بخش 06کتاب: در حیات وحش / فصل 6
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A year and a week after Chris McCandless decided not to attempt to cross the Teklanika River, I stand on the opposite bank—the eastern side, the highway side—and gaze into the churning water. I, too, hope to cross the river. I want to visit the bus. I want to see where McCandless died, to better understand why.
It is a hot, humid afternoon, and the river is livid with runoff from the fast-melting snowpack that still blankets the glaciers in the higher elevations of the Alaska Range. Today the water looks considerably lower than it looks in the photographs McCandless took twelve months ago, but to try to ford the river here, in thundering midsummer flood, is nevertheless unthinkable. The water is too deep, too cold, too fast. As I stare into the Teklanika, I can hear rocks the size of bowling balls grinding along the bottom, rolled downstream by the powerful current. I’d be swept from my feet within a few yards of leaving the bank and pushed into the canyon immediately below, which pinches the river into a boil of rapids that continues without interruption for the next five miles.
Unlike McCandless, however, I have in my backpack a 1:63,360-scale topographic map (that is, a map on which one inch represents one mile). Exquisitely detailed, it indicates that half a mile downstream, in the throat of the canyon, is a gauging station that was built by the U.S. Geological Survey. Unlike McCandless, too, I am here with three companions: Alaskans Roman Dial and Dan Solie and a friend of Roman’s from California, Andrew Liske. The gauging station can’t be seen from where the Stampede Trail comes down to the river, but after twenty minutes of fighting our way through a snarl of spruce and dwarf birch, Roman shouts, “I see it! There! A hundred yards farther.”
We arrive to find an inch-thick steel cable spanning the gorge, stretched between a fifteen-foot tower on our side of the river and an outcrop on the far shore, four hundred feet away. The cable was erected in 1970 to chart the Teklanika’s seasonal fluctuations; hydrologists traveled back and forth above the river by means of an aluminum basket that is suspended from the cable with pulleys. From the basket they would drop a weighted plumb line to measure the river’s depth. The station was decommissioned nine years ago for lack of funds, at which time the basket was supposed to be chained and locked to the tower on our side—the highway side—of the river. When we climbed to the top of the tower, however, the basket wasn’t there. Looking across the rushing water, I could see it over on the distant shore–the bus side—of the canyon.
Some local hunters, it turns out, had cut the chain, ridden the basket across, and secured it to the far side in order to make it harder for outsiders to cross the Teklanika and trespass on their turf. When McCandless tried to walk out of the bush one year ago the previous week, the basket was in the same place it is now, on his side of the canyon. If he’d known about it, crossing the Teklanika to safety would have been a trivial matter. Because he had no topographic map, however, he had no way of conceiving that salvation was so close at hand.
Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless’s friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris “was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people.” In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.
Because he lacked a good map, the cable spanning the river also remained incognito. Studying the Teklanika’s violent flow, McCandless thus mistakenly concluded that it was impossible to reach the eastern shore. Thinking that his escape route had been cut off, he returned to the bus—a reasonable course of action, given his topographical ignorance. But why did he then stay at the bus and starve? Why, come August, didn’t he try once more to cross the Teklanika, when it would have been running significantly lower, when it would have been safe to ford?
Puzzled by these questions, and troubled, I am hoping that the rusting hulk of Fairbanks bus 142 will yield some clues. But to reach the bus, I, too, need to cross the river, and the aluminum tram is still chained to the far shore.
Standing atop the tower anchoring the eastern end of the span, I attach myself to the cable with rock-climbing hardware and begin to pull myself across, hand over hand, executing what mountaineers call a Tyrolean traverse. This turns out to be a more strenuous proposition than I had anticipated. Twenty minutes after starting out, I finally haul myself onto the outcrop on the other side, completely spent, so wasted I can barely raise my arms. After at last catching my breath, I climb into the basket—a rectangular aluminum car two feet wide by four feet long—disconnect the chain, and head back to the eastern side of the canyon to ferry my companions across.
The cable sags noticeably over the middle of the river; so when I cut loose from the outcrop, the car accelerates quickly under its own weight, rolling faster and faster along the steel strand, seeking the lowest point. It’s a thrilling ride. Zipping over the rapids at twenty or thirty miles per hour, I hear an involuntary bark of fright leap from my throat before I realize that I’m in no danger and regain my composure.
After all four of us are on the western side of the gorge, thirty minutes of rough bushwhacking returns us to the Stampede Trail. The ten miles of trail we have already covered—the section between our parked vehicles and the river—were gentle, well marked, and relatively heavily traveled. But the ten miles to come have an utterly different character.
Because so few people cross the Teklanika during the spring and summer months, much of the route is indistinct and overgrown with brush. Immediately past the river the trail curves to the southwest, up the bed of a fast-flowing creek. And because beavers have built a network of elaborate dams across this creek, the route leads directly through a three-acre expanse of standing water. The beaver ponds are never more than chest deep, but the water is cold, and as we slosh forward, our feet churn the muck on the bottom into a foul-smelling miasma of decomposing slime.
The trail climbs a hill beyond the uppermost pond, then rejoins the twisting, rocky creek bed before ascending again into a jungle of scrubby vegetation. The going never gets exceedingly difficult, but the fifteen-foot-high tangle of alder pressing in from both sides is gloomy, claustrophobic, oppressive. Clouds of mosquitoes materialize out of the sticky heat. Every few minutes the insects’ piercing whine is supplanted by the boom of distant thunder, rumbling over the taiga from a wall of thunderheads rearing darkly on the horizon.
Thickets of buckbrush leave a crosshatch of bloody lacerations on my shins. Piles of bear scat on the trail and, at one point, a set of fresh grizzly tracks—each print half again as long as a size-nine boot print—put me on edge. None of us has a gun. “Hey, Griz!” I yell at the undergrowth, hoping to avoid a surprise encounter. “Hey, bear! Just passing through! No reason to get riled!”
I have been to Alaska some twenty times during the past twenty years—to climb mountains, to work as a carpenter and a commercial salmon fisherman and a journalist, to goof off, to poke around. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in the country over the course of my many visits and usually relish it. Indeed, I had intended to make this trip to the bus by myself, and when my friend Roman invited himself and two others along, I was annoyed. Now, however, I am grateful for their company. There is something disquieting about this Gothic, overgrown landscape. It feels more malevolent than other, more remote corners of the state I know—the tundra-wrapped slopes of the Brooks Range, the cloud forests of the Alexander Archipelago, even the frozen, gale-swept heights of the Denali massif. I’m happy as hell that I’m not here alone.
