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I’m not quite sure how the classic “road story” Into The Wild passed under my radar for so long, but it did.
I was at a friend’s house in London when I picked up a copy of the book.
“It’s a true story” he told me.
“It’s about this guy who gets rid of everything he owns and gives away his trust fund to go traveling in search of true happiness and beauty. They find him dead in Alaska in an abandoned bus and try to figure out why he did what he did.”
The story intrigued me, even if my friend did put it rather bluntly.
Coincidentally, the following day, I saw that the Into the Wild movie (directed by Sean Penn) was playing on TV. I watched intently.
So what happened to Christopher McCandless?
The Christopher McCandless Story
The body of Chris McCandless was found in an old bus in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 and the most haunting thing about this was the journal, notes and photos he left behind, which act as a voice beyond the grave.
The self portrait photo of an emaciated Chris McCandless sitting on a chair in front of that run down bus will stay etched in everyone’s minds I’m sure.
The discovery of Chris’s body prompted Jon Krakauer to write a book examining what brought him to abandon his possessions, cease communication with his parents and give his $24,000 savings account to charity to go on his Great Alaskan Adventure.
Found in the wilderness, Chris had starved to death as he tried to survive on wild plants and minimal provisions. He wrote a journal recording his spiritual and physical state as he experienced solitude living off the land in Alaska.
The questions asked by many- was this a romantic story of a backpacker on a quest to discover the meaning of life and a world without material possessions? Or is it the story of a foolish American who went unprepared into the wilderness?
Since his death hundreds of people have hiked to the site of that abandoned bus, and he has been cast by some as a heroic figure who they admire for shunning societal norms.
But what led him to starvation in the wild?
How did Christopher McCandless Die?
Some people have questioned whether Chris suffered from Schizophrenia, especially as he went back and forth between his real name and his alter ego name “Alexander Supertramp”.
In his book, Jon Krakauer questions whether Chris died because of poisonous toxins found in the seeds of the potato plant Hedysarum alpinum, but lab results ruled his official cause of death was starvation – something brought about because of his lack of supplies.
A note scribbled on a page torn from a novel said:
attention possible visitors.
i need your help. i am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. i am all alone, this is no joke. in the name of god, please remain to save me. i am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. thank you,
Chris tried to leave but his path was blocked by an impassable river. Ironically, however, there was a manual tram about 1/2 a mile from where he had previously crossed.
In a more recent article for The New Yorker, Jon Krakauer goes into great detail to get to the bottom of how Christopher McCandless died.
Did Christopher McCandless Die of Poisoning?
Around June 24, 1992, McCandless started to consume the roots of the Hedysarum alpinum plant in his daily diet. On July 14th, he started harvesting and eating Hedysarum alpinum seeds as well. Apparently there is a photo of him with a Ziploc bag full of them.
On July 30th, McCandless wrote in his journal, “extremely weak. fault of pot[ato] seed. much trouble just to stand up. starving. great jeopardy.”
After that his condition seemed to deteriorate rapidly until he could no longer hike or walk, so Jon Krakauer decided to collect the Hedysarum alpinum seeds and send them to Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, for analysis. The professor concluded there were no toxins or alkoloids in the seeds.
However later on Krakauer discovered Ronald Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless”, who suggested the toxic agent in Hedysarum alpinum is not an alkoloid but, rather, an amino acid called beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta diaminoproprionic acid (ODAP), which brings about paralysis by over-stimulating nerve receptors, causing people to die.
While ingesting the seeds may not be that dangerous for a healthy adult eating a balanced diet, anyone suffering from malnutrition and hunger may be extra sensitive to ODAP.
Krakauer concludes that McCandless experienced poisoning and contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds. If he had known they were poisonous and avoided them, he would have walked out of the wild in late August and still be alive today.
Lessons Learned by Christopher McCandless
Sadly it seems that Christopher McCandless went Into The Wild to discover something he wrote down in his journal; “Happiness is only real when shared”.
He went all that way there to discover that things are only really worth experiencing if you can share them with someone else. Unfortunately this was something he found out far too late.
Although, like most backpackers, I can relate to the story, having left home with my entire world fitting into a backpack, I don’t find him a romantic figure.
Many backpackers are on a search for meaning to their lives, wanting to discover more about themselves and what it means to truly live. Many backpackers have things that they wanted to forget and leave behind. But Chris’s story is just a tragic one.
Chris McCandless wanted to know what it was like to live off the land in the wilderness, choosing to go with only ten pounds of rice, a rifle and a book on wild plants. He found out what it was like to live in the wilderness…lonely and hard.
If I was to hazard a guess I think Chris McCandless had an arrogant vision of himself as someone who could survive with barely anything but the clothes on his back.
He wanted to explore the unexplored and discover a life without responsibility, possessions, people, money… but in doing so, he went to his death. He insisted on embarking on a hardcore Bear Grylls-style adventure to prove his capabilities of surviving in the wild, but in the end he went to his death.
When things didn’t go to plan and he was dying of starvation he left a desperate SOS note asking for help, but it was too late.
Unfortunately, Chris went into the wild looking for answers, but ended up dying because of lack of preparation and lack of supplies. While it seems that Christopher McCandless quite possibly died of poisoning, he may not have died from those seeds if he was getting enough nutrition. He was already gaunt and emaciated and ultimately the answer he got was a simple one; nature will kill you if you’re ill-prepared.
You can rent the movie on Amazon here or buy the book here.
FAQs About Christopher McCandless
After graduating from university, Christopher McCandless donated his college savings of $24,000 to Oxfam and adopted a nomadic lifestyle, hitchhiking around the US and working odd jobs. He traveled through the Sierra Nevada mountains, California, Arizona, South Dakota and Colorado. In 1992 he went into the Alaskan wilderness with minimal supplies and attempted to live off the land. He lived on a diet of squirrels, berries, small birds, roots, mushrooms and porcupines but unfortunately became weak and starved to death. His decomposed body was found in an abandoned bus, which he used as shelter.
Christopher McCandleess survived 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness.
It’s possible that he could have survived if he had not eaten the potato seeds or he had taken the proper equipment and supplies. He may also have survived if he had taken a map with him or located the hand-operated cable car that crossed the river 1⁄2 mile (800 m) downstream from where he had previously crossed.
Christopher McCandless was from a fairly wealthy family and graduated with a degree in history and anthropology from Emory University in Georgia in 1990.
Fairbanks Bus 142 aka “the Into the Wild bus” or “magic bus” was moved to the UA Museum of the North in 2020. If you want to visit the bus you can view it 8:00 am – 8:00 pm Monday – Friday at the ConocoPhillips Alaska High Bay Structural Testing Lab at the Engineering Learning and Innovation Facility (ELIF Building) on the UAF campus.
The body of Christopher McCandless was discovered on September 6, 1992 by moose hunters.
He was 24 years old when he died.
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