Chris McCandless walked away from the world, drawn by a lethal flirtation with the power to be free of everything.
By Chip Brown

The New Yorker
February 8, 1993

It would have been better to go on the ground, as the boy had gone when he came in to the country in the spring, but it was a time between seasons, and the rivers were just beginning to freeze and could not yet be crossed on snow machines. It had been five weeks since the police had removed the body of Chris McCandless from the back of the old bus on the Sushana River, the makeshift hunting shelter where he had spent the summer scratching for berries and wild meat. Alaska’s brief autumn had flashed across the tundra, and now the plains and mountains north of Denali (still officially named Mt. McKinley) were knee-deep in snow.

So, a helicopter. We left from the mining town of Healy, on the main highway, and headed west, up a sweeping valley. A thousand feet below, sparse stands of spruce marked the course of the Savage River; beyond it lay the winding depression of the Teklanika River Valley, with its ice-bordered stretches of opened black water and, on the far side, a string of beaver ponds that looked like a staircase of frozen rice paddies. The Stampede Trail, an old mining road, was still visible, zigging through forest, zagging over ridges. Ten miles more and it entered a clearing where a green rattletrap bus was incongruously parked at the confluence of two streams.

Butch Killian, a blue-eyed Healy coal miner and hunter, who was riding in the back of the helicopter, had spent many nights in the Sushana bus. As the newspapers had reported, he had been stalking moose five weeks earlier along the northern boundary of Denali National Park, and had arrived at the bus in his all-terrain vehicle at dusk, intending to lay up for the night and make the twenty-eight miles cross-country to Healy in the morning. A bad odor stopped him. From the window he saw what looked to be a man in a sleeping bag on the mattress inside. He got on the radio to the Healy Fire Department, where he served as a volunteer: “Dispatch, this is Butch. You might want to call the troopers. There’s a dead man in the bus at Sushana.”

Now the chopper whirled down in a stylish spiral and landed in the snowy yard near the faded green hulk of Fairbanks City Transit System 142. The prop-wash blew the snow of the bus’s yellow hood. The air was punishingly cold. Killian led the way to the door at the back.

“The smell’s gone,” he said, stepping inside. There was room to stand; good light; the air was much warmer. Apart from a few items that the troopers had removed with the body, Chris McCandless’s meager wherewithal was lying as he had left it: on the front table, his frayed toothbrush and tube of Colgate, a blue-handled knife, the crown of a molar; on a chair, his dungarees; by a barrel stove, his Great Lakes boots; on a cot against the wall, his blue pack with the foam pad still rolled and tied, and his little library, including a coverless copy of “Walden.” One of the windows of the bus had been knocked out to make room for a fifteen-foot spruce trunk; one end of the log was stuck into the mouth of the barrel stove like a tongue depressor. An experienced outdoorsman would have an axe to piece up his firewood, not the dull machete propped by the door.

The mattress of the bed was torn and stained and strewn with things – a net that McCandless had worn over his head to keep the bugs away, an open copy of “Doctor Zhivago,” a pair of gloves, a black pen, Chap Stick, toenail clippers, iodine pills, a green water bottle filled now with ice, and a pair of silver-framed eyeglasses, neatly folded. He was nearsighted.

“I might have to put a tarp down before I sleep there again,” Butch Killian said. We laughed; we were nervous, and the presence in the room was so strong that it seemed rude of us to have barged in uninvited. It was as if Chris McCandless had just gone down to the stream to fetch water or were off collecting wood. We stayed about an hour. We returned to the helicopter. Our breath fogged the Plexiglas as the chilled engine shuddered to life.

Christopher J. McCandless, whose body was brought back from the Sushana River bus last fall, was one of the many seekers drawn north by the mythic Alaska – the Alaska that belongs as much to the estate of the imagination as to the actual earth, and which sustains the crowded parts of America with the sentimental idea of a last frontier. What he had envisioned before he came was the Alaska of shining mountains and immense herds and smoke curling above archetypal cabins – a far cry from the base world of insects, darkness, and death. During the fortnight that the state troopers withheld his name while they canvassed the country for his next of kin (even getting in touch with a Santa Barbara wrecking company whose name was on the T-shirt he died in), the newspapers referred to McCandless simply as “the hiker.” If the authorities did not know whom he belonged to, they at least knew some of what had happened. Along with the body, they had recovered an SOS note, which he had signed and taped to a window of the bus, and a terse journal, which he had kept on the back pages of a book of plant lore. There were also self-portraits he had made with his 35mm. camera. One of the photographs was faxed to law-enforcement agencies around the country.

The blue sleeping bag containing his remains was sent to Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, in Anchorage, where an autopsy was conducted. The advanced decomposition of the skeletal figure made it impossible to set a precise date of death. No sign of injury was found. The large muscles of the arms and legs were extensively wasted and there was a complete absence of fat under the skin. A five-foot-eight-inch, twenty-four-year-old man who, it was later learned, had weighed a hundred and thirty-three pounds when he got a driver’s license from the state of Virginia several years before., weighed sixty-seven pounds at the time of his autopsy. The autopsy findings concurred with the conclusion the troopers had arrived at on the basis of entries in the diary: the hiker had died of starvation.

