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When McCandless turned up dead in Alaska and the perplexing circumstances of his demise were reported in the news media, many people concluded that the boy must have been mentally disturbed. The article about McCandless in Outside generated a large volume of mail, and not a few of the letters heaped opprobrium on McCandless—and on me, as well, the author of the story, for glorifying what some thought was a foolish, pointless death.

Much of the negative mail was sent by Alaskans. “Alex is a nut in my book,” wrote a resident of Healy, the hamlet at the head of the Stampede Trail. “The author describes a man who has given away a small fortune, forsaken a loving family, abandoned his car, watch and map and burned the last of his money before traipsing off into the ‘wilderness’ west of Healy.”

“Personally I see nothing positive at all about Chris McCandless’s lifestyle or wilderness doctrine,” scolded another correspondent. “Entering the wilderness purposefully ill-prepared, and surviving a near-death experience does not make you a better human, it makes you damn lucky.”

One reader of the Outside piece wondered, “Why would anyone intending to ‘live off the land for a few months’ forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain?”

“Krakauer is a kook if he doesn’t think Chris ‘Alexander Supertramp’ McCandless was a kook,” opined a man from North Pole, Alaska. “McCandless had already gone over the edge and just happened to hit bottom in Alaska.”

The most strident criticism came in the form of a dense, multipage epistle from Ambler, a tiny Inupiat village on the Kobuk River north of the Arctic Circle. The author was a white writer and schoolteacher, formerly from Washington, D.C., named Nick Jans. Warning that it was 1:00 A.M. and he was well into a bottle of Seagram’s, Jans let fly:

Over the past 15 years, I’ve run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there’s quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they’re almost a collective cliché. The only difference is that McCandless ended up dead, with the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media. … (Jack London got it right in “To Build a Fire.” McCandless is, finally, just a pale 20th-century burlesque of London’s protagonist, who freezes because he ignores advice and commits big-time hubris)….

His ignorance, which could have been cured by a USGS quadrant and a Boy Scout manual, is what killed him. And while I feel for his parents, I have no sympathy for him. Such willful ignorance … amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez spill—just another case of underprepared, overconfident men bumbling around out there and screwing up because they lacked the requisite humility. It’s all a matter of degree.

McCandless’s contrived asceticism and a pseudoliterary stance compound rather than reduce the fault…. McCandless’s postcards, notes, and journals … read like the work of an above average, somewhat histrionic high school kid—or am I missing something?

The prevailing Alaska wisdom held that McCandless was simply one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death. Dozens of marginal characters have marched off into the Alaska wilds over the years, never to reappear. A few have lodged firmly in the state’s collective memory.

There was the countercultural idealist who passed through the village of Tanana in the early 1970s, announcing that he intended to spend the rest of his life “communing with Nature.” In midwinter a field biologist discovered all his belongings—two rifles, camping gear, a diary filled with incoherent ranting about truth and beauty and recondite ecological theory—in an empty cabin near Tofty, its interior filled with drifted snow. No trace of the young man was ever found.

A few years later there was the Vietnam vet who built a cabin on the Black River east of Chalkyitsik to “get away from people.” By February he’d run out of food and starved, apparently without making any attempt to save himself, despite the fact that there was another cabin stocked with meat just three miles downstream. Writing about this death, Edward Hoagland observed that Alaska is “not the best site in the world for eremitic experiments or peace-love theatrics.” And then there was the wayward genius I bumped into on the shore of Prince William Sound in 1981. I was camped in the woods outside Cordova, Alaska, trying in vain to find work as a deckhand on a seine boat, biding my time until the Department of Fish and Game announced the first “opener”—the start of the commercial salmon season. One rainy afternoon while walking into town, I crossed paths with an unkempt, agitated man who appeared to be about forty. He wore a bushlike black beard and shoulder-length hair, which he kept out of his face with a headband made from a filthy nylon strap. He was walking toward me at a brisk clip, hunched beneath the considerable weight of a six-foot log balanced across one shoulder.

I said hello as he approached, he mumbled a reply, and we paused to chat in the drizzle. I didn’t ask why he was carrying a sodden log into the forest, where there seemed to be plenty of logs already. After a few minutes spent exchanging earnest banalities, we went our separate ways.

From our brief conversation I deduced that I had just met the celebrated eccentric whom the locals called the Mayor of Hippie Cove—a reference to a bight of tidewater north of town that was a magnet for long-haired transients, near which the Mayor had been living for some years. Most of the residents of Hippie Cove were, like me, summer squatters who’d come to Cordova hoping to score high-paying fishing jobs or, failing that, find work in the salmon canneries. But the Mayor was different.

His real name was Gene Rosellini. He was the eldest stepson of Victor Rosellini, a wealthy Seattle restaurateur, and cousin of Albert Rosellini, the immensely popular governor of Washington State from 1957 to 1965. As a young man Gene had been a good athlete and a brilliant student. He read obsessively, practiced yoga, became expert at the martial arts. He sustained a perfect 4.0 grade-point average through high school and college. At the University of Washington and later at Seattle University, he immersed himself in anthropology, history, philosophy, and linguistics, accumulating hundreds of credit hours without collecting a degree. He saw no reason to. The pursuit of knowledge, he maintained, was a worthy objective in its own right and needed no external validation.

By and by Rosellini left academia, departed Seattle, and drifted north up the coast through British Columbia and the Alaska panhandle. In 1977, he landed in Cordova. There, in the forest at the edge of town, he decided to devote his life to an ambitious anthropological experiment.

“I was interested in knowing if it was possible to be independent of modern technology,” he told an Anchorage Daily News reporter, Debra McKinney, a decade after arriving in Cordova. He wondered whether humans could live as our forebears had when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the land or whether our species had moved too far from its roots to survive without gunpowder, steel, and other artifacts of civilization. With the obsessive attention to detail that characterized his brand of dogged genius, Rosellini purged his life of all but the most primitive tools, which he fashioned from native materials with his own hands.

“He became convinced that humans had devolved into progressively inferior beings,” McKinney explains, “and it was his goal to return to a natural state. He was forever experimenting with different eras—Roman times, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. By the end his lifestyle had elements of the Neolithic.”

He dined on roots, berries, and seaweed, hunted game with spears and snares, dressed in rags, endured the bitter winters. He seemed to relish the hardship. His home above Hippie Cove was a windowless hovel, which he built without benefit of saw or ax: “He’d spend days,” says McKinney, “grinding his way through a log with a sharp stone.”