At 9:00 P.M. we round a bend in the trail, and there, at the edge of a small clearing, is the bus. Pink bunches of fireweed choke the vehicle’s wheel wells, growing higher than the axles. Fairbanks bus 142 is parked beside a coppice of aspen, ten yards back from the brow of a modest cliff, on a shank of high ground overlooking the confluence of the Sushana River and a smaller tributary. It’s an appealing setting, open and filled with light. It’s easy to see why McCandless decided to make this his base camp.
We pause some distance away from the bus and stare at it for a while in silence. Its paint is chalky and peeling. Several windows are missing. Hundreds of delicate bones litter the clearing around the vehicle, scattered among thousands of porcupine quills: the remains of the small game that made up the bulk of McCandless’s diet. And at the perimeter of this boneyard lies one much larger skeleton: that of the moose he shot, and subsequently agonized over.
When I’d questioned Gordon Samel and Ken Thompson shortly after they’d discovered McCandless’s body, both men insisted—adamantly and unequivocally—that the big skeleton was the remains of a caribou, and they derided the greenhorn’s ignorance in mistaking the animal he killed for a moose. “Wolves had scattered the bones some,” Thompson had told me, “but it was obvious that the animal was a caribou. The kid didn’t know what the hell he was doing up here.”
“It was definitely a caribou,” Samel had scornfully piped in. “When I read in the paper that he thought he’d shot a moose, that told me right there he wasn’t no Alaskan. There’s a big difference between a moose and a caribou. A real big difference. You’d have to be pretty stupid not to be able to tell them apart.”
Trusting Samel and Thompson, veteran Alaskan hunters who’ve killed many moose and caribou between them, I duly reported McCandless’s mistake in the article I wrote for Outside, thereby confirming the opinion of countless readers that McCandless was ridiculously ill prepared, that he had no business heading into any wilderness, let alone into the big-league wilds of the Last Frontier. Not only did McCandless die because he was stupid, one Alaska correspondent observed, but “the scope of his self-styled adventure was so small as to ring pathetic—squatting in a wrecked bus a few miles out of Healy, potting jays and squirrels, mistaking a caribou for a moose (pretty hard to do)…. Only one word for the guy: incompetent.”
Among the letters lambasting McCandless, virtually all those I received mentioned his misidentification of the caribou as proof that he didn’t know the first thing about surviving in the back-country. What the angry letter writers didn’t know, however, was that the ungulate McCandless shot was exactly what he’d said it was. Contrary to what I reported in Outside, the animal was a moose, as a close examination of the beast’s remains now indicated and several of McCandless’s photographs of the kill later confirmed beyond all doubt. The boy made some mistakes on the Stampede Trail, but confusing a caribou with a moose wasn’t among them.
Walking past the moose bones, I approach the vehicle and step through an emergency exit at the back. Immediately inside the door is the torn mattress, stained and moldering, on which McCandless expired. For some reason I am taken aback to find a collection of his possessions spread across its ticking: a green plastic canteen; a tiny bottle of water-purification tablets; a used-up cylinder of Chap Stick; a pair of insulated flight pants of the type sold in military-surplus stores; a paperback copy of the bestseller O Jerusalem!, its spine broken; wool mittens; a bottle of Muskol insect repellent; a full box of matches; and a pair of brown rubber work boots with the name Gallien written across the cuffs in faint black ink.
Despite the missing windows, the air inside the cavernous vehicle is stale and musty. “Wow,” Roman remarks. “It smells like dead birds in here.” A moment later I come across the source of the odor: a plastic garbage bag filled with feathers, down, and the severed wings of several birds. It appears that McCandless was saving them to insulate his clothing or perhaps to make a feather pillow.
Toward the front of the bus, McCandless’s pots and dishes are stacked on a makeshift plywood table beside a kerosene lamp. A long leather scabbard is expertly tooled with the initials R. F: the sheath for the machete Ronald Franz gave McCandless when he left Salton City.
The boy’s blue toothbrush rests next to a half-empty tube of Colgate, a packet of dental floss, and the gold molar crown that, according to his journal, fell off his tooth three weeks into his sojourn. A few inches away sits a skull the size of a watermelon, thick ivory fangs jutting from its bleached maxillae. It is a bear skull, the remains of a grizzly shot by someone who visited the bus years before McCandless’s tenure. A message scratched in Chris’s tidy hand brackets a cranial bullet hole: ALL HAIL THE PHANTOM BEAR, THE BEAST WITHIN US ALL. ALEXANDER SUPERTRAMP. MAY 1992.
Looking up, I notice that the sheet-metal walls of the vehicle are covered with graffiti left by numerous visitors over the years. Roman points out a message he wrote when he stayed in the bus four years ago, during a traverse of the Alaska Range: NOODLE EATERS EN ROUTE TO LAKE CLARK 8/89. Like Roman, most people scrawled little more than their names and a date. The longest, most eloquent graffito is one of several inscribed by McCandless, the proclamation of joy that begins with a nod to his favorite Roger Miller song: TWO YEARS HE WALKS THE EARTH, NO PHONE, NO POOL, NO PETS, NO CIGARETTES. ULTIMATE FREEDOM. AN EXTREMIST. AN AESTHETIC VOYAGER WHOSE HOME IS THE ROAD….
Immediately below this manifesto squats the stove, fabricated from a rusty oil drum. A twelve-foot section of a spruce trunk is jammed into its open doorway, and across the log are draped two pairs of torn Levi’s, laid out as if to dry. One pair of jeans—waist thirty, inseam thirty-two—is patched crudely with silver duct tape; the other pair has been repaired more carefully, with scraps from a faded bedspread stitched over gaping holes in the knees and seat. This latter pair also sports a belt fashioned from a strip of blanket. McCandless, it occurs to me, must have been forced to make the belt after growing so thin that his pants wouldn’t stay up without it.
Sitting down on a steel cot across from the stove to mull over this eerie tableau, I encounter evidence of McCandless’s presence wherever my vision rests. Here are his toenail clippers, over there his green nylon tent spread over a missing window in the front door. His Kmart hiking boots are arranged neatly beneath the stove, as though he’d soon be returning to lace them up and hit the trail. I feel uncomfortable, as if I were intruding, a voyeur who has slipped into McCandless’s bedroom while he is momentarily away. Suddenly queasy, I stumble out of the bus to walk along the river and breathe some fresh air.
