Last week I discussed Into the Wild with my buddy Nate’s junior Advanced Placement class during my prep period.
He asked me to give his California students the “Alaska perspective” on the book and I gladly obliged. It was ironic, or fitting, since at the end of this month I will be moving to Alaska to take care of mom after her surgery and to live the darker, colder side of the Alaska everyone paws at during summer.
As I began, I wondered if these smart juniors would see me as a Chris McCandless disciple. They all knew I was moving, and though I felt absolutely no obligation to validate my decision, I did feel the need to clarify some things.
While I might be idealistic at times I am nothing like the reality-rejecting romantics who lionize McCandless and believe that we could all learn something from him. They ignore the fact that McCandless became more dependent on society once he tried to throw it off. He mooched, he relied on the generosity of people and he needed a streak of good fortune many don’t get in a lifetime to even get to Alaska and the bus where he eventually died.
But this is not about defiling the memory of the dead, it’s about preserving the rationality of the living. This summer two groups of people had to be rescued after attempting to reach the bus and getting trapped, like McCandless did, by a creek turned river. Who foots the rescue bill? Alaskan taxpayers. Depending on the type of aerial search done, a single helicopter can cost $6000 per hour, then you’ve got the ground team.
McCandless’ idealism, led by an alternate persona some believe was an indication of mental illness, has been so promoted by intellectuals and writers living in docile or at least more temperate environments, that the naive are tracing his unprepared boot-steps into danger. They have turned a troubled and tragic 20-something into a hero.
We want to believe that life can be that simple. It’s just a matter of quoting Thoreau and throwing off the oppressive expectations of an increasingly materialistic society in favor of simplicity of the woods. Forget being prepared, forget the burden placed on people with money you use to get you there, forget the burden of guilt and worry placed on your family and friends. Just go to Alaska, because though it has a history of being unrelentingly torturous to even those with experience, Nature respects poetic living, symbolism and rewards the neophyte survivalist as long as you are on a journey of discovery.
I know what I’ll rediscover this winter, because I know Nature cares nothing about purpose, idealism or spiritual journeys. At some point I will wake up and it will be 35 degrees and raining. That’s worse than 10 degrees and clear. Wet cold soaks into your bone marrow and chills you from the inside out. The sun will rise after school starts, and set just after school ends. The campfires will turn to heat fires in wood stoves which will require me to haul firewood daily and on weekends, rotate stacks from wet, to dry, from dry to inside. After it snows, rains, then freezes, I’ll be out chipping at the gravel driveway turned glacier with a pick and rock salt. If the pipes freeze and burst in January I’ll be crawling under the house while Todd, my colleague in Manteca for nine years, decides what pair of shorts he will wear to work.
That’s full-scale reality. That wasn’t Chris McCandless’ Alaska nor that of idealistic endorsers three blocks from a Home Depot.
I’ll never be a Jon Krakauer book. Though he’s one of my favorite writers, I’d prefer not to be on his radar because he usually writes about men who end up dead, or around death.
I’m not going to Alaska to be a martyr. I’m not going as an example.
I’m going because where I’m going is warm in spirit and hospitality; I choose to be a part of it, not apart from it. I’m going because my mom and dad never did anything without considering my brother and me. I’m going because providing mom with peace of mind in retirement is the best I can do to thank her.
But let’s be honest, it’s not all noble. Don’s taking me hunting the first weekend I’m back, Abe has me booked for winter king salmon fishing and Howie has vowed to make me a crack shot with a 12-gauge pump.
People back home are offering to help Alaskanize my life and I’ll take it all winter long. Had Chris McCandless done that once he reached Alaska in summer, maybe we’d never have learned his name or care about a bus in the woods.
This column appeared in the September 11 edition of the Manteca Bulletin.