As if merely subsisting according to his self-imposed rules weren’t strenuous enough, Rosellini also exercised compulsively whenever he wasn’t occupied with foraging. He filled his days with calisthenics, weight lifting, and running, often with a load of rocks on his back. During one apparently typical summer he reported covering an average of eighteen miles daily.

Rosellini’s “experiment” stretched on for more than a decade, but eventually he felt the question that inspired it had been answered. In a letter to a friend he wrote,

I began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native. For over 30 years, I programmed and conditioned myself to this end. In the last 10 of it, I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental, and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to-face with pure reality. I learned that it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land.

Rosellini appeared to accept the failure of his hypothesis with equanimity. At the age of forty-nine, he cheerfully announced that he had “recast” his goals and next intended to “walk around the world, living out of my backpack. I want to cover 18 to 27 miles a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

The trip never got off the ground. In November 1991, Rosellini was discovered lying facedown on the floor of his shack with a knife through his heart. The coroner determined that the fatal wound was self-inflicted. There was no suicide note. Rosellini left no hint as to why he had decided to end his life then and in that manner. In all likelihood nobody will ever know.

Rosellini’s death and the story of his outlandish existence made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. The travails of John Mallon Waterman, however, attracted less attention. Born in 1952, Waterman was raised in the same Washington suburbs that gave shape to Chris McCandless. His father, Guy Waterman, is a musician and freelance writer who, among other claims to modest fame, authored speeches for presidents, ex-presidents, and other prominent Washington politicians. Waterman père also happens to be an expert mountaineer who taught his three sons to climb at an early age. John, the middle son, went rock climbing for the first time at thirteen.

He was a natural. John headed to the crags at every opportunity and trained obsessively when he couldn’t climb. He cranked out four hundred push-ups every day and walked two and a half miles to school, fast. After walking home in the afternoon, he’d touch the front door and head back to the school to make a second round-trip.

In 1969, as a sixteen-year-old, John climbed Mt. McKinley (which he called Denali, as most Alaskans do, preferring the peak’s Athapaskan name), becoming the third-youngest person to stand atop the highest landform on the continent. Over the next few years he pulled off even more impressive ascents in Alaska, Canada, and Europe. By the time he enrolled in the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, in 1973, Waterman had established a reputation as one of the most promising young alpinists in North America.

Waterman was a small person, barely five feet three inches tall, with an elfin face and the sinewy, inexhaustible physique of a gymnast. Acquaintances remember him as a socially awkward man-child with an outrageous sense of humor and a squirrelly, almost manic-depressive personality.

“When I first met John,” says James Brady, a fellow climber and college friend, “he was prancing across campus in a long black cape and blue Elton John-type glasses that had a star between the lenses. He carried around a cheap guitar held together with masking tape and would serenade anybody who’d listen with long, off-key songs about his adventures. Fairbanks has always attracted a lot of weird characters, but he was wacky even by Fairbanks standards. Yeah, John was out there. A lot of people didn’t know how to handle him.” It is not difficult to imagine plausible causes for Waterman’s instability. His parents, Guy and Emily Waterman, divorced when he was a teen, and Guy, according to a source close to the family, “essentially abandoned his sons following the divorce. He would have nothing more to do with the boys, and it crippled John badly. Not long after their parents split up, John and his older brother, Bill, went to visit their father—but Guy refused to see them. Shortly after that, John and Bill went to Fairbanks to live with an uncle. At one point while they were up there, John got very excited because he heard that his father was coming to Alaska to climb. But when Guy arrived in the state he never took the trouble to see his sons; he came and went without even bothering to visit. It broke John’s heart.” Bill, with whom John had an extremely close relationship, lost a leg as a teenager trying to hop a freight train. In 1973, Bill posted an enigmatic letter alluding vaguely to plans for an extended trip and then disappeared without a trace; to this day nobody knows what became of him. And after John learned to climb, eight of his intimates and climbing partners were killed in accidents or committed suicide. It’s not much of a stretch to posit that such a rash of misfortune dealt a serious blow to Waterman’s young psyche.

In March 1978, Waterman embarked on his most astonishing expedition, a solo ascent of Mt. Hunter’s southeast spur, an unclimbed route that had previously defeated three teams of elite mountaineers. Writing about the feat in Climbing magazine, the journalist Glenn Randall reported that Waterman described his companions on the climb as “the wind, the snow and death”:

Cornices as airy as meringue jutted over voids a mile deep. The vertical ice walls were as crumbly as a bucket of ice-cubes half-thawed, then refrozen. They led to ridges so narrow and so steep on both sides that straddling was the easiest solution. At times the pain and loneliness overwhelmed him and he broke down and cried.

After eighty-one days of exhausting, extremely hazardous climbing, Waterman reached the 14,573-foot summit of Hunter, which rises in the Alaska Range immediately south of Denali. Another nine weeks were required to make the only slightly less harrowing descent; in total Waterman spent 145 days alone on the mountain. When he got back to civilization, flat broke, he borrowed twenty dollars from Cliff Hudson, the bush pilot who’d flown him out of the mountains, and returned to Fairbanks, where the only work he could find was washing dishes.

Waterman was nevertheless hailed as a hero by the small fraternity of Fairbanks climbers. He gave a public slide show of the Hunter ascent that Brady calls “unforgettable. It was an incredible performance, completely uninhibited. He poured out all his thoughts and feelings, his fear of failure, his fear of death. It was like you were there with him.” In the months following the epic deed, though, Waterman discovered that instead of putting his demons to rest, success had merely agitated them.

Waterman’s mind began to unravel. “John was very self-critical, always analyzing himself,” Brady recalls. “And he’d always been kind of compulsive. He used to carry around a stack of clipboards and notepads. He’d take copious notes, creating a complete record of everything he did during the course of each day. I remember running into him once in downtown Fairbanks. As I walked up, he got out a clipboard, logged in the time he saw me and recorded what our conversation was about—which wasn’t much at all. His notes on our meeting were three or four pages down, behind all the other stuff he’d already scribbled that day. Somewhere he must have had piles and piles and piles of notes like that, which I’m sure would have made sense to no one except John.” Soon thereafter Waterman ran for the local school board on a platform promoting unrestricted s@x for students and the legalization of hallucinogenic drugs. He lost the election, to nobody’s surprise save his own, but immediately launched another political campaign, this time for the presidency of the United States. He ran under the banner of the Feed-the-Starving Party, the main priority of which was to ensure that nobody on the planet died of hunger.

To publicize his campaign, he laid plans to make a solo ascent of the south face of Denali, the mountain’s steepest aspect, in winter, with a minimum of food. He wanted to underscore the waste and immorality of the standard American diet. As part of his training regimen for the climb, he immersed himself in bathtubs filled with ice.