An hour later we build a fire outside in the fading light. The rain squalls, now past, have rinsed the haze from the atmosphere, and distant, backlit hills stand out in crisp detail. A stripe of incandescent sky burns beneath the cloud base on the northwestern horizon. Roman unwraps some steaks from a moose he shot in the Alaska Range last September and lays them across the fire on a blackened grill, the grill McCandless used for broiling his game. Moose fat pops and sizzles into the coals. Eating the gristly meat with our fingers, we slap at mosquitoes and talk about this peculiar person whom none of us ever met, trying to get a handle on how he came to grief, trying to understand why some people seem to despise him so intensely for having died here.
By design McCandless came into the country with insufficient provisions, and he lacked certain pieces of equipment deemed essential by many Alaskans: a large-caliber rifle, map and compass, an ax. This has been regarded as evidence not just of stupidity but of the even greater sin of arrogance. Some critics have even drawn parallels between McCandless and the Arctic’s most infamous tragic figure, Sir John Franklin, a nineteenth-century British naval officer whose smugness and hauteur contributed to some 140 deaths, including his own.
In 1819, the Admiralty assigned Franklin to lead an expedition into the wilderness of northwestern Canada. Two years out of England, winter overtook his small party as they plodded across an expanse of tundra so vast and empty that they christened it the Barrens, the name by which it is still known. Their food ran out. Game was scarce, forcing Franklin and his men to subsist on lichens scraped from boulders, singed deer hide, scavenged animal bones, their own boot leather, and finally one another’s flesh. Before the ordeal was over, at least two men had been murdered and eaten, the suspected murderer had been summarily executed, and eight others were dead from sickness and starvation. Franklin was himself within a day or two of expiring when he and the other survivors were rescued by a band of métis.
An affable Victorian gentleman. Franklin was said to be a good-natured bumbler, dogged and clueless, with the naive ideals of a child and a disdain for acquiring backcountry skills. He had been woefully unprepared to lead an Arctic expedition, and upon returning to England, he was known as the Man Who Ate His Shoes—yet the sobriquet was uttered more often with awe than with ridicule. He was hailed as a national hero, promoted to the rank of captain by the Admiralty, paid handsomely to write an account of his ordeal, and, in 1825, given command of a second Arctic expedition.
That trip was relatively uneventful, but in 1845, hoping finally to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, Franklin made the mistake of returning to the Arctic for a third time. He and the 128 men under his command were never heard from again. Evidence unearthed by the forty-odd expeditions sent to search for them eventually established that all had perished, the victims of scurvy, starvation, and unspeakable suffering.
When McCandless turned up dead, he was likened to Franklin not simply because both men starved but also because both were perceived to have lacked a requisite humility; both were thought to have possessed insufficient respect for the land. A century after Franklin’s death, the eminent explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson pointed out that the English explorer had never taken the trouble to learn the survival skills practiced by the Indians and the Eskimos—peoples who had managed to flourish “for generations, bringing up their children and taking care of their aged” in the same harsh country that killed Franklin. (Stefansson conveniently neglected to mention that many, many Indians and Eskimos have starved in the northern latitudes, as well.)
McCandless’s arrogance was not of the same strain as Franklin’s, however. Franklin regarded nature as an antagonist that would inevitably submit to force, good breeding, and Victorian discipline. Instead of living in concert with the land, instead of relying on the country for sustenance as the natives did, he attempted to insulate himself from the northern environment with ill-suited military tools and traditions. McCandless, on the other hand, went too far in the opposite direction. He tried to live entirely off the country—and he tried to do it without bothering to master beforehand the full repertoire of crucial skills.
It probably misses the point, though, to castigate McCandless for being ill prepared. He was green, and he overestimated his resilience, but he was sufficiently skilled to last for sixteen weeks on little more than his wits and ten pounds of rice. And he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake.
It is hardly unusual for a young man to be drawn to a pursuit considered reckless by his elders; engaging in risky behavior is a rite of passage in our culture no less than in most others. Danger has always held a certain allure. That, in large part, is why so many teenagers drive too fast and drink too much and take too many drugs, why it has always been so easy for nations to recruit young men to go to war. It can be argued that youthful derring-do is in fact evolutionarily adaptive, a behavior encoded in our genes. McCandless, in his fashion, merely took risk-taking to its logical extreme.
He had a need to test himself in ways, as he was fond of saying, “that mattered.” He possessed grand—some would say grandiose—spiritual ambitions. According to the moral absolutism that characterizes McCandless’s beliefs, a challenge in which a successful outcome is assured isn’t a challenge at all.
It is not merely the young, of course, who are drawn to hazardous undertakings. John Muir is remembered primarily as a no-nonsense conservationist and the founding president of the Sierra Club, but he was also a bold adventurer, a fearless scrambler of peaks, glaciers, and waterfalls whose best-known essay includes a riveting account of nearly falling to his death, in 1872, while ascending California’s Mt. Ritter. In another essay Muir rapturously describes riding out a ferocious Sierra gale, by choice, in the uppermost branches of a one-hundred-foot Douglas fir:
[N]ever before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.
He was thirty-six years old at the time. One suspects that Muir wouldn’t have thought McCandless terribly odd or incomprehensible.
Even staid, prissy Thoreau, who famously declared that it was enough to have “traveled a good deal in Concord,” felt compelled to visit the more fearsome wilds of nineteenth-century Maine and climb Mt. Katahdin. His ascent of the peak’s “savage and awful, though beautiful” ramparts shocked and frightened him, but it also induced a giddy sort of awe. The disquietude he felt on Katahdin’s granite heights inspired some of his most powerful writing and profoundly colored the way he thought thereafter about the earth in its coarse, undomesticated state.
Unlike Muir and Thoreau, McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul. He soon discovered, however, what Muir and Thoreau already knew: An extended stay in the wilderness inevitably directs one’s attention outward as much as inward, and it is impossible to live off the land without developing both a subtle understanding of, and a strong emotional bond with, that land and all it holds.
The entries in McCandless’s journal contain few abstractions about wilderness or, for that matter, few ruminations of any kind. There is scant mention of the surrounding scenery. Indeed, as Roman’s friend Andrew Liske points out upon reading a photocopy of the journal, “These entries are almost entirely about what he ate. He wrote about hardly anything except food.”
