بخش 04کتاب: در حیات وحش / فصل 4
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Walt grew up in Greeley, Colorado, an agricultural town on the high, windswept plains up near the Wyoming line. A bright child, and driven, he won an academic scholarship to Colorado State University in nearby Fort Collins. To make ends meet, he held down an assortment of part-time jobs through college, including one in a mortuary, but his steadiest paycheck came from playing with Charlie Novak, the leader of a popular jazz quartet. Novaks band, with Walt sitting in on piano, worked the regional lounge circuit, covering dance numbers and old standards in smoky honky-tonks up and down the Front Range. An inspired musician with considerable natural talent, Walt still plays professionally from time to time.
In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik I, casting a shadow of fear across America. In the ensuing national hysteria Congress funneled millions upon millions of dollars into the California-based aerospace industry, and the boom was on. For young Walt McCandless—just out of college, married, and with a baby on the way—Sputnik opened the door to opportunity. After receiving his undergraduate diploma, Walt took a job with Hughes Aircraft, which sent him to Tucson for three years, where he earned a master’s degree in antenna theory at the University of Arizona. As soon as he completed his thesis—“An Analysis of Conical Helices”—he transferred to Hughes’s big California operation, where the real action was, eager to make his mark in the race for space.
He bought a little bungalow in Torrance, worked hard, moved quickly up the ladder. Sam was born in 1959, and four other children—Stacy, Shawna, Shelly, and Shannon—followed in quick succession. Walt was appointed test director and section head for the Surveyor 1 mission, the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the moon. His star was bright and rising.
By 1965, however, his marriage was in trouble. He and his wife, Marcia, separated. Walt started dating a secretary at Hughes named Wilhelmina Johnson—everyone called her Billie—who was twenty-two years old and had dark, striking eyes. They fell in love and moved in together. Billie got pregnant. Very petite to begin with, in nine months she gained only eight pounds and never even wore maternity clothes. On February 12, 1968, Billie gave birth to a son. He was underweight, but healthy and animated. Walt bought Billie a Gianini guitar, on which she strummed lullabies to soothe the fussy newborn. Twenty-two years later, rangers from the National Park Service would find that same guitar on the backseat of a yellow Datsun abandoned near the shore of Lake Mead.
It is impossible to know what murky convergence of chromosomal matter, parent-child dynamics, and alignment of the cosmos was responsible, but Christopher Johnson McCandless came into the world with unusual gifts and a will not easily deflected from its trajectory. At the age of two, he got up in the middle of the night, found his way outside without waking his parents, and entered a house down the street to plunder a neighbor’s candy drawer.
In the third grade, after receiving a high score on a standardized achievement test, Chris was placed in an accelerated program for gifted students. “He wasn’t happy about it,” Billie remembers, “because it meant he had to do extra schoolwork. So he spent a week trying to get himself out of the program. This little boy attempted to convince the teacher, the principal—anybody who would listen—that the test results were in error, that he really didn’t belong there. We learned about it at the first PTA meeting. His teacher pulled us aside and told us that ‘Chris marches to a different drummer.’ She just shook her head.”
“Even when we were little,” says Carine, who was born three years after Chris, “he was very to himself. He wasn’t antisocial—he always had friends, and everybody liked him—but he could go off and entertain himself for hours. He didn’t seem to need toys or friends. He could be alone without being lonely.”
When Chris was six, Walt was offered a position at NASA, prompting a move to the nation’s capital. They bought a split-level house on Willet Drive in suburban Annandale. It had green shutters, a bay window, a nice yard. Four years after arriving in Virginia, Walt quit working for NASA to start a consulting firm—User Systems, Incorporated—which he and Billie ran out of their home.
Money was tight. In addition to the financial strain of exchanging a steady paycheck for the vagaries of self-employment, Walt’s separation from his first wife left him with two families to support. To make a go of it, says Carine, “Mom and Dad put in incredibly long hours. When Chris and I woke up in the morning to go to school, they’d be in the office working. When we came home in the afternoon, they’d be in the office working. When we went to bed at night, they’d be in the office working. They ran a real good business together and eventually started making bunches of money, but they worked all the time.”
It was a stressful existence. Both Walt and Billie are tightly wound, emotional, loath to give ground. Now and then the tension erupted in verbal sparring. In moments of anger, one or the other often threatened divorce. The rancor was more smoke than fire, says Carine, but “I think it was one of the reasons Chris and I were so close. We learned to count on each other when Mom and Dad weren’t getting along.”
But there were good times, too. On weekends and when school was out, the family took to the road: They drove to Virginia Beach and the Carolina shore, to Colorado to visit Walt’s kids from his first marriage, to the Great Lakes, to the Blue Ridge Mountains. “We camped out of the back of the truck, the Chevy Suburban,” Walt explains. “Later we bought an Airstream trailer and traveled with that. Chris loved those trips, the longer the better. There was always a little wanderlust in the family, and it was clear early on that Chris had inherited it.”
In the course of their travels, the family visited Iron Mountain, Michigan, a small mining town in the forests of the Upper Peninsula that was Billie’s childhood home. She was one of six kids. Loren Johnson, Billie’s father, ostensibly worked as a truck driver, “but he never held any job for long,” she says.
“Billie’s dad didn’t quite fit into society,” Walt explains. “In many ways he and Chris were a lot alike.”
Loren Johnson was proud and stubborn and dreamy, a woodsman, a self-taught musician, a writer of poetry. Around Iron Mountain his rapport with the creatures of the forest was legendary. “He was always raising wildlife,” says Billie. “He’d find some animal in a trap, take it home, amputate the injured limb, heal it, and then let it go again. Once my dad hit a mother deer with his truck, making an orphan of its fawn. He was crushed. But he brought the baby deer home and raised it inside the house, behind the woodstove, just like it was one of his kids.”
To support his family, Loren tried a series of entrepreneurial ventures, none of them very successful. He raised chickens for a while, then mink and chinchillas. He opened a stable and sold horse rides to tourists. Much of the food he put on the table came from hunting—despite the fact that he was uncomfortable killing animals. “My dad cried every time he shot a deer,” Billie says, “but we had to eat, so he did it.”
He also worked as a hunting guide, which pained him even more. “Men from the city would drive up in their big Cadillacs, and my dad would take them out to his hunting camp for a week to get a trophy. He would guarantee them a buck before they left, but most of them were such lousy shots and drank so much that they couldn’t hit anything, so he’d usually have to shoot the deer for them. God, he hated that.”
Loren, not surprisingly, was charmed by Chris. And Chris adored his grandfather. The old man’s backwoods savvy, his affinity for the wilderness, left a deep impression on the boy.
When Chris was eight, Walt took him on his first overnight backpacking trip, a three-day hike in the Shenandoah to climb Old Rag. They made the summit, and Chris carried his own pack the whole way. Hiking up the mountain became a father-son tradition; they climbed Old Rag almost every year thereafter.
