Self-portrait on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death.
|Born||Christopher Johnson McCandless
February 12, 1968
El Segundo, California, US
|Disappeared||April 28, 1992|
|Died||ca. August 18, 1992
Stampede Trail, Alaska, US
|Cause of death||Starvation|
|Body discovered||September 6, 1992|
|Education||W.T. Woodson High School|
|Alma mater||Emory University|
Christopher Johnson "Chris" McCandless (/ /; February 12, 1968 – ca. August 18, 1992) was an American hiker. He ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment, hoping to live simply for a time in solitude. Almost four months later, McCandless' starved remains were found, weighing only 30 kilograms (66 lb). His death occurred in a converted bus used as a backcountry shelter, along the Stampede Trail on the eastern bank of the Sushana River.
In January 1993, Jon Krakauer published McCandless' story in that month's issue of Outside magazine. Inspired by the details of McCandless' story, Krakauer wrote and published Into the Wild in 1996 about McCandless's travels. In 2007, the book was adapted into a film directed by Sean Penn with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless's story also became the subject of Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild.
Christopher Johnson McCandless was born in El Segundo, California. He was the first child to Walter "Walt" and Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless (née Johnson). The couple subsequently had three more children. He also had six half-siblings from Walt McCandless' first marriage who lived with their mother in California. Author Jon Krakauer later speculated that Walt's transition between these two marriages may have deeply affected and profoundly shaped McCandless' world-view.
In 1976, the family relocated to Washington, D.C., settling in suburban Annandale, Virginia, when McCandless' father was hired as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft. The couple went on to establish a successful consultancy business out of their home, specializing in Walt McCandless' area of expertise.
McCandless graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1986. He excelled academically, while a number of teachers and fellow students observed that he "marched to the beat of a different drummer." McCandless also served as captain of the cross-country team, where he would urge teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred."
In the summer of 1986, McCandless traveled to Southern California and reconnected with distant family and friends. It was during this journey he learned that his father had not yet divorced from his first wife when he and his sister Carine were born, and had apparently maintained somewhat of a double life before the move to Virginia. It is speculated this discovery had a profound impact on the younger McCandless.
By the end of summer in 1990, McCandless had driven his Datsun through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. A flash flood disabled his car, at which point he simply removed its license plates, took what he could carry and kept moving on foot. His car was later repaired and served as an undercover vehicle for the local police department.
In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Enderlin, North Dakota, to Fairbanks, Alaska. As noted by Krakauer, McCandless was last seen alive at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992 by a local electrician named Jim Gallien. Gallien gave McCandless a ride from Fairbanks to the start of the rugged track just outside the small town of Healy. Gallien later said that he was seriously concerned about McCandless' (who introduced himself as "Alex") safety after noticing McCandless' light pack, minimal equipment, meager rations and obvious lack of experience. Gallien said he had deep misgivings about whether "Alex" could survive the harsh and unforgiving Alaskan bush.
Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade McCandless to defer the trip, at one point offering to detour to Anchorage and buy him suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien's persistent warnings and refused his offers of assistance (McCandless did accept a pair of Wellington boots, two sandwiches, and a packet of corn chips from Gallien). Gallien dropped McCandless off believing he would head back towards the highway within a few days as hunger set in.
After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless came upon an abandoned bus (about 28 miles (45 km) west of Healy) alongside an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park, where he set up camp and attempted to live off the land. He had 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, a number of books, including one on local plant life, some personal effects and a few items of camping equipment. Self-portrait photographs and journal entries indicate he foraged for edible plants and hunted game. McCandless poached porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he stalked and shot a moose. However, the meat spoiled within days after McCandless failed to properly preserve it.
It has been speculated that McCandless may have been responsible for vandalizing several cabins in the area that were stocked with food, survival equipment and emergency supplies. In response, Denali National Park Chief Ranger Ken Kehrer, has categorically stated that McCandless was not considered a viable suspect by the National Park Service.
McCandless' journal documents 113 days in the area. In July, after living in the bus for three months, he decided to head back to civilization, but the trail was blocked by the increased water level of the Teklanika River. The watercourse by that stage was considerably higher and swifter than when he crossed in April. McCandless did not have a detailed topographical map of the region, and was unaware of a hand-operated tramway that crossed the river eight-tenths of a mile away from where he had previously crossed. At this point, McCandless headed back to the bus and re-established his camp. McCandless posted an S.O.S. note on the bus reading:
|“||Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. 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 McCandless. August?||”|
On September 6, 1992, a hunter who was looking for shelter for the night came upon the converted bus McCandless had been staying in. Upon entering, he smelled what he thought was rotting food and discovered "a lump" in a sleeping bag. The hunter quickly radioed police who arrived the following day. They found McCandless' decomposing body in the sleeping bag. He had died of starvation sometime in August.
