Into the Wild, Page 2Jon Krakauer
In 1980, Denali National Park was expanded to include the Kantishna Hills and the northernmost cordillera of the Outer Range, but a parcel of low terrain within the new park acreage was omitted: a long arm of land known as the Wolf Townships, which encompasses the first half of the Stampede Trail. Because this seven-by-twenty-mile tract is surrounded on three sides by the protected acreage of the national park, it harbors more than its share of wolf, bear, caribou, moose, and other game, a local secret that’s jealously guarded by those hunters and trappers who are aware of the anomaly. As soon as moose season opens in the fall, a handful of hunters typically pays a visit to the old bus, which sits beside the Sushana River at the westernmost end of the nonpark tract, within two miles of the park boundary.
Ken Thompson, the owner of an Anchorage auto-body shop, Gordon Samel, his employee, and their friend Ferdie Swanson, a construction worker, set out for the bus on September 6, 1992, stalking moose. It isn’t an easy place to reach. About ten miles past the end of the improved road the Stampede Trail crosses the Teklanika River, a fast, icy stream whose waters are opaque with glacial till. The trail comes down to the riverbank just upstream from a narrow gorge, through which the Teklanika surges in a boil of white water. The prospect of fording this latte-colored torrent discourages most people from traveling any farther.
Thompson, Samel, and Swanson, however, are contumacious Alaskans with a special fondness for driving motor vehicles where motor vehicles aren’t really designed to be driven. Upon arriving at the Teklanika, they scouted the banks until they located a wide, braided section with relatively shallow channels, and then they steered headlong into the flood.
“I went first,” Thompson says. “The river was probably seventy-five feet across and real swift. My rig is a jacked-up eighty-two Dodge four by four with thirty-eight-inch rubber on it, and the water was right up to the hood. At one point I didn’t think I’d get across. Gordon has a eight-thousand-pound winch on the front of his rig; I had him follow right behind so he could pull me out if I went out of sight.”
Thompson made it to the far bank without incident, followed by Samel and Swanson in their trucks. In the beds of two of the pickups were light-weight all-terrain vehicles: a three-wheeler and a four-wheeler. They parked the big rigs on a gravel bar, unloaded the ATVs, and continued toward the bus in the smaller, more maneuverable machines.
A few hundred yards beyond the river the trail disappeared into a series of chest-deep beaver ponds. Undeterred, the three Alaskans dynamited the offending stick dams and drained the ponds. Then they motored onward, up a rocky creek bed and through dense alder thickets. It was late afternoon by the time they finally arrived at the bus. When they got there, according to Thompson, they found “a guy and a girl from Anchorage standing fifty feet away, looking kinda spooked.”
Neither of them had been in the bus, but they’d been close enough to notice “a real bad smell from inside.” A makeshift signal flag—a red knitted leg warmer of the sort worn by dancers—was knotted to the end of an alder branch by the vehicle’s rear exit. The door was ajar, and taped to it was a disquieting note. Handwritten in neat block letters on a page torn from a novel by Nikolay Gogol, it read:
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, CHRIS MCCANDLESS. AUGUST?
The Anchorage couple had been too upset by the implication of the note and the overpowering odor of decay to examine the bus’s interior, so Samel steeled himself to take a look. A peek through a window revealed a Remington rifle, a plastic box of shells, eight or nine paperback books, some torn jeans, cooking utensils, and an expensive backpack. In the very rear of the vehicle, on a jerry-built bunk, was a blue sleeping bag that appeared to have something or someone inside it, although, says Samel, “it was hard to be absolutely sure.
“I stood on a stump,” Samel continues, “reached through a back window, and gave the bag a shake. There was definitely something in it, but whatever it was didn’t weigh much. It wasn’t until I walked around to the other side and saw a head sticking out that I knew for certain what it was.” Chris McCandless had been dead for two and a half weeks.
Samel, a man of strong opinions, decided the body should be evacuated right away. There wasn’t room on his or Thompson’s small machine to haul the dead person out, however, nor was there space on the Anchorage couple’s ATV. A short while later a sixth person appeared on the scene, a hunter from Healy named Butch Killian. Because Killian was driving an Argo—a large amphibious eight-wheeled ATV—Samel suggested that Killian evacuate the remains, but Killian declined, insisting it was a task more properly left to the Alaska State Troopers.
Killian, a coal miner who moonlights as an emergency medical technician for the Healy Volunteer Fire Department, had a two-way radio on the Argo. When he couldn’t raise anybody from where he was, he started driving back toward the highway; five miles down the trail, just before dark, he managed to make contact with the radio operator at the Healy power plant. “Dispatch,” he reported, “this is Butch. You better call the troopers. There’s a man back in the bus by the Sushana. Looks like he’s been dead for a while.”