And so Chris McCandless took his place in the long line of travelers whose last days in some far corner of the world resonate in poignant words. Starvation, the prosaic horror of every age, has a kind of evil poetry in the literature of misadventure, and what we remember is not the deaths of the sixty thousand people who succumb to hunger daily but the fate of Scott and his party, who perished of starvation and exposure on their way back from the South Pole, eighty years ago – an ordeal preserved in Scott’s diary with the famous closing line “For God’s sake, look after our people.” Or the trials of the first Franklin party, whose members began to starve on their return home from the far north, in 1821; before they died, they made suppers of old shoes, lichen deer bones left by wolves. Or the plight of the emigrants of the Donner party, snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846, nearly half of them to die, and their accounts to emerge afterward describing the descent into cannibalism.

Alaska has its own shelf of tales: stories of the downed airman who survived after parachuting into mountains at fifty below with only a Boy Scout knife and some matches; of seal hunters stranded on pack ice in the Bering Sea, snapping fingers off their frozen hands.

Chris McCandless chose his adventure; it was not compelled by a malfunctioning engine or a shift in the pack ice. But, beyond the immediate questions of what happened and why, there is the enigma of motive itself. What sent him into the wilderness? What was he seeking that was worth dying for? What does anyone seek who travels beyond the plae in the name of gold dust or the glory of God or the clutch of penguin eggs? Given the risks, most rationales seem pretty thin; perhaps they can be understood only as pretexts for something incommunicably personal, as the cover stories that license the action of the spirit.

McCandless himself wrote that he was waging a spiritual revolution to “kill the false being within.” His method of battle was a kind of willful asceticism. It was as if he could pare away whatever was false of superficial, and, as he got more adept at it, he seemed almost to revel in the power of doing without, the euphoria of dispossession. In its thrall, he would have understood Nikos Kazantzakis, who once wrote, “in hunger I am king.” Chris ignored the advice of his teachers, frustrated the expectations of his parents, and rejected the conventions of his class. He preferred hitchhiking to driving. He dispensed with four-food-group meals in favor of rice, and when the rice ran out, he foraged and even fasted. He discarded his given name, his Social Security number. “EXEMPT EXEMPT EXEMPT” he scrawled across a W-4 form. At one point, he set fire to the last of his money. He pared away contact with his friends, with his mother and father and his sister, Carine. In the end, whether by tragic miscalculation or unknowable design, he pared away himself.

His adventure in Alaska capped a series of epic journeys that began in 1986, the year he graduated from W.T. Woodson High School, in the Washington D.C., suburb of Fairfax, Virginia. But in some sense he had been rehearsing for the road all his life. At two, he once trotted out of the house before sunrise to raid a candy drawer at a neighbor’s house down the street. At ten, a skinny boy with spidery lashes and his mother’s enormous brown eyes, he took up cross-country running; he ran with the family dog, and won his age group in competitions. Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” was one of his favorite songs. What Chris lacked in talent, he made up for in will. He ran all through high school and trained with masochistic regimens and spur-of-the-moment marathon runs into Washington. In his junior and senior years, he was captain of the Woodson cross-country team and the leader of the Road Warriors, a group of friends who lit out on “suicide runs” through swamps and back yards and culverts. They tried to get lost.

At the end of the road was wilderness. Almost every year, Chris had gone with his father, Walt, to the Blue Ridge Mountains to climb Old Rag. “The Call of the Wild” was one of his favorite books. The family house, in Annandale, had a closet full of camping gear. His father gave him the pack he carried to Alaska; his mother, Billie, sewed him a blue sleeping bag, the sleeping bag he died in. There were summer trips to Colorado with Carine to visit their six half siblings from Walt’s first marriage. When Chris was twelve, he climbed high on Longs Peak with his father. Chris wanted to continue after Walt tired out, wanted to go through the formation known as the Keyhole and on to the dangerous summit stretches on the other side. “He had a tendency to over-estimate his abilities, but only a little bit,” Walt McCandless says. “He was fearless; he didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were always trying to pull him back from the precipice.”

It’s hard to know to what extent Chris’s estrangement from his family in his late teens and early twenties reflected something other than the normal conflicts of adolescent rebellion – wounds that might have healed with time and maturity. After Walt and Billie went into business for themselves as engineering consultants – Walt had been an aerospace engineer at NASA who designed radar for the space shuttle – Chris looked askance at what he considered his parents’ “materialism.” He didn’t cotton to rules. He talked of wanting to fight apartheid by taking guns and ammo to South Africa himself. He entertained doubts about the value of a career. Careers were to him dubious “twentieth-century inventions.”

Walt and Billie were impressed by their son’s outrage over apartheid and hunger; he went into Washington to roam the streets buying hamburgers for homeless men and women. But they wanted him first to get the “leverage” of an education. “I don’t think we understood the depth of Chris,” Billie McCandless says. “And I’m not sure he understood how deep he was. He wanted to find out.”