When Chris was a little older, Walt took Billie and his children from both marriages to climb Longs Peak in Colorado—at 14,256 feet, the highest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park. Walt, Chris, and Walt’s youngest son from his first marriage reached the 13,000-foot elevation. There, at a prominent notch called the Keyhole, Walt decided to turn around. He was tired and feeling the altitude. The route above looked slabby, exposed, dangerous. “I’d had it, OK,” Walt explains, “but Chris wanted to keep going to the top. I told him no way. He was only twelve then, so all he could do was complain. If he’d been fourteen or fifteen, he would have simply gone on without me.”
Walt grows quiet, staring absently into the distance. “Chris was fearless even when he was little,” he says after a long pause. “He didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were always trying to pull him back from the edge.”
Chris was a high achiever in almost everything that caught his fancy. Academically he brought home A’s with little effort. Only once did he receive a grade lower than B: an F, in high school physics. When he saw the report card, Walt made an appointment with the physics teacher to see what the problem was. “He was a retired air force colonel,” Walt remembers, “an old guy, traditional, pretty rigid. He’d explained at the beginning of the semester that because he had something like two hundred students, lab reports had to be written in a particular format to make grading them a manageable proposition. Chris thought it was a stupid rule and decided to ignore it. He did his lab reports, but not in the correct format, so the teacher gave him an F. After talking with the guy, I came home and told Chris he got the grade he deserved.”
Both Chris and Carine shared Walt’s musical aptitude. Chris took up the guitar, piano, French horn. “It was strange to see in a kid his age,” says Walt, “but he loved Tony Bennett. He’d sing numbers like ‘Tender Is the Night’ while I accompanied him on piano. He was good.” Indeed, in a goofy video Chris made in college, he can be heard belting out “Summers by the sea/Sailboats in Capri” with impressive panache, crooning like a professional lounge singer.
A gifted French-horn player, as a teen he was a member of the American University Symphony but quit, according to Walt, after objecting to rules imposed by a high school band leader. Carine recalls that there was more to it than that: “He quit playing partly because he didn’t like being told what to do but also because of me. I wanted to be like Chris, so I started to play French horn, too. And it turned out to be the one thing I was better at than he was. When I was a freshman and he was a senior, I made first chair in the senior band, and there was no way he was going to sit behind his damn sister.”
Their musical rivalry seems not to have damaged the relationship between Chris and Carine, however. They’d been best friends from an early age, spending hours together building forts out of cushions and blankets in their Annandale living room. “He was always really nice to me,” Carine says, “and extremely protective. He’d hold my hand when we walked down the street. When he was in junior high and I was still in grade school, he got out earlier than me, but he’d hang out at his friend Brian Paskowitz’s house so we could walk home together.”
Chris inherited Billie’s angelic features, most notably her eyes, the black depths of which betrayed his every emotion. Although he was small—in school photographs he is always in the front row, the shortest kid in the class—Chris was strong for his size and well coordinated. He tried his hand at many sports but had little patience for learning the finer points of any of them. When he went skiing during family vacations in Colorado, he seldom bothered to turn; he’d simply crouch in a gorilla tuck, feet spread wide for stability, and point the boards straight down the hill. Likewise, says Walt, “when I tried to teach him to play golf, he refused to accept that form is everything. Chris would take the biggest swing you ever saw, every time. Sometimes he’d hit the ball three hundred yards, but more often he’d slice it into the next fairway.
“Chris had so much natural talent,” Walt continues, “but if you tried to coach him, to polish his skill, to bring out that final ten percent, a wall went up. He resisted instruction of any kind. I’m a serious racquetball player, and I taught Chris to play when he was eleven. By the time he was fifteen or sixteen, he was beating me regularly. He was very, very quick and had a lot of power; but when I suggested he work on the gaps in his game, he refused to listen. Once in a tournament he came up against a forty-five-year-old man with a lot of experience. Chris won a bunch of points right out of the gate, but the guy was methodically testing him, probing for his weakness. As soon as he figured out which shot gave Chris the most trouble, that was the only shot Chris saw, and it was all over.”
Nuance, strategy, and anything beyond the rudimentaries of technique were wasted on Chris. The only way he cared to tackle a challenge was head-on, right now, applying the full brunt of his extraordinary energy. And he was often frustrated as a consequence. It wasn’t until he took up running, an activity that rewards will and determination more than finesse or cunning, that he found his athletic calling. At the age of ten, he entered his first running competition, a ten-kilometer road race. He finished sixty-ninth, beating more than one thousand adults, and was hooked. By the time he was in his teens, he was one of the top distance runners in the region.
When Chris was twelve, Walt and Billie bought Carine a puppy, a Shetland sheepdog named Buckley, and Chris fell into the habit of taking the pet with him on his daily training runs. “Buckley was supposedly my dog,” says Carine, “but he and Chris became inseparable. Buck was fast, and he’d always beat Chris home when they went running. I remember Chris was so excited the first time he made it home before Buckley. He went tearing all over the house yelling ‘I beat Buck! I beat Buck!’”
At W. T. Woodson High School—a large public institution in Fairfax, Virginia, with a reputation for high academic standards and winning athletic teams—Chris was the captain of the crosscountry squad. He relished the role and concocted novel, grueling training regimens that his teammates still remember well.
“He was really into pushing himself,” explains Gordy Cucullu, a younger member of the team. “Chris invented this workout he called Road Warriors: He would lead us on long, killer runs through places like farmers’ fields and construction sites, places we weren’t supposed to be, and intentionally try to get us lost. We’d run as far and as fast as we could, down strange roads, through the woods, whatever. The whole idea was to lose our bearings, to push ourselves into unknown territory. Then we’d run at a slightly slower pace until we found a road we recognized and race home again at full speed. In a certain sense that’s how Chris lived his entire life.”
McCandless viewed running as an intensely spiritual exercise, verging on religion. “Chris would use the spiritual aspect to try to motivate us,” recalls Eric Hathaway, another friend on the team. “He’d tell us to think about all the evil in the world, all the hatred, and imagine ourselves running against the forces of darkness, the evil wall that was trying to keep us from running our best. He believed doing well was all mental, a simple matter of harnessing whatever energy was available. As impressionable high school kids, we were blown away by that kind of talk.”
But running wasn’t exclusively an affair of the spirit; it was a competitive undertaking as well. When McCandless ran, he ran to win. “Chris was really serious about running,” says Kris Maxie Gillmer, a female teammate who was perhaps McCandless’s closest friend at Woodson. “I can remember standing at the finish line, watching him run, knowing how badly he wanted to do well and how disappointed he’d be if he did worse than he expected. After a bad race or even a bad time trial during practice, he could be really hard on himself. And he wouldn’t want to talk about it. If I tried to console him, he’d act annoyed and brush me off. He internalized the disappointment. He’d go off alone somewhere and beat himself up.
“It wasn’t just running Chris took so seriously,” Gillmer adds. “He was like that about everything. You aren’t supposed to think about heavy-duty stuff in high school. But I did, and he did, too, which is why we hit it off. We’d hang out during snack break at his locker and talk about life, the state of the world, serious things. I’m black, and I could never figure out why everyone made such a big deal about race. Chris would talk to me about that kind of thing. He understood. He was always questioning stuff in the same way. I liked him a lot. He was a really good guy.”
