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The water by this time was a chaos of whitecaps that threatened to swamp and capsize his tiny craft. The wind increased to gale force. The whitecaps grew into high, breaking waves. “In great frustration,” the journal reads,

he screams and beats canoe with oar. The oar breaks. Alex has one spare oar. He calms himself. If loses second oar is dead. Finally through extreme effort and much cursing he manages to beach canoe on jetty and collapses exhausted on sand at sundown. This incident led Alexander to decide to abandon canoe and return north.

On January 16, McCandless left the stubby metal boat on a hummock of dune grass southeast of El Golfo de Santa Clara and started walking north up the deserted beach. He had not seen or talked to another soul in thirty-six days. For that entire period he subsisted on nothing but five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea, an experience that would later convince him he could survive on similarly meager rations in the Alaska bush.

He was back at the United States border on January 18. Caught by immigration authorities trying to slip into the country without ID, he spent a night in custody before concocting a story that sprang him from the slammer, minus his .38-caliber handgun, a “beautiful Colt Python, to which he was much attached.”

McCandless spent the next six weeks on the move across the Southwest, traveling as far east as Houston and as far west as the Pacific coast. To avoid being rolled by the unsavory characters who rule the streets and freeway overpasses where he slept, he learned to bury what money he had before entering a city, then recover it on the way out of town. On February 3, according to his journal, McCandless went to Los Angeles “to get a ID and a job but feels extremely uncomfortable in society now and must return to road immediately.”

Six days later, camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with Thomas and Karin, a young German couple who had given him a ride, he wrote, “Can this be the same Alex that set out in July, 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring.”

On February 24, seven and a half months after he abandoned the Datsun, McCandless returned to Detrital Wash. The Park Service had long since impounded the vehicle, but he unearthed his old Virginia plates, SJF-421, and a few belongings he’d buried there. Then he hitched into Las Vegas and found a job at an Italian restaurant. “Alexander buried his backpack in the desert on 2/27 and entered Las Vegas with no money and no ID,” the journal tells us.

He lived on the streets with bums, tramps, and winos for several weeks. Vegas would not be the end of the story, however. On May 10, itchy feet returned and Alex left his job in Vegas, retrieved his backpack, and hit the road again, though he found that if you are stupid enough to bury a camera underground you won’t be taking many pictures with it afterwards. Thus the story has no picture book for the period May 10, 1991-January 7, 1992. But this is not important. It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you.

Chapter Five (BULLHEAD CITY) The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth. His newborn cunning gave him poise and control.


All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too! Alexander Supertramp May 1992 GRAFFITO FOUND INSIDE THE ABANDONED BUS ON THE STAMPEDE TRAIL

When his camera was ruined and McCandless stopped taking photographs, he also stopped keeping a journal, a practice he didn’t resume until he went to Alaska the next year. Not a great deal is known, therefore, about where he traveled after departing Las Vegas in May 1991.

From a letter McCandless sent to Jan Burres, we know he spent July and August on the Oregon coast, probably in the vicinity of Astoria, where he complained that “the fog and rain was often intolerable.” In September he hitched down U.S. Highway 101 into California, then headed east into the desert again. And by early October he had landed in Bullhead City, Arizona.

Bullhead City is a community in the oxymoronic, late-twentieth-century idiom. Lacking a discernible center, the town exists as a haphazard sprawl of subdivisions and strip malls stretching for eight or nine miles along the banks of the Colorado, directly across the river from the high-rise hotels and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Bullhead’s distinguishing civic feature is the Mohave Valley Highway, four lanes of asphalt lined with gas stations and fast-food franchises, chiropractors and video shops, auto-parts outlets and tourist traps.

On the face of it, Bullhead City doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would appeal to an adherent of Thoreau and Tolstoy, an ideologue who expressed nothing but contempt for the bourgeois trappings of mainstream America. McCandless, nevertheless, took a strong liking to Bullhead. Maybe it was his affinity for the lumpen, who were well represented in the community’s trailer parks and campgrounds and laundromats; perhaps he simply fell in love with the stark desert landscape that encircles the town.

In any case, when he arrived in Bullhead City, McCandless stopped moving for more than two months—probably the longest he stayed in one place from the time he left Atlanta until he went to Alaska and moved into the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail. In a card he mailed to Westerberg in October, he says of Bullhead, “It’s a good place to spend the winter and I might finally settle down and abandon my tramping life, for good. I’ll see what happens when spring comes around, because that’s when I tend to get really itchy feet.”

At the time he wrote these words, he was holding down a full-time job, flipping Quarter Pounders at a McDonald’s on the main drag, commuting to work on a bicycle. Outwardly, he was living a surprisingly conventional existence, even going so far as to open a savings account at a local bank.

Curiously, when McCandless applied for the McDonald’s job, he presented himself as Chris McCandless, not as Alex, and gave his employers his real Social Security number. It was an uncharacteristic break from his cover that might easily have alerted his parents to his whereabouts—although the lapse proved to be of no consequence because the private investigator hired by Walt and Billie never caught the slip.

Two years after he sweated over the grill in Bullhead, his colleagues at the golden arches don’t recall much about Chris McCandless. “One thing I do remember is that he had a thing about socks,” says the assistant manager, a fleshy, garrulous man named George Dreeszen. “He always wore shoes without socks—just plain couldn’t stand to wear socks. But McDonald’s has a rule that employees have to wear appropriate footwear at all times. That means shoes and socks. Chris would comply with the rule, but as soon as his shift was over, bang!—-the first thing he’d do is peel those socks off. I mean the very first thing. Kind of like a statement, to let us know we didn’t own him, I guess. But he was a nice kid and a good worker. Real dependable.”

Lori Zarza, the second assistant manager, has a somewhat different impression of McCandless. “Frankly, I was surprised he ever got hired,” she says. “He could do the job—he cooked in the back—but he always worked at the same slow pace, even during the lunch rush, no matter how much you’d get on him to hurry it up. Customers would be stacked ten-deep at the counter, and he wouldn’t understand why I was on his case. He just didn’t make the connection. It was like he was off in his own universe.

“He was reliable, though, a body that showed up every day, so they didn’t dare fire him. They only paid four twenty-five an hour, and with all the casinos right across the river starting people at six twenty-five, well, it was hard to keep bodies behind the counter.