He enrolled in Emory University, in Atlanta, but even during his last year at Woodson he seemed to know that his future lay elsewhere. “Chris told me he thought he was going to be alone in his life,” recalls his friend and fellow-runner Don Springer, who now lives in Switzerland. “He had been drinking a bit, and he got very emotional. It wasn’t a cry for help. I think he just wanted to tell somebody.

The summer after high school, Chris set out on the first of his adventures, a cross-country trek of conventional proportions. He drove south in a yellow Datsun, then west to Texas and California. He returned via Nevada, wide-eyed at the casinos, the show-girls, the three-dollar steaks. He had his father’s Texaco credit card for emergencies. He hated obliging his parents with call home every three days, and in subsequent summers he added those phone check-ins to the list of things he could do without. He logged more than ten thousand miles on that first trip. When he came home a few days before leaving for the start of the fall term at Emory, he had a beard that made him look like Jesus, and a machete under his coat.

It was between his sophomore and junior years that his friends and parents noticed a marked change in him. “I was talking about parties, but he didn’t care,” his high-school friend Gordy Cucullu says, recalling a time when he ran into Chris in Annandale. “He didn’t drink anymore – he’d settled into the pursuit of knowledge. It was strange. He was like someone who was seeing things in a totally new way, almost like a born-again Christian.”

Walt and Billie were concerned that Chris was living alone, working too hard, and not having enough fun. There was something dangerously innocent in the way he thought he could bend everything to his will. Why didn’t he run for the Emory track team? He was a talented singer and pianist, like his father; why didn’t he play more music? He was majoring in both history and anthropology, and his courses read like a catalogue of his social concerns: “The Food Crisis in Africa,” “Apartheid and South African History.” But he had grown disenchanted with the value of an academic education, and toyed with the idea of chucking it. “He was very bright and he had wonderful promise, but he never knew where he was going to go with it,” his adviser, Peter Brown, recalls. “He never did an honors thesis, and I found that telling.”

The summer between junior and senior years, he drove the Datsun to Alaska and back. Now nothing seemed out of reach. His senior year, he moved off campus to a monkish room with a mattress on the floor and a Macintosh computer on a table. He had no phone, and he seldom saw friends. He had a key to a carrel in the library. His grade-point average was 3.7 good enough for Phi Beta Kappa, but he had long since overcome any desire for honorifics. Something bigger was at stake; he let drop fatalistic hints about his sense of the future. “A couple of times, he said he didn’t think he’d make it to thirty,” Joshua Marshall, a college friend, says. “I think it was based on his desire to stay away from convention. He had put himself in tenuous positions. He used to talk about how he’d slept in his car, and how he would just show up in towns and try to find a job. Most of us figured once he’d get the desire to do that out of his system he’d take one or two steps back to the conventional life.”

His parents thought he might go on to law school. “I misread him,” his father says. When they came down with Carine for graduation ceremonies, Chris told them he would be coming home in August. They wanted to buy him a new car. It was Mother’s Day; he bought flowers and candy for Billie. The weather was foggy. Elizabeth Dole gave a forgettable address. Chris’s name was called. His family watched him cross the stage. After they said goodbye, they never saw him again.

Nobody who knew him a Chris saw him after that summer. He was through the keyhole, like a wraith in flight. One of his parting acts set the stage for the sharpest of the many ironies that attended his death: he withdrew what remained of his college tuition fund – $24, 292 – and donated it to OXFAM America, in Boston, to fight hunger. He took a new name, a sort of nom de vie – Alexander Supertramp. In August after he’d got a ticket for hitchhiking in California reached his parents, they grew frantic and hired a private investigator. The search reached fruitlessly into Europe and South Africa. Chris was determined to get lost. In the adventures of the next two years, there are telling patterns and familiar themes: will and wanderlust, the penchant for asceticism, the abiding anger that enabled him to continue to shun his family. His confidence grew as he mastered the hardships of the self-reliant life. He left a deep impression on the people he met, but he was drifting away from social entanglements toward the solitude of wild places.

In some sense, he was a character in the wrong century, born too late for the age of discovery. He craved blank spots on the map, at a time when his father was designing radar that could produce maps from space – maps that could practically show the beaver in the pond. Chris wanted to take nature unfiltered, unscreened, alone, and he found a characteristic solution to the problem of maps without blank spots: he threw the maps away.

In July, 1990, after his Datsun was drenched in a flash flood near Lake Mead, Arizona, he abandoned it. He buried some of his belongings, burned the last of his money – a hundred and twenty-three dollars – and set out on foot to hike around Lake Mead. The temperature was “in excess of 120°,” he later wrote in a notebook; he became “delirious” and was lucky to flag down a boat on the lake.

He hitchhiked his way northwest to Reno, then south to Lake Tahoe, and from there he climbed further into the Sierra Nevada, intending to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. On the seventeenth of July, he ate the last of his rice and had to “fish/hunt/scavenge for all meals.” Five days later, he came upon a cabin stocked with emergency food. He broke in and loaded up his pack.