Andrew is not exaggerating: The journal is little more than a tally of plants foraged and game killed. It would probably be a mistake, however, to conclude thereby that McCandless failed to appreciate the beauty of the country around him, that he was unmoved by the power of the landscape. As cultural ecologist Paul Shepard has observed,
The nomadic Bedouin does not dote on scenery, paint landscapes, or compile a nonutilitarian natural history…. [H]is life is so profoundly in transaction with nature that there is no place for abstraction or esthetics or a “nature philosophy” which can be separated from the rest of his life…. Nature and his relationship to it are a deadly-serious matter, prescribed by convention, mystery, and danger. His personal leisure is aimed away from idle amusement or detached tampering with natures processes. But built into his life is awareness of that presence, of the terrain, of the unpredictable weather, of the narrow margin by which he is sustained.
Much the same could be said of McCandless during the months he spent beside the Sushana River.
It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense. But the stereotype isn’t a good fit. McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself—more, in the end, than he could deliver.
Trying to explain McCandless’s unorthodox behavior, some people have made much of the fact that like John Waterman, he was small in stature and may have suffered from a “short man’s complex,” a fundamental insecurity that drove him to prove his manhood by means of extreme physical challenges. Others have posited that an unresolved Oedipal conflict was at the root of his fatal odyssey. Although there may be some truth in both hypotheses, this sort of posthumous off-the-rack psychoanalysis is a dubious, highly speculative enterprise that inevitably demeans and trivializes the absent analysand. It’s not clear that much of value is learned by reducing Chris McCandless’s strange spiritual quest to a list of pat psychological disorders.
Roman and Andrew and I stare into the embers and talk about McCandless late into the night. Roman, thirty-two, inquisitive and outspoken, has a doctorate in biology from Stanford and an abiding distrust of conventional wisdom. He spent his adolescence in the same Washington, D.C., suburbs as McCandless and found them every bit as stifling. He first came to Alaska as a nine-year-old, to visit a trio of uncles who mined coal at Usibelli, a big strip-mine operation a few miles east of Healy, and immediately fell in love with everything about the North. Over the years that followed, he returned repeatedly to the forty-ninth state. In 1977, after graduating from high school as a sixteen-year-old at the top of his class, he moved to Fairbanks and made Alaska his permanent home.
These days Roman teaches at Alaska Pacific University, in Anchorage, and enjoys statewide renown for a long, brash string of backcountry escapades: He has—among other feats—traveled the entire 1,000-mile length of the Brooks Range by foot and paddle, skied 250 miles across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in subzero winter cold, traversed the 700-mile crest of the Alaska Range, and pioneered more than thirty first ascents of northern peaks and crags. And Roman doesn’t see a great deal of difference between his own widely respected deeds and McCandless’s adventure, except that McCandless had the misfortune to perish.
I bring up McCandless’s hubris and the dumb mistakes he made—the two or three readily avoidable blunders that ended up costing him his life. “Sure, he screwed up,” Roman answers, “but I admire what he was trying to do. Living completely off the land like that, month after month, is incredibly difficult. I’ve never done it. And I’d bet you that very few, if any, of the people who call McCandless incompetent have ever done it either, not for more than a week or two. Living in the interior bush for an extended period, subsisting on nothing except what you hunt and gather—most people have no idea how hard that actually is. And McCandless almost pulled it off.
“I guess I just can’t help identifying with the guy,” Roman allows as he pokes the coals with a stick. “I hate to admit it, but not so many years ago it could easily have been me in the same kind of predicament. When I first started coming to Alaska, I think I was probably a lot like McCandless: just as green, just as eager. And I’m sure there are plenty of other Alaskans who had a lot in common with McCandless when they first got here, too, including many of his critics. Which is maybe why they’re so hard on him. Maybe McCandless reminds them a little too much of their former selves.”
Roman’s observation underscores how difficult it is for those of us preoccupied with the humdrum concerns of adulthood to recall how forcefully we were once buffeted by the passions and longings of youth. As Everett Ruess’s father mused years after his twenty-year-old son vanished in the desert, “The older person does not realize the soul-flights of the adolescent. I think we all poorly understood Everett.”
Roman, Andrew, and I stay up well past midnight, trying to make sense of McCandless’s life and death, yet his essence remains slippery, vague, elusive. Gradually, the conversation lags and falters. When I drift away from the fire to find a place to throw down my sleeping bag, the first faint smear of dawn is already bleaching the rim of the northeastern sky. Although the mosquitoes are thick tonight and the bus would no doubt offer some refuge, I decide not to bed down inside Fairbanks 142. Nor, I note before sinking into a dreamless sleep, do the others.
Chapter Eighteen (THE STAMPEDE TRAIL) It is nearly impossible for modern man to imagine what it is like to live by hunting. The life of a hunter is one of hard, seemingly continuous overland travel. … A life of frequent concerns that the next interception may not work, that the trap or the drive will fail, or that the herds will not appear this season. Above all, the life of a hunter carries with it the threat of deprivation and death by starvation.
JOHN M. CAMPBELL, THE HUNGRY SUMMER
Now what is history? It is the centuries of systematic explorations of the riddle of death, with a view to overcoming death. That’s why people discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves, that’s why they write symphonies. Now, you can’t advance in this direction without a certain faith. You can’t make such discoveries without spiritual equipment. And the basic elements of this equipment are in the Gospels. What are they? To begin with, love of one’s neighbor, which is the supreme form of vital energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and spend itself. And then the two basic ideals of modem man—without them he is unthinkable—the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice.
BORIS PASTERNAK, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO PASSAGE HIGHLIGHTED IN ONE OF THE BOOKS FOUND WITH CHRISTOPHER MCCANDLESS’S REMAINS; UNDERSCORING BY MCCANDLESS
After his attempt to depart the wilderness was stymied by the Teklanika’s high flow, McCandless arrived back at the bus on July 8. It’s impossible to know what was going through his mind at that point, for his journal betrays nothing. Quite possibly he was unconcerned about his escape route’s having been cut off; indeed, at the time there was little reason for him to worry: It was the height of summer, the country was a fecund riot of plant and animal life, and his food supply was adequate. He probably surmised that if he bided his time until August, the Teklanika would subside enough to be crossed.
