixty miles south of the Oregon line, near the town of Orick, a pair of drifters in an old van pulled over to consult their map when they noticed a boy crouching in the bushes off the side of the road. “He was wearing long shorts and this really stupid hat,” says Jan Burres, a forty-one-year-old rubber tramp who was traveling around the West selling knick-knacks at flea markets and swap meets with her boyfriend, Bob. “He had a book about plants with him, and he was using it to pick berries, collecting them in a gallon milk jug with the top cut off. He looked pretty pitiful, so I yelled, ‘Hey, you want a ride somewhere?’ I thought maybe we could give him a meal or something.

“We got to talking. He was a nice kid. Said his name was Alex. And he was big-time hungry. Hungry, hungry, hungry. But real happy. Said he’d been surviving on edible plants he identified from the book. Like he was real proud of it. Said he was tramping around the country, having a big old adventure. He told us about abandoning his car, about burning all his money. I said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Claimed he didn’t need money. I have a son about the same age Alex was, and we’ve been estranged for a few years now. So I said to Bob, ‘Man, we got to take this kid with us. You need to school him about some things.’ Alex took a ride from us up to Orick Beach, where we were staying, and camped with us for a week. He was a really good kid. We

thought the world of him. When he left, we never expected to hear from him again, but he made a point of staying in touch. For the next two years Alex sent us a postcard every month or two.”

From Orick, McCandless continued north up the coast. He passed through Pistol River, Coos Bay, Seal Rock, Manzanita, As-toria; Hoquiam, Humptulips, Queets; Forks, Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Seattle. “He was alone,” as James Joyce wrote of Stephen Dedalus, his artist as a young man. “He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”

On August 10, shortly before meeting Jan Burres and Bob, McCandless had been ticketed for hitchhiking near Willow Creek, in the gold-mining country east of Eureka. In an uncharacteristic lapse, McCandless gave his parents’ Annandale address when the arresting officer demanded to know his permanent place of residence. The unpaid ticket appeared in Walt and Bil-lie’s mailbox at the end of August.

Walt and Billie, terribly concerned over Chris’s vanishing act, had by that time already contacted the Annandale police, who had been of no help. When the ticket arrived from California, they became frantic. One of their neighbors was the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and Walt approached this man, an army general, for advice. The general put him in touch with a private investigator named Peter Kalitka, who’d done contract work for both the DIA and the CIA. He was the best, the general assured Walt; if Chris was out there, Kalitka would find him.

Using the Willow Creek ticket as a starting point, Kalitka launched an extremely thorough search, chasing down leads that led as far afield as Europe and South Africa. His efforts, however, turned up nothing—until December, when he learned from an inspection of tax records that Chris had given away his college fund to OXFAM.

“That really scared us,” says Walt. “By that point we had absolutely no idea what Chris could be up to. The hitchhiking ticket just didn’t make any sense. He loved that Datsun so much

it was mind-boggling to me that he would ever abandon it and travel on foot. Although, in retrospect, I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me. Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run.”

As Kalitka was trying to pick up Chris’s scent in California, McCandless was already far away, hitching east across the Cascade Range, across the sagebrush uplands and lava beds of the Columbia River basin, across the Idaho panhandle, into Montana. There, outside Cut Bank, he crossed paths with Wayne Westerberg and by the end of September was working for him in Carthage. When Westerberg was jailed and the work came to a halt, and with winter coming on, McCandless headed for warmer climes.

On October 28, he caught a ride with a long-haul trucker into Needles, California. “Overjoyed upon reaching the Colorado River,” McCandless wrote in his journal. Then he left the highway and started walking south through the desert, following the river-bank. Twelve miles on foot brought him to Topock, Arizona, a dusty way station along Interstate 40 where the freeway intersects the California border. While he was in town, he noticed a secondhand aluminum canoe for sale and on an impulse decided to buy it and paddle it down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California, nearly four hundred miles to the south, across the border with Mexico.

This lower stretch of the river, from Hoover Dam to the gulf, has little in common with the unbridled torrent that explodes through the Grand Canyon, some 250 miles upstream from Topock. Emasculated by dams and diversion canals, the lower Colorado burbles indolently from reservoir to reservoir through some of the hottest, starkest country on the continent. McCandless was stirred by the austerity of this landscape, by its saline beauty. The desert sharpened the sweet ache of his longing, amplified it, gave shape to it in sere geology and clean slant of light.

From Topock, McCandless paddled south down Lake Havasu under a bleached dome of sky, huge and empty. He made a brief excursion up the Bill Williams River, a tributary of the Colorado,

then continued downstream through the Colorado River Indian Reservation, the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge. He drifted past saguaros and alkali flats, camped beneath escarpments of naked Precambrian stone. In the distance spiky, chocolate-brown mountains floated on eerie pools of mirage. Leaving the river for a day to track a herd of wild horses, he came across a sign warning that he was trespassing on the U.S. Army’s highly restricted Yuma Proving Ground. McCandless was deterred not in the least.

At the end of November, he paddled through Yuma, where he stopped long enough to replenish his provisions and send a postcard to Westerberg in care of Glory House, the Sioux Falls work-release facility where Westerberg was doing time. “Hey Wayne!” the card reads,

How’s it going? I hope that your situation has improved since the time we last spoke. I’ve been tramping around Arizona for about a month now. This is a good state! There is all kinds of fantastic scenery and the climate is wonderful. But apart from sending greetings the main purpose of this card is to thank you once again for all your hospitality. It’s rare to find a man as generous and good natured as you are. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t met you though. Tramping is too easy with all this money. My days were more exciting when 1 was penniless and had to forage around for my next meal. I couldn’t make it now without money, however, as there is very little fruiting agriculture down here at this time.

Please thank Kevin again for all the clothes he gave me, I would have froze to death without them. I hope he got that book to you. Wayne, you really should read War and Peace. I meant it when I said you had one of the highest characters of any man I’d met. That is a very powerful and highly symbolic book. It has things in it that I think you will understand. Things that escape most people. As for me, I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up. One day I’ll get back to you Wayne and repay some of your kindness. A case of Jack Daniels maybe? Til then III always think of you as a friend. GOD BLESS You, ALEXANDER

On December 2, he reached the Morelos Dam and the Mexican border. Worried that he would be denied entry because he was carrying no identification, he sneaked into Mexico by paddling through the dam’s open floodgates and shooting the spillway below. “Alex looks quickly around for signs of trouble,” his journal records. “But his entry of Mexico is either unnoticed or ignored. Alexander is jubilant!”

His jubilance, however, was short-lived. Below the Morelos Dam the river turns into a maze of irrigation canals, marshland, and dead-end channels, among which McCandless repeatedly lost his way:

Canals break off in a multitude of directions. Alex is dumbfounded. Encounters some canal officials who can speak a little English. They tell him he has not been traveling south but west and is headed for the center of the Baja Peninsula. Alex is crushed. Pleads and persists that there must be some waterway to the Gulf of California. They stare at Alex and think him crazy. But then a passionate conversation breaks out amongst them, accompanied by maps and the flourish of pencils. After 10 minutes they present to Alex a route which apparently will take him to the ocean. He is overjoyed and hope bursts back into his heart. Following the map he reverses back up the canal until he comes upon the Canal de Independencia, which he takes east. According to the map this canal should bisect the Wellteco Canal, which will turn south and flow all the way to the ocean. But his hopes are quickly smashed when the canal comes to a dead end in the middle of the desert. A reconnaissance mission reveals, however, that Alex has merely run back into the bed of the now dead and dry Colorado River. He discovers another canal about 1/2 mile on the other side of the river bed. He decides to portage to this canal.