So it went through the summer and into the fall. He left the mountains, hitched on through Redding, Whiskeytown, and Arcata. He fell in with an itinerant society, a life of temporary camps and plans that never reached more than a week or two into the future. He made his way up the Oregon coast, north into Washington, and then east across the top of the country. In Montana, in mid-September, he met a kindred spirit, a South Dakota man named Wayne Westerberg, who was harvesting wheat there with his combines. Departing Bighorn Lake, Montana on September 20th, Chris wrote, “Alexander decides to cease wandering aimlessly and heads directly east for South Dakota and work for Wayne Westerberg.” He did odd jobs for Westerberg during most of October, but then set out again, hitchhiking to Idaho and down to the Mojave Desert. In a December postcard thanking Westerberg for his hospitality he wrote, “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t met you though. Tramping is too Easy with all this money. My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to Forage Around for my next meal… 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.”

In Topock, Arizona, he bought a canoe with some of the filthy lucre he had earned, and set out to paddle down the Colorado to the Gulf of California. He slipped illegally into Mexico, running the open floodgates of the Morelos Dam. He took pictures of tarantulas and jackrabbits and wild mustangs. He made many self-portraits as well; he always appeared as a small figure with arms flung wide in a grand and desolate setting.

For someone so independent, he had an odd habit of counting on miracles to bail him out of predicaments. He was paddling around in the maze of canals into which the Colorado disappears, never to reach the Gulf of California, when he met a fisherman who agreed to tow his canoe to the ocean. He moved south down the western coast of Mexico. He spent Christmas alone in a cave on a beach cliff, and watched the full moon come up on the New Year.

Eleven days later, he nearly died when the gales and a powerful outgoing tide seized his canoe. He decided to return north. He hadn’t said a word to another person in more than a month. He was arrested by the Border Patrol and released later that night minus his sidearm, a prized Colt Python. “Can this be the same Alex that set out July, 1990?” he wrote. “Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over twenty-five pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring.”

Seven months after he had abandoned his car in an outwash plain near Lake Mead, he returned. The car was gone, but he found his old Virginia plates, SJF-241. He headed into Las Vegas with no money or identification, lived on the streets for several weeks, got a job at a casino, and in May hit the road again, and wandered for the summer. When his pictures came back, he laughed at the double exposures that made it seem as if he were walking on water. He spent the early winter working at a McDonald’s in Bullhead City, Arizona, then left, in January, 1992, to return to the one place that felt like home.

The town of Carthage, population 274, sits on the plains of eastern South Dakota, where the tallest buildings are five-story grain elevators and the roads run ruler-straight through crops of wheat and soybeans and sunflowers. Wayne Westerberg’s grain elevator looms over the eastern end of a drowsy main street lined with wood-frame buildings and hundred-year-old cottonwoods; traffic is almost nonexistent, and only out-of-towners brake for the stop sign.

In Carthage that winter, Alex went to work cleaning the bromegrass dust off the girders in Westerberg’s warehouse. He put out antifreeze for the rats to drink; their carcasses were soggy even when it was forty below. He learned to handle a loader-tractor, and in the spring he chopped weeds with his machete, pretending he was Darth Vader. He painted Wayne’s house.

“He had kind eyes,” says Valera Anderson, who, with her husband, ran the gas station in town. Gail Borah, who cooked dinner for Wayne and Alex, noticed that Alex never left any food on his plate or in the pan and that he always did the dishes. One March afternoon, the three of them drove forty-five miles to Huron to buy hamburger, chicken, pork chops, carrots, green peas, oranges and apples. They loaded the grocery sacks into the back of Gail’s Trans Am. There was barely room for Alex, and the sight of him peering out over the cornucopia haunted her after he died.

Alaska, Alex said that spring, was going to be his biggest adventure, his “odyssey.” Wayne offered to buy him a plane ticket, but Alex preferred to hitchhike.

“I don’t think you should go,” Gail said.

“It’s time to go,” he said.

A couple of nights before he left, Wayne’s mother, Mary, fixed him supper. She got out an atlas. “He wanted to go up on the tundra of the North Slope,” Mary Westerberg says. “I said, ‘What on earth would you do up there? There’s no stores, no doctors, none of the things people need.’ He just laughed.”

He excused himself on a chilly afternoon, April 15th, when most of the town was sweating its taxes. He had about a thousand dollars; he often carried money in his shoe. One of Wayne’s drivers was hauling a load of sunflower seeds to Enderlin, North Dakota, and would drop him off not far from Interstate 94. He hugged them all goodbye, Gail and Wayne and the crew. He had to fight back the tears. He said he’d return for Thanksgiving. Later, a feeling came over Wayne, and he said to his mother, “I don’t think we’ll see Alex again.”

And then there was the ominous final postcard: “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.” He sent a shorter version of the same message to a couple he’d met in California.

Both were dated April 27th.

Outside Fairbanks, on the Parks Highway, Jim Gallien spotted a hitchhiker; he pulled the Ford over. Chris McCandless threw his pack in and climbed in after it.

“Where you headed?” Gallien asked.

“Somewhere around Healy.”

Gallien was headed all the way to Anchorage, a seven-hour drive. Although Gallien has never been able to pinpoint the exact date, it was most likely Tuesday, the twenty-eighth of April. They rode out of the Valley of the Chena River. He asked his passenger what his plans were.