Waterman flew to the Kahiltna Glacier in December 1979 to begin the ascent but called it off after only fourteen days. “Take me home,” he reportedly told his bush pilot. “I don’t want to die.” Two months later, however, he prepared for a second attempt. But in Talkeetna, a village south of Denali that is the point of embarkation for most mountaineering expeditions into the Alaska Range, the cabin he was staying in caught fire and burned to rubble, incinerating both his equipment and the voluminous accumulation of notes, poetry, and personal journals that he regarded as his life’s work.

Waterman was completely unhelmed by the loss. A day after the fire he committed himself to the Anchorage Psychiatric Institute but left after two weeks, convinced there was a conspiracy afoot to put him away permanently. Then, in the winter of 1981, he launched yet another solo attempt on Denali.

As if climbing the peak alone in winter weren’t challenging enough, this time he decided to up the ante even further by beginning his ascent at sea level, which entailed walking 160 hard, circuitous miles from the shore of Cook Inlet just to reach the foot of the mountain. He started plodding north from tidewater in February, but his enthusiasm fizzled on the lower reaches of the Ruth Glacier, still thirty miles from the peak, so he aborted the attempt and retreated to Talkeetna. In March, however, he mustered his resolve once more and resumed his lonely trek. Before leaving town, he told the pilot Cliff Hudson, whom he regarded as a friend, “I won’t be seeing you again.” It was an exceptionally cold March in the Alaska Range. Late in the month Mugs Stump crossed paths with Waterman on the upper Ruth Glacier. Stump, an alpinist of world renown who died on Denali in 1992, had just completed a difficult new route on a nearby peak, the Mooses Tooth. Shortly after his chance encounter with Waterman, Stump visited me in Seattle and remarked that “John didn’t seem like he was all there. He was acting spacey and talking some crazy sh@t. Supposedly he was doing this big winter ascent of Denali, but he had hardly any gear with him. He was wearing a cheap one-piece snowmobile suit and wasn’t even carrying a sleeping bag. All he had in the way of food was a bunch of flour, some sugar, and a big can of Crisco.” In his book Breaking Point, Glenn Randall writes: For several weeks, Waterman lingered in the area of the Sheldon Mountain House, a small cabin perched on the side of the Ruth Glacier in the heart of the range. Kate Bull, a friend of Waterman’s who was climbing in the area at the time, reported that he was run down and less cautious than usual. He used the radio he had borrowed from Cliff [Hudson] to call him and have him fly in more supplies. Then he returned the radio he had borrowed.

“I won’t be needing this any more,” he said. The radio would have been his only means of calling for help.

Waterman was last placed on the Northwest Fork of the Ruth Glacier on April 1. His tracks led toward the east buttress of Denali, straight through a labyrinth of giant crevasses, evidence that he had made no apparent effort to circumvent obvious hazards. He was not seen again; it is assumed he broke through a thin snow bridge and plummeted to his death at the bottom of one of the deep fissures. The National Park Service searched Waterman’s intended route from the air for a week following his disappearance but found no sign of him. Some climbers later discovered a note atop a box of Waterman’s gear inside the Sheldon Mountain House. “3-13-81,” it read. “My last kiss 1:42 PM.” Perhaps inevitably, parallels have been drawn between John Waterman and Chris McCandless. Comparisons have also been drawn between McCandless and Carl McCunn, an affable absentminded Texan who moved to Fairbanks during the 1970s oil boom and found lucrative employment on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project. In early March 1981, as Waterman was making his final journey into the Alaska Range, McCunn hired a bush pilot to drop him at a remote lake near the Coleen River, about seventy-five miles northeast of Fort Yukon on the southern margin of the Brooks Range.

A thirty-five-year-old amateur photographer, McCunn told friends that the main reason for the trip was to shoot pictures of wildlife. He flew into the country with five hundred rolls of film, .22- and .30-.30-caliber rifles, a shotgun, and fourteen hundred pounds of provisions. His intention was to remain in the wilderness through August. Somehow, though, he neglected to arrange for the pilot to fly him back to civilization at summer’s end, and it cost McCunn his life.

This astounding oversight wasn’t a great surprise to Mark Stoppel, a young Fairbanks resident who had come to know McCunn well during the nine months they worked on the pipeline together, shortly before the lanky Texan departed for the Brooks Range.

“Carl was a friendly, extremely popular, down-home sort of guy,” Stoppel recalls. “And he seemed like a smart guy. But there was a side to him that was a little bit dreamy, a little bit out of touch with reality. He was flamboyant. He liked to party hard. He could be extremely responsible, but he had a tendency to wing it sometimes, to act impulsively, to get by on bravado and style. No, I guess it really doesn’t surprise me that Carl went out there and forgot to arrange to be picked up. But then I’m not easily shocked. I’ve had several friends who drowned or got murdered or died in weird accidents. In Alaska you get used to strange stuff happening.” In late August, as the days grew shorter and the air turned sharp and autumnal in the Brooks Range, McCunn began to worry when nobody arrived to fly him out. “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure,” he confessed to his diary, significant portions of which were published posthumously in a five-part story by Kris Capps in the Fairbanks Daily News–Miner. “I’ll soon find out.” Week by week he could feel the accelerating advance of winter. As his food supply grew meager, McCunn deeply regretted tossing all but a dozen of his shotgun shells into the lake. “I keep thinking of all the shotgun shells I threw away about two months ago,” he wrote. “Had five boxes and when I kept seeing them sitting there I felt rather silly for having brought so many. (Felt like a war monger.)… real bright. Who would have known I might need them just to keep from starving.” Then, on a brisk September morning, deliverance seemed to be at hand. McCunn was stalking ducks with what remained of his ammunition when the stillness was rocked by the buzz of an airplane, which soon appeared overhead. The pilot, spotting the camp, circled twice at a low altitude for a closer look. McCunn waved wildly with a fluorescent-orange sleeping-bag cover. The aircraft was equipped with wheels rather than floats and thus couldn’t land, but McCunn was certain he’d been seen and had no doubt the pilot would summon a floatplane to return for him. He was so sure of this he recorded in the journal that “I stopped waving after the first pass. I then got busy packing things up and getting ready to break camp.” But no airplane arrived that day, or the next day, or the next. Eventually, McCunn looked on the back of his hunting license and understood why. Printed on the little square of paper were drawings of emergency hand signals for communicating with aircraft from the ground. “I recall raising my right hand, shoulder high and shaking my fist on the plane’s second pass,” McCunn wrote. “It was a little cheer-—like when your team scored a touchdown or something.” Unfortunately, as he learned too late, raising a single arm is the universally recognized signal for “all OK; assistance not necessary.” The signal for “SOS; send immediate help,” is two upraised arms.