“I don’t think he ever hung out with any of the employees after work or anything. When he talked, he was always going on about trees and nature and weird stuff like that. We all thought he was missing a few screws.

“When Chris finally quit,” Zarza admits, “it was probably because of me. When he first started working, he was homeless, and he’d show up for work smelling bad. It wasn’t up to McDonald’s standards to come in smelling the way he did. So finally they delegated me to tell him that he needed to take a bath more often. Ever since I told him, there was a clash between us. And then the other employees—they were just trying to be nice—they started asking him if he needed some soap or anything. That made him mad—you could tell. But he never showed it outright. About three weeks later, he just walked out the door and quit.”

McCandless had tried to disguise the fact that he was a drifter living out of a backpack: He told his fellow employees that he lived across the river in Laughlin. Whenever they offered him a ride home after work, he made excuses and politely declined. In fact, during his first several weeks in Bullhead, McCandless camped out in the desert at the edge of town; then he started squatting in a vacant mobile home. The latter arrangement, he explained in a letter to Jan Burres, “came about this way:”

One morning I was shaving in a restroom when an old man came in, and observing me, asked me if I was “sleeping out” I told him yes, and it turned out that he had this old trailer I could stay in for free. The only problem is that he doesn’t really own it. Some absentee owners are merely letting him live on their land here, in another little trailer he stays in. So I kind of have to keep things toned down and stay out of sight, because he isn’t supposed to have anybody over here. It’s really quite a good deal, though, for the inside of the trailer is nice, it’s a house trailer, furnished, with some of the electric sockets working and a lot of living space. The only drawback is this old guy, whose name is Charlie, is something of a lunatic and it’s rather difficult to get along with him sometimes.

Charlie still lives at the same address, in a small teardrop-shaped camping trailer sheathed in rust-pocked tin, without plumbing or electricity, tucked behind the much larger blue-and-white mobile home where McCandless slept. Denuded mountains are visible to the west, towering sternly above the rooftops of adjacent double-wides. A baby-blue Ford Torino rests on blocks in the unkempt yard, weeds sprouting from its engine compartment. The ammonia reek of human urine rises from a nearby oleander hedge.

“Chris? Chris?” Charlie barks, scanning porous memory banks. “Oh yeah, him. Yeah, yeah, I remember him, sure.” Charlie, dressed in a sweatshirt and khaki work pants, is a frail, nervous man with rheumy eyes and a growth of white stubble across his chin. By his recollection McCandless stayed in the trailer about a month.

“Nice guy, yeah, a pretty nice guy,” Charlie reports. “Didn’t like to be around too many people, though. Temperamental. He meant good, but I think he had a lot of complexes—know what I’m saying? Liked to read books by that Alaska guy, Jack London. Never said much. He’d get moody, wouldn’t like to be bothered. Seemed like a kid who was looking for something, looking for something, just didn’t know what it was. I was like that once, but then I realized what I was looking for: Money! Ha! Ha hyah, hooh boy!

“But like I was saying, Alaska—yeah, he talked about going to Alaska. Maybe to find whatever it was he was looking for. Nice guy, seemed like one, anyway. Had a lot of complexes sometimes, though. Had ‘em bad. When he left, was around Christmas I think, he gave me fifty bucks and a pack of cigarettes for lettin’ him stay here. Thought that was mighty decent of him.”

In late November, McCandless sent a postcard to Jan Burres in care of a post-office box in Niland, a small town in California’s Imperial Valley. “That card we got in Niland was the first letter from him in a long time that had a return address on it,” Burres remembers. “So I immediately wrote back and said we’d come see him the next weekend in Bullhead, which wasn’t that far from where we were.”

McCandless was thrilled to hear from Jan. “I am so glad to find you both alive and sound,” he exclaimed in a letter dated December 9, 1991.

Thanks so much for the Christmas card. It’s nice to be thought of this time of year…. I’m so excited to hear that you will be coming to see me, you’re welcome any time. It’s really great to think that after almost a year and a half we shall be meeting again.

He closed the letter by drawing a map and giving detailed directions for finding the trailer on Bullhead City’s Baseline Road.

Four days after receiving this letter, however, as Jan and her boyfriend, Bob, were preparing to drive up for the visit, Burres returned to their campsite one evening to find “a big backpack leaning against our van. I recognized it as Alex’s. Our little dog, Sunni, sniffed him out before I did. She’d liked Alex, but I was surprised she remembered him. When the dog found him, she went nuts.” McCandless explained to Burres that he’d grown tired of Bullhead, tired of punching a clock, tired of the “plastic people” he worked with, and decided to get the hell out of town.

Jan and Bob were staying three miles outside of Niland, at a place the locals call the Slabs, an old navy air base that had been abandoned and razed, leaving a grid of empty concrete foundations scattered far and wide across the desert. Come November, as the weather turns cold across the rest of the country, some five thousand snowbirds and drifters and sundry vagabonds congregate in this otherworldly setting to live on the cheap under the sun. The Slabs functions as the seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society—a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.

When McCandless arrived at the Slabs, a huge flea market-swap meet was in full swing out in the desert. Burres, as one of the vendors, had set up some folding tables displaying cheap, mostly secondhand goods for sale, and McCandless volunteered to oversee her large inventory of used paperback books.

“He helped me a lot,” Burres acknowledges. “He watched the table when I needed to leave, categorized all the books, made a lot of sales. He seemed to get a real kick out of it. Alex was big on the classics: di@kens, H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, Jack London. London was his favorite. He’d try to convince every snowbird who walked by that they should read Call of the Wild.”

McCandless had been infatuated with London since childhood. London’s fervent condemnation of capitalist society, his glorification of the primordial world, his championing of the great unwashed—all of it mirrored McCandless’s passions. Mesmerized by London’s turgid portrayal of life in Alaska and the Yukon, McCandless read and reread The Call of the Wild, White Fang, “To Build a Fire,” “An Odyssey of the North,” “The Wit of Porportuk.” He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he’d died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print.

Among the residents of the Niland Slabs was a seventeen-year-old named Tracy, and she fell in love with McCandless during his week-long visit. “She was this sweet little thing,” says Burres, “the daughter of a couple of tramps who parked their rig four vehicles down from us. And poor Tracy developed a hopeless crush on Alex. The whole time he was in Niland, she hung around making goo-goo eyes at him, bugging me to convince him to go on walks with her. Alex was nice to her, but she was too young for him. He couldn’t take her seriously. Probably left her brokenhearted for a whole week at least.”

