In April of 1992, Chris McCandless reached his final stop of what was the greatest odyssey of his life. Only steps onto the Stampede Trail, a gateway into the Alaskan wilderness, the goals of his two-year pilgrimage had been realized. The recent college grad who inspired “Into The Wild,” the grand tale about his cross country journey and eventual death, had found his mountain song.
He had spent months on the road, where nothing stopped him from fulfilling his heart’s desires. He floated in raging currents down the Colorado River, using his arms and legs to navigate the riptide. He lived in a trailer park village, in the sun kissed desert of northern California, with those who dreamed of wandering with intention, like he did. He dropped himself in Carthage, South Dakota, unacquainted with the locals, their way of life, and yet, he embedded himself in both work and companionship.
Wayne Westertberg, the man who employed Chris when he was in South Dakota, shed many tears when he received word of his friend’s death.
So did Ronald Franz, and both Jan and Bob Burres. So did many of those intimately initiated with his adventurous spirit. In him, they saw someone who basked in the untethered bounties of freedom. They saw someone who planned little, surviving off of much less than what he probably could support for himself. What could have been seen as foolishness, a mockery to the expeditioners of the nation’s ancestry, shared little comparison with such an ideal in actuality.
Chris was in search of his life’s purpose, to accumulate more intrinsic value from experiences and journeys rather than the latter, which was a desensitized prescription to the normalcy of everyday life.
When I read about him, I found much of what he did on his way to Alaska drenched in dangers and insanity. Indeed, there was a radiant joy blossoming from inside when he encountered perilous situations, ones that would override the common sense of anyone with just a hint of his grandiosity. A woman or man, much less driven than Chris, would have called it a day.
And when hunters found his dead body 19 days after his death, there was a quest by those with a vested interest in the man to explore the extremities of his journey. Finding an uncanny recklessness throughout his odyssey, some mistakenly understood this to be a suicide mission. Yet, Chris was more than a disillusioned wanderer. We share more in common with his journey than not.
Like Chris, there’s a magnetized pull emanating from ourselves and latching onto our own version of an odyssey. Whether it comes from a lackluster perception of our futures, or a need to venture into unknown worlds, or the idea that life is fuller when it’s lived nomadically, the goals we have are often opaque, in dire need of certainty, and teeming with faith in the process.
Traveling fills the soul with the necessary pieces to our ever-growing puzzle. Our complexities evolve and require different sources of satiation as time passes, but what will always give that satisfaction to the spirit is a backpack and a foreign destination. A map might serve one well, but in reality, the art of getting lost is a beautiful one.
Being stuck to our own devices presents an opportunity to test the outermost boundaries of our limitations. Chris exceeded his, which he began to understand after spending 100-plus days in the Alaskan wild. In search of food one day, he found a plant that he read about in his guide on backcountry eating. Little did he know that the plant had become laced with natural toxins. Still, we live without the exact root of his demise, the natural mechanism that brought him down, but we do know that Chris left this world a happy man.
“I have had a happy life and thank the lord. Goodbye and may God bless all.”
To live a happy life, one full of illustrious destinations in both location and soul, brings joy to our lives. That is why we travel. That is why we wander. When exposed to new places, the heart becomes full. To live nomadically means to continue a journey, finding places that make the body grow weary in delight.
Chris was 24 when he died, and surely, the death of any person still in their youth brings a specific kind of sadness. Chris had potential. Chris was meant to do big things. All wonderful reasons to mourn his loss.
Except, Chris had reached a point in his life where his journey, not his age, defined his passage of time. The world he saw was bigger and more dynamic than conventional wisdom would tell. By the age of 24, he had seen and taken more in from the world than most do in a lifetime.
I look to him and many others who associate with his kin as to why movement across state and country lines is important. I look to the fullness of their lives, the happiness they feel, as reasons why we continue to seek our own odysseys. Out there, somewhere, lies our version of a mountain song. Perhaps one day we will be lucky enough to find it.