“That’s probably why after they flew somewhat away they returned for one more pass and on that one I gave no signal at all (in fact I may have even turned my back to the plane as it passed),” McCunn mused philosophically. “They probably blew me off as a weirdo.”

By the end of September, snow was piling up on the tundra, and the lake had frozen over. As the provisions he’d brought ran out, McCunn made an effort to gather rose hips and snare rabbits. At one point he managed to scavenge meat from a diseased caribou that had wandered into the lake and died. By October, however, he had metabolized most of his body fat and was having difficulty staying warm during the long, cold nights. “Certainly someone in town should have figured something must be wrong—me not being back by now,” he noted. But still no plane appeared.

“It would be just like Carl to assume that somebody would magically appear to save him,” says Stoppel. “He was a Teamster—he drove a truck—so he had plenty of downtime on the job, just sitting on his butt inside his rig, daydreaming, which is how he came up with the idea for the Brooks Range trip. It was a serious quest for him: He spent the better part of a year thinking about it, planning it, figuring it out, talking to me during our breaks about what gear to take. But for all the careful planning he did, he also indulged in some wild fantasies.

“For instance,” Stoppel continues, “Carl didn’t want to fly into the bush alone. His big dream, originally, was to go off and live in the woods with some beautiful woman. He was hot for at least a couple of different girls who worked with us, and he spent a lot of time and energy trying to talk Sue or Barbara or whoever into accompanying him—which in itself was pretty much pure fantasyland. There was no way it was going to happen. I mean, at the pipeline camp where we worked, Pump Station 7, there were probably forty guys for every woman. But Carl was a dreamin’ kind of dude, and right up until he flew into the Brooks Range, he kept hoping and hoping and hoping that one of these girls would change her mind and decide to go with him.” Similarly, Stoppel explains, “Carl was the sort of guy who would have unrealistic expectations that someone would eventually figure out he was in trouble and cover for him. Even as he was on the verge of starving, he probably still imagined that Big Sue was going to fly in at the last minute with a planeload of food and have this wild romance with him. But his fantasy world was so far off the scale that nobody was able to connect with it. Carl just got hungrier and hungrier. By the time he finally understood that nobody was going to come rescue him, he’d shriveled up to the point where it was too late for him to do anything about it.” As McCunn’s food supply dwindled to almost nothing, he wrote in his journal, “I’m getting more than worried. To be honest, I’m starting to be a bit scared.” The thermometer dipped to minus five degrees Fahrenheit. Painful, pus-filled frostbite blisters formed on his fingers and toes.

In November he finished the last of his rations. He felt weak and dizzy; chills racked his gaunt frame. The diary recorded, “Hands and nose continue to get worse as do feet. Nose tip very swollen, blistered, and scabbed…. This is sure a slow and agonizing way to die.” McCunn considered leaving the security of his camp and setting out on foot for Fort Yukon but concluded he wasn’t strong enough, that he would succumb to exhaustion and the cold long before he got there.

“The part of the interior where Carl went is a remote, very blank part of Alaska,” says Stoppel. “It gets colder than hell there in the winter. Some people in his situation could have figured out a way to walk out or maybe winter over, but to do that, you’d have to be extremely resourceful. You’d really need to have your sh@t together. You’d have to be a tiger, a killer, a fu@kin’ animal. And Carl was too laid back. He was a party boy.” “I can’t go on like this, I’m afraid,” McCunn wrote sometime in late November near the end of his journal, which by now filled one hundred sheets of blue-lined loose-leaf notebook paper. “Dear God in Heaven, please forgive me my weakness and my sins. Please look over my family.” And then he reclined in his wall tent, placed the muzzle of the .30-.30 against his head, and jerked his thumb down on the trigger. Two months later, on February 2, 1982, Alaska State Troopers came across his camp, looked inside the tent, and discovered the emaciated corpse frozen hard as stone.

There are similarities among Rosellini, Waterman, McCunn, and McCandless. Like Rosellini and Waterman, McCandless was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature. Like Waterman and McCunn, he displayed a staggering paucity of common sense. But unlike Waterman, McCandless wasn’t mentally ill. And unlike McCunn, he didn’t go into the bush assuming someone would automatically appear to save his bacon before he came to grief.

McCandless didn’t conform particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype. Although he was rash, untutored in the ways of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn’t incompetent—he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.

Some insight into the tragedy of Chris McCandless can be gained by studying predecessors cut from the same exotic cloth. And in order to do that, one must look beyond Alaska, to the bald-rock canyons of southern Utah. There, in 1934, a peculiar twenty-year-old boy walked into the desert and never came out. His name was Everett Ruess.

Chapter Nine (DAVIS GULCH)

As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities. Do you blame me then for staying here, where I feel that I belong and am one with the world around me? It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty….

Even from your scant description, I know that I could not bear the routine and humdrum of the life that you are forced to lead. I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.



What Everett Ruess was after was beauty, and he conceived beauty in pretty romantic terms. We might be inclined to laugh at the extravagance of his beauty-worship if there were not something almost magnificent in his single-minded dedication to it. Esthetics as a parlor affectation is ludicrous and sometimes a little obscene; as a way of life it sometimes attains dignity. If we laugh at Everett Ruess we shall have to laugh at John Muir, because there was little difference between them except age.



Davis Creek is only a trickle during most of the year and sometimes not even that. Originating at the foot of a high rock battlement known as Fiftymile Point, the stream flows just four miles across the pink sandstone slabs of southern Utah before surrendering its modest waters to Lake Powell, the giant reservoir that stretches one hundred ninety miles above Glen Canyon Dam. Davis Gulch is a small watershed by any measure, but a lovely one, and travelers through this dry, hard country have for centuries relied on the oasis that exists at the bottom of the slotlike defile. Eerie nine-hundred-year-old petroglyphs and pictographs decorate its sheer walls. Crumbling stone dwellings of the long-vanished Kayenta Anasazi, the creators of this rock art, nestle in protective nooks. Ancient Anasazi potsherds mingle in the sand with rusty tin cans discarded by turn-of-the-century stockmen, who grazed and watered their animals in the canyon.

For most of its short length, Davis Gulch exists as a deep, twisting gash in the slickrock, narrow enough in places to spit across, lined by overhanging sandstone walls that bar access to the canyon floor. There is a hidden route into the gulch at its lower end, however. Just upstream from where Davis Creek flows into Lake Powell, a natural ramp zigzags down from the canyon’s west rim. Not far above the creek bottom the ramp ends, and a crude staircase appears, chiseled into the soft sandstone by Mormon cattlemen nearly a century ago.