Even though McCandless rebuffed Tracy’s advances, Burres makes it clear that he was no recluse: “He had a good time when he was around people, a real good time. At the swap meet he’d talk and talk and talk to everybody who came by. He must have met six or seven dozen people in Niland, and he was friendly with every one of them. He needed his solitude at times, but he wasn’t a hermit. He did a lot of socializing. Sometimes I think it was like he was storing up company for the times when he knew nobody would be around.”

McCandless was especially attentive to Burres, flirting and clowning with her at every opportunity. “He liked to tease me and torment me,” she recalls. “I’d go out back to hang clothes on the line behind the trailer, and he’d attach clothespins all over me. He was playful, like a little kid. I had puppies, and he was always putting them under laundry baskets to watch them bounce around and yelp. He’d do it till I’d get mad and have to yell at him to stop. But in truth he was real good with the dogs. They’d follow him around, cry after him, want to sleep with him. Alex just had a way with animals.”

One afternoon while McCandless was tending the book table at the Niland swap meet, somebody left a portable electric organ with Burres to sell on consignment. “Alex took it over and entertained everybody all day playing it,” she says. “He had an amazing voice. He drew quite a crowd. Until then I never knew he was musical.”

McCandless spoke frequently to the denizens of the Slabs about his plans for Alaska. He did calisthenics each morning to get in shape for the rigors of the bush and discussed backcountry survival strategies at length with Bob, a self-styled survivalist.

“Me,” says Burres, “I thought Alex had lost his mind when he told us about his ‘great Alaskan odyssey,’ as he called it. But he was really excited about it. Couldn’t stop talking about the trip.”

Despite prodding from Burres, however, McCandless revealed virtually nothing about his family. “I’d ask him,” Burres says, “ ‘Have you let your people know what you’re up to? Does your mom know you’re going to Alaska? Does your dad know?” But he’d never answer. He’d just roll his eyes at me, get peeved, tell me to quit trying to mother him. And Bob would say, ‘Leave him alone! He’s a grown man!’ I’d keep at it until he’d change the subject, though—because of what happened between me and my own son. He’s out there somewhere, and I’d want someone to look after him like I tried to look after Alex.”

The Sunday before McCandless left Niland, he was watching an NFL playoff game on the television in Burres’s trailer when she noticed he was rooting especially hard for the Washington Redskins. “So I asked him if he was from the D.C. area,” she says. “And he answered, ‘Yeah, actually I am.’ That’s the only thing he ever let on about his background.”

The following Wednesday, McCandless announced it was time for him to be moving on. He said he needed to go to the post office in Salton City, fifty miles west of Niland, to which he’d asked the manager of the Bullhead McDonald’s to send his final paycheck, general delivery. He accepted Burres’s offer to drive him there, but when she tried to give him a little money for helping out at the swap meet, she recalls, “he acted real offended. I told him, ‘Man, you gotta have money to get along in this world,’ but he wouldn’t take it. Finally I got him to take some Swiss Army knives and a few belt knives; I convinced him they’d come in handy in Alaska and that he could maybe trade them for something down the road.”

After an extended argument Burres also got McCandless to accept some long underwear and other warm clothing she thought he’d need in Alaska. “He eventually took it to shut me up,” she laughs, “but the day after he left, I found most of it in the van. He’d pulled it out of his pack when we weren’t looking and hid it up under the seat. Alex was a great kid, but he could really make me mad sometimes.”

Although Burres was concerned about McCandless, she assumed he’d come through in one piece. “I thought he’d be fine in the end,” she reflects. “He was smart. He’d figured out how to paddle a canoe down to Mexico, how to hop freight trains, how to score a bed at inner-city missions. He figured all of that out on his own, and I felt sure he’d figure out Alaska, too.”

Chapter Six (ANZA-BORREGO) No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality…. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.


On January 4, 1993, this writer received an unusual letter, penned in a shaky, anachronistic script that suggested an elderly author. “To Whom It May Concern,” the letter began.

I would like to get a copy of the magazine that carried the story of the young man (Alex McCandless) dying in Alaska. I would like to write the one that investigated the incident I drove him from Salton City Calif … in March 1992…to Grand Junction Co…. I left Alex there to hitch-hike to S.D. He said he would keep in touch. The last I heard from him was a letter the first week in April, 1992. On our trip we took pictures, me with the camcorder + Alex with his camera.

If you have a copy of that magazine please send me the cost of that magazine….

I understand he was hurt. If so I would like to know how he was injured, for he always carried enough rice in his backpack + he had arctic clothes + plenty of money.


Please do not make these facts available to anybody till I know more about his death for he was not just the common wayfarer. Please believe me.

The magazine that Franz requested was the January 1993 issue of Outside, which featured a cover story about the death of Chris McCandless. His letter had been addressed to the offices of Outside in Chicago; because I had written the McCandless piece, it was forwarded to me.

McCandless made an indelible impression on a number of people during the course of his hegira, most of whom spent only a few days in his company, a week or two at most. Nobody, however, was affected more powerfully by his or her brief contact with the boy than Ronald Franz, who was eighty years old when their paths intersected in January 1992.

After McCandless bid farewell to Jan Burres at the Salton City Post Office, he hiked into the desert and set up camp in a brake of creosote at the edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Hard to the east is the Salton Sea, a placid ocean in miniature, its surface more than two hundred feet below sea level, created in 1905 by a monumental engineering snafu: Not long after a canal was dug from the Colorado River to irrigate rich farmland in the Imperial Valley, the river breached its banks during a series of major floods, carved a new channel, and began to gush unabated into the Imperial Valley Canal. For more than two years the canal inadvertently diverted virtually all of the river’s prodigious flow into the Salton sink. Water surged across the once-dry floor of the sink, inundating farms and settlements, eventually drowning four hundred square miles of desert and giving birth to a landlocked ocean.

Only fifty miles from the limousines and exclusive tennis clubs and lush green fairways of Palm Springs, the west shore of the Salton Sea had once been the site of intense real estate speculation. Lavish resorts were planned, grand subdivisions platted. But little of the promised development ever came to pass. These days most of the lots remain vacant and are gradually being reclaimed by the desert. Tumbleweeds scuttle down Salton City’s broad, desolate boulevards. Sun-bleached FOR SALE signs line the curbs, and paint peels from uninhabited buildings. A placard in the window of the Salton Sea Realty and Development Company declares CLOSED/CERRADO. Only the rattle of the wind interrupts the spectral quiet.