It took McCandless most of three days to carry the canoe and his gear to the new canal. The journal entry for December 5 records,

At last! Alex finds what he believes to be the Wellteco Canal and heads south. Worries and fears return as the canal grows ever smaller... Local inhabitants help him portage around a barrier... Alex finds Mexicans to be warm, friendly people. Much more hospitable than Americans...

12/6 Small but dangerous waterfalls litter the canal.

12/9 All hopes collapse! The canal does not reach the ocean but merely peters out into a vast swamp. Alex is utterly confounded. Decides he must be close to ocean and elects to try and work way through swamp to sea. Alex becomes progressively lost to point where he must push canoe through reeds and drag it through mud. All is in despair. Finds some dry ground to camp in swamp at sundown. Next day, on 12/10, Alex resumes quest for an opening to the sea, but only becomes more confused, traveling in circles. Completely demoralized and frustrated he lays in his canoe at day’s end and weeps. But then by fantastic chance he comes upon Mexican duck hunting guides who can speak English. He tells them his story and his quest for the sea. They say there is no outlet to the sea. But then one among them agrees to tow Alex back to his basecamp [behind a small motor skiff], and drive him and the canoe [in the bed of a pickup truck] to the ocean. It is a miracle.

The duck hunters dropped him in El Golfo de Santa Clara, a fishing village on the Gulf of California. From there McCandless took to the sea, traveling south down the eastern edge of the gulf. Having reached his destination, McCandless slowed his pace, and his mood became more contemplative. He took photographs of a tarantula, plaintive sunsets, windswept dunes, the long curve of empty coastline. The journal entries become short and perfunctory. He wrote fewer than a hundred words over the month that followed.

On December 14, weary of paddling, he hauled the canoe far up the beach, climbed a sandstone bluff, and set up camp on the edge of a desolate plateau. He stayed there for ten days, until high winds forced him to seek refuge in a cave midway up the precipitous face of the bluff, where he remained for another ten days. He greeted the new year by observing the full moon as it rose over the Gran Desierto—the Great Desert: seventeen hundred square miles of shifting dunes, the largest expanse of pure sand desert in North America. A day later he resumed paddling down the barren shore.

His journal entry for January 11, 1991, begins “A very fateful day.” After traveling some distance south, he beached the canoe on a sandbar far from shore to observe the powerful tides. An hour later violent gusts started blowing down from the desert, and the wind and tidal rips conspired to carry him out to sea. The water by this time was a chaos of whitecaps that threatened to swamp and capsize his tiny craft. The wind increased to gale force. The whitecaps grew into high, breaking waves. “In great frustration,” the journal reads,

he screams and beats canoe with oar. The oar breaks. Alex has one spare oar. He calms himself. If loses second oar is dead. Finally through extreme effort and much cursing he manages to beach canoe on jetty and collapses exhausted on sand at sundown. This incident led Alexander to decide to abandon canoe and return north.

On January 16, McCandless left the stubby metal boat on a hummock of dune grass southeast of El Golfo de Santa Clara and started walking north up the deserted beach. He had not seen or talked to another soul in thirty-six days. For that entire period he subsisted on nothing but five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea, an experience that would later convince him he could survive on similarly meager rations in the Alaska bush.

He was back at the United States border on January 18. Caught by immigration authorities trying to slip into the country without ID, he spent a night in custody before concocting a story that sprang him from the slammer, minus his .38-caliber handgun, a “beautiful Colt Python, to which he was much attached.”

McCandless spent the next six weeks on the move across the Southwest, traveling as far east as Houston and as far west as the Pacific coast. To avoid being rolled by the unsavory characters who rule the streets and freeway overpasses where he slept, he learned to bury what money he had before entering a city, then recover it on the way out of town. On February 3, according to his journal, McCandless went to Los Angeles “to get a ID and a job but feels extremely uncomfortable in society now and must return to road immediately.”

Six days later, camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with Thomas and Karin, a young German couple who had given him a ride, he wrote, “Can this be the same Alex that set out in July, 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring.”

On February 24, seven and a half months after he abandoned the Datsun, McCandless returned to Detrital Wash. The Park Service had long since impounded the vehicle, but he unearthed his old Virginia plates, SJF-421, and a few belongings he’d buried there. Then he hitched into Las Vegas and found a job at an Italian restaurant. “Alexander buried his backpack in the desert on 2/27 and entered Las Vegas with no money and no ID,” the journal tells us.

He lived on the streets with bums, tramps, and winos for several weeks. Vegas would not be the end of the story, however. On May 10, itchy feet returned and Alex left his job in Vegas, retrieved his backpack, and hit the road again, though he found that if you are stupid enough to bury a camera underground you won’t be taking many pictures with it afterwards. Thus the story has no picture book for the period May 10, 1991-January 7, 1992. But this is not important. It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you.



The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth. His newborn cunning gave him poise and control.


All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too! Alexander Supertramp - May 1992


When his camera was ruined and McCandless stopped taking photographs, he also stopped keeping a journal, a practice he didn’t resume until he went to Alaska the next year. Not a great deal is known, therefore, about where he traveled after departing Las Vegas in May 1991.

From a letter McCandless sent to Jan Burres, we know he spent July and August on the Oregon coast, probably in the vicinity of Astoria, where he complained that “the fog and rain was often intolerable.” In September he hitched down U.S. Highway 101 into California, then headed east into the desert again. And by early October he had landed in Bullhead City, Arizona.

Bullhead City is a community in the oxymoronic, late-twentieth-century idiom. Lacking a discernible center, the town exists as a haphazard sprawl of subdivisions and strip malls stretching for eight or nine miles along the banks of the Colorado, directly across the river from the high-rise hotels and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Bullheads distinguishing civic feature is the Mohave Valley Highway, four lanes of asphalt lined with gas stations and fast-food franchises, chiropractors and video shops, auto-parts outlets and tourist traps.

On the face of it, Bullhead City doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would appeal to an adherent of Thoreau and Tolstoy, an ideologue who expressed nothing but contempt for the bourgeois trappings of mainstream America. McCandless, nevertheless, took a strong liking to Bullhead. Maybe it was his affinity for the lumpen, who were well represented in the community’s trailer parks and campgrounds and laundromats; perhaps he simply fell in love with the stark desert landscape that encircles the town.

In any case, when he arrived in Bullhead City, McCandless stopped moving for more than two months—probably the longest he stayed in one place from the time he left Atlanta until he went to Alaska and moved into the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail. In a card he mailed to Westerberg in October, he says of Bullhead, “It’s a good place to spend the winter and I might finally settle down and abandon my tramping life, for good. I’ll see what happens when spring comes around, because that’s when I tend to get really itchy feet.”

At the time he wrote these words, he was holding down a full-time job, flipping Quarter Pounders at a McDonald’s on the main drag, commuting to work on a bicycle. Outwardly, he was living a surprisingly conventional existence, even going so far as to open a savings account at a local bank.

Curiously, when McCandless applied for the McDonald’s job, he presented himself as Chris McCandless, not as Alex, and gave his employers his real Social Security number. It was an uncharacteristic break from his cover that might easily have alerted his parents to his whereabouts—although the lapse proved to be of no consequence because the private investigator hired by Walt and Billie never caught the slip.