The country surrounding Davis Gulch is a desiccated expanse of bald rock and brick-red sand. Vegetation is lean. Shade from the withering sun is virtually nonexistent. To descend into the confines of the canyon, however, is to arrive in another world. Cottonwoods lean gracefully over drifts of flowering prickly pear. Tall grasses sway in the breeze. The ephemeral bloom of a sego lily peeks from the toe of a ninety-foot stone arch, and canyon wrens call back and forth in plaintive tones from a thatch of scrub oak. High above the creek a spring seeps from the cliff face, irrigating a growth of moss and maidenhair fern that hangs from the rock in lush green mats.

Six decades ago in this enchanting hideaway, less than a mile downstream from where the Mormon steps meet the floor of the gulch, twenty-year-old Everett Ruess carved his nom de plume into the canyon wall below a panel of Anasazi pictographs, and he did so again in the doorway of a small masonry structure built by the Anasazi for storing grain. “NEMO 1934,” he scrawled, no doubt moved by the same impulse that compelled Chris McCandless to inscribe “Alexander Supertramp/May 1992” on the wall of the Sushana bus—an impulse not so different, perhaps, from that which inspired the Anasazi to embellish the rock with their own now-indecipherable symbols. In any case, shortly after Ruess carved his mark into the sandstone, he departed Davis Gulch and mysteriously disappeared, apparently by design. An extensive search shed no light on his whereabouts. He was simply gone, swallowed whole by the desert. Sixty years later we still know next to nothing about what became of him.

Everett was born in Oakland, California, in 1914, the younger of two sons raised by Christopher and Stella Ruess. Christopher, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, was a poet, a philosopher, and a Unitarian minister, although he earned his keep as a bureaucrat in the California penal system. Stella was a headstrong woman with bohemian tastes and driving artistic ambitions, for both herself and her kin; she self-published a literary journal, the Ruess Quartette, the cover of which was emblazoned with the family maxim: “Glorify the hour.” A tight-knit bunch, the Ruesses were also a nomadic family, moving from Oakland to Fresno to Los Angeles to Boston to Brooklyn to New Jersey to Indiana before finally settling in southern California when Everett was fourteen.

In Los Angeles, Everett attended the Otis Art School and Hollywood High. As a sixteen-year-old he embarked on his first long solo trip, spending the summer of 1930 hitchhiking and trekking through Yosemite and Big Sur, ultimately winding up in Carmel. Two days after arriving in the latter community, he brazenly knocked on the door of Edward Weston, who was sufficiently charmed by the overwrought young man to humor him. Over the next two months the eminent photographer encouraged the boy’s uneven but promising efforts at painting and block printing, and permitted Ruess to hang around his studio with his own sons, Neil and Cole.

At the end of the summer, Everett returned home only long enough to earn a high school diploma, which he received in January 1931. Less than a month later he was on the road again, tramping alone through the canyon lands of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, then a region nearly as sparsely populated and wrapped in mystique as Alaska is today. Except for a short, unhappy stint at UCLA (he dropped out after a single semester, to his father’s lasting dismay), two extended visits with his parents, and a winter in San Francisco (where he insinuated himself into the company of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and the painter Maynard Dixon), Ruess would spend the remainder of his meteoric life on the move, living out of a backpack on very little money, sleeping in the dirt, cheerfully going hungry for days at a time.

Ruess was, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “a callow romantic, an adolescent esthete, an atavistic wanderer of the wastelands”:

At eighteen, in a dream, he saw himself plodding through jungles, chinning up the ledges of cliffs, wandering through the romantic waste places of the world. No man with any of the juices of boyhood in him has forgotten those dreams. The peculiar thing about Everett Ruess was that he went out and did the things he dreamed about, not simply for a two-weeks’ vacation in the civilized and trimmed wonderlands, but for months and years in the very midst of wonder….

Deliberately he punished his body, strained his endurance, tested his capacity for strenuousness. He took out deliberately over trails that Indians and old timers warned him against. He tackled cliffs that more than once left him dangling halfway between talus and rim….From his camps by the water pockets or the canyons or high on the timbered ridges of Navajo Mountain he wrote long, lush, enthusiastic letters to his family and friends, damning the stereotypes of civilization, chanting his barbaric adolescent yawp into the teeth of the world.

Ruess churned out many such letters, which bore the postmarks of the remote settlements through which he passed: Kayenta, Chinle, Lukachukai; Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde; Escalante, Rainbow Bridge, Canyon de Chelly. Reading this correspondence (collected in W. L. Rusho’s meticulously researched biography, Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty), one is struck by Ruess’s craving for connection with the natural world and by his almost incendiary passion for the country through which he walked. “I had some terrific experiences in the wilderness since I wrote you last—overpowering, overwhelming,” he gushed to his friend Cornel Tengel. “But then I am always being overwhelmed. I require it to sustain life.” Everett Ruess’s correspondence reveals uncanny parallels between Ruess and Chris McCandless. Here are excerpts from three of Ruess’s letters:

I have been thinking more and more that I shall always be a lone wanderer of the wilderness. God, how the trail lures me. You cannot comprehend its resistless fascination for me. After all the lone trail is the best…. I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.

The beauty of this country is becoming part of me. I feel more detached from life and somehow gentler…. I have some good friends here, but no one who really understands why I am here or what I do. I don’t know of anyone, though, who would have more than a partial understanding; I have gone too far alone.

I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly.

In my wanderings this year I have taken more chances and had more wild adventures than ever before. And what magnificent country I have seen—wild, tremendous wasteland stretches, lost mesas, blue mountains rearing upward from the vermilion sands of the desert, canyons five feet wide at the bottom and hundreds of feet deep, cloudbursts roaring down unnamed canyons, and hundreds of houses of the cliff dwellers, abandoned a thousand years ago.

A half century later McCandless sounds eerily like Ruess when he declares in a postcard to Wayne Westerberg that “I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up.” And echoes of Ruess can be heard, as well, in McCandless’s last letter to Ronald Franz.

Ruess was just as romantic as McCandless, if not more so, and equally heedless of personal safety. Clayborn Lockett, an archaeologist who briefly employed Ruess as a cook while excavating an Anasazi cliff dwelling in 1934, told Rusho that “he was appalled by the seemingly reckless manner in which Everett moved around dangerous cliffs.”