Away from the lakeshore the land rises gently and then abruptly to form the desiccated, phantasmal badlands of Anza-Borrego. The bajada beneath the badlands is open country cut by steep-walled arroyos. Here, on a low, sun-scorched rise dotted with chollas and indigobushes and twelve-foot ocotillo stems, McCandless slept on the sand under a tarp hung from a creosote branch.

When he needed provisions, he would hitch or walk the four miles into town, where he bought rice and filled his plastic water jug at the market-liquor store-post office, a beige stucco building that serves as the cultural nexus of greater Salton City. One Thursday in mid-January, McCandless was hitching back out to the bajada after filling his jug when an old man, name of Ron Franz, stopped to give him a ride.

“Where’s your camp?” Franz inquired.

“Out past Oh-My-God Hot Springs,” McCandless replied.

“I’ve lived in these parts six years now, and I’ve never heard of any place goes by that name. Show me how to get there.”

They drove for a few minutes down the Borrego-Salton Seaway, and then McCandless told him to turn left into the desert, where a rough 4-x-4 track twisted down a narrow wash. After a mile or so they arrived at a bizarre encampment, where some two hundred people had gathered to spend the winter living out of their vehicles. The community was beyond the fringe, a vision of post-apocalypse America. There were families sheltered in cheap tent trailers, aging hippies in Day-Glo vans, Charles Manson look-alikes sleeping in rusted-out Studebakers that hadn’t turned over since Eisenhower was in the White House. A substantial number of those present were walking around buck naked. At the center of the camp, water from a geothermal well had been piped into a pair of shallow, steaming pools lined with rocks and shaded by palm trees: Oh-My-God Hot Springs.

McCandless, however, wasn’t living right at the springs; he was camped by himself another half mile out on the bajada. Franz drove Alex the rest of the way, chatted with him there for a while, and then returned to town, where he lived alone, rent free, in return for managing a ramshackle apartment building.

Franz, a devout Christian, had spent most of his adult life in the army, stationed in Shanghai and Okinawa. On New Year’s Eve 1957, while he was overseas, his wife and only child were killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident. Franz’s son had been due to graduate from medical school the following June. Franz started hitting the whiskey, hard.

Six months later he managed to pull himself together and quit drinking, cold turkey, but he never really got over the loss. To salve his loneliness in the years after the accident, he started unofficially “adopting” indigent Okinawan boys and girls, eventually taking fourteen of them under his wing, paying for the oldest to attend medical school in Philadelphia and another to study medicine in Japan.

When Franz met McCandless, his long-dormant paternal impulses were kindled anew. He couldn’t get the young man out of his mind. The boy had said his name was Alex—he’d declined to give a surname—and that he came from West Virginia. He was polite, friendly, well-groomed.

“He seemed extremely intelligent,” Franz states in an exotic brogue that sounds like a blend of Scottish, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Carolina drawl. “I thought he was too nice a kid to be living by that hot springs with those nudists and drunks and dope smokers.” After attending church that Sunday, Franz decided to talk to Alex “about how he was living. Somebody needed to convince him to get an education and a job and make something of his life.”

When he returned to McCandless’s camp and launched into the self-improvement pitch, though, McCandless cut him off abruptly. “Look, Mr. Franz,” he declared, “you don’t need to worry about me. I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice.” And then, despite his initial prickliness, the young man warmed to the old-timer, and the two engaged in a long conversation. Before the day was out, they had driven into Palm Springs in Franz’s truck, had a meal at a nice restaurant, and taken a ride on the tramway to the top of San Jacinto Peak, at the bottom of which McCandless stopped to unearth a Mexican serape and some other possessions he’d buried for safekeeping a year earlier.

Over the next few weeks McCandless and Franz spent a lot of time together. The younger man would regularly hitch into Salton City to do his laundry and barbecue steaks at Franz’s apartment. He confided that he was biding his time until spring, when he intended to go to Alaska and embark on an “ultimate adventure.” He also turned the tables and started lecturing the grandfatherly figure about the shortcomings of his sedentary existence, urging the eighty-year-old to sell most of his belongings, move out of the apartment, and live on the road. Franz took these harangues in stride and in fact delighted in the boy’s company.

An accomplished leatherworker, Franz taught Alex the secrets of his craft; for his first project McCandless produced a tooled leather belt, on which he created an artful pictorial record of his wanderings. ALEX is inscribed at the belt’s left end; then the initials C.J.M. (for Christopher Johnson McCandless) frame a skull and crossbones. Across the strip of cowhide one sees a rendering of a two-lane blacktop, a NO U-TURN sign, a thunderstorm producing a flash flood that engulfs a car, a hitchhiker’s thumb, an eagle, the Sierra Nevada, salmon cavorting in the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to Washington, the Rocky Mountains, Montana wheat fields, a South Dakota rattlesnake, Westerberg’s house in Carthage, the Colorado River, a gale in the Gulf of California, a canoe beached beside a tent, Las Vegas, the initials T.C.D., Morro Bay, Astoria, and at the buckle end, finally, the letter N (presumably representing north). Executed with remarkable skill and creativity, this belt is as astonishing as any artifact Chris McCandless left behind.

Franz grew increasingly fond of McCandless. “God, he was a smart kid,” the old man rasps in a barely audible voice. He directs his gaze at a patch of sand between his feet as he makes this declaration; then he stops talking. Bending stiffly from the waist, he wipes some imaginary dirt from his pant leg. His ancient joints crack loudly in the awkward silence.

More than a minute passes before Franz speaks again; squinting at the sky, he begins to reminisce further about the time he spent in the youngster’s company. Not infrequently during their visits, Franz recalls, McCandless’s face would darken with anger and he’d fulminate about his parents or politicians or the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life. Worried about alienating the boy, Franz said little during such outbursts and let him rant.

One day in early February, McCandless announced that he was splitting for San Diego to earn more money for his Alaska trip.

“You don’t need to go to San Diego,” Franz protested. “I’ll give you money if you need some.”

“No. You don’t get it. I’m going to San Diego. And I’m leaving on Monday”

“OK. I’ll drive you there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” McCandless scoffed.

“I need to go anyway,” Franz lied, “to pick up some leather supplies.”