Two years after he sweated over the grill in Bullhead, his colleagues at the golden arches don’t recall much about Chris McCandless. “One thing I do remember is that he had a thing about socks,” says the assistant manager, a fleshy, garrulous man named George Dreeszen. “He always wore shoes without socks— just plain couldn’t stand to wear socks. But McDonald’s has a rule that employees have to wear appropriate footwear at all times. That means shoes and socks. Chris would comply with the rule, but as soon as his shift was over, bang!—the first thing he’d do is peel those socks off. I mean the very first thing. Kind of like a statement, to let us know we didn’t own him, I guess. But he was a nice kid and a good worker. Real dependable.”

Lori Zarza, the second assistant manager, has a somewhat different impression of McCandless. “Frankly, I was surprised he ever got hired,” she says. “He could do the job—he cooked in the back—but he always worked at the same slow pace, even during the lunch rush, no matter how much you’d get on him to hurry it up. Customers would be stacked ten-deep at the counter, and he wouldn’t understand why I was on his case. He just didn’t make the connection. It was like he was off in his own universe.

“He was reliable, though, a body that showed up every day, so they didn’t dare fire him. They only paid four twenty-five an hour, and with all the casinos right across the river starting people at six twenty-five, well, it was hard to keep bodies behind the counter.

“I don’t think he ever hung out with any of the employees after work or anything. When he talked, he was always going on about trees and nature and weird stuff like that. We all thought he was missing a few screws.

“When Chris finally quit,” Zarza admits, “it was probably because of me. When he first started working, he was homeless, and he’d show up for work smelling bad. It wasn’t up to McDonald’s standards to come in smelling the way he did. So finally they delegated me to tell him that he needed to take a bath more often. Ever since I told him, there was a clash between us. And then the other employees—they were just trying to be nice—they started asking him if he needed some soap or anything. That made him mad—you could tell. But he never showed it outright. About three weeks later, he just walked out the door and quit.”

McCandless had tried to disguise the fact that he was a drifter living out of a backpack: He told his fellow employees that he lived across the river in Laughlin. Whenever they offered him a ride home after work, he made excuses and politely declined. In fact, during his first several weeks in Bullhead, McCandless camped out in the desert at the edge of town; then he started squatting in a vacant mobile home. The latter arrangement, he explained in a letter to Jan Burres, “came about this way:”

One morning I was shaving in a restroom when an old man came in, and observing me, asked me if I was “sleeping out.” I told him yes, and it turned out that he had this old trailer I could stay in for free. The only problem is that he doesn’t really own it. Some absentee owners are merely letting him live on their land here, in another little trailer he stays in. So I kind of have to keep things toned down and stay out of sight, because he isn’t supposed to have anybody over here. It’s really quite a good deal, though, for the inside of the trailer is nice, it’s a house trailer, furnished, with some of the electric sockets working and a lot of living space. The only drawback is this old guy, whose name is Charlie, is something of a lunatic and it’s rather difficult to get along with him sometimes.

Charlie still lives at the same address, in a small teardrop-shaped camping trailer sheathed in rust-pocked tin, without plumbing or electricity, tucked behind the much larger blue-and-white mobile home where McCandless slept. Denuded mountains are visible to the west, towering sternly above the rooftops

of adjacent double-wides. A baby-blue Ford Torino rests on blocks in the unkempt yard, weeds sprouting from its engine compartment. The ammonia reek of human urine rises from a nearby oleander hedge.

“Chris? Chris?” Charlie barks, scanning porous memory banks. “Oh yeah, him. Yeah, yeah, I remember him, sure.” Charlie, dressed in a sweatshirt and khaki work pants, is a frail, nervous man with rheumy eyes and a growth of white stubble across his chin. By his recollection McCandless stayed in the trailer about a month.

“Nice guy, yeah, a pretty nice guy,” Charlie reports. “Didn’t like to be around too many people, though. Temperamental. He meant good, but I think he had a lot of complexes—know what I’m saying? Liked to read books by that Alaska guy, Jack London. Never said much. He’d get moody, wouldn’t like to be bothered. Seemed like a kid who was looking for something, looking for something, just didn’t know what it was. I was like that once, but then I realized what I was looking for: Money! Ha! Ha hyah, hooh boy!

“But like I was saying, Alaska—yeah, he talked about going to Alaska. Maybe to find whatever it was he was looking for. Nice guy, seemed like one, anyway. Had a lot of complexes sometimes, though. Had ‘em bad. When he left, was around Christmas I think, he gave me fifty bucks and a pack of cigarettes for lettin’ him stay here. Thought that was mighty decent of him.”

In late November, McCandless sent a postcard to Jan Burres in care of a post-office box in Niland, a small town in California’s Imperial Valley. “That card we got in Niland was the first letter from him in a long time that had a return address on it,” Burres remembers. “So I immediately wrote back and said we’d come see him the next weekend in Bullhead, which wasn’t that far from where we were.”

McCandless was thrilled to hear from Jan. “I am so glad to find you both alive and sound,” he exclaimed in a letter dated December 9, 1991.

Thanks so much for the Christmas card. It’s nice to be thought of this time of year... I’m so excited to hear that you will be coming to see me, you’re welcome anytime. It’s really great to think that after almost a year and a half we shall be meeting again.

He closed the letter by drawing a map and giving detailed directions for finding the trailer on Bullhead City’s Baseline Road.

Four days after receiving this letter, however, as Jan and her boyfriend, Bob, were preparing to drive up for the visit, Burres returned to their campsite one evening to find “a big backpack leaning against our van. I recognized it as Alex’s. Our little dog, Sunni, sniffed him out before I did. She’d liked Alex, but I was surprised she remembered him. When the dog found him, she went nuts.” McCandless explained to Burres that he’d grown tired of Bullhead, tired of punching a clock, tired of the “plastic people” he worked with, and decided to get the hell out of town.

Jan and Bob were staying three miles outside of Niland, at a place the locals call the Slabs, an old navy air base that had been abandoned and razed, leaving a grid of empty concrete foundations scattered far and wide across the desert. Come November, as the weather turns cold across the rest of the country, some five thousand snowbirds and drifters and sundry vagabonds congregate in this otherworldly setting to live on the cheap under the sun. The Slabs functions as the seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society—a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.

When McCandless arrived at the Slabs, a huge flea market-swap meet was in full swing out in the desert. Burres, as one of the vendors, had set up some folding tables displaying cheap, mostly secondhand goods for sale, and McCandless volunteered to oversee her large inventory of used paperback books.

“He helped me a lot,” Burres acknowledges. “He watched the table when I needed to leave, categorized all the books, made a lot of sales. He seemed to get a real kick out of it. Alex was big on the classics: Dickens, H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, Jack London.

London was his favorite. He’d try to convince every snowbird who walked by that they should read Call of the Wild.”

McCandless had been infatuated with London since childhood. London’s fervent condemnation of capitalist society, his glorification of the primordial world, his championing of the great unwashed—all of it mirrored McCandless’s passions. Mesmerized by London’s turgid portrayal of life in Alaska and the Yukon, McCandless read and reread The Call of the Wild, White Fang, “To Build a Fire,” “An Odyssey of the North,” “The Wit of Porportuk.” He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he’d died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print.

