THE ALASKA INTERIOR
/ wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life; to divest myself of the factitious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilization; ... and to find, amidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and of the true interests of man. The season of snows was preferred, that I might experience the pleasure of suffering, and the novelty of danger.
estwick evans, A pedestrious tour, of four thousand miles, through the western states and territories, during the winter and spring of 1818
Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation.
roderick nash, wilderness and the american mind
On April 15, 1992, Chris McCandless departed Carthage, South Dakota, in the cab of a Mack truck hauling a load of sunflower seeds: His “great Alaskan odyssey” was under way. Three days later he crossed the Canadian border at Roosville, British Columbia, and thumbed north through Skookumchuck and Ra-
dium Junction, Lake Louise and Jasper, Prince George and Daw-son Creek—where, in the town center, he took a snapshot of the signpost marking the official start of the Alaska Highway. mile “0,” the sign reads, fairbanks 1,523 miles.
Hitchhiking tends to be difficult on the Alaska Highway. It’s not unusual, on the outskirts of Dawson Creek, to see a dozen or more doleful-looking men and women standing along the shoulder with extended thumbs. Some of them may wait a week or more between rides. But McCandless experienced no such delay. On April 21, just six days out of Carthage, he arrived at Liard River Hotsprings, at the threshold of the Yukon Territory.
There is a public campground at Liard River, from which a boardwalk leads half a mile across a marsh to a series of natural thermal pools. It is the most popular way-stop on the Alaska Highway, and McCandless decided to pause there for a soak in the soothing waters. When he finished bathing and attempted to catch another ride north, however, he discovered that his luck had changed. Nobody would pick him up. Two days after arriving, he was still at Liard River, impatiently going nowhere.
At six-thirty on a brisk Thursday morning, the ground still frozen hard, Gaylord Stuckey walked out on the boardwalk to the largest of the pools, expecting to have the place to himself. He was surprised, therefore, to find someone already in the steaming water, a young man who introduced himself as Alex.
Stuckey—bald and cheerful, a ham-faced sixty-three-year-old Hoosier—was en route from Indiana to Alaska to deliver a new motor home to a Fairbanks RV dealer, a part-time line of work in which he’d dabbled since retiring after forty years in the restaurant business. When he told McCandless his destination, the boy exclaimed, “Hey, that’s where I’m going, too! But I’ve been stuck here for a couple of days now, trying to get a lift. You mind if I ride with you?”
“Oh, jiminy,” Stuckey replied. “I’d love to, son, but I can’t. The company I work for has a strict rule against picking up hitchhikers. It could get me canned.” As he chatted with McCandless through the sulfurous mist, though, Stuckey began to reconsider: “Alex was clean-shaven and had short hair, and I could tell by the language he used that he was a real sharp fella. He wasn’t what you’d call a typical hitchhiker. I’m usually leery of ‘em. I figure there’s probably something wrong with a guy if he can’t even afford a bus ticket. So anyway, after about half an hour I said, ‘I tell you what, Alex: Liard is a thousand miles from Fairbanks. I’ll take you five hundred miles, as far as Whitehorse; you’ll be able to get a ride the rest of the way from there.’”
A day and a half later, however, when they arrived in White-horse—the capital of the Yukon Territory and the largest, most cosmopolitan town on the Alaska Highway—Stuckey had come to enjoy McCandless’s company so much that he changed his mind and agreed to drive the boy the entire distance. “Alex didn’t come out and say too much at first,” Stuckey reports. “But it’s a long, slow drive. We spent a total of three days together on those washboard roads, and by the end he kind of let his guard down. I tell you what: He was a dandy kid. Real courteous, and he didn’t cuss or use a lot of that there slang. You could tell he came from a nice family. Mostly he talked about his sister. He didn’t get along with his folks too good, I guess. Told me his dad was a genius, a NASA rocket scientist, but he’d been a bigamist at one time—and that kind of went against Alex’s grain. Said he hadn’t seen his parents in a couple of years, since his college graduation.”