McCandless relented. He struck his camp, stored most of his belongings in Franz’s apartment—the boy didn’t want to schlepp his sleeping bag or backpack around the city—and then rode with the old man across the mountains to the coast. It was raining when Franz dropped McCandless at the San Diego waterfront. “It was a very hard thing for me to do,” Franz says. “I was sad to be leaving him.”

On February 19, McCandless called Franz, collect, to wish him a happy eighty-first birthday; McCandless remembered the date because his own birthday had been seven days earlier: He had turned twenty-four on February 12. During this phone call he also confessed to Franz that he was having trouble finding work.

On February 28, he mailed a postcard to Jan Burres. “Hello!” it reads,

Have been living on streets of San Diego for the past week. First day I got here it rained like hell. The missions here suck and I’m getting preached to death. Not much happening in terms of jobs so I’m heading north tomorrow.

I’ve decided to head for Alaska no later than May 1st, but I’ve got to raise a little cash to outfit myself. May go back and work for a friend I have in South Dakota if he can use me. Don’t know where I’m headed now but I’ll write when I get there. Hope all’s well with you. TAKE CARE, ALEX

On March 5, McCandless sent another card to Burres and a card to Franz as well. The missive to Burres says,

Greetings from Seattle! I’m a hobo now! That’s right, I’m riding the rails now. What fun, I wish I had jumped trains earlier. The rails have some drawbacks, however. First is that one becomes absolutely filthy. Second is that one must tangle with these crazy bulls. I was sitting in a hotshot in L.A. when a bull found me with his flashlight about 10 P.M. “Get outta there before I KILL ya!” screamed the bull. I got out and saw he had drawn his revolver. He interrogated me at gunpoint, then growled, “If I ever see you around this train again I’ll kill ya! Hit the road!” What a lunatic! I got the last laugh when I caught the same train 5 minutes later and rode it all the way to Oakland. I’ll be in touch,


A week later Franz’s phone rang. “It was the operator,” he says, “asking if I would accept a collect call from someone named Alex. When I heard his voice, it was like sunshine after a month of rain.”

“Will you come pick me up?” McCandless asked. “Yes. Where in Seattle are you?”

“Ron,” McCandless laughed, “I’m not in Seattle. I’m in California, just up the road from you, in Coachella.” Unable to find work in the rainy Northwest, McCandless had hopped a series of freight trains back to the desert. In Colton, California, he was discovered by another bull and thrown in jail. Upon his release he had hitchhiked to Coachella, just southeast of Palm Springs, and called Franz. As soon as he hung up the phone, Franz rushed off to pick McCandless up.

“We went to a Sizzler, where I filled him up with steak and lobster,” Franz recalls, “and then we drove back to Salton City.”

McCandless said that he would be staying only a day, just long enough to wash his clothes and load his backpack. He’d heard from Wayne Westerberg that a job was waiting for him at the grain elevator in Carthage, and he was eager to get there. The date was March 11, a Wednesday. Franz offered to take McCandless to Grand Junction, Colorado, which was the farthest he could drive without missing an appointment in Salton City the following Monday. To Franz’s surprise and great relief, McCandless accepted the offer without argument.

Before departing, Franz gave McCandless a machete, an arctic parka, a collapsible fishing pole, and some other gear for his Alaska undertaking. Thursday at daybreak they drove out of Salton City in Franz’s truck. In Bullhead City they stopped to close out McCandless’s bank account and to visit Charlie’s trailer, where McCandless had stashed some books and other belongings, including the journal-photo album from his canoe trip down the Colorado. McCandless then insisted on buying Franz lunch at the Golden Nugget Casino, across the river in Laughlin. Recognizing McCandless, a waitress at the Nugget gushed, “Alex! Alex! You’re back!”

Franz had purchased a video camera before the trip, and he paused now and then along the way to record the sights. Although McCandless usually ducked away whenever Franz pointed the lens in his direction, some brief footage exists of him standing impatiently in the snow above Bryce Canyon. “Ok, let’s go,” he protests to the camcorder after a few moments. “There’s a lot more ahead, Ron.” Wearing jeans and a wool sweater, McCandless looks tan, strong, healthy.

Franz reports that it was a pleasant, if hurried trip. “Sometimes we’d drive for hours without saying a word,” he recalls. “Even when he was sleeping, I was happy just knowing he was there.” At one point Franz dared to make a special request of McCandless. “My mother was an only child,” he explains. “So was my father. And I was their only child. Now that my own boy’s dead, I’m the end of the line. When I’m gone, my family will be finished, gone forever. So I asked Alex if I could adopt him, if he would be my grandson.”

McCandless, uncomfortable with the request, dodged the question: “We’ll talk about it when I get back from Alaska, Ron.”

On March 14, Franz left McCandless on the shoulder of Interstate 70 outside Grand Junction and returned to southern California. McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well—relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arm’s length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. And now he’d slipped painlessly out of Ron Franz’s life as well.

Painlessly, that is, from McCandless’s perspective—although not from the old man’s. One can only speculate about why Franz became so attached to McCandless so quickly, but the affection he felt was genuine, intense, and unalloyed. Franz had been living a solitary existence for many years. He had no family and few friends. A disciplined, self-reliant man, he got along remarkably well despite his age and solitude. When McCandless came into his world, however, the boy undermined the old man’s meticulously constructed defenses. Franz relished being with McCand less, but their burgeoning friendship also reminded him how lonely he’d been. The boy unmasked the gaping void in Franz’s life even as he helped fill it. When McCandless departed as suddenly as he’d arrived, Franz found himself deeply and unexpectedly hurt.

In early April a long letter arrived in Franz’s post-office box bearing a South Dakota postmark. “Hello Ron,” it says,

Alex here. I have been working up here in Carthage South Dakota for nearly two weeks now. I arrived up here three days after we parted in Grand Junction, Colorado. I hope that you made it back to Salton City without too many problems. I enjoy working here and things are going well. The weather is not very bad and many days are surprisingly mild. Some of the farmers are even already going out into their fields. It must be getting rather hot down there in Southern California by now. I wonder if you ever got a chance to get out and see how many people showed up for the March 20 Rainbow gathering there at the hotsprings. It sounds like it might have been a lot of fun, but I don’t think you really understand these kind of people very well.