Among the residents of the Niland Slabs was a seventeen-year-old named Tracy, and she fell in love with McCandless during his week-long visit. “She was this sweet little thing,” says Burres, “the daughter of a couple of tramps who parked their rig four vehicles down from us. And poor Tracy developed a hopeless crush on Alex. The whole time he was in Niland, she hung around making goo-goo eyes at him, bugging me to convince him to go on walks with her. Alex was nice to her, but she was too young for him. He couldn’t take her seriously. Probably left her brokenhearted for a whole week at least.”

Even though McCandless rebuffed Tracy’s advances, Burres makes it clear that he was no recluse: “He had a good time when he was around people, a real good time. At the swap meet he’d talk and talk and talk to everybody who came by. He must have met six or seven dozen people in Niland, and he was friendly with every one of them. He needed his solitude at times, but he wasn’t a hermit. He did a lot of socializing. Sometimes I think it was like he was storing up company for the times when he knew nobody would be around.”

McCandless was especially attentive to Burres, flirting and clowning with her at every opportunity. “He liked to tease me and torment me,” she recalls. “I’d go out back to hang clothes on the line behind the trailer, and he’d attach clothespins all over me. He was playful, like a little kid. I had puppies, and he was always putting them under laundry baskets to watch them bounce around and yelp. He’d do it till I’d get mad and have to yell at him to stop. But in truth he was real good with the dogs. They’d follow him around, cry after him, want to sleep with him. Alex just had a way with animals.”

One afternoon while McCandless was tending the book table at the Niland swap meet, somebody left a portable electric organ with Burres to sell on consignment. “Alex took it over and entertained everybody all day playing it,” she says. “He had an amazing voice. He drew quite a crowd. Until then I never knew he was musical.”

McCandless spoke frequently to the denizens of the Slabs about his plans for Alaska. He did calisthenics each morning to get in shape for the rigors of the bush and discussed backcountry survival strategies at length with Bob, a self-styled survivalist.

“Me,” says Burres, “I thought Alex had lost his mind when he told us about his ‘great Alaskan odyssey,’ as he called it. But he was really excited about it. Couldn’t stop talking about the trip.”

Despite prodding from Burres, however, McCandless revealed virtually nothing about his family. “I’d ask him,” Burres says, “ ‘Have you let your people know what you’re up to? Does your mom know you’re going to Alaska? Does your dad know?’ But he’d never answer. He’d just roll his eyes at me, get peeved, tell me to quit trying to mother him. And Bob would say, ‘Leave him alone! He’s a grown man!’ I’d keep at it until he’d change the subject, though—because of what happened between me and my own son. He’s out there somewhere, and I’d want someone to look after him like I tried to look after Alex.”

The Sunday before McCandless left Niland, he was watching an NFL playoff game on the television in Burres’s trailer when she noticed he was rooting especially hard for the Washington Redskins. “So I asked him if he was from the B.C. area,” she says. “And he answered, ‘Yeah, actually I am.’ That’s the only thing he ever let on about his background.”

The following Wednesday, McCandless announced it was time for him to be moving on. He said he needed to go to the post office in Salton City, fifty miles west of Niland, to which he’d asked the manager of the Bullhead McDonald’s to send his final pay-check, general delivery. He accepted Burres’s offer to drive him there, but when she tried to give him a little money for helping out at the swap meet, she recalls, “he acted real offended. I told him, ‘Man, you gotta have money to get along in this world/ but he wouldn’t take it. Finally I got him to take some Swiss Army knives and a few belt knives; I convinced him they’d come in handy in Alaska and that he could maybe trade them for something down the road.”

After an extended argument Burres also got McCandless to accept some long underwear and other warm clothing she thought he’d need in Alaska. “He eventually took it to shut me up,” she laughs, “but the day after he left, I found most of it in the van. He’d pulled it out of his pack when we weren’t looking and hid it up under the seat. Alex was a great kid, but he could really make me mad sometimes.”

Although Burres was concerned about McCandless, she assumed he’d come through in one piece. “I thought he’d be fine in the end,” she reflects. “He was smart. He’d figured out how to paddle a canoe down to Mexico, how to hop freight trains, how to score a bed at inner-city missions. He figured all of that out on his own, and I felt sure he’d figure out Alaska, too.”



No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality... The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.



On January 4, 1993, this writer received an unusual letter, penned in a shaky, anachronistic script that suggested an elderly author. “To Whom It May Concern,” the letter began.

/ would like to get a copy of the magazine that carried the story of the young man (Alex McCandless) dying in Alaska. I would like to write the one that investigated the incident. I drove him from Salton City Calif... in March 1992... to Grand Junction Co... I left Alex there to hitch-hike to S.D. He said he would keep in touch. The last I heard from him was a letter the first week in April, 1992. On our trip we took pictures, me with the camcorder + Alex with his camera.

If you have a copy of that magazine please send me the cost of that magazine...

I understand he was hurt. If so I would like to know how he was injured, for he always carried enough rice in his backpack + he had arctic clothes + plenty of money.


Please do not make these facts available to anybody till I know more about his death for he was not just the common wayfarer. Please believe me.

The magazine that Franz requested was the January 1993 issue of Outside, which featured a cover story about the death of Chris McCandless. His letter had been addressed to the offices of Outside in Chicago; because I had written the McCandless piece, it was forwarded to me.

McCandless made an indelible impression on a number of people during the course of his hegira, most of whom spent only a few days in his company, a week or two at most. Nobody, however, was affected more powerfully by his or her brief contact with the boy than Ronald Franz, who was eighty years old when their paths intersected in January 1992.

After McCandless bid farewell to Jan Burres at the Salton City Post Office, he hiked into the desert and set up camp in a brake of creosote at the edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Hard to the east is the Salton Sea, a placid ocean in miniature, its surface more than two hundred feet below sea level, created in 1905 by a monumental engineering snafu: Not long after a canal was dug from the Colorado River to irrigate rich farmland in the Imperial Valley, the river breached its banks during a series of major floods, carved a new channel, and began to gush unabated into the Imperial Valley Canal. For more than two years the canal inadvertently diverted virtually all of the river’s prodigious flow into the Salton sink. Water surged across the once-dry floor of the sink, inundating farms and settlements, eventually drowning four hundred square miles of desert and giving birth to a landlocked ocean.

Only fifty miles from the limousines and exclusive tennis clubs and lush green fairways of Palm Springs, the west shore of the Salton Sea had once been the site of intense real estate speculation. Lavish resorts were planned, grand subdivisions platted. But little of the promised development ever came to pass. These days most of the lots remain vacant and are gradually being reclaimed by the desert. Tumbleweeds scuttle down Salton City’s broad, desolate boulevards. Sun-bleached FOR SALE signs line the curbs, and paint peels from uninhabited buildings. A placard in the window of the Salton Sea Realty and Development Company declares CLOSED/CERRADO. Only the rattle of the wind interrupts the spectral quiet.

Away from the lakeshore the land rises gently and then abruptly to form the desiccated, phantasmal badlands of Anza-Borrego. The bajada beneath the badlands is open country cut by steep-walled arroyos. Here, on a low, sun-scorched rise dotted with chollas and indigobushes and twelve-foot ocotillo stems, McCandless slept on the sand under a tarp hung from a creosote branch.

When he needed provisions, he would hitch or walk the four miles into town, where he bought rice and filled his plastic water jug at the market-liquor store-post office, a beige stucco building that serves as the cultural nexus of greater Salton City. One Thursday in mid-January, McCandless was hitching back out to the bajada after filling his jug when an old man, name of Ron Franz, stopped to give him a ride.

“Where’s your camp?” Franz inquired.

“Out past Oh-My-God Hot Springs,” McCandless replied.