McCandless was candid with Stuckey about his intent to spend the summer alone in the bush, living off the land. “He said it was something he’d wanted to do since he was little,” says Stuckey. “Said he didn’t want to see a single person, no airplanes, no sign of civilization. He wanted to prove to himself that he could make it on his own, without anybody else’s help.”
Stuckey and McCandless arrived in Fairbanks on the afternoon of April 25. The older man took the boy to a grocery store, where he bought a big bag of rice, “and then Alex said he wanted to go out to the university to study up on what kind of plants he could eat. Berries and things like that. I told him, ‘Alex, you’re too early. There’s still two foot, three foot of snow on the ground. There’s nothing growing yet.’ But his mind was pretty well made up. He was champing at the bit to get out there and start hiking.”
Stuckey drove to the University of Alaska campus, on the west end of Fairbanks, and dropped McCandless off at 5:30 p.m.
“Before I let him out,” Stuckey says, “I told him, ‘Alex, I’ve driven you a thousand miles. I’ve fed you and fed you for three straight days. The least you can do is send me a letter when you get back from Alaska.’ And he promised he would.
“I also begged and pleaded with him to call his parents. I can’t imagine anything worse than having a son out there and not knowing where he’s at for years and years, not knowing whether he’s living or dead. ‘Here’s my credit card number,’ I told him. ‘Please call them!’ But all he said was ‘Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.’ After he left, I thought, ‘Oh, why didn’t I get his parents’ phone number and call them myself?’ But everything just kind of happened so quick.”
After dropping McCandless at the university, Stuckey drove into town to deliver the RV to the appointed dealer, only to be told that the person responsible for checking in new vehicles had already gone home for the day and wouldn’t be back until Monday morning, leaving Stuckey with two days to kill in Fairbanks before he could fly home to Indiana. On Sunday morning, with time on his hands, he returned to the campus. “I hoped to find Alex and spend another day with him, take him sightseeing or something. I looked for a couple of hours, drove all over the place, but didn’t see hide or hair of him. He was already gone.”
After taking his leave of Stuckey on Saturday evening, McCandless spent two days and three nights in the vicinity of Fairbanks, mostly at the university. In the campus book store, tucked away on the bottom shelf of the Alaska section, he came across a scholarly, exhaustively researched field guide to the region’s edible plants, Tanaina Plantlore/Dena’ina K’et’una: An Ethnobotany of the Dena’ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska by Priscilla Russell Kari. From a postcard rack near the cash register, he picked out two cards of a polar bear, on which he sent his final messages to Wayne Westerberg and Jan Burres from the university post office.
Perusing the classified ads, McCandless found a used gun to buy, a semiautomatic .22-caliber Remington with a 4-x-20 scope and a plastic stock. A model called the Nylon 66, no longer in production, it was a favorite of Alaska trappers because of its light weight and reliability. He closed the deal in a parking lot, probably paying about $125 for the weapon, and then purchased four one-hundred-round boxes of hollow-point long-rifle shells from a nearby gun shop.
At the conclusion of his preparations in Fairbanks, McCandless loaded up his pack and started hiking west from the university. Leaving the campus, he walked past the Geophysical Institute, a tall glass-and-concrete building capped with a large satellite dish. The dish, one of the most distinctive landmarks on the Fairbanks skyline, had been erected to collect data from satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar of Walt McCandless’s design. Walt had in fact visited Fairbanks during the start-up of the receiving station and had written some of the software crucial to its operation. If the Geophysical Institute prompted Chris to think of his father as he tramped by, the boy left no record of it.