Reestablished in the corroded shell of Fairbanks 142, McCandless fell back into his routine of hunting and gathering. He read Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Michael Crichton’s Terminal Man. He noted in his journal that it rained for a week straight. Game seems to have been plentiful: In the last three weeks of July, he killed thirty-five squirrels, four spruce grouse, five jays and woodpeckers, and two frogs, all of which he supplemented with wild potatoes, wild rhubarb, various species of berries, and large numbers of mushrooms. But despite this apparent munificence, the meat he’d been killing was very lean, and he was consuming fewer calories than he was burning. After subsisting for three months on an exceedingly marginal diet, McCandless had run up a sizable caloric deficit. He was balanced on a precarious edge. And then, in late July he made the mistake that pulled him down.
He had just finished reading Doctor Zhivago, a book that incited him to scribble excited notes in the margins and underline several passages:
Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.
“NATURE/PURITY,” he printed in bold characters at the top of the page.
Oh, how one wishes sometimes to escape from the meaningless dullness of human eloquence, from all those sublime phrases, to take refuge in nature, apparently so inarticulate, or in the wordlessness of long, grinding labor, of sound sleep, of true music, or of a human understanding rendered speechless by emotion!
McCandless starred and bracketed the paragraph and circled “refuge in nature” in black ink.
Next to “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness…. And this was most vexing of all,” he noted, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.”
It is tempting to regard this latter notation as further evidence that McCandlesss long, lonely sabbatical had changed him in some significant way. It can be interpreted to mean that he was ready, perhaps, to shed a little of the armor he wore around his heart, that upon returning to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community. But we will never know, because Doctor Zhivago was the last book Chris McCandless would ever read.
Two days after he finished the book, on July 30, there is an ominous entry in the journal: “EXTREMLY WEAK, FAULT OF POT. SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.” Before this note there is nothing in the journal to suggest that McCandless was in dire circumstances. He was hungry, and his meager diet had pared his body down to a feral scrawn of gristle and bone, but he seemed to be in reasonably good health. Then, after July 30, his physical condition suddenly went to hell. By August 19, he was dead.
There has been a lot of conjecture about what caused such a precipitous decline. In the days following the identification of McCandlesss remains, Wayne Westerberg vaguely recalled that Chris might have purchased some seeds in South Dakota before heading north, including perhaps some potato seeds, with which he intended to plant a vegetable garden after getting established in the bush. According to one theory, McCandless never got around to planting the garden (I saw no evidence of a garden in the vicinity of the bus) and by late July had grown hungry enough to eat the seeds, which poisoned him.
Potato seeds are in fact mildly toxic after they’ve begun to sprout. They contain solanine, a poison that occurs in plants of the nightshade family, which causes vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and lethargy in the short term, and adversely affects heart rate and blood pressure when ingested over an extended period. This theory has a serious flaw, however: In order for McCandless to have been incapacitated by potato seeds, he would have had to eat many, many pounds of them; and given the light weight of his pack when Gallien dropped him off, it is extremely unlikely that he carried more than a few grams of potato seeds, if he carried any at all.
But other scenarios involve potato seeds of an entirely different variety, and these scenarios are more plausible. Pages 126 and 127 of Tanaina Plantlore describe a plant that is called wild potato by the Dena’ina Indians, who harvested its carrotlike root. The plant, known to botanists as Hedysarum alpinum, grows in gravelly soil throughout the region.
According to Tanaina Plantlore, “The root of the wild potato is probably the most important food of the Dena’ina, other than wild fruit. They eat it in a variety of ways—raw, boiled, baked, or fried—and enjoy it especially dipped in oil or lard, in which they also preserve it.” The citation goes on to say that the best time to dig wild potatoes “is in the spring as soon as the ground thaws….During the summer they evidently become dry and tough.”
Priscilla Russell Kari, the author of Tanaina Plantlore, explained to me that “spring was a really hard time for the Dena’ina people, particularly in the past. Often the game they depended on for food didn’t show up, or the fish didn’t start running on time. So they depended on wild potatoes as a major staple until the fish came in late spring. It has a very sweet taste. It was—and still is—something they really like to eat.”
Above ground the wild potato grows as a bushy herb, two feet tall, with stalks of delicate pink flowers reminiscent of miniature sweet-pea blossoms. Taking a cue from Kari’s book, McCandless started to dig and eat wild potato roots on June 24, apparently without ill effect. On July 14, he began consuming the pealike seedpods of the plant as well, probably because the roots were becoming too tough to eat. A photograph he took during this period shows a one-gallon Ziploc plastic bag stuffed to overflowing with such seeds. And then, on July 30, the entry in his journal reads, “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED….”
One page after Tanaina Plantlore enumerates the wild potato, it describes a closely related species, wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii. Although a slightly smaller plant, wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart. There is only a single distinguishing characteristic that is absolutely reliable: On the underside of the wild potato’s tiny green leaflets are conspicuous lateral veins; such veins are invisible on the leaflets of the wild sweet pea.
Kari’s book warns that because wild sweet pea is so difficult to distinguish from wild potato and “is reported to be poisonous, care should be taken to identify them accurately before attempting to use the wild potato as food.” Accounts of individuals being poisoned from eating H. mackenzii are nonexistent in modern medical literature, but the aboriginal inhabitants of the North have apparently known for millennia that wild sweet pea is toxic and remain extremely careful not to confuse H. alpinum with H. mackenzii.
To find a documented poisoning attributable to wild sweet pea, I had to go all the way back to the nineteenth-century annals of Arctic exploration. I came across what I was looking for in the journals of Sir John Richardson, a famous Scottish surgeon, naturalist, and explorer. He’d been a member of the hapless Sir John Franklin’s first two expeditions and had survived both of them; it was Richardson who executed, by gunshot, the suspected murderer-cannibal on the first expedition. Richardson also happened to be the botanist who first wrote a scientific description of H. mackenzii and gave the plant its botanical name. In 1848, while leading an expedition through the Canadian Arctic in search of the by then missing Franklin, Richardson made a botanical comparison of H. alpinum and H. mackenzii. H. alpinum, he observed in his journal,
furnishes long flexible roots, which taste sweet like the liquorice, and are much eaten in the spring by the natives, but become woody and lose their juiciness and crispness as the season advances. The root of the hoary, decumbent, and less elegant, but larger-flowered Hedysarum mackenzii is poisonous, and nearly killed an old Indian woman at Fort Simpson, who had mistaken it for that of the preceding species. Fortunately, it proved emetic; and her stomach having rejected all that she had swallowed, she was restored to health, though her recovery was for some time doubtful.