At eight-thirty the next morning, a police helicopter touched down noisily beside the bus in a blizzard of dust and swirling aspen leaves. The troopers made a cursory examination of the vehicle and its environs for signs of foul play and then departed. When they flew away, they took McCandless’s remains, a camera with five rolls of exposed film, the SOS note, and a diary—written across the last two pages of a field guide to edible plants—that recorded the young man’s final weeks in 113 terse, enigmatic entries.
The body was taken to Anchorage, where an autopsy was performed at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory. The remains were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine exactly when McCandless had died, but the coroner could find no sign of massive internal injuries or broken bones. Virtually no subcutaneous fat remained on the body, and the muscles had withered significantly in the days or weeks prior to death. At the time of the autopsy, McCandless’s remains weighed sixty-seven pounds. Starvation was posited as the most probable cause of death.
McCandless’s signature had been penned at the bottom of the SOS note, and the photos, when developed, included many self-portraits. But because he had been carrying no identification, the authorities didn’t know who he was, where he was from, or why he was there.
I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.
PASSAGE HIGHLIGHTED IN ONE OF THE BOOKS FOUND
WITH CHRIS MCCANDLESS’S REMAINS
It should not be denied … that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west.
THE AMERICAN WEST AS LIVING SPACE
Carthage, South Dakota, population 274, is a sleepy little cluster of clapboard houses; tidy yards, and weathered brick storefronts rising humbly from the immensity of the northern plains, set adrift in time. Stately rows of cottonwoods shade a grid of streets seldom disturbed by moving vehicles. There’s one grocery in town, one bank, a single gas station, a lone bar—the Cabaret, where Wayne Westerberg is sipping a cocktail and chewing on a sweet cigar, remembering the odd young man he knew as Alex.
The Cabaret’s plywood-paneled walls are hung with deer antlers, Old Milwaukee beer promos, and mawkish paintings of game birds taking flight. Tendrils of cigarette smoke rise from clumps of farmers in overalls and dusty feed caps, their tired faces as grimy as coal miners’. Spe
aking in short, matter-of-fact phrases, they worry aloud over the fickle weather and fields of sunflowers still too wet to cut, while above their heads Ross Perot’s sneering visage flickers across a silent television screen. In eight days the nation will elect Bill Clinton president. It’s been nearly two months now since the body of Chris McCandless turned up in Alaska.
“These are what Alex used to drink,” says Westerberg with a frown, swirling the ice in his White Russian. “He used to sit right there at the end of the bar and tell us these amazing stories of his travels. He could talk for hours. A lot of folks here in town got pretty attached to old Alex. Kind of a strange deal what happened to him.”
Westerberg, a hyperkinetic man with thick shoulders and a black goatee, owns a grain elevator in Carthage and another one a few miles out of town but spends every summer running a custom combine crew that follows the harvest from Texas north to the Canadian border. In the fall of 1990, he was wrapping up the season in north-central Montana, cutting barley for Coors and Anheuser-Busch. On the afternoon of September 10, driving out of Cut Bank after buying some parts for a malfunctioning combine, he pulled over for a hitchhiker, an amiable kid who said his name was Alex McCandless.
McCandless was smallish with the hard, stringy physique of an itinerant laborer. There was something arresting about the youngster’s eyes. Dark and emotive, they suggested a trace of exotic blood in his heritage—Greek, maybe, or Chippewa—and conveyed a vulnerability that made Westerberg want to take the kid under his wing. He had the kind of sensitive good looks that women made a big fuss over, Westerberg imagined. His face had a strange elasticity: It would be slack and expressionless one minute, only to twist suddenly into a gaping, oversize grin that distorted his features and exposed a mouthful of horsy teeth. He was nearsighted and wore steel-rimmed glasses. He looked hungry.
Ten minutes after picking up McCandless, Westerberg stopped in the town of Ethridge to deliver a package to a friend. “He offered us both a beer,” says Westerberg, “and asked Alex how long it’d been since he ate. Alex allowed how it’d been a couple of days. Said he’d kind of run out of money.” Overhearing this, the friend’s wife insisted on cooking Alex a big dinner, which he wolfed down, and then he fell asleep at the table.
McCandless had told Westerberg that his destination was Saco Hot Springs, 240 miles to the east on U.S. Highway 2, a place he’d heard about from some “rubber tramps” (i.e., vagabonds who owned a vehicle; as distinguished from “leather tramps,” who lacked personal transportation and were thus forced to hitchhike or walk). Westerberg had replied that he could take McCandless only ten miles down the road, at which point he would be turning north toward Sunburst, where he kept a trailer near the fields he was cutting. By the time Westerberg steered over to the shoulder to drop McCandless off, it was ten-thirty at night and raining hard. “Jeeze,” Westerberg told him, “I hate to leave you out here in the goddamn rain. You got a sleeping bag—why don’t you come on up to Sunburst, spend the night in the trailer?”
McCandless stayed with Westerberg for three days, riding out with his crew each morning as the workers piloted their lumbering machines across the ocean of ripe blond grain. Before McCandless and Westerberg went their separate ways, Westerberg told the young man to look him up in Carthage if he ever needed a job.