“I’ve lived in these parts six years now, and I’ve never heard of any place goes by that name. Show me how to get there.”

They drove for a few minutes down the Borrego-Salton Seaway, and then McCandless told him to turn left into the desert, where a rough 4-x-4 track twisted down a narrow wash. After a mile or so they arrived at a bizarre encampment, where some two hundred people had gathered to spend the winter living out of their vehicles. The community was beyond the fringe, a vision of post-apocalypse America. There were families sheltered in cheap tent trailers, aging hippies in Day-Glo vans, Charles Manson look-alikes sleeping in rusted-out Studebakers that hadn’t turned over since Eisenhower was in the White House. A substantial number of those present were walking around buck naked. At the center of the camp, water from a geothermal well had been piped into a pair of shallow, steaming pools lined with rocks and shaded by palm trees: Oh-My-God Hot Springs.

McCandless, however, wasn’t living right at the springs; he was camped by himself another half mile out on the bajada. Franz drove Alex the rest of the way, chatted with him there for a while, and then returned to town, where he lived alone, rent free, in return for managing a ramshackle apartment building.

Franz, a devout Christian, had spent most of his adult life in the army, stationed in Shanghai and Okinawa. On New Year’s Eve 1957, while he was overseas, his wife and only child were killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident. Franz’s son had been due to graduate from medical school the following June. Franz started hitting the whiskey, hard.

Six months later he managed to pull himself together and quit drinking, cold turkey, but he never really got over the loss. To salve his loneliness in the years after the accident, he started unofficially “adopting” indigent Okinawan boys and girls, eventually taking fourteen of them under his wing, paying for the oldest to attend medical school in Philadelphia and another to study medicine in Japan.

When Franz met McCandless, his long-dormant paternal impulses were kindled anew. He couldn’t get the young man out of his mind. The boy had said his name was Alex—he’d declined to give a surname—and that he came from West Virginia. He was polite, friendly, well-groomed.

“He seemed extremely intelligent,” Franz states in an exotic brogue that sounds like a blend of Scottish, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Carolina drawl. “I thought he was too nice a kid to be living by that hot springs with those nudists and drunks and dope smokers.” After attending church that Sunday, Franz decided to talk to Alex “about how he was living. Somebody needed to convince him to get an education and a job and make something of his life.”

When he returned to McCandless’s camp and launched into the self-improvement pitch, though, McCandless cut him off abruptly. “Look, Mr. Franz,” he declared, “you don’t need to worry about me. I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice.” And then, despite his initial prickli-ness, the young man warmed to the old-timer, and the two engaged in a long conversation. Before the day was out, they had driven into Palm Springs in Franz’s truck, had a meal at a nice restaurant, and taken a ride on the tramway to the top of San Ja-cinto Peak, at the bottom of which McCandless stopped to unearth a Mexican scrape and some other possessions he’d buried for safekeeping a year earlier.

Over the next few weeks McCandless and Franz spent a lot of time together. The younger man would regularly hitch into Salton City to do his laundry and barbecue steaks at Franz’s apartment. He confided that he was biding his time until spring, when he intended to go to Alaska and embark on an “ultimate adventure.” He also turned the tables and started lecturing the grandfatherly figure about the shortcomings of his sedentary existence, urging the eighty-year-old to sell most of his belongings, move out of the apartment, and live on the road. Franz took these harangues in stride and in fact delighted in the boy’s company.

An accomplished leatherworker, Franz taught Alex the secrets of his craft; for his first project McCandless produced a tooled leather belt, on which he created an artful pictorial record of his wanderings. ALEX is inscribed at the belt’s left end; then the initials C.J.M. (for Christopher Johnson McCandless) frame a skull and crossbones. Across the strip of cowhide one sees a rendering of a two-lane blacktop, a NO U-TURN sign, a thunderstorm producing a flash flood that engulfs a car, a hitchhiker’s thumb, an eagle, the Sierra Nevada, salmon cavorting in the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to Washington, the Rocky Mountains, Montana wheat fields, a South Dakota rattlesnake, Westerberg’s house in Carthage, the Colorado River, a gale in the Gulf of California, a canoe beached beside a tent, Las Vegas, the initials T.C.D., Morro Bay, Astoria, and at the buckle end, finally, the letter N (presumably representing north). Executed with remarkable skill and creativity, this belt is as astonishing as any artifact Chris McCandless left behind.

Franz grew increasingly fond of McCandless. “God, he was a smart kid,” the old man rasps in a barely audible voice. He directs his gaze at a patch of sand between his feet as he makes this declaration; then he stops talking. Bending stiffly from the waist, he wipes some imaginary dirt from his pant leg. His ancient joints crack loudly in the awkward silence.

More than a minute passes before Franz speaks again; squinting at the sky, he begins to reminisce further about the time he spent in the youngsters company. Not infrequently during their visits, Franz recalls, McCandless’s face would darken with anger and he’d fulminate about his parents or politicians or the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life. Worried about alienating the boy, Franz said little during such outbursts and let him rant.

One day in early February, McCandless announced that he was splitting for San Diego to earn more money for his Alaska trip.

“You don’t need to go to San Diego,” Franz protested. “I’ll give you money if you need some.”

“No. You don’t get it. I’m going to San Diego. And I’m leaving on Monday”

“OK. I’ll drive you there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” McCandless scoffed.

“I need to go anyway,” Franz lied, “to pick up some leather supplies.”

McCandless relented. He struck his camp, stored most of his belongings in Franz’s apartment—the boy didn’t want to schlepp his sleeping bag or backpack around the city—and then rode with the old man across the mountains to the coast. It was raining when Franz dropped McCandless at the San Diego waterfront. “It was a very hard thing for me to do,” Franz says. “I was sad to be leaving him.”

On February 19, McCandless called Franz, collect, to wish him a happy eighty-first birthday; McCandless remembered the date because his own birthday had been seven days earlier: He had turned twenty-four on February 12. During this phone call he also confessed to Franz that he was having trouble finding work.

On February 28, he mailed a postcard to Jan Burres. “Hello!” it reads,

Have been living on streets of San Diego for the past week. First day I got here it rained like hell. The missions here suck and I’m getting preached to death. Not much happening in terms of jobs so I’m heading north tomorrow.

I’ve decided to head for Alaska no later than May 1st, but I’ve got to raise a little cash to outfit myself. May go back and work for a friend I have in South Dakota if he can use me. Don’t know where I’m headed now but I’ll write when I get there. Hope all’s well with you. TAKE CARE, ALEX

On March 5, McCandless sent another card to Burres and a card to Franz as well. The missive to Burres says,

Greetings from Seattle! I’m a hobo now! That’s right, I’m riding the rails now. What fun, I wish I had jumped trains earlier. The rails have some drawbacks, however. First is that one becomes absolutely filthy. Second is that one must tangle with these crazy bulls. I was sitting in a hotshot in L.A. when a bull found me with his flashlight about 10 P.M. “Get outta there before I KILL ya!” screamed the bull. I got out and saw he had drawn his revolver. He interrogated me at gunpoint, then growled, “If I ever see you around this train again I’ll kill ya! Hit the road!” What a lunatic! I got the last laugh when I caught the same train 5 minutes later and rode it all the way to Oakland. I’ll be in touch,


A week later Franz’s phone rang. “It was the operator,” he says, “asking if I would accept a collect call from someone named Alex. When I heard his voice, it was like sunshine after a month of rain.”