It was easy to imagine Chris McCandless making the same mistake as the Indian woman and becoming similarly incapacitated. From all the available evidence, there seemed to be little doubt that McCandless—rash and incautious by nature—had committed a careless blunder, confusing one plant for another, and died as a consequence. In the Outside article. I reported with great certainty that H. mackenzii, the wild sweet pea, killed the boy. Virtually every other journalist who wrote about the McCandless tragedy drew the same conclusion.
But as the months passed and I had the opportunity to ponder McCandless’s death at greater length, this consensus came to seem less and less plausible. For three weeks beginning on June 24, McCandless had dug and safely eaten dozens of wild potato roots without mistaking H. mackenzii for H. alpinum; why, on July 14, when he started gathering seeds instead of roots, would he suddenly have confused the two species?
McCandless, I came to believe with increasing conviction, scrupulously steered clear of the reportedly toxic H. mackenzii and never ate its seeds or any other part of the plant. He was indeed poisoned, but the plant that killed him wasn’t wild sweet pea. The agent of his demise was wild potato, H. alpinum, the species plainly identified as nontoxic in Tanaina Plantlore.
The book advises only that the roots of the wild potato are edible. Although it says nothing about the seeds of the species being edible, it also says nothing about the seeds being toxic. Nor have the seeds of H. alpinum have ever been described as toxic in any other published text. But the pea family (Leguminosae, to which H. alpinum belongs) happens to be rife with species that produce alkaloids—chemical compounds that have powerful pharmacological effects on humans and animals. (Morphine, caffeine, nicotine, curare, strychnine, and mescaline are all alkaloids.) And in many alkaloid-producing species, moreover, the toxin is strictly localized within the plant.
“What happens with a lot of legumes,” explains John Bryant, a chemical ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, “is that the plants concentrate alkaloids in the seed coats in late summer, to discourage animals from eating their seeds. Depending on the time of year, it would not be uncommon for a plant with edible roots to have poisonous seeds. If a species does produce alkaloids, as fall approaches, the seeds are where the toxin is most likely to be found.”
During my visit to the Sushana River in 1993, I collected samples of H. alpinum growing within a few feet of the bus and sent some dried seedpods from this sample to Dr. Thomas Clausen, a colleague of Professor Bryants in the Chemistry Department at the University of Alaska. Although preliminary analysis by Clausen and a graduate student, Edward Treadwell, indicated the seeds contained traces of an alkaloid, subsequent, more thorough testing turned up no indication of any alkaloids whatsoever, toxic or otherwise.
I was baffled. Given the alarming, unambiguous entry McCandless had scrawled in his journal on July 30, I found it hard to believe that the enormous quantity of seeds he’d eaten just prior to that date played no role in his death.
Long after the first edition of this book was published in 1996, I continued to puzzle over the absence of alkaloids in the seeds tested by Clausen and Treadwell. Over a period of several years I doggedly sifted through the scientific literature, hoping to find a clue that would explain this conundrum. One afternoon I came across an article titled, “Identification of Swainsonine as a Probable Contributory Mycotoxin in Moldy Forage Mycotoxicoses.” The article described a fungus, Rhizoctonia leguminicola, which commonly grows on many species of legumes during the summer months in soggy climates. And R. leguminicola, it turns out, is a variety of mold that produces a potent alkaloid called swainsonine —a compound well known to ranchers and veterinarians as a killer of livestock. The literature of veterinary medicine is rife with cases of animals stricken by swainsonine poisoning after eating damp forage contaminated with R. leguminicola.
Upon reading further about the connection between R. leguminicola and swainsonine, I had an epiphany: It wasn’t the seeds of the wild potato that had done McCandless in; he was probably killed instead by mold that had been growing on those seeds. The dried seeds I’d sent Clausen and Treadwell had tested negative because they weren’t moldy. But there was ample reason to suspect the seeds on which McCandless dined during the last two weeks of July may have been contaminated with R. leguminicola.
He had begun to gather and eat large quantities of wild potato seeds on July 14, during an extended period of rainy weather. Between meals he stored these green seedpods in damp, unclean Ziploc bags—an excellent culture for the proliferation of mold. If the wild potato seeds McCandless ate were contaminated with swainsonine from an eruption of R. leguminicola, it means the guy wasn’t quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be. It means he didn’t carelessly confuse one species with another. The plant that poisoned him wasn’t toxic, per se; McCandless simply had the misfortune to eat moldy seeds. An innocent mistake, it was nevertheless sufficient to end his life.
The literature of veterinary medicine does not lack for cases of animals felled by swainsonine poisoning after grazing on forage contaminated with R. leguminicola. The most obvious symptoms of swainsonine poisoning are neurological. According to a paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, livestock that have ingested swainsonine show signs of “depression, a slow staggering gait, rough coat, dull eyes with a staring look, emaciation, muscular incoordination, and nervousness (especially when stressed). In addition, affected animals may become solitary and hard to handle, and may have difficulty eating and drinking.”
The effects of swainsonine poisoning are chronic—the alkaloid rarely kills outright. The toxin does the deed insidiously, indirectly, by inhibiting an enzyme essential to glycoprotein metabolism. It creates a massive vapor lock, as it were, in mammalian fuel lines: The body is prevented from turning what it eats into a source of usable energy. If you ingest too much swainsonine you are bound to starve, no matter how much food you put into your stomach.
Animals will sometimes recover from swainsonine poisoning after they stop eating contaminated forage, but only if they are in fairly robust condition to begin with. In order for the toxic compound to be excreted in the urine, it first has to bind with available molecules of glucose or amino acid. A large store of proteins and sugars must be present to mop up the poison and wring it from the body.
“The problem,” says Professor Bryant, “is that if you re lean and hungry to begin with, you’re obviously not going to have any glucose and protein to spare; so there’s no way to flush the toxin from your system. When a starving mammal ingests an alkaloid—even one as benign as caffeine—it’s going to get hit much harder by it than it normally would because they lack the glucose reserves necessary to excrete the stuff. The alkaloid is simply going to accumulate in the system. If McCandless ate a big slug of these seeds while he was already in a semi-starving condition, it would have been a setup for catastrophe.”
Laid low by the moldy seeds, McCandless discovered that he was suddenly far too weak to hike out and save himself. He was now too weak even to hunt effectively and thus grew weaker still, sliding closer and closer toward starvation. His life was spiraling toward the brink with awful speed.