Four miles west of town, in the evening’s deepening chill, McCandless pitched his tent on a patch of hard-frozen ground surrounded by birch trees, not far from the crest of a bluff overlooking Gold Hill Gas & Liquor. Fifty yards from his camp was the terraced road cut of the George Parks Highway, the road that would take him to the Stampede Trail. He woke early on the morning of April 28, walked down to the highway in the predawn gloaming, and was pleasantly surprised when the first vehicle to come along pulled over to give him a lift. It was a gray Ford pickup with a bumper sticker on the back that declared, i fish therefore i am. petersburg, alaska. The driver of the truck, an electrician on his way to Anchorage, wasn’t much older than McCandless. He said his name was Jim Gallien.
Three hours later Gallien turned his truck west off the highway and drove as far as he could down an unplowed side road. When he dropped McCandless off on the Stampede Trail, the temperature was in the low thirties—it would drop into the low teens at night—and a foot and a half of crusty spring snow covered the ground. The boy could hardly contain his excitement. He was, at long last, about to be alone in the vast Alaska wilds.
As he trudged expectantly down the trail in a fake-fur parka, his rifle slung over one shoulder, the only food McCandless carried was a ten-pound bag of long-grained rice—and the two sandwiches and bag of corn chips that Gallien had contributed. A year earlier he’d subsisted for more than a month beside the Gulf of California on five pounds of rice and a bounty of fish caught with a cheap rod and reel, an experience that made him confident he could harvest enough food to survive an extended stay in the Alaska wilderness, too.
The heaviest item in McCandless’s half-full backpack was his library: nine or ten paperbound books, most of which had been given to him by Jan Burres in Niland. Among these volumes were titles by Thoreau and Tolstoy and Gogol, but McCandless was no literary snob: He simply carried what he thought he might enjoy reading, including mass-market books by Michael Crichton, Robert Pirsig, and Louis L’Amour. Having neglected to pack writing paper, he began a laconic journal on some blank pages in the back of Tanaina Plantlore.
The Healy terminus of the Stampede Trail is traveled by a handful of dog mushers, ski tourers, and snow-machine enthusiasts during the winter months, but only until the frozen rivers begin to break up, in late March or early April. By the time McCandless headed into the bush, there was open water flowing on most of the larger streams, and nobody had been very far down the trail for two or three weeks; only the faint remnants of a packed snow-machine track remained for him to follow.
McCandless reached the Teklanika River his second day out. Although the banks were lined with a jagged shelf of frozen overflow, no ice bridges spanned the channel of open water, so he was forced to wade. There had been a big thaw in early April, and breakup had come early in 1992, but the weather had turned cold again, so the river’s volume was quite low when McCandless crossed—probably thigh-deep at most—allowing him to splash to the other side without difficulty. He never suspected that in so doing, he was crossing his Rubicon. To McCandless’s inexperienced eye, there was nothing to suggest that two months hence, as the glaciers and snowfields at the Teklanika’s headwater thawed in the summer heat, its discharge would multiply nine or ten times in volume, transforming the river into a deep, violent torrent that bore no resemblance to the gentle brook he’d blithely waded across in April.
From his journal we know that on April 29, McCandless fell through the ice somewhere. It probably happened as he traversed a series of melting beaver ponds just beyond the Teklanika’s western bank, but there is nothing to indicate that he suffered any harm in the mishap. A day later, as the trail crested a ridge, he got his first glimpse of Mt. McKinley s high, blinding-white bulwarks, and a day after that, May 1, some twenty miles down the trail from where he was dropped by Gallien, he stumbled upon the old bus beside the Sushana River. It was outfitted with a bunk and a barrel stove, and previous visitors had left the improvised shelter stocked with matches, bug dope, and other essentials. “Magic Bus Day,” he wrote in his journal. He decided to lay over for a while in the vehicle and take advantage of its crude comforts.