“Was only a couple of weeks that went by before Alex showed up in town,” Westerberg remembers. He gave McCandless employment at the grain elevator and rented him a cheap room in one of the two houses he owned.
“I’ve given jobs to lots of hitchhikers over the years,” says Westerberg. “Most of them weren’t much good, didn’t really want to work. It was a different story with Alex. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. Didn’t matter what it was, he’d do it: hard physical labor, mucking rotten grain and dead rats out of the bottom of the hole—jobs where you’d get so damn dirty you couldn’t even tell what you looked like at the end of the day. And he never quit in the middle of something. If he started a job, he’d finish it. It was almost like a moral thing for him. He was what you’d call extremely ethical. He set pretty high standards for himself.
“You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent,” Westerberg reflects, draining his third drink. “He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.”
At one point Westerberg discovered from a tax form that McCandless’s real name was Chris, not Alex. “He never explained why he’d changed his name,” says Westerberg. “From things he said, you could tell something wasn’t right between him and his family, but I don’t like to pry into other people’s business, so I never asked about it.”
If McCandless felt estranged from his parents and siblings, he found a surrogate family in Westerberg and his employees, most of whom lived in Westerberg’s Carthage home. A few blocks from the center of town, it is a simple, two-story Victorian in the Queen Anne style, with a big cottonwood towering over the front yard. The living arrangements were loose and convivial. The four or five inhabitants took turns cooking for one another, went drinking together, and chased women together, without success.
McCandless quickly became enamored of Carthage. He liked the community’s stasis, its plebeian virtues and unassuming mien. The place was a back eddy, a pool of jetsam beyond the pull of the main current, and that suited him just fine. That fall he developed a lasting bond with both the town and Wayne Westerberg.
Westerberg, in his mid-thirties, was brought to Carthage as a young boy by adoptive parents. A Renaissance man of the plains, he is a farmer, welder, businessman, machinist, ace mechanic, commodities speculator, licensed airplane pilot, computer programmer, electronics troubleshooter, video-game repairman. Shortly before he met McCandless, however, one of his talents had got him in trouble with the law.
Westerberg had been drawn into a scheme to build and sell “black boxes,” which illegally unscramble satellite-television transmissions, allowing people to watch encrypted cable programming without paying for it. The FBI caught wind of this, set up a sting, and arrested Westerberg. Contrite, he copped a plea to a single felony count and on October 10, 1990, some two weeks after McCandless arrived in Carthage, began serving a four-month sentence in Sioux Falls. With Westerberg in stir, there was no work at the grain elevator for McCandless, so on October 23, sooner than he might have under different circumstances, the boy left town and resumed a nomadic existence.
The attachment McCandless felt for Carthage remained powerful, however. Before departing, he gave Westerberg a treasured 1942 edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. On the title page he inscribed, “Transferred to Wayne Westerberg from Alexander. October, 1990. Listen to Pierre.” (The latter is a reference to Tolstoy’s protagonist and alter ego, Pierre Bezuhov—altruistic, questing, illegitimately born.) And McCandless stayed in touch with Westerberg as he roamed the West, calling or writing Carthage every month or two. He had all his mail forwarded to Westerberg’s address and told almost everyone he met thereafter that South Dakota was his home.
In truth McCandless had been raised in the comfortable upper-middle-class environs of Annandale, Virginia. His father, Walt, is an eminent aerospace engineer who designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle and other high-profile projects while in the employ of NASA and Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1978, Walt went into business for himself, launching a small but eventually prosperous consulting firm, User Systems, Incorporated. His partner in the venture was Chris’s mother, Billie. There were eight children in the extended family: a younger sister, Carine, with whom Chris was extremely close, and six half-brothers and sisters from Walt’s first marriage.
1990, Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where he’d been a columnist for, and editor of, the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, and had distinguished himself as a history and anthropology major with a 3.72 grade-point average. He was offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa but declined, insisting that titles and honors are irrelevant.
The final two years of his college education had been paid for with a forty-thousand-dollar bequest left by a friend of the family’s; more than twenty-four thousand dollars remained at the time of Chris’s graduation, money his parents thought he intended to use for law school. “We misread him,” his father admits. What Walt, Billie, and Carine didn’t know when they flew down to Atlanta to attend Chris’s commencement—what nobody knew—was that he would shortly donate all the money in his college fund to OXFAM America, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger.
The graduation ceremony was on May 12, a Saturday. The family sat through a long-winded commencement address delivered by Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, and then Billie snapped pictures of a grinning Chris traversing the stage to receive his diploma.
The next day was Mother’s Day. Chris gave Billie candy, flowers, a sentimental card. She was surprised and extremely touched: It was the first present she had received from her son in more than two years, since he had announced to his parents that, on principle, he would no longer give or accept gifts. Indeed, Chris had only recently upbraided Walt and Billie for expressing their desire to buy him a new car as a graduation present and offering to pay for law school if there wasn’t enough money left in his college fund to cover it.