Possible death scenarios
In the book Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer suggested two factors may have contributed to McCandless's death. First, he offered that McCandless was running the risk of a phenomenon known as "rabbit starvation" due to increased activity, compared with the leanness of the game he was hunting. Krakauer also speculated that McCandless might have been poisoned by a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine, by ingesting seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii) containing the toxin, or maybe by a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola). Swainsonine inhibits metabolism of glycoproteins, which causes starvation despite ample caloric intake.
However, an article in the September 2007 issue of Men's Journal by Matthew Powers states that extensive laboratory testing showed there were no toxins or alkaloids present in the H. alpinum seeds McCandless had been eating. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF said "I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I'd eat it myself". Analysis of the wild sweet peas, given as the cause of McCandless' death in Into the Wild, found no toxic compounds and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant. As Powers put it: "He didn't find a way out of the bush, couldn't catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death".
In 2013, a new hypothesis was proposed. Ronald Hamilton, a retired bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and published author, suggested a link between the symptoms described by McCandless and the poisoning of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp in Vapniarca. He put forward the proposal that McCandless starved to death because he was suffering from paralysis in his legs induced by lathyrism, which prevented him from gathering food or hiking out. Lathyrism may be caused by ODAP poisoning from seeds of Hedysarum alpinum (commonly called wild potato). The ODAP, a toxic protein, had not been detected by the previous studies of the seeds because they had suspected a toxic alkaloid, rather than a protein, and nobody had previously suspected that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contained this toxin. The protein would be relatively harmless to someone who is well-fed and on a normal diet, but toxic to someone who is malnourished, physically stressed, and on an irregular and insufficient diet, as McCandless was. McCandless' field guide did not warn of any dangers of eating the seeds, which were not yet known to be toxic. Krakauer suspects this is the meaning of McCandless' journal entry of July 30, which states "EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY."
In September 2013, Krakauer published an article in The New Yorker following up the claims of Ronald Hamilton. A sample of Hedysarum alpinum's fresh seeds were sent to a laboratory for HPLC analysis. Results indicated that the seeds contained 0.394% beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans. The article notes that while occasional ingestion of foodstuffs containing ODAP is not hazardous for healthy individuals eating a balanced diet, "individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin". Krakauer also points out that McCandless' guidebook had no warnings against eating the seeds of Hedysarum alpinum, as the plant was generally believed to be safe to eat.
Anchorage, Alaska, reporter Craig Medred has also pointed out in a January 2015, article in the Alaska Dispatch News that mushrooms which McCandless collected, photographed and consumed may have also contributed to his death.
In February 2015, Krakauer published a follow up article in The New Yorker that reported on scientific analysis of the H. alpinum seeds McCandless ate. A report in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine demonstrated relatively high levels of L-canavanine in Hedysarum alpinum seeds and suggests this as the toxic component in McCandless' diet rather than ODAP as originally supposed by Ronald Hamilton. In his New Yorker article Krakauer goes on to speculate that L-canavanine "was a contributing factor to" McCandless's death.
McCandless has been a polarizing figure since his story came to widespread public attention with publication of Krakauer's Outside article in January 1993. While the author and many others have a sympathetic view of the young traveler, others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate.
Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:
Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero.
Jon Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless's desire for "being the first to explore a blank spot on the map." Krakauer continues that "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."
McCandless' adoption of the moniker "Alexander Supertramp" and reports he exhibited signs of paranoia at times, has led to conjecture that he was suffering from some type of mental disorder, perhaps schizophrenia.
The converted bus where McCandless lived and died has since become a well known destination for hikers, due in large in part to the book and film chronicling McCandless' life. Known as "The Magic Bus", the 1946 International Harvester was abandoned by road workers in 1961 on the Stampede Trail where it remains today. A plaque in McCandless' memory is affixed to the interior.
In popular culture
In November 2014, HarperCollins published the memoir The Wild Truth, by McCandless' younger sister Carine. In the book, Carine McCandless alleges that their father Walt was physically abusive and frequently abused their mother, Billie. She claims both parents drank heavily and were verbally abusive, controlling and manipulative. Carine cites their abusive childhood as one of the motivating factors in her brother's desire to "disappear" into the wilderness. In a statement released to the media shortly before the memoir was released, Walt and Billie McCandless denied their daughter's accusations stating that the book is, "fictionalized writing [that] has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, his journey or his character. This whole unfortunate event in Chris's life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams."
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Christopher McCandless|
- Christopher McCandless – Finding the Christopher McCandless Bus.
- Christopher McCandless at Find a Grave
- Christopher McCandless – Website on Christopher McCandless.
- Memorial Foundation – C J McCandless Memorial Foundation.
- Dispatches from the Wild – Excerpts of McCandless's own articles published in the Emory Wheel student newspaper.
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