He was elated to be there. Inside the bus, on a sheet of weathered plywood spanning a broken window, McCandless scrawled an exultant declaration of independence:
two years he walks the earth. no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. ultimate freedom. an extremist. anaesthetic voyager whose home is the road. escaped from atlanta. thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the west is the best. “ and now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north. no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.
alexander supertramp MAY1992
Reality, however, was quick to intrude on McCandless’s reverie. He had difficulty killing game, and the daily journal entries during his first week in the bush include “Weakness,” “Snowed in,” and “Disaster.” He saw but did not shoot a grizzly on May 2, shot at but missed some ducks on May 4, and finally killed and ate a spruce grouse on May 5; but he didn’t shoot anything else until May 9, when he bagged a single small squirrel, by which point he’d written “4th day famine” in the journal.
But soon thereafter his fortunes took a sharp turn for the better. By mid-May the sun was circling high in the heavens, flooding the taiga with light. The sun dipped below the northern horizon for fewer than four hours out of every twenty-four, and at midnight the sky was still bright enough to read by. Everywhere but on the north-facing slopes and in the shadowy ravines, the snowpack had melted down to bare ground, exposing the previous season’s rose hips and lingonberries, which McCandless gathered and ate in great quantity.
He also became much more successful at hunting game and for the next six weeks feasted regularly on squirrel, spruce grouse, duck, goose, and porcupine. On May 22, a crown fell off one of his molars, but the event didn’t seem to dampen his spirits much, because the following day he scrambled up the nameless, humplike, three-thousand-foot butte that rises directly north of the bus, giving him a view of the whole icy sweep of the Alaska Range and mile after mile of uninhabited country. His journal entry for the day is characteristically terse but unmistakably joyous: “CLIMB MOUNTAIN!”
McCandless had told Gallien that he intended to remain on the move during his stay in the bush. “I’m just going to take off and keep walking west,” he’d said. “I might walk all the way to the Bering Sea.” On May 5, after pausing for four days at the bus, he resumed his perambulation. From the snapshots recovered with his Minolta, it appears that McCandless lost (or intentionally left) the by now indistinct Stampede Trail and headed west and north through the hills above the Sushana River, hunting game as he went.
It was slow going. In order to feed himself, he had to devote a large part of each day to stalking animals. Moreover, as the ground thawed, his route turned into a gauntlet of boggy muskeg and impenetrable alder, and McCandless belatedly came to appreciate one of the fundamental (if counterintuitive) axioms of the North: winter, not summer, is the preferred season for traveling overland through the bush.
Faced with the obvious folly of his original ambition, to walk five hundred miles to tidewater, he reconsidered his plans. On May 19, having traveled no farther west than the Toklat River— less than fifteen miles beyond the bus—he turned around. A week later he was back at the derelict vehicle, apparently without regret. He’d decided that the Sushana drainage was plenty wild to suit his purposes and that Fairbanks bus 142 would make a fine base camp for the remainder of the summer.
Ironically, the wilderness surrounding the bus—the patch of overgrown country where McCandless was determined “to become lost in the wild”—scarcely qualifies as wilderness by Alaska standards. Less than thirty miles to the east is a major thoroughfare, the George Parks Highway. Just sixteen miles to the south, beyond an escarpment of the Outer Range, hundreds of tourists rumble daily into Denali Park over a road patrolled by the National Park Service. And unbeknownst to the Aesthetic Voyager, scattered within a six-mile radius of the bus are four cabins (although none happened to be occupied during the summer of 1992).
But despite the relative proximity of the bus to civilization, for all practical purposes McCandless was cut off from the rest of the world. He spent nearly four months in the bush all told, and during that period he didn’t encounter another living soul. In the end the Sushana River site was sufficiently remote to cost him his life.
In the last week of May, after moving his few possessions into the bus, McCandless wrote a list of housekeeping chores on a parchmentlike strip of birch bark: collect and store ice from the river for refrigerating meat, cover the vehicle s missing windows with plastic, lay in a supply of firewood, clean the accumulation of old ash from the stove. And under the heading “LONG TERM” he drew up a list of more ambitious tasks: map the area, improvise a bathtub, collect skins and feathers to sew into clothing, construct a bridge across a nearby creek, repair mess kit, blaze a network of hunting trails.