McCandless took life’s inequities to heart. During his senior year at Woodson, he became obsessed with racial oppression in South Africa. He spoke seriously to his friends about smuggling weapons into that country and joining the struggle to end apartheid. “We’d get into arguments about it once in a while,” recalls Hathaway. “Chris didn’t like going through channels, working within the system, waiting his turn. He’d say, ‘Come on, Eric, we can raise enough money to go to South Africa on our own, right now. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it.’ I’d counter by saying we were only a couple of kids, that we couldn’t possibly make a difference. But you couldn’t argue with him. He’d come back with something like ‘Oh, so I guess you just don’t care about right and wrong.’”
On weekends, when his high school pals were attending “keggers” and trying to sneak into Georgetown bars, McCandless would wander the seedier quarters of Washington, chatting with prostitutes and homeless people, buying them meals, earnestly suggesting ways they might improve their lives.
“Chris didn’t understand how people could possibly be allowed to go hungry, especially in this country,” says Billie. “He would rave about that kind of thing for hours.”
On one occasion Chris picked up a homeless man from the streets of D.C., brought him home to leafy, affluent Annandale, and secretly set the guy up in the Airstream trailer his parents parked beside the garage. Walt and Billie never knew they were hosting a vagrant.
On another occasion Chris drove over to Hathaway’s house and announced they were going downtown. “Cool!” Hathaway remembers thinking. “It was a Friday night, and I assumed we were headed to Georgetown to party. Instead, Chris parked down on Fourteenth Street, which at the time was a real bad part of town. Then he said, ‘You know, Eric, you can read about this stuff, but you can’t understand it until you live it. Tonight that’s what we’re going to do.’ We spent the next few hours hanging out in creepy places, talking with pimps and hookers and lowlife. I was, like, scared.
“Toward the end of the evening, Chris asked me how much money I had. I said five dollars. He had ten. ‘OK, you buy the gas,’ he told me; ‘I’m going to get some food.’ So he spent the ten bucks on a big bag of hamburgers, and we drove around handing them out to smelly guys sleeping on grates. It was the weirdest Friday night of my life. But Chris did that kind of thing a lot.”
Early in his senior year at Woodson, Chris informed his parents that he had no intention of going to college. When Walt and Billie suggested that he needed a college degree to attain a fulfilling career, Chris answered that careers were demeaning “twentieth-century inventions,” more of a liability than an asset, and that he would do fine without one, thank you.
“That put us into kind of a tizzy,” Walt admits. “Both Billie and I come from blue-collar families. A college degree is something we don’t take lightly, OK, and we worked hard to be able to afford to send our kids to good schools. So Billie sat him down and said, ‘Chris, if you really want to make a difference in the world, if you really want to help people who are less fortunate, get yourself some leverage first. Go to college, get a law degree, and then you’ll be able to have a real impact.’”
“Chris brought home good grades,” says Hathaway. “He didn’t get into trouble, he was a high achiever, he did what he was supposed to. His parents didn’t really have grounds to complain. But they got on his case about going to college; and whatever they said to him, it must have worked. Because he ended up going to Emory, even though he thought it was pointless, a waste of time and money.”
It’s somewhat surprising that Chris ceded to pressure from Walt and Billie about attending college when he refused to listen to them about so many other things. But there was never a short age of apparent contradictions in the relationship between Chris and his parents. When Chris visited with Kris Gillmer, he frequently railed against Walt and Billie, portraying them as unreasonable tyrants. Yet to his male buddies—Hathaway, Cucullu, and another track star, Andy Horowitz—he scarcely complained at all. “My impression was that his parents were very nice people,” says Hathaway, “no different, really, than my parents or anyone’s parents. Chris just didn’t like being told what to do. I think he would have been unhappy with any parents; he had trouble with the whole idea of parents.”
McCandless’s personality was puzzling in its complexity. He was intensely private but could be convivial and gregarious in the extreme. And despite his overdeveloped social conscience, he was no tight-lipped, perpetually grim do-gooder who frowned on fun. To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham.
Perhaps the greatest paradox concerned his feelings about money. Walt and Billie had both known poverty when they were young and after struggling to rise above it saw nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of their labor. “We worked very, very hard,” Billie emphasizes. “We did without when the kids were little, saved what we earned, and invested it for the future.” When the future finally arrived, they didn’t flaunt their modest wealth, but they bought nice clothes, some jewelry for Billie, a Cadillac. Eventually, they purchased the townhouse on the bay and the sailboat. They took the kids to Europe, skiing in Breckenridge, on a Caribbean cruise. And Chris, Billie acknowledges, “was embarrassed by all that.”
Her son, the teenage Tolstoyan, believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil—which is ironic because Chris was a natural-born capitalist with an uncanny knack for making a buck. “Chris was always an entrepreneur,” Billie says with a laugh. “Always.”
As an eight-year-old, he grew vegetables behind the house in Annandale and then sold them door-to-door around the neighborhood. “Here was this cute little boy pulling a wagon full of fresh-grown beans and tomatoes and peppers,” says Carine.
“Who could resist? And Chris knew it. He’d have this look on his face like ‘I’m damn cute! Want to buy some beans?’ By the time he came home, the wagon would be empty, and he’d have a bunch of money in his hand.”
When Chris was twelve, he printed up a stack of flyers and started a neighborhood copy business, Chris’s Fast Copies, offering free pickup and delivery. Using the copier in Walt and Billie’s office, he paid his parents a few cents a copy, charged customers two cents less than the corner store charged, and made a tidy profit.
In 1985, following his junior year at Woodson, Chris was hired by a local building contractor to canvass neighborhoods for sales, drumming up siding jobs and kitchen remodelings. And he was astonishingly successful, a salesman without peer. In a matter of a few months, half a dozen other students were working under him, and he’d put seven thousand dollars into his bank account. He used part of the money to buy the yellow Datsun, the secondhand B210.
Chris had such an outstanding knack for selling that in the spring of 1986, as Chris’s high school graduation approached, the owner of the construction company phoned Walt and offered to pay for Chris’s college education if Walt would persuade his son to remain in Annandale and keep working while he went to school instead of quitting the job and going off to Emory.
“When I mentioned the offer to Chris,” says Walt, “he wouldn’t even consider it. He told his boss that he had other plans.” As soon as high school was over, Chris declared, he was going to get behind the wheel of his new car and spend the summer driving across the country. Nobody anticipated that the journey would be the first in a series of extended transcontinental adventures. Nor could anyone in his family have foreseen that a chance discovery during this initial journey would ultimately turn him inward and away, drawing Chris and those who loved him into a morass of anger, misunderstanding, and sorrow.