Indeed, Ruess himself boasts in one of his letters, “Hundreds of times I have trusted my life to crumbling sandstone and nearly vertical edges in the search for water or cliff dwellings. Twice I was nearly gored to death by a wild bull. But always, so far, I’ve escaped unscathed and gone forth to other adventures.” And in his final letter Ruess nonchalantly confesses to his brother: I have had a few narrow escapes from rattlers and crumbling cliffs. The last misadventure occurred when Chocolatero [his burro] stirred up some wild bees. A few more stings might have been too much for me. I was three or four days getting my eyes open and recovering the use of my hands.

Also like McCandless, Ruess was undeterred by physical discomfort; at times he seemed to welcome it. “For six days I’ve been suffering from the semi-annual poison ivy case—my sufferings are far from over,” he tells his friend Bill Jacobs. He goes on:

For two days I couldn’t tell whether I was dead or alive. I writhed and twisted in the heat, with swarms of ants and flies crawling over me, while the poison oozed and crusted on my face and arms and back. I ate nothing—there was nothing to do but suffer philosophically….

I get it every time, but I refuse to be driven out of the woods.

And like McCandless, upon embarking on his terminal odyssey, Ruess adopted a new name or, rather, a series of new names. In a letter dated March 1, 1931, he informs his family that he has taken to calling himself Lan Rameau and requests that they “please respect my brush name…. How do you say it in French? Nomme de broushe, or what?” Two months later, however, another letter explains that “I have changed my name again, to Evert Rulan. Those who knew me formerly thought my name was freakish and an affectation of Frenchiness.” and then in August of that same year, with no explanation, he goes back to calling himself Everett Ruess and continues to do so for the next three years—until wandering into Davis Gulch. There, for some unknowable reason, Everett twice etched the name Nemo—-Latin for “nobody”—into the soft Navajo sandstone—and then vanished. He was twenty years old.

The last letters anyone received from Ruess were posted from the Mormon settlement of Escalante, fifty-seven miles north of Davis Gulch, on November 11, 1934. Addressed to his parents and his brother, they indicate that he would be incommunicado for “a month or two.” Eight days after mailing them, Ruess encountered two sheepherders about a mile from the gulch and spent two nights at their camp; these men were the last people known to have seen the youth alive.

Some three months after Ruess departed Escalante, his parents received a bundle of unopened mail forwarded from the postmaster at Marble Canyon, Arizona, where Everett was long overdue. Worried, Christopher and Stella Ruess contacted the authorities in Escalante, who organized a search party in early March 1935. Starting from the sheep camp where Ruess was last seen, they began combing the surrounding country and very quickly found Everett’s two burros at the bottom of Davis Gulch, grazing contentedly behind a makeshift corral fashioned from brush and tree limbs.

The burros were confined in the upper canyon, just upstream from where the Mormon steps intersect the floor of the gulch; a short distance downstream the searchers found unmistakable evidence of Ruess’s camp, and then, in the doorway of an Anasazi granary below a magnificent natural arch, they came across “NEMO 1934” carved into a stone slab. Four Anasazi pots were carefully arranged on a rock nearby. Three months later searchers came across another Nemo graffito a little farther down the gulch (the rising waters of Lake Powell, which began to fill upon the completion of Glen Canyon Dam, in 1963, have long since erased both inscriptions), but except for the burros and their tack, none of Ruess’s possessions—his camping paraphernalia, journals, and paintings—was ever found.

It is widely believed that Ruess fell to his death while scrambling on one or another canyon wall. Given the treacherous nature of the local topography (most of the cliffs that riddle the region are composed of Navajo sandstone, a crumbly stratum that erodes into smooth, bulging precipices) and Ruess’s penchant for dangerous climbing, this is a credible scenario. Careful searches of cliffs near and far, however, have failed to unearth any human remains.

And how to account for the fact that Ruess apparently left the gulch with a heavy load of gear but without his pack animals? These bewildering circumstances have led some investigators to conclude that Ruess was murdered by a team of cattle rustlers known to have been in the area, who then stole his belongings and buried his remains or threw them into the Colorado River. This theory, too, is plausible, but no concrete evidence exists to prove it.

Shortly after Everett’s disappearance his father suggested that the boy had probably been inspired to call himself Nemo by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—a book Everett read many times—in which the purehearted protagonist, Captain Nemo, flees civilization and severs his “every tie upon the earth.” Everett’s biographer, W. L. Rusho, agrees with Christopher Ruess’s assessment, arguing that Everett’s “withdrawal from organized society, his disdain for worldly pleasures, and his signatures as NEMO in Davis Gulch, all strongly suggest that he closely identified with the Jules Verne character.” Ruess’s apparent fascination with Captain Nemo has fed speculation among more than a few Ruess mythographers that Everett pulled a fast one on the world after leaving Davis Gulch and is—or was—very much alive, quietly residing somewhere under an assumed identity. A year ago, while filling my truck with gas in Kingman, Arizona, I happened to strike up a conversation about Ruess with the middle-aged pump attendant, a small, twitchy man with flecks of Skoal staining the corners of his mouth. Speaking with persuasive conviction, he swore that “he knew a fella who’d definitely bumped into Ruess” in the late 1960s at a remote hogan on the Navajo Indian Reservation. According to the attendant’s friend, Ruess was married to a Navajo woman, with whom he’d raised at least one child. The veracity of this and other reports of relatively recent Ruess sightings, needless to say, is extremely suspect.

Ken Sleight, who has spent as much time investigating the riddle of Everett Ruess as any other person, is convinced that the boy died in 1934 or early 1935 and believes he knows how Ruess met his end.

Sleight, sixty-five years old, is a professional river guide and desert rat with a Mormon upbringing and a reputation for insolence. When Edward Abbey was writing The Monkey Wrench Gang, his picaresque novel about eco-terrorism in the canyon country, his pal Ken Sleight was said to have inspired the character Seldom Seen Smith. Sleight has lived in the region for forty years, visited virtually all the places Ruess visited, talked to many people who crossed paths with Ruess, taken Ruess’s older brother, Waldo, into Davis Gulch to visit the site of Everett’s disappearance.

“Waldo thinks Everett was murdered,” Sleight says. “But I don’t think so. I lived in Escalante for two years. I’ve talked with the folks who are accused of killing him, and I just don’t think they did it. But who knows? You can’t never really tell what a person does in secret. Other folks believe Everett fell off a cliff. Well, yeah, he coulda done that. It be an easy thing to do in that country. But I don’t think that’s what happened.

“I tell you what I think: I think he drowned.”

