Living

Into the Wild: McCandless' story isn't really told in book or film

"Into the Wild" is a misrepresentation, a sham, a fraud.

There, I've finally said what somebody has needed to say for a long time.

First the book and now the movie try to portray Alexander Supertramp as the Everyman example of youth gone off to the wilderness in search of the meaning of life. Unfortunately, Tramp wasn't Everyman. And he most certainly didn't go off to the wilderness searching for the meaning of life.

No rational individual can overlook the note he left explaining what he was seeking. He went into the wilderness, in his own words, to stage "the climatic battle to kill the false being within."

Tramp obviously wasn't searching for anything. He was running from something, possibly almost everything.

"No longer to be poisoned by civilization," he wrote, "he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild."

Note the third-person reference to himself there. It's a textbook signal for schizophrenia.

Lost is a good place to be if you suffer from this particular mental illness too. Lost is a place removed from all the outside stimuli that make life horribly, and sometimes dangerously, confusing for a schizophrenic.

Normal people lack the desire to become lost in the wild. Normal people use maps, compasses and GPS devices to avoid becoming lost in the wild.

Over the decades, I've met a lot of the young men who've gone off to the wilderness to search for meaning or, just as often, adventure. They didn't change their names, try to forge new identities or contemplate killing a "false being within."

A few of them, myself included, did turn their backs on civilization for days, weeks, months or years - but not because we were fleeing from it. No, we were seeking a world that existed long ago. Some of us still run to that place on a regular basis. It is good to stay in touch with the land. Just as it is good to remind oneself how comfortable and easy it has become to live in the 21st century.

People who change their names and run into the Alaska wilderness to escape have different reasons. Offhand, I can only even think of a few - "Tramp," aka Chris McCandless, staved to death; Timothy Treadwell, aka Tim Dexter; got eaten by a bear; and Papa Pilgrim, aka Robert Hale, went to jail for incest. Among this trio, Hale at least had a legitimate reason for changing his name. He was fleeing a shady past.

McCandless was emerging from his teen years into early adulthood - the time adult-onset schizophrenia is known to hit a number of young men - when he changed his name, ran away from his family and friends and started acting strangely. When Jon Krakauer constructed the myth of Tramp in the book "Into the Wild," he tried to portray these behaviors as part of an edgy but normal search for self.

All of that literary claptrap can be summed up in one sentence:

When you abandon your car and burn your money, as McCandless did, you aren't searching for yourself; you've lost yourself.

I feel sorry for Tramp. I feel even more sorry for those who buy the myth of "Into the Wild."

That Krakauer managed to maneuver his way around Tramp's obvious insanity to mold McCandless into something of a folk hero is a tribute to his skill as a writer. Krakauer took a poor misfortunate prone to paranoia, someone who left a note talking about his desire to kill the "false being within," someone who managed to starve to death in a deserted bus not far off the George Parks Highway, and made the guy into a celebrity.

Why the author did that should be obvious. He wanted to write a story that would sell.

There's nothing wrong with that.

Everything is economics, as Karl Marx long ago observed. It's hard to make a living as a writer in America. I admire Krakauer for doing so, and he is a fine writer.

And for all I know, he even managed to convince himself there was truth in the story he was telling. The way he clings to the idea that some poisonous seeds - or a fungus growing on them - killed Tramp would make it appear he truly wants to believe death was the fault of misguided food gathering instead of a descent into psychosis.

If only it were so.

Canadian Marc Paterson was among those who made a pilgrimage to Tramp's bus this year.

"Paterson had planned to spend three weeks at the bus, bringing in only a 10-pound bag of rice for food, just as McCandless did in 1992 for his four-month experience," wrote Robyn Doolittle of The Toronto Star. "Becoming bored of rice and scared of bears, Paterson lasted three days."

He gave up on going into the wild and hiked back to the highway.

Why? Because as goofy as he might have been, he wasn't completely crazy.

Study up a bit on schizophrenia, then go read Krakauer's book (which is, by the way, really more about Krakauer than McCandless) and note the signs.

How Sean Penn could have overlooked them when he read the book makes one wonder. But he went a step beyond Krakauer. He dropped Krakauer's soul-searching from the story and made a goofy, sympathetic movie about poor `Tramp killing himself on that journey to find the meaning of life.

Maybe Penn is as foolish and naive as some of his right-wing critics believe. Maybe he was greedy for money, though he would appear to have all any reasonable person would want.

If you haven't seen the movie, here's a quick plot summary:

The wilderness is wonderful. The city is evil. But don't go to the wilderness because it will kill you.

To which, any smart Alaska tourism promoter will add the caveat - don't go unless you hire a guide.

My advice would be simpler: Don't go unless you know what you're doing. But that's wasted advice, too, because the people who need it not only won't listen, they are incapable of listening.

That's why, long before Tramp showed up here to die, Johnny Waterman walked off into the vast of Mount McKinley never to be seen again.

A crazed Alaska climber, Waterman walked 180 miles north into the wild from near Anchorage. He struggled through alders and up glaciers to reach the Sheldon Amphitheater. He left a note in the hut there that said only "3/13/81 My Last Kiss. 1:42 p.m." He was last seen wandering up a heavily crevassed route along the Ruth Glacier toward the summit.

His corpse is still out there somewhere waiting to be found.

When it is, maybe someone can write a book and make a movie eulogizing him. He was searching for something too. It's anyone's guess as to what. It's hard enough to figure out what's going on in the human brain when the wiring is working right, but a good writer can always make something up.

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