Sitting in a Merseyside camping ground watching the world go by may be a million miles away from The Stampede Trail (well four thousand and fifty six air miles to be exact), but the word-smithing of Jon Krakauer can transport anyone from anywhere indirectly into the mind of Christopher McCandless itself (sort of).
I have waxed lyrical over the years of how great the film “Into The Wild” is. I have lyrically waxed over the years on how great the soundtrack is by Eddie Vedder too.
After recently finishing “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, I thought it was about time that I picked up a second-hand copy of Jon Krakauer’s book, which, as one would expect, paints a very different picture than that of Hollywood (and Seattle).
Whether it be painting or prose, poetry or prog-rock, beauty is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder and everyone perceives things in a different way, until in the grand scheme of things polarised views are formed (and everything else that lies in between).
None more so than the story of Christopher McCandless and the investigative telling of his journey, motives and idiosyncrasies by Jon Krakauer.
Whilst Hollywood painted a picture of a headstrong and ultimately tragic adventurer, the truth behind both the young man and the film becomes much more complex after reading the book.
In short, boy is born, boy goes to school, boy goes on outdoor adventures, boy reads, boy finishes college, boy reads, boy goes on solo road trip, boy reads, boy goes to university, boy reads, boy graduates, boy gets angry with world and parents, boy goes on two year road trip, boy walks into the wilderness, boy reads, boy dies.
OK it’s a ridiculously simplistic view of a complex story but for me the real emphasis on the rather silly synopsis above is the word “boy”.
From my perspective, the book really is a cautionary tale, and perhaps goes so way to explain the fundamental difference of worldly experience between a boy and a man (or equally girl and woman).
It was clear that Christopher McCandless was well read. It was clear that at the start of his journey he was of sound mind. It was clear that he had the strong will, stubbornness and arrogance of his father, but in essence he was still a boy, immature and not risk-averse in any way, a boy who may have been an academic genius but a boy nonetheless who lacked a common-sense approach to life and longevity.
What was also abundantly clear as I progressed through the pages was that his inexperience of life thus far posed significant risks and mortal dangers, dangers and risks that ultimately proved to be his downfall.
The reason why I loved the movie was the drive and apparent bravery that McCandless had to put a middle finger up to a world of conformity, to declare to the world that this boy was not for churning, that a life of freedom in the great outdoors outweighed the expectations of a modern man living in a material world.
His on screen declaration of a life less ordinary personally helped me to take more opportunities to read more, to write more, to experience more, to get out into the wilderness more – albeit for short periods of time, ever-returning back to materialism and “churnism” and the daily duties of husband, father, brother, friend, neighbour and colleague.
The silver screen does that for me. I adore watching certain films over and over again, looking for meaning which was perhaps overlooked in previous runs, analysing what is presented before me, internalising scenes, themes and dialogue until I have reflected and concluded on my own life and set of ideals, changing my views and actions in accordance to any new-found principles. This is not in a Clockwork Orange brain-washing type way of course, just proactive pondering whilst observing works of art through the cinematic experience.
Whilst Hollywood invariably does a reasonable job (most of the time) of storytelling via screen adaptations of works of non-fiction, their business model is to ultimately get as many bums on cinema seats as they can. As such, one expects there to be over-egged dramatisations of specific events and individuals to enhance the user experience. We all get that. We all know that.
Books, however, always reveal much more complexity and depth, especially when it comes to character and detail.
After reading Krakauer’s book, I reflected on my own life and the events that have led up to this point in much more depth than countless replays of the film ever did.
Emile Hirsch was brilliant in the movie, his performance and portrayal of McCandless really hit a chord with me. There is a very small part of me that wants the bravery to resign from the corporate world immediately (a world that he refused to join in the first place), a part of me that wants to leave the urban sprawl behind, exchanging scenes of concrete and steel to mountains and leaves, to seek adventure and meaning in nature away from the chaotic cancer of society, never to return.
Even if that remote possibility ever came to pass, I would never do it in the same juvenile and reckless way that McCandless did. Maybe it is the wisdom of my fifty years on Planet Earth that has taught me that longevity requires planning and preparation, that simply leaving everything you have ever known for a life in the wild with only a modest and woefully stocked backpack would only lead to disaster.
Or maybe it is because I have watched the film, read the book and concluded that “Into The Wild” was a lesson in what not to do.
It was in the depths of the books pages that I found more similarities with McCandless than I had done whilst watching the film. Whilst he came from a well-to-do family and I did not, whilst he was an intelligent academic and an athlete and I was not, whilst he was well-read and I was not, what we shared as youths were self-righteousness, stubbornness and a father figure whose transgressions would spur us both into action (more reaction – leaving the family home and excommunication).
Clearly one of the catalysts for Chris’s decision to decouple himself from his family was the duplicitous behaviour of his father, living a double life by having two families on the go at the same time. For Chris, it appears the lies and deceit of the family mirrored the lies and deceit of society as a whole, and as such, close relationships with either were a commodity he could well do without. I for one get that.
For him, nature was pure, free from sin, righteous and holy. I for one get that.
I have not spoken to my father for over ten years now. By the time I had reached my fourties’, I had used up most (not all) of my life’s supply of sex, drugs and rock n roll, and at forty-two took a more spiritual approach to life.
Conversely, rather than forgiving a father for the many transgressions of the past (some which continue to this day), I stood even more resolute to the principals I had gained over the years, ceding once again perhaps to my inner stubbornness and self-righteousness.
Wisdom and time do not always lend themselves to absolution, sometimes an unwavering moral code must be adhered too, and that includes bondage by blood.
Whilst we know that Walt McCandless did much to find his lost son and bring him home to reconnect with the family, my own father knows exactly where I am but has never tried.
There is a sense of bittersweet irony however, in that my father has been one of the best teachers I have ever had, and just like Jon Krakauer’s book and I guess McCandless himself, he has taught me exactly what not to do…