Chapter Twelve (ANNANDALE) Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU, WALDEN, OR LIFE IN THE WOODS PASSAGE HIGHLIGHTED IN ONE OF THE BOOKS FOUND WITH CHRIS MCCANDLESS’S REMAINS. AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE, THE WORD “TRUTH” HAD BEEN WRITTEN IN LARGE BLOCK LETTERS IN MCCANDLESS’S HAND.
For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.
G. K. CHESTERTON
In 1986, on the sultry spring weekend that Chris graduated from Woodson High School, Walt and Billie threw a party for him. Walt’s birthday was June 10, just a few days away, and at the party Chris gave his father a present: a very expensive Questar telescope.
“I remember sitting there when he gave Dad the telescope,” says Carine. “Chris had tossed back a few drinks that night and was pretty blitzed. He got real emotional. He was almost crying, fighting back the tears, telling Dad that even though they’d had their differences over the years, he was grateful for all the things Dad had done for him. Chris said how much he respected Dad for starting from nothing, working his way through college, busting his ass to support eight kids. It was a moving speech. Everybody there was all choked up. And then he left on his trip.”
Walt and Billie didn’t try to prevent Chris from going, although they persuaded him to take Walt’s Texaco credit card for emergencies and exacted a promise from their son to call home every three days. “We had our hearts in our mouths the whole time he was gone,” says Walt, “but there was no way to stop him.”
After leaving Virginia, Chris drove south and then west across the flat Texas plains, through the heat of New Mexico and Arizona, and arrived at the Pacific coast. Initially, he honored the agreement to phone regularly, but as the summer wore on, the calls became less and less frequent. He didn’t appear back home until two days before the fall term was to start at Emory. When he walked into the Annandale house, he had a scruffy beard, his hair was long and tangled, and he’d shed thirty pounds from his already lean frame.
“As soon as I heard he was home,” says Carine, “I ran to his room to talk with him. He was on the bed, asleep. He was so thin. He looked like those paintings of Jesus on the cross. When Mom saw how much weight he’d lost, she was a total wreck. She started cooking like mad to try and put some meat back on his bones.”
Near the end of his trip, it turned out, Chris had gotten lost in the Mojave Desert and had nearly succumbed to dehydration. His parents were extremely alarmed when they heard about this brush with disaster but were unsure how to persuade Chris to exercise more caution in the future. “Chris was good at almost everything he ever tried,” Walt reflects, “which made him supremely overconfident. If you attempted to talk him out of something, he wouldn’t argue. He’d just nod politely and then do exactly what he wanted.
“So at first I didn’t say anything about the safety aspect. I played tennis with Chris, talked about other things, then eventually sat down with him to discuss the risks he’d taken. I’d learned by then that a direct approach—‘By God, you better not try a stunt like that again!’—didn’t work with Chris. Instead, I tried to explain that we didn’t object to his travels; we just wanted him to be a little more careful and to keep us better informed of his whereabouts.”
To Walt’s dismay Chris bristled at this small dollop of fatherly advice. The only effect it seemed to have was to make him even less inclined to share his plans.
“Chris,” says Billie, “thought we were idiots for worrying about him.”
During the course of his travels, Chris had acquired a machete and a .30-06 rifle, and when Walt and Billie drove him down to Atlanta to enroll in college, he insisted on taking the big knife and the gun with him. “When we went with Chris up to his dorm room,” Walt laughs, “I thought his roommate’s parents were going to have a stroke on the spot. The roommate was a preppy kid from Connecticut, dressed like Joe College, and Chris walks in with a scraggly beard and worn-out clothes, looking like Jeremiah Johnson, packing a machete and a deer-hunting rifle. But you know what? Within ninety days the preppy roommate had dropped out, while Chris had made the dean’s list.”
To his parents’ pleasant surprise, as the school year stretched on, Chris seemed thrilled to be at Emory. He shaved, trimmed his hair, and readopted the clean-cut look he’d had in high school. His grades were nearly perfect. He started writing for the school newspaper. He even talked enthusiastically about going on to get a law degree when he graduated. “Hey,” Chris boasted to Walt at one point, “I think my grades will be good enough to get into Harvard Law School.”
The summer after his freshman year of college, Chris returned to Annandale and worked for his parents’ company, developing computer software. “The program he wrote for us that summer was flawless,” says Walt. “We still use it today and have sold copies of the program to many clients. But when I asked Chris to show me how he wrote it, to explain why it worked the way it did, he refused. ‘All you need to know is that it works,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to know how or why.’ Chris was just being Chris, but it infuriated me. He would have made a great CIA agent—I’m serious; I know guys who work for the CIA. He told us what he thought we needed to know and nothing more. He was that way about everything.”
Many aspects of Chris’s personality baffled his parents. He could be generous and caring to a fault, but he had a darker side as well, characterized by monomania, impatience, and unwavering self-absorption, qualities that seemed to intensify through his college years.
“I saw Chris at a party after his sophomore year at Emory,” remembers Eric Hathaway, “and it was obvious he had changed. He seemed very introverted, almost cold. When I said ‘Hey, good to see you, Chris,’ his reply was cynical: ‘Yeah, sure, that’s what everybody says.’ It was hard to get him to open up. His studies were the only thing he was interested in talking about. Social life at Emory revolved around fraternities and sororities, something Chris wanted no part of. I think when everybody started going Greek, he kind of pulled back from his old friends and got more heavily into himself.”
The summer between his sophomore and junior years Chris again returned to Annandale and took a job delivering pizzas for Domino’s. “He didn’t care that it wasn’t a cool thing to do,” says Carine. “He made a pile of money. I remember he’d come home every night and do his accounting at the kitchen table. It didn’t matter how tired he was; he’d figure out how many miles he drove, how much Domino’s paid him for gas, how much gas actually cost, his net profits for the evening, how it compared to the same evening the week before. He kept track of everything and showed me how to do it, how to make a business work. He didn’t seem interested in the money so much as the fact that he was good at making it. It was like a game, and the money was a way of keeping score.”
Chris’s relations with his parents, which had been unusually courteous since his graduation from high school, deteriorated significantly that summer, and Walt and Billie had no idea why. According to Billie, “He seemed mad at us more often, and he became more withdraw-—no, that’s not the right word. Chris wasn’t ever withdrawn. But he wouldn’t tell us what was on his mind and spent more time by himself.”
Chris’s smoldering anger, it turns out, was fueled by a discovery he’d made two summers earlier, during his cross-country wanderings. When he arrived in California, he’d visited the El Segundo neighborhood where he’d spent the first six years of his life. He called on a number of old family friends who still lived there, and from their answers to his queries, Chris pieced together the facts of his father’s previous marriage and subsequent divorce—facts to which he hadn’t been privy.
Walt’s split from his first wife, Marcia, was not a clean or amicable parting. Long after falling in love with Billie, long after she gave birth to Chris, Walt continued his relationship with Marcia in secret, dividing his time between two households, two families. Lies were told and then exposed, begetting more lies to explain away the initial deceptions. Two years after Chris was born, Walt fathered another son—Quinn McCandless—with Marcia. When Walt’s double life came to light, the revelations inflicted deep wounds. All parties suffered terribly.