“Will you come pick me up?” McCandless asked.

“Yes. Where in Seattle are you?”

“Ron,” McCandless laughed, “I’m not in Seattle. I’m in California, just up the road from you, in Coachella.” Unable to find work in the rainy Northwest, McCandless had hopped a series of freight trains back to the desert. In Colton, California, he was discovered by another bull and thrown in jail. Upon his release he had hitchhiked to Coachella, just southeast of Palm Springs, and called Franz. As soon as he hung up the phone, Franz rushed off to pick McCandless up.

“We went to a Sizzler, where I filled him up with steak and lobster,” Franz recalls, “and then we drove back to Salton City.”

McCandless said that he would be staying only a day, just long enough to wash his clothes and load his backpack. He’d heard from Wayne Westerberg that a job was waiting for him at the grain elevator in Carthage, and he was eager to get there. The date was March 11, a Wednesday. Franz offered to take McCandless to Grand Junction, Colorado, which was the farthest he could drive without missing an appointment in Salton City the following Monday. To Franz’s surprise and great relief, McCandless accepted the offer without argument.

Before departing, Franz gave McCandless a machete, an arctic parka, a collapsible fishing pole, and some other gear for his Alaska undertaking. Thursday at daybreak they drove out of Salton City in Franz’s truck. In Bullhead City they stopped to close out McCandless’s bank account and to visit Charlie s trailer, where McCandless had stashed some books and other belongings, including the journal-photo album from his canoe trip down the Colorado. McCandless then insisted on buying Franz lunch at the Golden Nugget Casino, across the river in Laughlin. Recognizing McCandless, a waitress at the Nugget gushed, “Alex! Alex! You’re back!”

Franz had purchased a video camera before the trip, and he paused now and then along the way to record the sights. Although McCandless usually ducked away whenever Franz pointed the lens in his direction, some brief footage exists of him standing impatiently in the snow above Bryce Canyon. “Ok, let’s go,” he protests to the camcorder after a few moments. “There’s a lot more ahead, Ron.” Wearing jeans and a wool sweater, McCandless looks tan, strong, healthy.

Franz reports that it was a pleasant, if hurried trip. “Sometimes we’d drive for hours without saying a word,” he recalls. “Even when he was sleeping, I was happy just knowing he was there.” At one point Franz dared to make a special request of McCandless. “My mother was an only child,” he explains. “So was my father. And I was their only child. Now that my own boy’s dead, I’m the end of the line. When I’m gone, my family will be finished, gone forever. So I asked Alex if I could adopt him, if he would be my grandson.”

McCandless, uncomfortable with the request, dodged the question: “We’ll talk about it when I get back from Alaska, Ron.”

On March 14, Franz left McCandless on the shoulder of Interstate 70 outside Grand Junction and returned to southern California. McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well—relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arm’s length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. And now he’d slipped painlessly out of Ron Franz’s life as well.

Painlessly, that is, from McCandless’s perspective—although not from the old man’s. One can only speculate about why Franz became so attached to McCandless so quickly, but the affection he felt was genuine, intense, and unalloyed. Franz had been living a solitary existence for many years. He had no family and few friends. A disciplined, self-reliant man, he got along remarkably well despite his age and solitude. When McCandless came into his world, however, the boy undermined the old man’s meticulously constructed defenses. Franz relished being with McCandless, but their burgeoning friendship also reminded him how lonely he’d been. The boy unmasked the gaping void in Franz’s life even as he helped fill it. When McCandless departed as suddenly as he’d arrived, Franz found himself deeply and unexpectedly hurt.

In early April a long letter arrived in Franz’s post-office box bearing a South Dakota postmark. “Hello Ron,” it says,

Alex here. I have been working up here in Carthage South Dakota for nearly two weeks now. I arrived up here three days after we parted in Grand Junction, Colorado. I hope that you made it back to Salton City without too many problems. I enjoy working here and things are going well. The weather is not very bad and many days are surprisingly mild. Some of the farmers are even already going out into their fields. It must be getting rather hot down there in Southern California by now. I wonder if you ever got a chance to get out and see how many people showed up for the March 20 Rainbow gathering there at the hotsprings. It sounds like it might have been a lot of fun, but I don’t think you really understand these kind of people very well.

I will not be here in South Dakota very much longer. My friend, Wayne, wants me to stay working at the grain elevator through May and then go combining with him the entire summer, but I have my soul set entirely on my Alaskan Odyssey and hope to be on my way no later than April 15. That means I will be leaving here before very long, so I need you to send any more mail I may have received to the return address listed below.

Ron, I really enjoy all the help you have given me and the times that we spent together. I hope that you will not be too depressed by our parting. It may be a very long time before we see each other again. But providing that I get through this Alaskan Deal in one piece you will be hearing from me again in the future. I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that 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. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. 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, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty. And so, Ron, in short, get out of Salton City and hit the Road. I guarantee you will be very glad you did. But I fear that you will ignore my advice. You think that I am stubborn, but you are even more stubborn than me. You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life. But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day. I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover. Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time, Ron, 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. God has placed it all around us. 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.

My point is that you do not need me or anyone else around to bring this new kind of light in 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.

Ron, I really hope that as soon as you can you will get out of Salton City, put a little camper on the back of your pickup, and start seeing some of the great work that God has done here in the American West. You will see things and meet people and there is much to learn from them. And you must do it economy style, no motels, do your own cooking, as a general rule spend as little as possible and you will enjoy it much more immensely. I hope that the next time I see you, you will be a new man with a vast array of new adventures and experiences behind you. 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.


Please write back to:

Alex McCandless

Madison, SD 57042

Astoundingly, the eighty-one-year-old man took the brash twenty-four-year-old vagabonds advice to heart. Franz placed his furniture and most of his other possessions in a storage locker, bought a CMC Duravan, and outfitted it with bunks and camping gear. Then he moved out of his apartment and set up camp on the bajada.

Franz occupied McCandless’s old campsite, just past the hot springs. He arranged some rocks to create a parking area for the van, transplanted prickly pears and indigobushes for “landscaping.” And then he sat out in the desert, day after day after day, awaiting his young friend’s return.

Ronald Franz (this is not his real name; at his request I have given him a pseudonym) looks remarkably sturdy for a man in his ninth decade who has survived two heart attacks. Nearly six feet tall, with thick arms and a barrel chest, he stands erect, his shoulders unbowed. His ears are large beyond the proportions of his other features, as are his gnarled, meaty hands. When I walk into his camp in the desert and introduce myself, he is wearing old jeans and an immaculate white T-shirt, a decorative tooled-leather belt of his own creation, white socks, scuffed black loafers. His age is betrayed only by the creases across his brow and a proud, deeply pitted nose, over which a purple filigree of veins unfolds like a finely wrought tattoo. A little more than a year after McCandless’s death he regards the world through wary blue eyes.

To dispel Franz’s suspicion, I hand him an assortment of photographs I’d taken on a trip to Alaska the previous summer, during which I’d retraced McCandless’s terminal journey on the Stampede Trail. The first several images in the stack are landscapes—shots of the surrounding bush, the overgrown trail, distant mountains, the Sushana River. Franz studies them in silence, occasionally nodding when I explain what they depict; he seems grateful to see them.

When he comes to the pictures of the bus in which the boy died, however, he stiffens abruptly. Several of these images show McCandless’s belongings inside the derelict vehicle; as soon as Franz realizes what he’s seeing, his eyes mist over, he thrusts the photos back at me without examining the rest, and the old man walks away to compose himself as I mumble a lame apology.

