When I ran us through the reading schedule on the first day of my American Wilderness class, I initially stated that our last two books of the semester would be “lighter reading,” before I thought better of it, and settled on “non-academic.” I guess the story of a guy who cuts all ties to his family, wanders around the Western United States, and starves to death in a bus in Alaska isn’t really light reading.
I thought this would have some personal resonance with students, and it did. Chris McCandless is originally from Annandale, Virginia; had recently graduated from Emory University (this class is all juniors and seniors); was a history major; and obviously had an interest in wilderness. He read and quoted authors we’ve discussed in our class. And he passed briefly through my own home town in Northern California, as well.
More to the point, he imagined his travels as taking him into the wilderness, at first conveyed there by his yellow Datsun (until he illegally drove it off-road, where it was swamped by a flash-flood and then abandoned), later by whatever rides he could catch, and his own imaginings. Krakauer points out that where McCandless actually died was near an NPS site, several cabins, and a road, but suggests that McCandless managed to create this spot as a wilderness by discarding the map–that is, by deliberately not learning too much about the area before he arrived. For our purposes in class, we have the story of a young man with ideas about wilderness informed by some of the same background we’ve been discussing this semester, who goes in pursuit of the experiences it offers; next week, we’ll see elements of nature/wilderness being brought to us in malls and television, the flip side, I think, of this encounter with wilderness.
Thoreau suggested that one thing preventing people from experiencing nature/wilderness were social ties and obligations–which McCandless extracted himself from. I think that’s where our class mostly broke from him–we could understand some of the actions and thoughts of his character, but that treatment of his family was where we seemed not to identify with him at all.
Maybe the Datsun foreshadowed his own fate–an emblem of his past life, he used it to transgress boundaries and dismiss authority by trespassing; after it flooded and refused to start, he abandoned it; and it, like his own story, eventually found a long second life (albeit in the hands of local police, rather than authors and readers and Alaskans).