Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Into the Wild

I've decided that my favorite book genre is adventure non-fiction. After being asked a few times recently what my favorite genre was, I realized that this was the genre that I most often read. Something draws me to the adventure and the book gains a lot of legitimacy in my mind when it is non-fiction. The problem with this genre is all kinds of non-writers tend to write these kinds of books, which makes for really dry books. John Krakauer, however, seems to know how to grab my attention and tell a good story full of emotions and personalities instead of just stating the facts.

The most recent book I've read is Into the Wild by Krakauer. Christopher McCandless, an Emory grad with grades good enough to get into Harvard Law, donates $25,000 to charity and heads west in his Datsun. Soon after, he abandons the Datsun, burns his remaining cash, and is out on his own with nothing except what he can carry on his back. He spends the next couple years hitch-hiking around the west, not spending much time anywhere. At one point he canoes down the Colorado River and gets lost in Mexico where he survives for a month on little more than a 20lb bag of rice. He spends time living in a community of rubber tramps, who spent their lives driving around the country in their RVs. For a while, he lives in Bullhead City, AZ working at a fast food restaurant. He was required to wear socks with his shoes, but every day, the second his shift ended, he would immediately take off his socks. He also spent time in North Dakota harvesting barley, saving money for his last great adventure.

Everywhere he went, people gravitated towards him and became very attached to him before he would leave after only a few weeks. In southern California, while Alex (his pseudonym) was living next to a nudist camp at a hot springs, he met an old man named Ron Franz who gave him a ride into the city to fill up his water bottle. Over no more than 2 weeks, this lonely Christian man became so attached to Alex that when he left, he asked if he could adopt him as his son. Something about Alex pushed people to examine themselves and see what they were missing in life.

In a letter to Franz, Alex writes
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... 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.
This is the way that Alex lived, always searching for new experiences, following his heart for adventure. This went all the way to the point of walking off into the Alaskan bush to live off of the land. He wanted to prove to himself that he could survive on his own in the Alaskan wild and to see what it was like to be completely isolated from any outside help. He survived for 3 months while living out of an old bus, eating plants and small game. At one point he had tried walking back to civilization (only 25 miles to the east), but was blocked by the high waters of the Teklanika River. This ultimately led to his death by either starvation or food poisoning. It was pointed out by others that only 1/4 mile away from where he attempted to cross was a hand-operated tram that would have easily saved his life. This along with a few other instances show Alex's  profound lack of common sense.

Krakauer's book gives you an enormous amount of sympathy for Alex, but in the end, what he did in Alaska was not heroic as many of his fans would suggest. Even though I think he was a bit foolish, his character calls out to me and I've even considering making the trek to his "Magic Bus" through Denali National Park. I think that life is too precious to simply dedicate your entire life to the pursuit of adventure to the point of foolishly leaving no path of escape. But at the same time, I think he was very articulate about this call to adventure that many of us feel. While I don't believe in the call of adventure enough to move to the wilderness and live on my own, I always feel a longing for adventure in some capacity -- to put myself in uncomfortable situations that stretch me and test my limits both for the sake of exploring the emotions that adventure inevitably comes with and for the confidence that it produces when you have tested yourself and found that you were more capable than you previously imagined.

Anyways, the book is amazing and you should read it, even if you think that Chris McCandless was a kook. Krakauer does a great job of telling the story and explores this call to adventure through McCandless's story as well as Krakauer's own story of climbing Devil's Thumb and stories of other historic adventurers.

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