Years ago, while hiking down Grand Gulch, a tributary of the San Juan River some forty-five miles due east of Davis Gulch, Sleight discovered the name Nemo carved into the soft mud mortar of an Anasazi granary. Sleight speculates that Ruess inscribed this Nemo not long after departing Davis Gulch.

“After corralling his burros in Davis,” says Sleight, “Ruess hid all his stuff in a cave somewhere and took off, playing Captain Nemo. He had Indian friends down on the Navajo Reservation, and that’s where I think he was heading.” A logical route to Navajo country would have taken Ruess across the Colorado River at Hole-in-the-Rock, then along a rugged trail pioneered in 1880 by Mormon settlers across Wilson Mesa and the Clay Hills, and finally down Grand Gulch to the San Juan River, across which lay the reservation. “Everett carved his Nemo on the ruin in Grand Gulch, about a mile below where Collins Creek comes in, then continued on down to the San Juan. And when he tried to swim across the river, he drowned. That’s what I think.” Sleight believes that if Ruess had made it across the river alive and reached the reservation, it would have been impossible for him to conceal his presence “even if he was still playing his Nemo game. Everett was a loner, but he liked people too damn much to stay down there and live in secret the rest of his life. A lot of us are like that—I’m like that, Ed Abbey was like that, and it sounds like this McCandless kid was like that: We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again. And that’s what Everett was doing.

“Everett was strange,” Sleight concedes. “Kind of different. But him and McCandless, at least they tried to follow their dream. That’s what was great about them. They tried. Not many do.”

In attempting to understand Everett Ruess and Chris McCandless, it can be illuminating to consider their deeds in a larger context. It is helpful to look at counterparts from a distant place and a century far removed.

Off the southeastern coast of Iceland sits a low barrier island called Papós. Treeless and rocky, perpetually clobbered by gales howling off the North Atlantic, it takes its name from its first settlers, now long gone, the Irish monks known as papar. Walking this gnarled shore one summer afternoon, I blundered upon a matrix of faint stone rectangles embedded in the tundra: vestiges of the monks’ ancient dwellings, hundreds of years older, even, than the Anasazi ruins in Davis Gulch.

The monks arrived as early as the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., having sailed and rowed from the west coast of Ireland. Setting out in small, open boats called curraghs, built from cowhide stretched over light wicker frames, they crossed one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world without knowing what, if anything, they’d find on the other side.

The papar risked their lives—and lost them in untold droves—not in the pursuit of wealth or personal glory or to claim new lands in the name of any despot. As the great arctic explorer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen points out, “these remarkable voyages were … undertaken chiefly from the wish to find lonely places, where these anchorites might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world.” When the first handful of Norwegians showed up on the shores of Iceland in the ninth century, the papar decided the country had become too crowded—even though it was still all but uninhabited. The monks’ response was to climb into their curraghs and row off toward Greenland. They were drawn across the storm-racked ocean, drawn west past the edge of the known world, by nothing more than a hunger of the spirit, a yearning of such queer intensity that it beggars the modern imagination.

Reading of these monks, one is moved by their courage, their reckless innocence, and the urgency of their desire. Reading of these monks, one can’t help thinking of Everett Ruess and Chris McCandless.

Chapter Ten (FAIRBANKS)


ANCHORAGE, Sept. 12 (AP)-Last Sunday a young hiker, stranded by an injury, was found dead at a remote camp in the Alaskan interior. No one is yet certain who he was. But his diary and two notes found at the camp tell a wrenching story of his desperate and progressively futile efforts to survive.

The diary indicates that the man, believed to be an American in his late 20’s or early 30’s, might have been injured in a fall and that he was then stranded at the camp for more than three months. It tells how he tried to save himself by hunting game and eating wild plants while nonetheless getting weaker.

One of his two notes is a plea for help, addressed to anyone who might come upon the camp while the hiker searched the surrounding area for food. The second note bids the world goodbye….

An autopsy at the state coroners office in Fairbanks this week found that the man had died of starvation, probably in late July. The authorities discovered among the man’s possessions a name that they believe is his. But they have so far been unable to confirm his identity and, until they do, have declined to disclose the name.


SEPTEMBER 13, 1992

By the time The New York Times picked up the story about hiker, the Alaska State Troopers had been trying for a week to figure out who he was. When he died, McCandless was wearing a blue sweatshirt printed with the logo of a Santa Barbara towing company; when contacted, the wrecking outfit professed to know nothing about him or how he’d acquired the shirt. Many of the entries in the brief, perplexing diary recovered with the body were terse observations of flora and fauna, which fueled speculation that McCandless was a field biologist. But that ultimately led nowhere, too.

On September 10, three days before news of the dead hiker appeared in the Times, the story was published on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. When Jim Gallien saw the headline and the accompanying map indicating that the body had been found twenty-five miles west of Healy on the Stampede Trail, he felt the hairs bristle across the base of his scalp: Alex. Gallien still held a picture in his mind of the odd, congenial youth striding down the trail in boots two sizes too big for him—Gallien’s own boots, the old brown Xtratufs he’d persuaded the kid to take. “From the newspaper article, what little information there was, it sounded like the same person,” says Gallien, “so I called the state troopers and said, ‘Hey, I think I gave that guy a ride.’” “OK, sure,” replied trooper Roger Ellis, the cop on the other end of the line. “What makes you think so? You’re the sixth person in the last hour who’s called to say they know the hiker’s identity.” But Gallien persisted, and the more he talked, the more Ellis’s skepticism receded. Gallien described several pieces of equipment not mentioned in the newspaper account that matched gear found with the body. And then Ellis noticed that the first cryptic entry in the hiker’s journal read, “Exit Fairbanks. Sitting Galliean. Rabbit Day.” The troopers had by this time developed the roll of film in the hiker’s Minolta, which included several apparent self-portraits. “When they brought the pictures out to the job site where I was working,” says Gallien, “there was no two ways about it. The guy in the pictures was Alex.”

Because McCandless had told Gallien he was from South Dakota, the troopers immediately shifted their search there for the hiker’s next of kin. An all-points bulletin turned up a missing person named McCandless from eastern South Dakota, coincidentally from a small town only twenty miles from Wayne Westerberg’s home in Carthage, and for a while the troopers thought they’d found their man. But this, too, turned out to be a false lead.

Westerberg had heard nothing from the friend he knew as Alex McCandless since receiving the postcard from Fairbanks the previous spring. On September 13, he was rolling down an empty ribbon of blacktop outside Jamestown, North Dakota, leading his harvest crew home to Carthage after wrapping up the four-month cutting season in Montana, when the VHF barked to life. “Wayne!” an anxious voice crackled over the radio from one of the crew’s other trucks. “This is Bob. You got your radio on?” “Yeah, Bobby. Wayne here. What’s up?”