There are no journal entries for July 31 or August 1. On August 2, the diary says only, “TERRIBLE WIND.” Autumn was just around the corner. The temperature was dropping, and the days were becoming noticeably shorter: Each rotation of the earth held seven fewer minutes of daylight and seven more of cold and darkness; in the span of a single week, the night grew nearly an hour longer.
“DAY 100! MADE IT!” he noted jubilantly on August 5, proud of achieving such a significant milestone, “BUT IN WEAKEST CONDITION OF LIFE. DEATH LOOMS AS SERIOUS THREAT. TOO WEAK TO WALK OUT, HAVE LITERALLY BECOME TRAPPED IN THE WILD.—NO GAME.”
If McCandless had possessed a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map, it would have alerted him to the existence of a Park Service cabin on the upper Sushana River, six miles due south of the bus, a distance he might have been able to cover even in his severely weakened state. The cabin, just inside the boundary of Denali National Park, had been stocked with a small amount of emergency food, bedding, and first-aid supplies for the use of backcountry rangers on their winter patrols. And although they aren’t marked on the map, two miles even closer to the bus are a pair of private cabins—one owned by the well-known Healy dog mushers Will and Linda Forsberg; the other, by an employee of Denali National Park, Steve Carwile—where there should have been some food as well.
McCandless’s apparent salvation, in other words, seemed to be only a three-hour walk upriver. This sad irony was widely noted in the aftermath of his death. But even if he had known about these cabins, they wouldn’t have delivered McCandless from harm: At some point after mid-April, when the last of the cabins was vacated as the spring thaw made dog mushing and snow-machine travel problematic, somebody broke into all three cabins and vandalized them extensively. The food inside was exposed to animals and the weather, ruining it.
The damage wasn’t discovered until late July, when a wildlife biologist named Paul Atkinson made the grueling ten-mile bushwhack over the Outer Range, from the road into Denali National Park to the Park Service shelter. He was shocked and baffled by the mindless destruction that greeted him. “It was obviously not the work of a bear,” Atkinson reports. “I’m a bear technician, so I know what bear damage looks like. This looked like somebody had gone at the cabins with a claw hammer and bashed everything in sight. From the size of the fireweed growing up through mattresses that had been tossed outside, it was clear that the vandalism had occurred many weeks earlier.”
“It was completely trashed,” Will Forsberg says of his cabin. “Everything that wasn’t nailed down had been wrecked. All the lamps were broken and most of the windows. The bedding and mattresses had been pulled outside and thrown in a heap, ceiling boards yanked down, fuel cans were punctured, the wood stove was removed—even a big carpet had been hauled out to rot. And all the food was gone. So the cabins wouldn’t have helped Alex much even if he had found them. Or then again, maybe he did.”
Forsberg considers McCandless the prime suspect. He believes McCandless blundered upon the cabins after arriving at the bus during the first week of May, flew into a rage over the intrusion of civilization on his precious wilderness experience, and systematically wrecked the buildings. This theory fails to explain, however, why McCandless didn’t, then, also trash the bus.
Carwile also suspects McCandless. “It’s just intuition,” he explains, “but I get the feeling he was the kind of guy who might want to ‘set the wilderness free.” Destroying the cabins would be a way of doing that. Or maybe it was his intense dislike of the government: He saw the sign on the Park Service cabin identifying it as such, assumed all three cabins were government property, and decided to strike a blow against Big Brother. That certainly seems within the realm of possibility.”
The authorities, for their part, don’t think McCandless was the vandal. “We really hit a blank on who might have done it,” says Ken Kehrer, chief ranger for Denali National Park. “But Chris McCandless isn’t considered a suspect by the National Park Service.” In fact, there is nothing in McCandless’s journal or photographs to suggest he went anywhere near the cabins. When McCandless ventured beyond the bus in early May, his pictures show that he headed north, downstream along the Sushana, the opposite direction of the cabins. And even if he had somehow chanced upon them, it’s difficult to imagine him destroying the buildings without boasting of the deed in his diary.
There are no entries in McCandlesss journal for August 6, 7, and 8. On August 9, he notes that he shot at a bear but missed. On August 10, he saw a caribou but didn’t get a shot off, and he killed five squirrels. If a sufficient amount of swainsonine had accumulated in his body, however, this windfall of small game would have provided little nourishment. On August 11, he killed and ate one ptarmigan. On August 12, he dragged himself out of the bus to forage for berries, after posting a plea for assistance in the unlikely event that someone would stop by while he was away. Written in meticulous block letters on a page torn from Gogol’s Taras Bulba, it reads:
S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU.
He signed the note “CHRIS MCCANDLESS. AUGUST?” Recognizing the gravity of his predicament, he had abandoned the cocky moniker he’d been using for years, Alexander Supertramp, in favor of the name given to him at birth by his parents.
Many Alaskans have wondered why, in his desperation, McCandless didn’t start a forest fire at this point, as a distress signal. There were two nearly full gallons of stove gas in the bus; presumably, it would have been a simple matter to start a conflagration large enough to attract the attention of passing airplanes or at least burn a giant SOS into the muskeg.
Contrary to common belief, however, the bus doesn’t lie beneath any established flight path, and very few planes fly over it. Over the four days I spent on the Stampede Trail, I didn’t see a single aircraft overhead, other than commercial jets flying at altitudes greater than twenty-five thousand feet. Small planes did no doubt pass within sight of the bus from time to time, but McCandless would probably have had to start a fairly large forest fire to be sure of attracting their attention. And as Carine McCandless points out, “Chris would never, ever, intentionally burn down a forest, not even to save his life. Anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t understand the first thing about my brother.”
Starvation is not a pleasant way to expire. In advanced stages of famine, as the body begins to consume itself, the victim suffers muscle pain, heart disturbances, loss of hair, dizziness, shortness of breath, extreme sensitivity to cold, physical and mental exhaustion. The skin becomes discolored. In the absence of key nutrients, a severe chemical imbalance develops in the brain, inducing convulsions and hallucinations. Some people who have been brought back from the far edge of starvation, though, report that near the end the hunger vanishes, the terrible pain dissolves, and the suffering is replaced by a sublime euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity. It would be nice to think McCandless experienced a similar rapture.
On August 12, he wrote what would prove to be the final words in his journal: “Beautiful Blueberries.” From August 13 through 18, his journal records nothing beyond a tally of the days. At some point during this week, he tore the final page from Louis L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man. On one side of the page were some lines L’Amour had quoted from Robinson Jeffers’s poem, “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours”:
Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made Something more equal to the centuries Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness. The mountains are dead stone, the people Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness, The mountains are not softened or troubled And a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper.