The diary entries following his return to the bus catalog a bounty of wild meat. May 28: “Gourmet Duck!” June 1: “5 Squirrel.” June 2: “Porcupine, Ptarmigan, 4 Squirrel, Grey Bird.” June 3: “Another Porcupine! 4 Squirrel, 2 Grey Bird, Ash Bird.” June 4: “A THIRD PORCUPINE! Squirrel, Grey Bird.” On June 5, he shot a Canada goose as big as a Christmas turkey. Then, on June 9. he bagged the biggest prize of all: “MOOSE!” he recorded in the journal. Overjoyed, the proud hunter took a photograph of himself kneeling over his trophy, rifle thrust triumphantly overhead, his features distorted in a rictus of ecstasy and amazement, like some unemployed janitor who’d gone to Reno and won a million-dollar jackpot.
Although McCandless was enough of a realist to know that hunting game was an unavoidable component of living off the land, he had always been ambivalent about killing animals. That ambivalence turned to remorse soon after he shot the moose. It was relatively small, weighing perhaps six hundred or seven hundred pounds, but it nevertheless amounted to a huge quantity of meat. Believing that it was morally indefensible to waste any part of an animal that has been shot for food, McCandless spent six days toiling to preserve what he had killed before it spoiled. He butchered the carcass under a thick cloud of flies and mosquitoes, boiled the organs into a stew, and then laboriously excavated a burrow in the face of the rocky stream bank directly below the bus, in which he tried to cure, by smoking, the immense slabs of purple flesh.
Alaskan hunters know that the easiest way to preserve meat in the bush is to slice it into thin strips and then air-dry it on a makeshift rack. But McCandless, in his naivete, relied on the advice of hunters he’d consulted in South Dakota, who advised him to smoke his meat, not an easy task under the circumstances. “Butchering extremely difficult,” he wrote in the journal on June
10. “Fly and mosquito hordes. Remove intestines, liver, kidneys, one lung, steaks. Get hindquarters and leg to stream.”
June 11: “Remove heart and other lung. Two front legs and head. Get rest to stream. Haul near cave. Try to protect with smoker.”
June 12: “Remove half rib-cage and steaks. Can only work nights. Keep smokers going.”
June 13: “Get remainder of rib-cage, shoulder and neck to cave. Start smoking.”
June 14: “Maggots already! Smoking appears ineffective. Don’t know, looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.”
At that point he gave up on preserving the bulk of the meat and abandoned the carcass to the wolves. Although he castigated himself severely for this waste of a life he’d taken, a day later McCandless appeared to regain some perspective, for his journal notes, “henceforth will learn to accept my errors, however great they be.”
Shortly after the moose episode McCandless began to read Thoreau’s Walden. In the chapter titled “Higher Laws,” in which Thoreau ruminates on the morality of eating, McCandless highlighted, “when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to.”
“THE MOOSE,” McCandless wrote in the margin. And in the same passage he marked,
The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appeared more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind....
It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as will not offend the imagination; but this, I think, is to be fed when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table. Yet perhaps this may be done. The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites, nor interrupt the worthiest pursuits. But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you.
“YES,” wrote McCandless and, two pages later, “Consciousness of food. Eat and cook with concentration... Holy Food.” On the back pages of the book that served as his journal, he declared:
I am reborn. This is my dawn. Real life has just begun.
Deliberate Living: Conscious attention to the basics of life, and a constant attention to your immediate environment and its concerns, examples A job, a task, a book; anything requiring efficient concentration (Circumstance has no value. It is how one relates to a situation that has value. All true meaning resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon, what it means to you).
The Great Holiness of
FOOD,the Vital Heat.
Positivism, the Insurpassable Joy of the Life Aesthetic.
Absolute Truth and Honesty.
As McCandless gradually stopped rebuking himself for the waste of the moose, the contentment that began in mid-May resumed and seemed to continue through early July. Then, in the midst of this idyll, came the first of two pivotal setbacks.