Franz no longer lives at McCandless’s campsite. A flash flood washed the makeshift road away, so he moved twenty miles out, toward the Borrego badlands, where he camps beside an isolated stand of cottonwoods. Oh-My-God Hot Springs is gone now, too, bulldozed and plugged with concrete by order of the Imperial Valley Health Commission. County officials say they eliminated the springs out of concern that bathers might become gravely ill from virulent microbes thought to flourish in the thermal pools.

“That sure could of been true,” says the clerk at the Salton City store, “but most people think they bulldozed ‘em ‘cause the springs was starting to attract too many hippies and drifters and scum like that. Good riddance, you ask me.”

For more than eight months after he said good-bye to McCandless, Franz remained at his campsite, scanning the road for the approach of a young man with a large pack, waiting patiently for Alex to return. During the last week of 1992, the day after Christmas, he picked up two hitchhikers on his way back from a trip into Salton City to check his mail. “One fella was from Mississippi, I think; the other was a Native American,” Franz remembers. “On the way out to the hot springs, I started telling them about my friend Alex, and the adventure he’d set out to have in Alaska.”

Suddenly, the Indian youth interrupted: “Was his name Alex McCandless?”

“Yes, that’s right. So you’ve met him, then—”

“I hate to tell you this, mister, but your friend is dead. Froze to death up on the tundra. Just read about it in Outdoor magazine.”

In shock, Franz interrogated the hitchhiker at length. The details rang true; his story added up. Something had gone horribly wrong. McCandless would never be coming back.

“When Alex left for Alaska,” Franz remembers, “I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.

“After I dropped off the hitchhikers,” Franz continues, “I turned my van around, drove back to the store, and bought a bottle of whiskey. And then I went out into the desert and drank it. I wasn’t used to drinking, so it made me sick. Hoped it’d kill me, but it didn’t. Just made me real, real sick.”



There was some books... One was Pilgrim’s Progress, about a man that left his family, it didn’t say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.


It is true that many creative people fail to make mature personal relationships, and some are extremely isolated. It is also true that, in some instances, trauma, in the shape of early separation or bereavement, has steered the potentially creative person toward developing aspects of his personality which can find fulfillment in comparative isolation. But this does not mean that solitary, creative pursuits are themselves pathological...

[A]voidance behavior is a response designed to protect the infant from behavioural disorganization. If we transfer this concept to adult life, we can see that an avoidant infant might very well develop into a person whose principal need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely, or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships.


The big John Deere 8020 squats silently in the canted evening light, a long way from anywhere, surrounded by a half-mowed field of South Dakota milo. Wayne Westerberg’s muddy sneakers protrude from the maw of the combine, as if the machine were in the process of swallowing him whole, an overgrown metal reptile digesting its prey. “Hand me that goddamn wrench, will you?” an angry, muffled voice demands from deep within the machine’s innards. “Or are you guys too busy standing around with your hands in your goddamn pockets to be of any use?” The combine has broken down for the third time in as many days, and Westerberg is frantically trying to replace a hard-to-reach bushing before nightfall.

An hour later he emerges, smeared with grease and chaff but successful. “Sorry about snapping like that,” Westerberg apologizes. “We’ve been working too many eighteen-hour days. I guess I’m getting a little snarly, it being so late in the season and all, and us being shorthanded besides. We was counting on Alex being back at work by now.” Fifty days have gone by since McCandless’s body was discovered in Alaska on the Stampede Trail.

Seven months earlier, on a frosty March afternoon, McCand-less had ambled into the office at the Carthage grain elevator and announced that he was ready to go to work. “There we were, ringing up the morning’s tickets,” remembers Westerberg, “and in walks Alex with a big old backpack slung over his shoulder.” He told Westerberg he planned on staying until April 15, just long enough to put together a grubstake. He needed to buy a pile of new gear, he explained, because he was going to Alaska. McCand-less promised to come back to South Dakota in time to help with the autumn harvest, but he wanted to be in Fairbanks by the end of April in order to squeeze in as much time as possible up North before his return.

During those four weeks in Carthage, McCandless worked hard, doing dirty, tedious jobs that nobody else wanted to tackle: mucking out warehouses, exterminating vermin, painting, scything weeds. At one point, to reward McCandless with a task that involved slightly more skill, Westerberg attempted to teach him to operate a front-end loader. “Alex hadn’t been around machinery much,” Westerberg says with a shake of his head, “and it was pretty comical to watch him try to get the hang of the clutch and all those levers. He definitely wasn’t what you’d call mechanically minded.”

Nor was McCandless endowed with a surfeit of common sense.

Many who knew him have commented, unbidden, that he seemed to have great difficulty seeing the trees, as it were, for the forest. “Alex wasn’t a total space cadet or anything,” says Westerberg; “don’t get me wrong. But there was gaps in his thinking. I remember once I went over to the house, walked into the kitchen, and noticed a god-awful stink. I mean it smelled nasty in there. I opened the microwave, and the bottom of it was filled with rancid grease. Alex had been using it to cook chicken, and it never occurred to him that the grease had to drain somewhere. It wasn’t that he was too lazy to clean it up—Alex always kept things real neat and orderly—it was just that he hadn’t noticed the grease.”

Soon after McCandless returned to Carthage that spring, Westerberg introduced him to his longtime, on-again, off-again girlfriend, Gail Borah, a petite, sad-eyed woman, as slight as a heron, with delicate features and long blond hair. Thirty-five years old, divorced, a mother of two teenage children, she quickly became close to McCandless. “He was kind of shy at first,” says Borah. “He acted like it was hard for him to be around people. I just figured that was because he’d spent so much time by himself.

“I had Alex over to the house for supper just about every night,” Borah continues. “He was a big eater. Never left any food on his plate. Never. He was a good cook, too. Sometimes he’d have me over to Wayne’s place and fix supper for everybody. Cooked a lot of rice. You’d think he would of got tired of it, but he never did. Said he could live for a month on nothing but twenty-five pounds of rice.

“Alex talked a lot when we got together,” Borah recalls. “Serious stuff, like he was baring his soul, kind of. He said he could tell me things that he couldn’t tell the others. You could see something was gnawing at him. It was pretty obvious he didn’t get along with his family, but he never said much about any of them except Carine, his little sister. He said they were pretty close. Said she was beautiful, that when she walked down the street, guys would turn their heads and stare.”

Westerberg, for his part, didn’t concern himself with McCandless’s family problems. “Whatever reason he had for being pissed off, I figured it must have been a good one. Now that he’s dead, though, I don’t know anymore. If Alex was here right now, I’d be tempted to chew him out good: ‘What the hell were you thinking? Not speaking to your family for all that time, treating them like dirt!’ One of the kids that works for me, fuck, he don’t even have any goddamn parents, but you don’t hear him bitching. Whatever the deal was with Alex’s family, I guarantee you I’ve seen a lot worse. Knowing Alex, I think he must have just got stuck on something that happened between him and his dad and couldn’t leave it be.”

Westerberg’s latter conjecture, as it turned out, was a fairly astute analysis of the relationship between Chris and Walt McCandless. Both father and son were stubborn and high-strung. Given Walt’s need to exert control and Chris’s extravagantly independent nature, polarization was inevitable. Chris submitted to Walt’s authority through high school and college to a surprising degree, but the boy raged inwardly all the while. He brooded at length over what he perceived to be his father’s moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents’ lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love. Eventually, Chris rebelled—and when he finally did, it was with characteristic immoderation.