On the other side of the page, which was blank, McCandless penned a brief adios: “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”
Then he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had sewn for him and slipped into unconsciousness. He probably died on August 18, 112 days after he’d walked into the wild, 19 days before six Alaskans would happen across the bus and discover his body inside.
One of his last acts was to take a picture of himself, standing near the bus under the high Alaska sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave, beatific farewell. His face is horribly emaciated, almost skeletal. But if he pitied himself in those last difficult hours—because he was so young, because he was alone, because his body had betrayed him and his will had let him down—it’s not apparent from the photograph. He is smiling in the picture, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.
Epilogue Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times. There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.
EDWARD WHYMPER, SCRAMBLES AMONGST THE ALPS
We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.
There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.
ANNIE DILLARD, HOLY THE FIRM
The helicopter labors upward, thwock-thwock-thwocking over the shoulder of Mt. Healy. As the altimeter needle brushes five thousand feet, we crest a mud-colored ridge, the earth drops away, and a breathtaking sweep of taiga fills the Plexiglas windscreen. In the distance I can pick out the Stampede Trail, cutting a faint, crooked stripe from east to west across the landscape.
Billie McCandless is in the front passenger seat; Walt and I occupy the back. Ten hard months have passed since Sam McCandless appeared at their Chesapeake Beach doorstep to tell them Chris was dead. It is time, they have decided, to visit the place where their son met his end, to see it with their own eyes.
Walt has spent the past ten days in Fairbanks, doing contract work for NASA, developing an airborne radar system for search-and-rescue missions that will enable searchers to find the wreckage of a downed plane amid thousands of acres of densely forested country. For several days now he’s been distracted, irritable, edgy. Billie, who arrived in Alaska two days ago, confided to me that the prospect of visiting the bus has been difficult for him to come to terms with. Surprisingly, she says she feels calm and centered and has been looking forward to this trip for some time.
Taking a helicopter was a last-minute change of plans. Billie wanted badly to travel overland, to follow the Stampede Trail as Chris had done. Toward that end she’d contacted Butch Killian, the Healy coal miner who’d been present when Chris’s body was discovered, and he agreed to drive Walt and Billie into the bus on his all-terrain vehicle. But yesterday Killian called their hotel to say that the Teklanika River was still running high—too high, he worried, to cross safely, even with his amphibious, eight-wheeled Argo. Thus the helicopter.
Two thousand feet beneath the aircraft’s skids a mottled green tweed of muskeg and spruce forest now blankets the rolling country. The Teklanika appears as a long brown ribbon thrown carelessly across the land. An unnaturally bright object comes into view near the confluence of two smaller streams: Fairbanks bus 142. It has taken us fifteen minutes to cover the distance it took Chris four days to walk.
The helicopter settles noisily onto the ground, the pilot kills the engine, and we hop down onto sandy earth. A moment later the machine lifts off in a hurricane of prop wash, leaving us surrounded by a monumental silence. As Walt and Billie stand ten yards from the bus, staring at the anomalous vehicle without speaking, a trio of jays prattles from a nearby aspen tree.
“It’s smaller,” Billie finally says, “than I thought it would be. I mean the bus.” And then, turning to take in the surroundings: “What a pretty place. I can’t believe how much this reminds me of where I grew up. Oh, Walt, it looks just like the Upper Peninsula! Chris must have loved being here.”
“I have a lot of reasons for disliking Alaska, OK?” Walt answers, scowling. “But I admit it—the place has a certain beauty. I can see what appealed to Chris.”
For the next thirty minutes Walt and Billie walk quietly around the decrepit vehicle, amble down to the Sushana River, visit the nearby woods.
Billie is the first to enter the bus. Walt returns from the stream to find her sitting on the mattress where Chris died, taking in the vehicle’s shabby interior. For a long time she gazes silently at her son’s boots under the stove, his handwriting on the walls, his toothbrush. But today there are no tears. Picking through the clutter on the table, she bends to examine a spoon with a distinctive floral pattern on the handle. “Walt, look at this,” she says. “This is the silverware we had in the Annandale house.”
At the front of the bus, Billie picks up a pair of Chris’s patched, ragged jeans and, closing her eyes, presses them to her face. “Smell,” she urges her husband with a painful smile. “They still smell like Chris.” After a long beat she declares, to herself more than to anyone else, “He must have been very brave and very strong, at the end, not to do himself in.”
Billie and Walt wander in and out of the bus for the next two hours. Walt installs a memorial just inside the door, a simple brass plaque inscribed with a few words. Beneath it Billie arranges a bouquet of fireweed, monkshood, yarrow, and spruce boughs. Under the bed at the rear of the bus, she leaves a suitcase stocked with a first-aid kit, canned food, other survival supplies, a note urging whoever happens to read it to “call your parents as soon as possible.” The suitcase also holds a Bible that belonged to Chris when he was a child, even though, she allows, “I haven’t prayed since we lost him.”
Walt, in a reflective mood, has had little to say, but he appears more at ease than he has in many days. “I didn’t know how I was going to react to this,” he admits, gesturing toward the bus. “But now I’m glad we came.” This brief visit, he says, has given him a slightly better understanding of why his boy came into this country. There is much about Chris that still baffles him and always will, but now he is a little less baffled. And for that small solace he is grateful.
“It’s comforting to know Chris was here,” Billie explains, “to know for certain that he spent time beside this river, that he stood on this patch of ground. So many places we’ve visited in the past three years—we’d wonder if possibly Chris had been there. It was terrible not knowing—not knowing anything at all.
“Many people have told me that they admire Chris for what he was trying to do. If he’d lived, I would agree with them. But he didn’t, and there’s no way to bring him back. You can’t fix it. Most things you can fix, but not that. I don’t know that you ever get over this kind of loss. The fact that Chris is gone is a sharp hurt I feel every single day. It’s really hard. Some days are better than others, but it’s going to be hard every day for the rest of my life.”
Abruptly, the quiet is shattered by the percussive racket of the helicopter, which spirals down from the clouds and lands in a patch of fireweed. We climb inside; the chopper shoulders into the sky and then hovers for a moment before banking steeply to the southeast. For a few minutes the roof of the bus remains visible among the stunted trees, a tiny white gleam in a wild green sea, growing smaller and smaller, and then it’s gone.
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