“I’m going out in the woods for two or three months.”

Gallien had grown up hunting the Alaska backcountry. One glance at a half-empty pack and low-powered .22 Remington rifle told him that the woodsman wasn’t set up properly for any two or three months.

He had introduced himself as Alex – no family name. He said he had been living in the woods on the edge of Fairbanks for the last couple of days. He had seen an ad for the rifle in the local newspaper and had also bought about four hundred rounds of ammunition.

“Does anybody know what you’re planning to do?”

“No.” Alex said. And that’s the way he wanted it.

“Do you have any friends?”

None that he let in on his plans.


He shook his head; he said he didn’t get along with his family.

The guy was obviously intelligent, and Gallien could admire his ambition, but it was plain that he didn’t understand what he was in for, or if he did he didn’t care. He was exited, confident, certain he could hunt and gather what he needed to survive.

“I’ve got ten pounds of rice and that’s all I need,” he said. That was half of what he carried on a trip to Mexico, he added. He had a book about edible plants and berries, “Tanaina Plantlore.” But he didn’t have rubber boots, or waterproof gloves, or snowshoes, or an axe.

“Do you have a compass?”

“I don’t want a compass,” he said. “I don’t have to know where I am.”

“What about a map?”

Nothing other than his road map of Alaska. “I don’t want to know where I’m going,” he said.

He was set on the area around Healy and the broken line of a trail leading west into the country north of Denali – the Stampede Trail.

“There’s a lot better place to go,” Gallien said. “Where you’re going, there’s just going to be tundra, and the mosquitoes are going to eat you up.”

“I’ve got a head net,” said Alex.

“Your feet are going to get wet.”

“I’ll build a fire.”

Gallien recalls that he tried to spook Alex with bear stories, but Alex waved the cautions aside and began to grill Gallien about the weather and the kind of game he might find.

“Look for rosehips and frozen high-bush cranberries,” Gallien said. “If you don’t get any rabbits or spruce hens or ptarmigan, sit down by a spruce tree and you night get a red squirrel.”

Gallien asked him if he had a hunting license. No. A duck stamp? No. “Why should the government tell us what we can hunt? Fuck all those rules,” Alex said.

When they got to Healy, Gallien turned out of his way and drove up a snowy gravel road that went past cabins scattered in sparse woods. The Stampede Trail followed a horse and foot trail that had been cut at the turn of the century to serve as a winter haul road for the crawler-tractors that dragged sleds of kerosene and diesel fuel to mines in the Kantishna Hills. Gallien offered Alex his lunch, a grilled-cheese-and-tuna-fish sandwich and some chips.

“I won’t eat your lunch,” Alex said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Gallien said.

Alex wolfed the sandwich.

Past Eight Mile Lake, the road narrowed to a snow-machine track leading west. Gallien gave Alex his rubber over-boots – a size too big, but they would keep his feet dry.

“How much do I owe you?”

“You don’t owe me anything. If you make it out alive, give me a call, O.K.?”

“You really think I might not make it?”

“There’s a good chance,” Gallien said, still trying to scare him. As he would be away fishing that summer, he gave Alex the number of a buddy in Anchorage.

“Do you want my watch?” Alex said.

“No,” Gallien said. “Why?”

“I’m just going to throw it away. I don’t want to know what day it is, or what time it is.

And that was that. Gallien took a couple of pictures of Alex standing with his pack and rifle. Alex thanked him. “I’ll give you a call when I get out,” he said.

And so into the woods, trampling over the wet snow in a stranger’s boots. The spring breakup came late last year, and it would not have been implausible in two days’ walking to cover the ten miles to the Teklanika River and to find on the first of May enough ice to cross it without getting wet. If he found nothing noteworthy about getting across the river he may not have appreciated its potential to become a formidable obstacle after a day’s heavy rain, or to vary in character even in the course of a sunny day when the heat thawed the glaciers at its head. With no ice bridge, the numbingly cold water would have come well up to his chest, and he would have had to fight for footing and very possibly swim. Richard Larson’s “Mountain Bike Alaska” describes the Teklanika as “deep and swift” and says a raft is advisable.

Past the river, the trailed gained a couple of hundred feet of elevation, and it afforded Chris a glimpse of the roof of North America – his “Denali Day.” On the fourth day, he found a second World War-era bus that had been outfitted with a stove and beds and towed out to the Sushana River to house crews working on the stretch of the Stampede Trail leading to an antimony mine on Stampede Creek. For the last thirty years, the bus had served as a backcountry shelter, used mostly in September, during the moose-hunting season, and in the winter months, when mushers and trappers will bless any place that is warm and dry. It was twenty-eight miles from the main road. “Magic bus,” he called it.

There he stayed four days, the end of his first week in the wild. He saw a brown bear, a black bear, a hawk. He shot at some ducks and missed. On the eighth day, he moved farther on, with his tent and his rice. He noted “Weakness” on the ninth day, and on the tenth – probably May 7th – he wrote “Snowed in.” The entry the following day is enigmatic – simply the word “Disaster” – but, though it sounds ominous, Chris had not lost his penchant for melodrama. It is possible that he was not finding much to hunt and was burning through his ten pounds of rice.