Eventually, Walt, Billie, Chris, and Carine moved to the East Coast. The divorce from Marcia was at long last finalized, allowing Walt and Billie to legalize their marriage. They all put the turmoil behind them as best they could and carried on with their lives. Two decades went by. Wisdom accrued. The guilt and hurt and jealous fury receded into the distant past; it appeared that the storm had been weathered. And then in 1986, Chris drove out to El Segundo, made the rounds of the old neighborhood, and learned about the episode in all its painful detail.
“Chris was the sort of person who brooded about things,” Carine observes. “If something bothered him, he wouldn’t come right out and say it. He’d keep it to himself, harboring his resentment, letting the bad feelings build and build.” That seems to be what happened following the discoveries he made in El Segundo.
Children can be harsh judges when it comes to their parents, disinclined to grant clemency, and this was especially true in Chris’s case. More even than most teens, he tended to see things in black and white. He measured himself and those around him by an impossibly rigorous moral code.
Curiously, Chris didn’t hold everyone to the same exacting standards. One of the individuals he professed to admire greatly over the last two years of his life was a heavy drinker and incorrigible philanderer who regularly beat up his girlfriends. Chris was well aware of this man’s faults yet managed to forgive them. He was also able to forgive, or overlook, the shortcomings of his literary heroes: Jack London was a notorious drunk; Tolstoy, despite his famous advocacy of celibacy, had been an enthusiastic s@xual adventurer as young man and went on to father at least thirteen children, some of whom were conceived at the same time the censorious count was thundering in print against the evils of s@x.
Like many people, Chris apparently judged artists and close friends by their work, not their life, yet he was temperamentally incapable of extending such lenity to his father. Whenever Walt McCandless, in his stern fashion, would dispense a fatherly admonishment to Chris, Carine, or their half siblings, Chris would fixate on his father’s own less than sterling behavior many years earlier and silently denounce him as a sanctimonious hypocrite. Chris kept careful score. And over time he worked himself into a choler of self-righteous indignation that was impossible to keep bottled up.
After Chris unearthed the particulars of Walt’s divorce, two years passed before his anger began to leak to the surface, but leak it eventually did. The boy could not pardon the mistakes his father had made as a young man, and he was even less willing to pardon the attempt at concealment. He later declared to Carine and others that the deception committed by Walt and Billie made his “entire childhood seem like a fiction.” But he did not confront his parents with what he knew, then or ever. He chose instead to make a secret of his dark knowledge and express his rage obliquely, in silence and sullen withdrawal.
In 1988, as Chris’s resentment of his parents hardened, his sense of outrage over injustice in the world at large grew. That summer, Billie remembers, “Chris started complaining about all the rich kids at Emory.” More and more of the classes he took addressed such pressing social issues as racism and world hunger and inequities in the distribution of wealth. But despite his aversion to money and conspicuous consumption, Chris’s political leanings could not be described as liberal.
Indeed, he delighted in ridiculing the policies of the Democratic Party and was a vocal admirer of Ronald Reagan. At Emory he went so far as to co-found a College Republican Club. Chris’s seemingly anomalous political positions were perhaps best summed up by Thoreau’s declaration in “Civil Disobedience”: “I heartily accept the motto—‘That government is best which governs least.’” Beyond that his views were not easily characterized.
As assistant editorial page editor of The Emory Wheel, he authored scores of commentaries. In reading them half a decade later, one is reminded how young McCandless was, and how passionate. The opinions he expressed in print, argued with idiosyncratic logic, were all over the map. He lampooned Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden, called for the resignation of Attorney General Edwin Meese, lambasted Bible-thumpers of the Christian right, urged vigilance against the Soviet threat, castigated the Japanese for hunting whales, and defended Jesse Jackson as a viable presidential candidate. In a typically immoderate declaration the lead sentence of McCandless’s editorial of March 1, 1988, reads, “We have now begun the third month of the year 1988, and already it is shaping up to be one of the most politically corrupt and scandalous years in modern history….” Chris Morris, the editor of the paper, remembers McCandless as “intense.”
To his dwindling number of confreres, McCandless appeared to grow more intense with each passing month. As soon as classes ended in the spring of 1989, Chris took his Datsun on another prolonged, extemporaneous road trip. “We only got two cards from him the whole summer,” says Walt. “The first one said, ‘Headed for Guatemala.’ When I read that I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s going down there to fight for the insurrectionists. They’re going to line him up in front of a wall and shoot him.’ Then toward the end of the summer, the second card arrived, and all it said was ‘Leaving Fairbanks tomorrow, see you in a couple of weeks.’ It turned out he’d changed his mind and instead of heading south had driven to Alaska.”
The grinding, dusty haul up the Alaska Highway was Chris’s first visit to the Far North. It was an abbreviated trip—he spent a short time around Fairbanks, then hurried south to get back to Atlanta in time for the start of fall classes—but he had been smitten by the vastness of the land, by the ghostly hue of the glaciers, by the pellucid subarctic sky. There was never any question that he would return.
During his senior year at Emory, Chris lived off campus in his bare, spartan room furnished with milk crates and a mattress on the floor. Few of his friends ever saw him outside of classes. A professor gave him a key for after-hours access to the library, where he spent much of his free time. Andy Horowitz, his close high school friend and cross-country teammate, bumped into Chris among the stacks early one morning just before graduation. Although Horowitz and McCandless were classmates at Emory, it had been two years since they’d seen each other. They talked awkwardly for a few minutes, then McCandless disappeared into a carrel.
Chris seldom contacted his parents that year, and because he had no phone, they couldn’t easily contact him. Walt and Billie grew increasingly worried about their son’s emotional distance. In a letter to Chris, Billie implored, “You have completely dropped away from all who love and care about you. Whatever it is—whoever you’re with—do you think this is right?” Chris saw this as meddling and referred to the letter as “stupid” when he talked to Carine.
“What does she mean ‘whoever I’m with?” Chris railed at his sister. “She must be rucking nuts. You know what I bet? I bet they think I’m a homos@xual. How did they ever get that idea? What a bunch of imbeciles.”
In the spring of 1990, when Walt, Billie, and Carine attended Chris’s graduation ceremony, they thought he seemed happy. As they watched him stride across the stage and take his diploma, he was grinning from ear to ear. He indicated that he was planning another extended trip but implied that he’d visit his family in Annandale before hitting the road. Shortly thereafter, he donated the balance of his bank account to OXFAM, loaded up his car, and vanished from their lives. From then on he scrupulously avoided contacting either his parents or Carine, the sister for whom he purportedly cared immensely.
“We were all worried when we didn’t hear from him,” says Carine, “and I think my parents’ worry was mixed with hurt and anger. But I didn’t really feel hurt by his failure to write. I knew he was happy and doing what he wanted to do; I understood that it was important for him to see how independent he could be. And he knew that if he’d written or called me, Mom and Dad would find out where he was, fly out there, and try to bring him home.”