Shortly before he disappeared, Chris complained to Carine that their parents’ behavior was “so irrational, so oppressive, disrespectful and insulting that I finally passed my breaking point.” He went on:

Since they won’t ever take me seriously, for a few months after graduation I’m going to let them think they are right, I’m going to let them think that I’m “coming around to see their side of things “ and that our relationship is stabilizing. And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life. I’m going to divorce them as my parents once and for all and never speak to either of those idiots again as long as I live. I’ll be through with them once and for all, forever.

The chill Westerberg sensed between Alex and his parents stood in marked contrast to the warmth McCandless exhibited in Carthage. Outgoing and extremely personable when the spirit moved him, he charmed a lot of folks. There was mail waiting for him when he arrived back in South Dakota, correspondence from people he’d met on the road, including what Westerberg remembers as “letters from a girl who had a big crush on him, someone he’d gotten to know in some Timbuktu—some campground, I think.” But McCandless never mentioned any romantic entanglements to either Westerberg or Borah.

“I don’t recollect Alex ever talking about any girlfriends,” says Westerberg. “Although a couple of times he mentioned wanting to get married and have a family some day. You could tell he didn’t take relationships lightly. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would go out and pick up girls just to get laid.”

It was clear to Borah, too, that McCandless hadn’t spent much time cruising singles bars. “One night a bunch of us went out to a bar over in Madison,” says Borah, “and it was hard to get him out on the dance floor. But once he was out there, he wouldn’t sit down. We had a blast. After Alex died and all, Carine told me that as far as she knew, I was one of the only girls he ever went dancing with.”

In high school McCandless had enjoyed a close rapport with two or three members of the opposite sex, and Carine recalls one instance when he got drunk and tried to bring a girl up to his bedroom in the middle of the night (they made so much noise stumbling up the stairs that Billie was awakened and sent the girl home). But there is little evidence that he was sexually active as a teenager and even less to suggest that he slept with any woman after graduating from high school. (Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that he was ever sexually intimate with a man.) It seems that McCandless was drawn to women but remained largely or entirely celibate, as chaste as a monk.

Chastity and moral purity were qualities McCandless mulled over long and often. Indeed, one of the books found in the bus with his remains was a collection of stories that included Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” in which the nobleman-turned-ascetic denounces “the demands of the flesh.” Several such passages are starred and highlighted in the dog-eared text, the margins filled with cryptic notes printed in McCandless’s distinctive hand. And in the chapter on “Higher Laws” in Thoreau’s Walden, a copy of which was also discovered in the bus, McCandless circled “Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”

We Americans are titillated by sex, obsessed by it, horrified by it. When an apparently healthy person, especially a healthy young man, elects to forgo the enticements of the flesh, it shocks us, and we leer. Suspicions are aroused.

McCandless’s apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with single-minded passion—Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently— to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact. McCandless may have been tempted by the succor offered by women, but it paled beside the prospect of rough congress with nature, with the cosmos itself. And thus was he drawn north, to Alaska.

McCandless assured both Westerberg and Borah that when his northern sojourn was over, he would return to South Dakota, at least for the fall. After that, it would depend.

“I got the impression that this Alaska escapade was going to be his last big adventure,” Westerberg offers, “and that he wanted to settle down some. He said he was going to write a book about his travels. He liked Carthage. With his education, nobody thought he was going to work at a goddamn grain elevator the rest of his life. But he definitely intended to come back here for a while, help us out at the elevator, figure out what he was going to do next.”

That spring, however, McCandless’s sights were fixed unflinchingly on Alaska. He talked about the trip at every opportunity. He sought out experienced hunters around town and asked them for tips about stalking game, dressing animals, curing meat. Borah drove him to the Kmart in Mitchell to shop for some last pieces of gear.

By mid-April, Westerberg was both shorthanded and very busy, so he asked McCandless to postpone his departure and work a week or two longer. McCandless wouldn’t even consider it. “Once Alex made up his mind about something, there was no changing it,” Westerberg laments. “I even offered to buy him a plane ticket to Fairbanks, which would have let him work an extra ten days and still get to Alaska by the end of April, but he said, ‘No, I want to hitch north. Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip.’”

Two nights before McCandless was scheduled to head north, Mary Westerberg, Wayne’s mother, invited him to her house for dinner. “My mom doesn’t like a lot of my hired help,” Westerberg says, “and she wasn’t real enthusiastic about meeting Alex, either. But I kept bugging her, telling her ‘You gotta meet this kid,’ and so she finally had him over for supper. They hit it off immediately. The two of ‘em talked nonstop for five hours.”

“There was something fascinating about him,” explains Mrs. Westerberg, seated at the polished walnut table where McCandless dined that night. “Alex struck me as much older than twenty-four. Everything I said, he’d demand to know more about what I meant, about why I thought this way or that. He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.

“We talked for hours about books; there aren’t that many people in Carthage who like to talk about books. He went on and on about Mark Twain. Gosh, he was fun to visit with; I didn’t want the night to end. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him again this fall. I can’t get him out of my mind. I keep picturing his face—he sat in the same chair you’re sitting in now. Considering that I only spent a few hours in Alex’s company, it amazes me how much I’m bothered by his death.”

On McCandless’s final night in Carthage, he partied hard at the Cabaret with Westerberg’s crew. The Jack Daniel’s flowed freely.

To everyone’s surprise, McCandless sat down at the piano, which he’d never mentioned he knew how to play, and started pounding out honky-tonk country tunes, then ragtime, then Tony Bennett numbers. And he wasn’t merely a drunk inflicting his delusions of talent on a captive audience. “Alex,” says Gail Borah, “could really play. I mean he was good. We were all blown away by it.”

On the morning of April 15, everybody gathered at the elevator to see McCandless off. His pack was heavy. He had approximately one thousand dollars tucked in his boot. He left his journal and photo album with Westerberg for safekeeping and gave him the leather belt he’d made in the desert.

“Alex used to sit at the bar in the Cabaret and read that belt for hours on end,” says Westerberg, “like he was translating hieroglyphics for us. Each picture he’d carved into the leather had a long story behind it.”

When McCandless hugged Borah good-bye, she says, “I noticed he was crying. That frightened me. He wasn’t planning on being gone all that long; I figured he wouldn’t have been crying unless he intended to take some big risks and knew he might not be coming back. That’s when I started having a bad feeling that we wouldn’t never see Alex again.”

A big tractor-semitrailer rig was idling out front; Rod Wolf, one of Westerberg’s employees, needed to haul a load of sunflower seeds to Enderlin, North Dakota, and had agreed to drive McCandless to Interstate 94.

“When I let him off, he had that big damn machete hanging off his shoulder,” Wolf says. “I thought, ‘Jeeze, nobody’s going to pick him up when they see that thing.’ But I didn’t say nothin’ about it. I just shook his hand, wished him good luck, and told him he’d better write.”

McCandless did. A week later Westerberg received a terse card with a Montana postmark:

APRIL 18. Arrived in Whitefish this morning on a freight train. I am making good time. Today I will jump the border and turn north for Alaska. Give my regards to everyone.


Then, in early May, Westerberg received another postcard, this one from Alaska, with a photo of a polar bear on the front. It was postmarked April 27, 1992. “Greetings from Fairbanks!” it reads,

This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon Territory. But I finally got here.

Please return all mail I receive to the sender. 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.

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