His second and third weeks passed with terse notations about animals (which led the troopers to surmise that he was a field biologist). On Day 26, he climbed one of the gentle three-thousand-foot-high mountains just north of the bus. The days went by – days of squirrels, a duck, a gray bird. Now a month in the woods, he had reestablished his camp at the bus. He tidied the place up. He gathered berries in a colander and fried his wild meat in a pan; he set the table in the kitchen before dinner. “Gourmet duck!” he wrote on Day 31, “Small duck” on Day 34, “Goose!” on Day 39. He photographed his meals with his Minolta, the breast of some wild thing sitting on a plate beside his knife and fork and camouflage napkin. He rested the camera on a turquoise fifty-five-gallon drum to make a portrait of himself lounging blissfully in front of Fairbanks 142, his arms wide open. The days were getting longer and warmer; light was pouring into the world, the snow shrinking back at last, wildflowers blooming in the taiga. Chris seemed to be exuberant about his situation. He found a grizzly-bear skull that had been in the bus for years, and on its cranium wrote, “All Hail the Phantom Bear The Beast Within Us All. Alexander Supertramp May 1992.” On the south wall of the bus he wrote, “All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too!” Where previous visitors had been content to scratch their names and the dates of their stay into the drab paint of the interior, Chris scratched a biography into a plywood-covered window:

Two Years He Walks The Earth. No Phone, No Pool, No Pets, No Cigarettes. Ultimate Freedom. An Extremist. An Aesthetic Voyager Whose Home is The Road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou Shall Not Return, Cause ‘The West is The Best’ And Now After Two Rambling Years Comes the Final and Greatest Adventure. The Climactic Battle To Kill The False Being Within And Victoriously Conclude the Spiritual Revolution! Ten Days & Nights of Freight Trains and Hitching Bring Him to the Great White North No Longer to Be Poisoned By Civilization He Flees, and Walks Alone Upon the Land To Become Lost in the Wild.

Around the ninth of June, the Aesthetic Voyager struck the subsistence equivalent of gold. “Moose!” he wrote, underlining the word twice. It was a major haul; cuts of moose have see many an Alaskan through lean times. Chris dug a cave in which to smoke the meat. The following day he noted, “Butchering extremely difficult. Fly and mosquito hordes. Intestines, liver, kidneys, one lung, steaks, get hindquarters and legs to stream.” He photographed himself with the head of the animal. By the fourteenth of June, the end of his seventh week in the wilderness, he was in despair. He had a bounty of protein but no experience in preserving it. “Maggots already. Smoking appears ineffective. Don’t know, looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.” The next day, he wrote that he would learn to accept his errors, and a day after that, he had given up on preserving much of the meat and was returning to forage in the berry fields. The incalculable whining mass of Alaska’s summer insect bloom was forcing him to live in his mosquito head net.

The waste of the moose, which he had shot out of season, was one measure of his inexperience. Hunters know that it’s imperative to dry the meat, and that the smoke is only to keep the flies off while you cut it into thin strips. Even meat blown with flies can be eaten if it’s been dried right.

Chris began reading the copy of “Walden” he’d bought, and by the end of June had finished it, having paid particular attention to the chapter called “Higher Laws”:

I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound…. No morsel could have been too savage for me. “YES,” Chris wrote in the margin. Our whole life is startlingly moral. “EVERY ACT,” he wrote.

When I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. “THE MOOSE,” Chris wrote.

Done with “Walden,” he turned to a collection of Tolstoy short stories. He finished the last of the moose meat he had managed to preserve. He read “The Kreutzer Sonata” and, two days later, “Family Happiness,” underscoring passages that must have reminded him of life in South Dakota:

I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people.

Here is where the tragedy begins. With the moose gone, Chris, his head full of Tolstoy, seems to have decided it was time to move out – to exit the valley of the Stampede Trail. Maybe take Jim Gallien up on his offer to show him some other parts of Alaska, and then begin hitchhiking his way back to South Dakota, where he was planning to spend Thanksgiving.

Around the third of July, he packed up his camp and hiked east. He seems to have reached the west bank of the Teklanika River on the fourth. The diary notes simply “beaver dam” and then another unspecified “disaster.” The extent of his jeopardy began to dawn on him. Without a detailed contour map, he could not study the country up – or downstream on the Teklanika. Such a map would have told him that there was a cabin on the Sushana River, just seven miles south of the bus, inside the boundary of the Denali National Park. Much was later made of the deliverance this cabin might have offered; it had been stocked with twenty-five pounds of rice, and with powdered milk, oat meal, peanut butter, pilot bread, coffee, and tea. But that spring, for the first time in memory, someone had broken in and vandalized it. Rangers who discovered the vandalism in July were able to estimate that it had occurred in the spring, from the stage of plant growth under the mattress that had been tossed outside. Even if Chris had known about the cabin, there was nothing he could have found there to eat. The food was gone. Some rangers wondered if he had been the vandal, but the Park Service doesn’t want for enemies, and , although Chris had broken into the cabin in the Sierra Nevada to find food, it doesn’t seem in his character to have wrecked the place.