Walt does not deny this. “There’s no question in my mind,” he says. “If we’d had any idea where to look—OK—I would have gone there in a flash, gotten a lock on his whereabouts, and brought our boy home.”
As months passed without any word of Chris—and then years—the anguish mounted. Billie never left the house without leaving a note for Chris posted on the door. “Whenever we were out driving and saw a hitchhiker,” she says, “if he looked anything like Chris, we’d turn around and circle back. It was a terrible time. Night was the worst, especially when it was cold and stormy. You’d wonder, ‘Where is he? Is he warm? Is he hurt? Is he lonely? Is he OK?’”
In July 1992, two years after Chris left Atlanta, Billie was asleep in Chesapeake Beach when she sat bolt upright in the middle of the night, waking Walt. “I was sure I’d heard Chris calling me,” she insists, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I don’t know how I’ll ever get over it. I wasn’t dreaming. I didn’t imagine it. I heard his voice! He was begging, ‘Mom! Help me!’ But I couldn’t help him because I didn’t know where he was. And that was all he said: ‘Mom! Help me!’”
Chapter Thirteen (VIRGINIA BEACH) The physical domain of the country had its counterpart in me. The trails I made led outward into the hills and swamps, but they led inward also. And from the study of things underfoot, and from reading and thinking, came a kind of exploration, myself and the land. In time the two became one in my mind. With the gathering force of an essential thing realizing itself out of early ground, I faced in myself a passionate and tenacious longing—to put away thought forever, and all the trouble it brings, all but the nearest desire, direct and searching. To take the trail and not look back. Whether on foot, on showshoes or by sled, into the summer hills and their late freezing shadows—a high blaze, a runner track in the snow would show where I had gone. Let the rest of mankind find me if it could.
JOHN HAINES, THE STARS, THE SNOW, THE FIRE: TWENTY-FIVE YEARS IN THE NORTHERN WILDERNESS
Two framed photographs occupy the mantel in Carine McCandless’s Virginia Beach home: one of Chris as a junior in high school, the other of Chris as a seven-year-old in a pint-size suit and crooked tie, standing beside Carine, who is wearing a frilly dress and a new Easter hat. “What’s amazing,” says Carine as she studies these images of her brother, “is that even though the pictures were taken ten years apart, his expression is identical.”
She’s right: In both photos Chris stares at the lens with the same pensive, recalcitrant squint, as if he’d been interrupted in the middle of an important thought and was annoyed to be wasting his time in front of the camera. His expression is most striking in the Easter photo because it contrasts so strongly with the exuberant grin Carine wears in the same frame. “That’s Chris,” she says with an affectionate smile, brushing her fingertips across the surface of the image. “He’d get that look a lot.”
Lying on the floor at Carine’s feet is Buckley, the Shetland sheepdog Chris had been so attached to. Now thirteen years old, he’s gone white in the muzzle and hobbles around with an arthritic limp. When Max, Carine’s eighteen-month-old Rottweiler, intrudes on Buckley’s turf, however, the ailing little dog thinks nothing of confronting the much bigger animal with a loud bark and a flurry of well-placed nips, sending the 130-pound beast scurrying for safety.
“Chris was crazy about Buck,” Carine says. “That summer he disappeared he’d wanted to take Buck with him. After he graduated from Emory, he asked Mom and Dad if he could come get Buck, but they said no, because Buckley had just been hit by a car and was still recovering. Now, of course, they second-guess the decision, even though Buck was really badly hurt; the vet said he’d never walk again after that accident. My parents can’t help wondering—and I admit that I can’t, either—how things might have turned out different if Chris had taken Buck with him. Chris didn’t think twice about risking his own life, but he never would have put Buckley in any kind of danger. There’s no way he would have taken the same kind of chances if Buck had been with him.”
Standing five feet eight inches tall, Carine McCandless is the same height as her brother was, maybe an inch taller, and looks enough like him that people frequently asked if they were twins. An animated talker, she flips her waist-length hair from her face with a toss of her head as she speaks and chops the air for emphasis with small, expressive hands. She is barefoot. A gold crucifix dangles from her neck. Her neatly pressed jeans have creases down the front
Like Chris, Carine is energetic and self-assured, a high achiever, quick to state an opinion. Also like Chris, she clashed fiercely with Walt and Billie as an adolescent. But the differences between the siblings were greater than their similarities.
Carine made peace with her parents shortly after Chris disappeared, and now, at the age of twenty-two, she calls their relationship “extremely good.” She is much more gregarious than Chris was and can’t imagine going off into the wilderness—or virtually anywhere else—alone. And although she shares Chris’s sense of outrage over racial injustice, Carine has no objection—moral or otherwise-—to wealth. She recently bought an expensive new home and regularly logs fourteen-hour days at C.A.R. Services, Incorporated, the auto-repair business she owns with her husband, Chris Fish, in the hope of making her first million at an early age.
“I was always getting on Mom and Dad’s case because they worked all the time and were never around,” she reflects with a self-mocking laugh, “and now look at me: I’m doing the same thing.” Chris, she confesses, used to poke fun at her capitalist zeal by calling her the duchess of York, Ivana Trump McCandless, and “a rising successor to Leona Helmsley.” His criticism of his sister never went beyond good-natured ribbing, however; Chris and Carine were uncommonly close. In a letter delineating his quarrels with Walt and Billie, Chris once wrote to her, “Anyway, I like to talk to you about this because you are the only person in the world who could possibly understand what I’m saying.”
Ten months after Chris’s death, Carine still grieves deeply for her brother. “I can’t seem to get through a day without crying,” she says with a look of puzzlement. “For some reason the worst is when I’m in the car by myself. Not once have I been able to make the twenty-minute drive from home to the shop without thinking about Chris and breaking down. I get over it, but when it happens, it’s hard.”
On the evening of September 17,1992, Carine was outside giving her Rottweiler a bath when Chris Fish pulled into the driveway. She was surprised he was home so early; usually Fish worked late into the night at C.A.R. Services.
“He was acting funny,” Carine recalls. “There was a terrible look on his face. He went inside, came back out, and started helping me wash Max. I knew something was wrong then, because Fish never washes the dog.”
“I need to talk to you,” Fish said. Carine followed him into the house, rinsed Max’s collars in the kitchen sink, and went into the living room. “Fish was sitting on the couch in the dark with his head down. He looked totally hurt. Trying to joke him out of his mood, I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I figured his buddies must have been razzing him at work, maybe telling him they’d seen me out with another guy or something. I laughed and asked, ‘Have the guys been giving you a hard time?’ But he didn’t laugh back. When he looked up at me, I saw that his eyes were red.”
“It’s your brother,” Fish had said. “They found him. He’s dead.” Sam, Walt’s oldest child, had called Fish at work and given him the news.
Carine’s eyes blurred, and she felt the onset of tunnel vision. Involuntarily, she started shaking her head back and forth, back and forth. “No,” she corrected him, “Chris isn’t dead.” Then she began to scream. Her keening was so loud and continuous that Fish worried the neighbors were going to think he was harming her and call the police.