“Quick—turn on your AM, and listen to Paul Harvey. He’s talking about some kid who starved to death up in Alaska. The police don’t know who he is. Sounds a whole lot like Alex.”

Westerberg found the station in time to catch the tail end of the Paul Harvey broadcast, and he was forced to agree: The few sketchy details made the anonymous hiker sound distressingly like his friend.

As soon as he got to Carthage, a dispirited Westerberg phoned the Alaska State Troopers to volunteer what he knew about McCandless. By that time, however, stories about the dead hiker, including excerpts from his diary, had been given prominent play in newspapers across the country. As a consequence the troopers were swamped with calls from people claiming to know the hiker’s identity, so they were even less receptive to Westerberg than they had been to Gallien. “The cop told me they’d had more than one hundred fifty calls from folks who thought Alex was their kid, their friend, their brother,” says Westerberg. “Well, by then I was kind of pissed at getting the runaround, so I told him, ‘Look, I’m not just another crank caller. I know who he is. He worked for me. I think I’ve even got his Social Security number around here somewhere.’” Westerberg pawed through the files at the grain elevator until he found two W-4 forms McCandless had filled out. Across the top of the first one, dating from McCandless’s initial visit to Carthage, in 1990, he had scrawled “EXEMPT EXEMPT EXEMPT EXEMPT” and given his name as Iris Fucyu. Address: “None of your damn business.” Social Security number: “I forget.”

But on the second form, dated March 30, 1992, two weeks before he left for Alaska, he’d signed his given name: “Chris J. McCandless.” And in the blank for Social Security number he’d put down, “228-31-6704.” Westerberg phoned Alaska again. This time the troopers took him seriously.

The Social Security number turned out to be genuine and placed McCandless’s permanent residence in northern Virginia. Authorities in Alaska contacted law-enforcement agencies in that state, who in turn started combing phone directories for McCandlesses. Walt and Billie McCandless had by then moved to the Maryland shore and no longer had a Virginia phone number, but Walt’s eldest child from his first marriage lived in Annandale and was in the book; late on the afternoon of September 17, Sam McCandless received a call from a Fairfax County homicide detective.

Sam, nine years older than Chris, had seen a short article about the hiker in The Washington Post a few days earlier, but, he allows, “It didn’t occur to me that the hiker might be Chris. Never even crossed my mind. It’s ironic because when I read the article I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what a terrible tragedy. I really feel sorry for the family of this guy, whoever they are. What a sad story.’” Sam had been raised in California and Colorado, in his mother’s household, and hadn’t moved to Virginia until 1987, after Chris had left the state to attend college in Atlanta, so Sam didn’t know his half brother well. But when the homicide detective started asking whether the hiker sounded like anyone he knew, Sam reports, “I was pretty sure it was Chris. The fact that he’d gone to Alaska, that he’d gone off by himself—it all added up.” At the detective’s request, Sam went to the Fairfax County Police Department, where an officer showed him a photograph of the hiker that had been faxed from Fairbanks. “It was an eight-by-ten enlargement,” Sam recalls, “a head shot. His hair was long, and he had a beard. Chris almost always had short hair and was clean-shaven. And the face in the picture was extremely gaunt. But I knew right away. There was no doubt. It was Chris. I went home, picked up Michele, my wife, and drove out to Maryland to tell Dad and Billie. I didn’t know what I was going to say. How do you tell someone that their child is dead?”


Everything had changed suddenly—the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, whom to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need of committing yourself to something absolute—life or truth or beauty—of being ruled by it in place of the man-made rules that had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life that was now abolished and gone for good.







Samuel Walter McCandless, Jr., fifty-six years old, is a bearded, taciturn man with longish salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back from a high forehead. Tall and solidly proportioned, he wears wire-rimmed glasses that give him a professorial demeanor. Seven weeks after the body of his son turned up in Alaska wrapped in a blue sleeping bag that Billie had sewn for Chris from a kit, Walt studies a sailboat scudding beneath the window of his waterfront townhouse. “How is it,” he wonders aloud as he gazes blankly across Chesapeake Bay, “that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain?” The McCandless home in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, is tastefully decorated, spotless, devoid of clutter. Floor-to-ceiling windows take in the hazy panorama of the bay. A big Chevy Suburban and a white Cadillac are parked out front, a painstakingly restored ‘69 Corvette sits in the garage, a thirty-foot cruising catamaran is moored at the dock. Four large squares of poster board, covered with scores of photos documenting the whole brief span of Chris’s life, have occupied the dining-room table for many days now.

Moving deliberately around the display, Billie points out Chris as a toddler astride a hobby horse, Chris as a rapt eight-year-old in a yellow rain slicker on his first backpacking trip, Chris at his high school commencement. “The hardest part,” says Walt, pausing over a shot of his son clowning around on a family vacation, his voice cracking almost imperceptibly, “is simply not having him around anymore. I spent a lot of time with Chris, perhaps more than with any of my other kids. I really liked his company even though he frustrated us so often.” Walt is wearing gray sweatpants, racquetball shoes, and a satin baseball jacket embroidered with the logo of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Despite the casual attire, he projects an air of authority. Within the ranks of his arcane field—an advanced technology called synthetic aperture radar, or SAR—he is an eminence. SAR has been a component of high-profile space missions since 1978, when the first SAR-equipped satellite, Seasat, was placed into orbit around the earth. NASA’s project manager for that pioneering Seasat launch was Walt McCandless.

The first line of Walt’s résumé reads “Clearance: Current U.S. Department of Defense Top Secret.” A little farther down the page an account of his professional experience begins: “I perform private consulting services aligned with remote sensor and satellite system design, and associated signal processing, data reduotion and information extraction tasks.” Colleagues refer to him as brilliant.

Walt is accustomed to calling the shots. Taking control is something he does unconsciously, reflexively. Although he speaks softly in the unhurried cadence of the American West, his voice has an edge, and the set of his jaw betrays an undercurrent of nervous energy. Even from across the room it is apparent that some very high voltage is crackling through his wires. There is no mistaking whence Chris’s intensity came.

When Walt talks, people listen. If something or someone displeases him, his eyes narrow and his speech becomes clipped. According to members of the extended family, his moods can be dark and mercurial, although they say his famous temper has lost much of its volatility in recent years. After Chris gave everybody the slip in 1990, something changed in Walt. His sons disappearance scared and chastened him. A softer, more tolerant side of his personality came to the fore.

Walt grew up in Greeley, Colorado, an agricultural town on the high, windswept plains up near the Wyoming line.

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