And, as he was standing by the river, a detailed map would have shown him that about half a mile north, where the Teklanika narrows into a two-hundred-foot channel and rushes through a canyon, there was a gauging station. If he had gone to investigate, he might have discovered a cable tram spanning the river. Its existence is not widely known, and you can’t see it from where the Stampede Trail crosses the river. It was built by the United States Geological Survey in 1970 and was decommissioned in 1974; the aluminum cab hanging from the cable is supposed to be locked and chained to the eastern side of the river, the side opposite Chris. Last fall, however, the tram was being used unofficially, and at the time he was trying to get across the Teklanika the cab was actually on the west side of the river. A scant half-mile away then, lay the means by which Chris could have hauled himself across the barrier that blocked his passage out.

But he didn’t want to know where he was. And so, he waited by the river, looking for a way to get across. It was raining on July 5th, he wrote, “Rained in, river look impossible. Lonely, Scared.” There was no entry for the next day, but the day after, he wrote: “Squirrel. Gold Bird.” On July 8th, he returned to the bus.

Had he given up on getting out? Did he believe then that the river was insurmountable and he a prisoner on the wrong side? Or was he merely returning to the bus intending to try again later? If he was rattled by his predicament, it wasn’t enough to keep him from jotting analytic comments in the margins of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which he read on his return to the bus: “Civilization – Falsity – A Big Lie.”

High summer came to the taiga. He had a fishing pole but made no mention of any fish. He had taken photographs of a wolf, and on July 14th he shot at one, but missed. He did get two squirrels; berries were ripening. Cryptically, he wrote “potato seeds” and underlined it. It’s likely that he was referring to the purple-flowered wildpotato plant, Hedysarum alpinum, which is also known as the Alaska carrot. It grows in spruce forests and on gravel bars. Traditionally, it was the most important plant harvested by the Dena’ina Indians, who ate its long root raw or cooked – but did not eat the seeds. As Crhis would have known from Tanaina Plantlore,” the wild potato is closely related to and very easily confused with the wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii. The Dena’ina call wild sweet pea “brown bear’s wild potato.” It’s believed to be poisonous, on the basis of a report from a nineteenth-century arctic expedition of Sir John Richardson, whose men mistook wild sweet pea for wild potato and became ill.

“It’s very hard to tell the two plants apart unless you’re an expert,” the book’s author, Priscilla Russell Kari, says. “I myself would be careful. I’ve only dug the plant when I was with a native person. The root of the wild potato is longer, the sweet pea stubbier.”

The days were growing shorter. Around July 25th, Chris noted, “Many mushrooms. Dream.” He finished Dr. Zhivago.” He was getting weaker. By the end of July, he realized that his situation was dire: “Woodpecker. Frog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great jeopardy.”

The first week in August, he mentioned his sightings of animals and noted the weather. “Terrible wind, “ he wrote on the second of August. The fifth was “Day 100!” – a milestone he marked with a box around the date: “Made It! But in weakest condition of life. Death looms as a serious threat, too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild – no game.”

What had he been thinking about all this time? It had been more than a month since he stood on the west bank of the swollen Teklanika looking for a place to cross. Had he been too weak to return for another try? To improvise a raft? To throw caution to the winds and swim for it? Chris was the epitome of headlong action, but on the scant evidence of his diary he seems to have been afflicted with an uncharacteristic passivity, which raises a host of questions. His condition may have been gravely exacerbated by eating sweet-pea seeds – but the fact that he may have been eating seeds and not roots is itself a sign of his desperate hunger.

Much of what is known about the effects of starvation on the body comes from the study of the survivors of concentration camps and of famines like the one in Russia from 1918 to 1922, when the authorities in one city banned ground meats because people were being murdered and their flesh sold as sausage in markets. One of the first controlled studies of starvation was launched in 1944, when researchers at the University of Minnesota tracked the effects of a “semi-starvation” diet on conscientious objectors. The sample group of men volunteered to live for six months on two meals a day of whole-wheat bread, potatoes, turnips, and cabbage. They lost dramatic amounts of weight; their muscles atrophied; sex drives vanished. The skin on their faces took on a brownish, tannish color. Their fingernails hardly grew. They became faint, weak, and depressed. Their faces and ankles puffed up with “famine edema,” as body tissue became hydrated. They craved food.

There are important differences between people who are chronically undernourished and people who have nothing to eat. The sense of hunger often disappears in people who completely abstain from food. After one day of fasting, blood sugar drops. The electrolytes in the blood are thrown out of balance, and potentially lethal ketones build up. Severe starvation causes the heart to beat more slowly. There is a constant urge to urinate, a desire for sleep, physical and mental exhaustion, sensitivity to cold, dizziness, backache, a dulling of emotions, and, eventually what has been described as a sort of gradual passage from life to death.