Carine curled up on the couch in a fetal position, wailing without pause. When Fish tried to comfort her, she pushed him away and shrieked at him to leave her alone. She remained hysterical for the next five hours, but by eleven o’clock she had calmed sufficiently to throw some clothes into a bag, get into the car with Fish, and let him drive her to Walt and Billie’s house in Chesapeake Beach, a four-hour trip north.
On their way out of Virginia Beach, Carine asked Fish to stop at their church. “I went in and sat at the altar for an hour or so while Fish stayed in the car,” Carine remembers. “I wanted some answers from God. But I didn’t get any.”
Earlier in the evening Sam had confirmed that the photograph of the unknown hiker faxed down from Alaska was indeed Chris, but the coroner in Fairbanks required Chris’s dental records to make a conclusive identification. It took more than a day to compare the X rays, and Billie refused to look at the faxed photo until the dental ID had been completed and there was no longer any doubt whatsoever that the starved boy found in the bus beside the Sushana River was her son.
The next day Carine and Sam flew to Fairbanks to bring home Chris’s remains. At the coroner’s office they were given the handful of possessions recovered with the body: Chris’s rifle, a pair of binoculars, the fishing rod Ronald Franz had given him, one of the Swiss Army knives Jan Burres had given him, the book of plant lore in which his journal was written, a Minolta camera, and five rolls of film—not much else. The coroner passed some papers across her desk; Sam signed them and passed them back.
Less than twenty-four hours after landing in Fairbanks, Carine and Sam flew on to Anchorage, where Chris’s body had been cremated following the autopsy at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory. The mortuary delivered Chris’s ashes to their hotel in a plastic box, “I was surprised how big the box was,” Carine says. “His name was printed wrong. The label said CHRISTOPHER R. MCCANDLESS. His middle initial is really J. It ticked me off that they didn’t get it right. I was mad. Then I thought, ‘Chris wouldn’t care. He’d think it was funny.’”
They caught a plane for Maryland the next morning. Carine carried her brother’s ashes in her knapsack.
During the flight home, Carine ate every scrap of food the cabin attendants set in front of her, “even though,” she says, “it was that horrible stuff they serve on airplanes. I just couldn’t bear the thought of throwing away food since Chris had starved to death.” Over the weeks that followed, however, she found that her appetite had vanished, and she lost ten pounds, leading her friends to worry that she was becoming anorectic.
Back in Chesapeake Beach, Billie had stopped eating, too. A tiny forty-eight-year-old woman with girlish features, she lost eight pounds before her appetite finally returned. Walt reacted the other way, eating compulsively, and gained eight pounds.
A month later Billie sits at her dining room table, sifting through the pictorial record of Chris’s final days. It is all she can do to force herself to examine the fuzzy snapshots. As she studies the pictures, she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow.
“I just don’t understand why he had to take those kind of chances,” Billie protests through her tears. “I just don’t understand it at all.”
Chapter Fourteen (THE STIKINE ICE CAP) I grew up exuberant in body but with a nervy, craving mind. It was wanting something more, something tangible. It sought for reality intensely, always as if it were not there….
But you see at once what I do. I climb.
JOHN MENLOVE EDWARDS, “LETTER FROM A MAN”
I cannot now tell exactly, it was so long ago, under what circumstances I first ascended, only that I shuddered as I went along (I have an indistinct remembrance of having been out overnight alone),—and then I steadily ascended along a rocky ridge half clad with stinted trees, where wild beasts haunted, till I lost myself quite in the upper air and clouds, seeming to pass an imaginary line which separates a hill, mere earth heaped up, from a mountain, into a superterranean grandeur and sublimity. What distinguishes that summit above the earthly line, is that it is unhandselled, awful, grand. It can never become familiar; you are lost the moment you set foot there. You know the path, but wander, thrilled, over the bare and pathless rock, as if it were solidified air and cloud. That rocky, misty summit, secreted in the clouds, was far more thrillingly awful and sublime than the crater of a volcano spouting fire.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU, JOURNAL
In the final postcard he sent to Wayne Westerberg, McCandless had written, “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.” When the adventure did indeed prove fatal, this melodramatic declaration fueled considerable speculation that the boy had been bent on suicide from the beginning, that when he walked into the bush, he had no intention of ever walking out again. I’m not so sure, however.
My suspicion that McCandless’s death was unplanned, that it was a terrible accident, comes from reading those few documents he left behind and from listening to the men and women who spent time with him over the final year of his life. But my sense of Chris McCandless’s intentions comes, too, from a more personal perspective.
As a youth, I am told, I was willful, self-absorbed, intermittently reckless, moody. I disappointed my father in the usual ways. Like McCandless, figures of male authority aroused in me a confusing medley of corked fury and hunger to please. If something captured my undisciplined imagination, I pursued it with a zeal bordering on obsession, and from the age of seventeen until my late twenties that something was mountain climbing.
I devoted most of my waking hours to fantasizing about, and then undertaking, ascents of remote mountains in Alaska and Canada—obscure spires, steep and frightening, that nobody in the world beyond a handful of climbing geeks had ever heard of. Some good actually came of this. By fixing my sights on one summit after another, I managed to keep my bearings through some thick postadolescent fog. Climbing mattered. The danger bathed the world in a halogen glow that caused everything—the sweep of the rock, the orange and yellow lichens, the texture of the clouds—to stand out in brilliant relief. Life thrummed at a higher pitch. The world was made real.
In 1977, while brooding on a Colorado barstool, picking unhappily at my existential scabs, I got it into my head to climb a mountain called the Devils Thumb. An intrusion of diorite sculpted by ancient glaciers into a peak of immense and spectacular proportions, the Thumb is especially imposing from the north: Its great north wall, which had never been climbed, rises sheer and clean for six thousand feet from the glacier at its base, twice the height of Yosemite’s El Capitan. I would go to Alaska, ski inland from the sea across thirty miles of glacial ice, and ascend this mighty nordwand. I decided, moreover, to do it alone.
I was twenty-three, a year younger than Chris McCandless when he walked into the Alaska bush. My reasoning, if one can call it that, was inflamed by the scattershot passions of youth and a literary diet overly rich in the works of Nietzsche, Kerouac, and John Menlove Edwards, the latter a deeply troubled writer and psychiatrist who, before putting an end to his life with a cyanide capsule in 1958, had been one of the preerninent British rock climbers of the day. Edwards regarded climbing as a “psycho-neurotic tendency”; he climbed not for sport but to find refuge from the inner torment that framed his existence.
As I formulated my plan to climb the Thumb, I was dimly aware that I might be getting in over my head. But that only added to the scheme’s appeal. That it wouldn’t be easy was the whole point.