Satisfied, apparently, with what he had learned during his two months of solitary life in the wild, McCandless decided to return to civilization: It was time to bring his “final and greatest adventure” to a close and get himself back to the world of men and women, where he could chug a beer, talk philosophy, enthrall strangers with tales of what he’d done. He seemed to have moved beyond his need to assert so adamantly his autonomy, his need to separate himself from his parents. Maybe he was prepared to forgive their imperfections; maybe he was even prepared to forgive some of his own. McCandless seemed ready, perhaps, to go home.
Or maybe not; we can do no more than speculate about what he intended to do after he walked out of the bush. There is no question, however, that he intended to walk out.
Writing on a piece of birch bark, he made a list of things to do before he departed: “Patch Jeans, Shave!, Organize pack...” Shortly thereafter he propped his Minolta on an empty oil drum and took a snapshot of himself brandishing a yellow disposable razor and grinning at the camera, clean-shaven, with new patches cut from an army blanket stitched onto the knees of his filthy jeans. He looks healthy but alarmingly gaunt. Already his cheeks are sunken. The tendons in his neck stand out like taut cables.
On July 2, McCandless finished reading Tolstoys “Family Happiness,” having marked several passages that moved him:
He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others....
I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor—such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps—what more can the heart of a man desire?
Then, on July 3, he shouldered his backpack and began the twenty-mile hike to the improved road. Two days later, halfway there, he arrived in heavy rain at the beaver ponds that blocked access to the west bank of the Teklanika River. In April they’d been frozen over and hadn’t presented an obstacle. Now he must have been alarmed to find a three-acre lake covering the trail. To avoid having to wade through the murky chest-deep water, he scrambled up a steep hillside, bypassed the ponds on the north, and then dropped back down to the river at the mouth of the gorge.
When he’d first crossed the river, sixty-seven days earlier in the freezing temperatures of April, it had been an icy but gentle knee-deep creek, and he’d simply strolled across it. On July 5, however, the Teklanika was at full flood, swollen with rain and snowmelt from glaciers high in the Alaska Range, running cold and fast.
If he could reach the far shore, the remainder of the hike to the highway would be easy, but to get there he would have to negotiate a channel some one hundred feet wide. The water, opaque with glacial sediment and only a few degrees warmer than the ice it had so recently been, was the color of wet concrete. Too deep to wade, it rumbled like a freight train. The powerful current would quickly knock him off his feet and carry him away.
McCandless was a weak swimmer and had confessed to several people that he was in fact afraid of the water. Attempting to swim the numbingly cold torrent or even to paddle some sort of improvised raft across seemed too risky to consider. Just downstream from where the trail met the river, the Teklanika erupted into a chaos of boiling whitewater as it accelerated through the narrow gorge. Long before he could swim or paddle to the far shore, he’d be pulled into these rapids and drowned.
In his journal he now wrote, “Disaster.... Rained in. River look impossible. Lonely, scared.” He concluded, correctly, that he would probably be swept to his death if he attempted to cross the Teklanika at that place, in those conditions. It would be suicidal; it was simply not an option.
If McCandless had walked a mile or so upstream, he would have discovered that the river broadened into a maze of braided channels. If he’d scouted carefully, by trial and error he might have found a place where these braids were only chest-deep. As strong as the current was running, it would have certainly knocked him off his feet, but by dog-paddling and hopping along the bottom as he drifted downstream, he could conceivably have made it across before being carried into the gorge or succumbing to hypothermia.
But it would still have been a very risky proposition, and at that point McCandless had no reason to take such a risk. He’d
been fending for himself quite nicely in the country. He probably understood that if he was patient and waited, the river would eventually drop to a level where it could be safely forded. After weighing his options, therefore, he settled on the most prudent course. He turned around and began walking to the west, back toward the bus, back into the fickle heart of the bush.
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