I will not be here in South Dakota very much longer. My friend, Wayne, wants me to stay working at the grain elevator through May and then go combining with him the entire summer, but I have my soul set entirely on my Alaskan Odyssey and hope to be on my way no later than April 15. That means I will be leaving here before very long, so I need you to send any more mail I may have received to the return address listed below.

Ron, I really enjoy all the help you have given me and the times that we spent together. I hope that you will not be too depressed by our parting. It may be a very long time before we see each other again. But providing that I get through this Alaskan Deal in one piece you will be hearing from me again in the future. I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty. And so, Ron, in short, get out of Salton City and hit the Road. I guarantee you will be very glad you did. But I fear that you will ignore my advice. You think that I am stubborn, but you are even more stubborn than me. You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life. But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day. I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover. Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time, Ron, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.

You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.

My point is that you do not need me or anyone else around to bring this new kind of light in your life. It is simply waiting out there for you to grasp it, and all you have to do is reach for it. The only person you are fighting is yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances.

Ron, I really hope that as soon as you can you will get out of Salton City, put a little camper on the back of your pickup, and start seeing some of the great work that God has done here in the American West. You will see things and meet people and there is much to learn from them. And you must do it economy style, no motels, do your own cooking, as a general rule spend as little as possible and you will enjoy it much more immensely. I hope that the next time I see you, you will be a new man with a vast array of new adventures and experiences behind you. Don’t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.


Please write back to: Alex McCandless Madison, SD 57042

Astoundingly, the eighty-one-year-old man took the brash twenty-four-year-old vagabond’s advice to heart. Franz placed his furniture and most of his other possessions in a storage locker, bought a GMC Duravan, and outfitted it with bunks and camping gear. Then he moved out of his apartment and set up camp on the bajada.

Franz occupied McCandless’s old campsite, just past the hot springs. He arranged some rocks to create a parking area for the van, transplanted prickly pears and indigobushes for “landscaping.” And then he sat out in the desert, day after day after day, awaiting his young friend’s return.

Ronald Franz (this is not his real name; at his request I have given him a pseudonym) looks remarkably sturdy for a man in his ninth decade who has survived two heart attacks. Nearly six feet tall, with thick arms and a barrel chest, he stands erect, his shoulders unbowed. His ears are large beyond the proportions of his other features, as are his gnarled, meaty hands. When I walk into his camp in the desert and introduce myself, he is wearing old jeans and an immaculate white T-shirt, a decorative tooled-leather belt of his own creation, white socks, scuffed black loafers. His age is betrayed only by the creases across his brow and a proud, deeply pitted nose, over which a purple filigree of veins unfolds like a finely wrought tattoo. A little more than a year after McCandless’s death he regards the world through wary blue eyes.

To dispel Franz’s suspicion, I hand him an assortment of photographs I’d taken on a trip to Alaska the previous summer, during which I’d retraced McCandless’s terminal journey on the Stampede Trail. The first several images in the stack are landscapes—shots of the surrounding bush, the overgrown trail, distant mountains, the Sushana River. Franz studies them in silence, occasionally nodding when I explain what they depict; he seems grateful to see them.

When he comes to the pictures of the bus in which the boy died, however, he stiffens abruptly. Several of these images show McCandless’s belongings inside the derelict vehicle; as soon as Franz realizes what he’s seeing, his eyes mist over, he thrusts the photos back at me without examining the rest, and the old man walks away to compose himself as I mumble a lame apology.

Franz no longer lives at McCandless’s campsite. A flash flood washed the makeshift road away, so he moved twenty miles out, toward the Borrego badlands, where he camps beside an isolated stand of cottonwoods. Oh-My-God Hot Springs is gone now, too, bulldozed and plugged with concrete by order of the Imperial Valley Health Commission. County officials say they eliminated the springs out of concern that bathers might become gravely ill from virulent microbes thought to flourish in the thermal pools.

“That sure could of been true,” says the clerk at the Salton City store, “but most people think they bulldozed ‘em ‘cause the springs was starting to attract too many hippies and drifters and scum like that. Good riddance, you ask me.”

For more than eight months after he said good-bye to McCandless, Franz remained at his campsite, scanning the road for the approach of a young man with a large pack, waiting patiently for Alex to return. During the last week of 1992, the day after Christmas, he picked up two hitchhikers on his way back from a trip into Salton City to check his mail. “One fella was from Mississippi, I think; the other was a Native American,” Franz remembers. “On the way out to the hot springs, I started telling them about my friend Alex, and the adventure he’d set out to have in Alaska.”

Suddenly, the Indian youth interrupted: “Was his name Alex McCandless?”

“Yes, that’s right. So you’ve met him, then—”

“I hate to tell you this, mister, but your friend is dead. Froze to death up on the tundra. Just read about it in Outdoor magazine.”

In shock, Franz interrogated the hitchhiker at length. The details rang true; his story added up. Something had gone horribly wrong. McCandless would never be coming back.

“When Alex left for Alaska,” Franz remembers, “I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.

“After I dropped off the hitchhikers,” Franz continues, “I turned my van around, drove back to the store, and bought a bottle of whiskey. And then I went out into the desert and drank it. I wasn’t used to drinking, so it made me sick. Hoped it’d kill me, but it didn’t. Just made me real, real sick.”

Chapter Seven (CARTHAGE) There was some books…. One was Pilgrim’s Progress, about a man that left his family, it didn’t say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.


It is true that many creative people fail to make mature personal relationships, and some are extremely isolated. It is also true that, in some instances, trauma, in the shape of early separation or bereavement, has steered the potentially creative person toward developing aspects of his personality which can find fulfillment in comparative isolation. But this does not mean that solitary, creative pursuits are themselves pathological….

[A]voidance behavior is a response designed to protect the infant from behavioural disorganization. If we transfer this concept to adult life, we can see that an avoidant infant might very well develop into a person whose principal need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely, or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships.


The big John Deere 8020 squats silently in the canted evening light, a long way from anywhere, surrounded by a half-mowed field of South Dakota milo. Wayne Westerberg’s muddy sneakers protrude from the maw of the combine, as if the machine were in the process of swallowing him whole, an overgrown metal reptile digesting its prey. “Hand me that goddamn wrench, will you?” an angry, muffled voice demands from deep within the machine’s innards. “Or are you guys too busy standing around with your hands in your goddamn pockets to be of any use?” The combine has broken down for the third time in as many days, and Westerberg is frantically trying to replace a hard-to-reach bushing before nightfall.