I owned a book in which there was a photograph of the Devils Thumb, a black-and-white image taken by an eminent glaciologist named Maynard Miller. In Miller’s aerial photo the mountain looked particularly sinister: a huge fin of exfoliated stone, dark and smeared with ice. The picture held an almost @@@ographic fascination for me. How would it feel, I wondered, to be balanced on that bladelike summit ridge, worrying over the storm clouds building in the distance, hunched against the wind and dunning cold, contemplating the drop on either side? Could a person keep a lid on his terror long enough to reach the top and get back down?
And if I did pull it off… I was afraid to let myself imagine the triumphant aftermath, lest I invite a jinx. But I never had any doubt that climbing the Devils Thumb would transform my life. How could it not?
I was working then as an itinerant carpenter, framing condominiums in Boulder for $3.50 an hour. One afternoon, after nine hours of humping two-by-tens and driving sixteen-penny nails, I told my boss I was quitting: “No, not in a couple of weeks, Steve; right now was more like what I had in mind.” It took me a few hours to clear my tools and other belongings out of the crummy job-site trailer where I’d been squatting. And then I climbed into my car and departed for Alaska. I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.
The Devils Thumb demarcates the Alaska-British-Columbia border east of Petersburg, a fishing village accessible only by boat or plane. There was regular jet service to Petersburg, but the sum of my liquid assets amounted to a 1960 Pontiac Star Chief and two hundred dollars in cash, not even enough for one-way airfare. So I drove as far as Gig Harbor, Washington, abandoned the car, and inveigled a ride on a northbound salmon seiner.
The Ocean Queen was a stout, no-nonsense workboat built from thick planks of Alaska yellow cedar, rigged for long-lining and purse seining. In exchange for a ride north, I had only to take regular turns at the helm—a four-hour wheel watch every twelve hours—and help tie endless skates of halibut gear. The slow journey up the Inside Passage unfolded in a gauzy reverie of anticipation. I was under way, propelled by an imperative that was beyond my ability to control or comprehend.
Sunlight glinted off the water as we chugged up the Strait of Georgia. Slopes rose precipitously from the water’s edge, bearded in a gloom of hemlock and cedar and devil’s club. Gulls wheeled overhead. Off Malcolm Island the boat split a pod of seven orcas. Their dorsal fins, some as tall as a man, cut the glassy surface within spitting distance of the rail.
Our second night out, two hours before dawn, I was steering from the flying bridge when the head of a mule deer materialized in the spotlight’s glare. The animal was in the middle of Fitz Hugh Sound, swimming through the cold black water more than a mile from the Canadian shore. Its retinas burned red in the blinding beam; it looked exhausted and crazed with fear. I swung the wheel to starboard, the boat slid past, and the deer bobbed twice in our wake before vanishing into the darkness.
Most of the Inside Passage follows narrow, fjordlike channels. As we passed Dundas Island, though, the vista suddenly widened. To the west now was open ocean, the full sweep of the Pacific, and the boat pitched and rolled on a twelve-foot westerly swell. Waves broke over the rail. In the distance off the starboard bow, a jumble of low, craggy peaks appeared, and my pulse quickened at the sight. Those mountains heralded the approach of my desideratum. We had arrived in Alaska.
Five days out of Gig Harbor, the Ocean Queen docked in Petersburg to take on fuel and water. I hopped over the gunwale, shouldered my heavy backpack, and walked down the pier in the rain. At a loss for what to do next, I took refuge under the eaves of the town library and sat on my load.
Petersburg is a small town, and prim by Alaska standards. A tall, loose-limbed woman walked by and struck up a conversation. Her name was Kai, she said, Kai Sandburn. She was cheerful, outgoing, easy to talk to. I confessed my climbing plans to her, and to my relief she neither laughed nor acted as though they were particularly strange. “When the weather’s clear,” she simply offered, “you can see the Thumb from town. It’s pretty. It’s over there, right across Frederick Sound.” I followed her outstretched arm, which gestured to the east, at a low wall of clouds.
Kai invited me home for dinner. Later I unrolled my sleeping bag on her floor. Long after she fell asleep, I lay awake in the next room, listening to her peaceful exhalations. I had convinced myself for many months that I didn’t really mind the absence of intimacy in my life, the lack of real human connection, but the pleasure I’d felt in this woman’s company—the ring of her laughter, the innocent touch of a hand on my arm—exposed my self-deceit and left me hollow and aching.
Petersburg lies on an island; the Devils Thumb is on the mainland, rising from a frozen bald known as the Stikine Ice Cap. Vast and labyrinthine, the ice cap rides the spine of the Boundary Ranges like a carapace, from which the long blue tongues of numerous glaciers inch down toward the sea under the weight of the ages. To reach the foot of the mountain, I had to find a ride across twenty-five miles of saltwater and then ski thirty miles up one of these glaciers, the Baird, a valley of ice that hadn’t seen a human footprint, I was fairly certain, in many, many years.
I shared a ride with some tree planters to the head of Thomas Bay, where I was put ashore on a gravel beach. The broad, rubble-strewn terminus of the glacier was visible a mile away. Half an hour later I scrambled up its frozen snout and began the long plod to the Thumb. The ice was bare of snow and embedded with a coarse black grit that crunched beneath the steel points of my crampons.
After three or four miles I came to the snow line and there exchanged crampons for skis. Putting the boards on my feet cut fifteen pounds from the awful load on my back and made the going faster besides. But the snow concealed many of the glacier’s crevasses, increasing the danger.
In Seattle, anticipating this hazard, I’d stopped at a hardware store and purchased a pair of stout aluminum curtain rods, each ten feet long. I lashed the rods together to form a cross, then strapped the rig to the hip belt of my backpack so the poles extended horizontally over the snow. Staggering slowly up the glacier beneath my overloaded pack, bearing this ridiculous metal cross, I felt like an odd sort of pendente. Were I to break through the veneer of snow over a hidden crevasse, though, the curtain rods would—I hoped mightily—span the slot and keep me from dropping into the frozen depths of the Baird.
For two days I slogged steadily up the valley of ice. The weather was good, the route obvious and without major obstacles. Because I was alone, however, even the mundane seemed charged with meaning. The ice looked colder and more mysterious, the sky a cleaner shade of blue. The unnamed peaks towering over the glacier were bigger and comelier and infinitely more menacing than they would have been were I in the company of another person. And my emotions were similarly amplified: The highs were higher; the periods of despair were deeper and darker. To a self-possessed young man inebriated with the unfolding drama of his own life, all of this held enormous appeal.
Three days after leaving Petersburg, I arrived beneath the Stikine Ice Cap proper, where the long arm of the Baird joins the main body of ice. Here the glacier spills abruptly over the edge of a high plateau, dropping seaward through a gap between two mountains in a phantasmagoria of shattered ice. As I stared at the tumult from a mile away, for the first time since leaving Colorado, I was truly afraid.
The icefall was crisscrossed with crevasses and tottering seracs. From afar it brought to mind a bad train wreck, as if scores of ghostly white boxcars had derailed at the lip of the ice cap and tumbled down the slope willy-nilly. The closer I got, the more unpleasant it looked. My ten-foot curtain rods seemed a poor defense against crevasses that were forty feet across and hundreds of feet deep.
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