Chris now had less than two weeks to live. On Day 104, he shot at a bear and missed. On Day 105, he killed five squirrels and saw a caribou. On Day 106, he bagged a ptarmigan. On Day 107, probably August 12th, he wrote what would prove to be the final words in his journal: “Beautiful Blueberries.”

Sometime in those last two weeks, he composed an SOS note on the back page of a novel by Gogol. It was found taped to the window of the bus, beside a stick with a rag on the end of it: “S.O.S. 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.” Unsure of the date, he wrote, “August ?” And poignantly, when he signed his name he surrendered the bravura sobriquet of the road warrior. He was Chris McCandless again.

If he wanted to live, why didn’t he set a fire to attract attention? He wouldn’t have had to burn down half the state; he could have found some open ground and, with the can of Coleman fuel that was in the bus, burned a big SOS in the brush, which might have been seen from the air. Was he really injured, or did he raise the semaphore of injury only because it was something a passerby could understand?

It’s this apparent passivity in the face of emergency that has bred the speculation about a death wish. Most people who knew Chris reject that as a slander on his zeal for life. “It’s the rare person who dreams,” Gordy Cucullu says. And yet when someone who has as strong a will as Chris had dies of starvation, can it not but hint at an impulse for self-destruction? Might not more than a flare for grandiosity and drama lie behind those apocalyptic postcards, and the masochistic cross-country running, and the asceticism that embraced the difficulties and dangers of hitchhiking and at time seemed bent on refining the spirit at the expense of the body? The anger that drove the renunciation of his family, and animated his views of injustice in distant countries, and fed his aversion to authority of any kind, could well have been directed at himself in the form of inhumanly high standards and stern self-criticism – in a kind of imploded narcissism. And so he was probably shocked when, for the first time in his short life, his body could no longer obey his will.

No one can know when, or even if, there came a time when he was resigned to dying. Or how long he held out hope of deliverance. It’s that vain hope of rescue that seems most heartrending in retrospect: the road warrior suing the spruce and the sky for help. Somewhere in these days he made his last pictures – a sunrise, a sunset, a portrait of a rhubarb plant, and the last self-portrait. He sat before the camera waving with one hand and holding up a brave blockletter note with the other: “I have had a happy life and Thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All!”

The final entries in the diary are just a string of numbers, each one circled and followed by a dash. Perhaps he entered the number of the day in the morning and circled it when he went to bed at night. Was he strong enough even to rise? He would have been cold, as there was no fat left on his body. He was lying in the blue sleeping bag, which his mother had sewn for him from a kit, bundled in most of his clothes, his boots standing by the stove, the diary was on the bed. Day 108 with a circle and a dash; Day 109, a circle and a dash; Days 110,111, and 112, each with a circle and a dash. It’s said that there is a languor at the end, a feeling of being far from the world. He had come to day 113, most likely August 18th. He drew a circle around the number and laid his glasses by his head.

The story of his death went all over the country. Wayne Westerberg received dozens of letters from strangers who were moved to thank him for the kindness he had shown the hiker and to tell him that they were stuck in their lives and doing things they didn’t want to do. After the police confirmed the hiker’s identity with dental records shipped north by the family, Carine and her half brother Sam went to Alaska to collect Chris’s journal and his camera and his rifle from the coroner in Fairbanks. On the flight home, she carried he brother’s ashes in her backpack and compulsively finished every scrap of food on her tray. Walt could not stop eating, either, and gained eight pounds; Billie could not eat at all, and lost eight. For more than two years, Billie had never left the house on a long trip without posting a note for Chris in case he showed up. She had not looked at the faxed photograph before the identity of the hiker was absolutely confirmed, and when she finally did, filled with memories of the day her boy had graduated from college, she found herself thinking, A man smiles back at me. She wrote it in a journal she’d begun to keep: “A man smiles back at me.”

On a rainy day in October, the family held a private memorial service for Chris at Walt and Billie’s waterside house in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. They mounted the photographs from Chris’s camera. Everyone remarked on how happy he looked, how in frame after frame, his evident frailty notwithstanding, he seemed radiant, at peace, his face lit with breakaway joy.

Up in Alaska, the fuss about the hiker struck many people as romantic glorification of a death that had more to do with foolish inexperience than with the calculated risks of a daring adventure. It hardly need to be proved again, but the bumper crop of fatalities last summer demonstrated that it is far more hazardous to climb Denali than to camp in its shadow. The hiker didn’t die of starvation, one outdoor columnist said bluntly’ he “was killed by stupidity.”

And yet his death was no less haunting. And remains so. It’s not simply that he faced an awful fate alone so young, or that he left a diary that only underscores the mystery of what detained him. What makes his death so memorable is the narrative he was enacting: it is an old story, the tale of the boy on the brink of manhood who venture into the wilderness in a rite of passage. It is supposed to end with his transformation and return – the new-made man reunited with his community, a community that relies on his wise new eyes to renew itself. And, true to form, Chris had often spoken of writing a book about his travels. But this time the narrative was broken, its promise cut short. There was no return. There was no homecoming. There would never be a book. There would only be the diary that is inevitably found later beside the body, and the last words “God bless” and “goodbye,” and one more name to add to the litany of travelers who never made it back.