An hour later he emerges, smeared with grease and chaff but successful. “Sorry about snapping like that,” Westerberg apologizes. “We’ve been working too many eighteen-hour days. I guess I’m getting a little snarly, it being so late in the season and all, and us being shorthanded besides. We was counting on Alex being back at work by now.” Fifty days have gone by since McCandless’s body was discovered in Alaska on the Stampede Trail.

Seven months earlier, on a frosty March afternoon, McCandless had ambled into the office at the Carthage grain elevator and announced that he was ready to go to work. “There we were, ringing up the morning’s tickets,” remembers Westerberg, “and in walks Alex with a big old backpack slung over his shoulder.” He told Westerberg he planned on staying until April 15, just long enough to put together a grubstake. He needed to buy a pile of new gear, he explained, because he was going to Alaska. McCandless promised to come back to South Dakota in time to help with the autumn harvest, but he wanted to be in Fairbanks by the end of April in order to squeeze in as much time as possible up North before his return.

During those four weeks in Carthage, McCandless worked hard, doing dirty, tedious jobs that nobody else wanted to tackle: mucking out warehouses, exterminating vermin, painting, scything weeds. At one point, to reward McCandless with a task that involved slightly more skill, Westerberg attempted to teach him to operate a front-end loader. “Alex hadn’t been around machinery much,” Westerberg says with a shake of his head, “and it was pretty comical to watch him try to get the hang of the clutch and all those levers. He definitely wasn’t what you’d call mechanically minded.”

Nor was McCandless endowed with a surfeit of common sense. Many who knew him have commented, unbidden, that he seemed to have great difficulty seeing the trees, as it were, for the forest. “Alex wasn’t a total space cadet or anything,” says Westerberg; “don’t get me wrong. But there was gaps in his thinking. I remember once I went over to the house, walked into the kitchen, and noticed a god-awful stink. I mean it smelled nasty in there. I opened the microwave, and the bottom of it was filled with rancid grease. Alex had been using it to cook chicken, and it never occurred to him that the grease had to drain somewhere. It wasn’t that he was too lazy to clean it up—Alex always kept things real neat and orderly—it was just that he hadn’t noticed the grease.”

Soon after McCandless returned to Carthage that spring, Westerberg introduced him to his longtime, on-again, off-again girlfriend, Gail Borah, a petite, sad-eyed woman, as slight as a heron, with delicate features and long blond hair. Thirty-five years old, divorced, a mother of two teenage children, she quickly became close to McCandless. “He was kind of shy at first,” says Borah. “He acted like it was hard for him to be around people. I just figured that was because he’d spent so much time by himself.

“I had Alex over to the house for supper just about every night,” Borah continues. “He was a big eater. Never left any food on his plate. Never. He was a good cook, too. Sometimes he’d have me over to Wayne’s place and fix supper for everybody. Cooked a lot of rice. You’d think he would of got tired of it, but he never did. Said he could live for a month on nothing but twenty-five pounds of rice.

“Alex talked a lot when we got together,” Borah recalls. “Serious stuff, like he was baring his soul, kind of. He said he could tell me things that he couldn’t tell the others. You could see something was gnawing at him. It was pretty obvious he didn’t get along with his family, but he never said much about any of them except Carine, his little sister. He said they were pretty close. Said she was beautiful, that when she walked down the street, guys would turn their heads and stare.”

Westerberg, for his part, didn’t concern himself with McCandless’s family problems. “Whatever reason he had for being pissed off, I figured it must have been a good one. Now that he’s dead, though, I don’t know anymore. If Alex was here right now, I’d be tempted to chew him out good: ‘What the hell were you thinking? Not speaking to your family for all that time, treating them like dirt!’ One of the kids that works for me, fu@k, he don’t even have any goddamn parents, but you don’t hear him bit@hing. Whatever the deal was with Alex’s family, I guarantee you I’ve seen a lot worse. Knowing Alex, I think he must have just got stuck on something that happened between him and his dad and couldn’t leave it be.”

Westerberg’s latter conjecture, as it turned out, was a fairly astute analysis of the relationship between Chris and Walt McCandless. Both father and son were stubborn and high-strung. Given Walt’s need to exert control and Chris’s extravagantly independent nature, polarization was inevitable. Chris submitted to Walt’s authority through high school and college to a surprising degree, but the boy raged inwardly all the while. He brooded at length over what he perceived to be his father’s moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents’ lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love. Eventually, Chris rebelled—and when he finally did, it was with characteristic immoderation.

Shortly before he disappeared, Chris complained to Carine that their parents’ behavior was “so irrational, so oppressive, disrespectful and insulting that I finally passed my breaking point.” He went on:

Since they won’t ever take me seriously, for a few months after graduation I’m going to let them think they are right, I’m going to let them think that I’m “coming around to see their side of things” and that our relationship is stabilizing. And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life. I’m going to divorce them as my parents once and for all and never speak to either of those idiots again as long as I live. I’ll be through with them once and for all, forever.

The chill Westerberg sensed between Alex and his parents stood in marked contrast to the warmth McCandless exhibited in Carthage. Outgoing and extremely personable when the spirit moved him, he charmed a lot of folks. There was mail waiting for him when he arrived back in South Dakota, correspondence from people he’d met on the road, including what Westerberg remembers as “letters from a girl who had a big crush on him, someone he’d gotten to know in some Timbuktu—some campground, I think.” But McCandless never mentioned any romantic entanglements to either Westerberg or Borah.

“I don’t recollect Alex ever talking about any girlfriends,” says Westerberg. “Although a couple of times he mentioned wanting to get married and have a family some day. You could tell he didn’t take relationships lightly. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would go out and pick up girls just to get laid.”

It was clear to Borah, too, that McCandless hadn’t spent much time cruising singles bars. “One night a bunch of us went out to a bar over in Madison,” says Borah, “and it was hard to get him out on the dance floor. But once he was out there, he wouldn’t sit down. We had a blast. After Alex died and all, Carine told me that as far as she knew, I was one of the only girls he ever went dancing with.”

In high school McCandless had enjoyed a close rapport with two or three members of the opposite s@x, and Carine recalls one instance when he got drunk and tried to bring a girl up to his bedroom in the middle of the night (they made so much noise stumbling up the stairs that Billie was awakened and sent the girl home). But there is little evidence that he was s@xually active as a teenager and even less to suggest that he slept with any woman after graduating from high school. (Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that he was ever s@xually intimate with a man.) It seems that McCandless was drawn to women but remained largely or entirely celibate, as chaste as a monk.

Chastity and moral purity were qualities McCandless mulled over long and often. Indeed, one of the books found in the bus with his remains was a collection of stories that included Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” in which the nobleman-turned-ascetic denounces “the demands of the flesh.” Several such passages are starred and highlighted in the dog-eared text, the margins filled with cryptic notes printed in McCandless’s distinctive hand. And in the chapter on “Higher Laws” in Thoreau’s Walden, a copy of which was also discovered in the bus, McCandless circled “Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”

We Americans are titillated by s@x, obsessed by it, horrified by it. When an apparently healthy person, especially a healthy young man, elects to forgo the enticements of the flesh, it shocks us, and we leer. Suspicions are aroused.

McCandless’s apparent s@xual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward s@x echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with single-minded passion—Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently—to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted s@xual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact. McCandless may have been tempted by the succor offered by women, but it paled beside the prospect of rough congress with nature, with the cosmos itself. And thus was he drawn north, to Alaska.

McCandless assured both Westerberg and Borah that when his northern sojourn was over, he would return to South Dakota, at least for the fall. After that, it would depend.

“I got the impression that this Alaska escapade was going to be his last big adventure,” Westerberg offers, “and that he wanted to settle down some. He said he was going to write a book about his travels. He liked Carthage. With his education, nobody thought he was going to work at a goddamn grain elevator the rest of his life. But he definitely intended to come back here for a while, help us out at the elevator, figure out what he was going to do next.”

That spring, however, McCandless’s sights were fixed unflinchingly on Alaska. He talked about the trip at every opportunity. He sought out experienced hunters around town and asked them for tips about stalking game, dressing animals, curing meat. Borah drove him to the Kmart in Mitchell to shop for some last pieces of gear.

By mid-April, Westerberg was both shorthanded and very busy, so he asked McCandless to postpone his departure and work a week or two longer. McCandless wouldn’t even consider it. “Once Alex made up his mind about something, there was no changing it,” Westerberg laments. “I even offered to buy him a plane ticket to Fairbanks, which would have let him work an extra ten days and still get to Alaska by the end of April, but he said, ‘No, I want to hitch north. Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip.’”

Two nights before McCandless was scheduled to head north, Mary Westerberg, Wayne’s mother, invited him to her house for dinner. “My mom doesn’t like a lot of my hired help,” Westerberg says, “and she wasn’t real enthusiastic about meeting Alex, either. But I kept bugging her, telling her ‘You gotta meet this kid,’ and so she finally had him over for supper. They hit it off immediately. The two of ‘em talked nonstop for five hours.”

“There was something fascinating about him,” explains Mrs. Westerberg, seated at the polished walnut table where McCandless dined that night. “Alex struck me as much older than twenty-four. Everything I said, he’d demand to know more about what I meant, about why I thought this way or that. He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.

“We talked for hours about books; there aren’t that many people in Carthage who like to talk about books. He went on and on about Mark Twain. Gosh, he was fun to visit with; I didn’t want the night to end. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him again this fall. I can’t get him out of my mind. I keep picturing his face—he sat in the same chair you’re sitting in now. Considering that I only spent a few hours in Alex’s company, it amazes me how much I’m bothered by his death.”

On McCandless’s final night in Carthage, he partied hard at the Cabaret with Westerberg’s crew. The Jack Daniel’s flowed freely. To everyone’s surprise, McCandless sat down at the piano, which he’d never mentioned he knew how to play, and started pounding out honky-tonk country tunes, then ragtime, then Tony Bennett numbers. And he wasn’t merely a drunk inflicting his delusions of talent on a captive audience. “Alex,” says Gail Borah, “could really play. I mean he was good. We were all blown away by it.”

On the morning of April 15, everybody gathered at the elevator to see McCandless off. His pack was heavy. He had approximately one thousand dollars tucked in his boot. He left his journal and photo album with Westerberg for safekeeping and gave him the leather belt he’d made in the desert.

“Alex used to sit at the bar in the Cabaret and read that belt for hours on end,” says Westerberg, “like he was translating hieroglyphics for us. Each picture he’d carved into the leather had a long story behind it.”

When McCandless hugged Borah good-bye, she says, “I noticed he was crying. That frightened me. He wasn’t planning on being gone all that long; I figured he wouldn’t have been crying unless he intended to take some big risks and knew he might not be coming back. That’s when I started having a bad feeling that we wouldn’t never see Alex again.”

A big tractor-semitrailer rig was idling out front; Rod Wolf, one of Westerberg’s employees, needed to haul a load of sunflower seeds to Enderlin, North Dakota, and had agreed to drive McCandless to Interstate 94.

“When I let him off, he had that big damn machete hanging off his shoulder,” Wolf says. “I thought, ‘Jeeze, nobody’s going to pick him up when they see that thing.’ But I didn’t say nothin’ about it. I just shook his hand, wished him good luck, and told him he’d better write.”

McCandless did. A week later Westerberg received a terse card with a Montana postmark:

APRIL 18. Arrived in Whitefish this morning on a freight train. I am making good time. Today I will jump the border and turn north for Alaska. Give my regards to everyone.


Then, in early May, Westerberg received another postcard, this one from Alaska, with a photo of a polar bear on the front. It was postmarked April 27, 1992. “Greetings from Fairbanks!” it reads,

This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon Territory. But I finally got here.

Please return all mail I receive to the sender. It might be a very long time before I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again, I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.


On the same date McCandless sent a card bearing a similar message to Jan Burres and Bob:

Hey Guys!

This is the last communication you shall receive from me. I now walk out to live amongst the wild. Take care, it was great knowing you.


Chapter Eight (ALASKA) It may, after all, be the bad habit of creative talents to invest themselves in pathological extremes that yield remarkable insights but no durable way of life for those who cannot translate their psychic wounds into significant art or thought.


We have in America “The Big Two-Hearted River” tradition: taking your wounds to the wilderness for a cure, a conversion, a rest, or whatever. And as in the Hemingway story, if your wounds aren’t too bad, it works. But this isn’t Michigan (or Faulkner’s Big Woods in Mississippi, for that matter). This is Alaska.


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