Updated: Sep 22, 2021
“If you want something in this life, reach out and grab it.”
For some, life is about finding comfort. Finding the right job or finding the right partner, all in order to create the most comfortable life possible. For others, life is about constant growth. Growth comes from leaving those comfortable circumstances and facing your fears with a vehement eye. I tend to resonate with the notion that comfort in life often dampens your motivation to turn the page to a new chapter. You discover a lot about yourself when you stop and ask, “what do I truly want out of life, and how do I get there?” You either pump the brakes and stay put, or you go into the wild.
I have long been captivated by the stories of ordinary people who go on to achieve seemingly extraordinary things. There is something about an everyday, run-of-the-mill person setting out to do or create something bigger than themselves that has always reverberated within my mind. Perhaps I use these circumstances as fuel for knowledge, or as inspiration to chase the curiosity that is only natural in human nature.
When debating examples to feature for this piece, a few came to the forefront of my mind. However, I settled upon the most extreme example that I could muster up. When it comes to leaving comfort in search of the answers you seek, few people can say they’ve outdone the likes of Mr. Christopher McCandless. Now you may say “Dave, what the hell do you mean by questions you ask yourself?” Well reader, it’s hard to say. These questions I speak of vary from person to person. Everyone is trying to figure out the meaning of life, but in order to do so you must start small. Think “What do I love to do?”, “What are my goals?”, or “Who/what is important to me?”
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit.”
Growing up in an affluent household, you would have thought that Christopher McCandless would fit seamlessly into society upon his arrival to adulthood. McCandless came from a family that would often vacation outdoors, they would travel, they even sent him to college. They endorsed creativity and adventure and even allowed Chris to road trip across the country on his own when he turned 18. Seriously, from the outside looking in, this family seemed as though they were living the American Dream. However, what went on behind closed doors under that very roof changed Chris’ mindset for the rest of his life.
McCandless’ materialistic parents would abuse both he and his sister, then turn and try to regain their affection through physical possessions. Little did they know that they were planting the seed inside of Chris that would later go on to lead him away from the family for good. As he grew older, Chris rejected the thought of society and was disgusted by the thought of following in his selfish and abusive parent’s footsteps. When he finally graduated college his parents tried to reward him with a new car, replacing his old Datsun. Knowing that life is about more than a fancy new automobile, Chris scoffed at the idea and declined. He’s had enough.
“...There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
In the summer of 1990, fresh off of his graduation from Emory University, Chris took off. He set off to find the answers to his questions. He set off with the intention of finding himself, and doing so alone. He had been treated so poorly throughout his whole life. If his own family cannot show him the love he deserves, who can? In Chris’ mind, I believe he felt as though he could only trust himself. Chris donated his savings to charity, burned off the identification he carried, and set sail on a new life. One where he was in charge. One where his happiness was not dictated by possessions, money, or what society may think of him.
Through his travels, McCandless saw a great portion of the United States. Hitchhiking from state to state with only a backpack and few supplies he learned to love his modest life, quenching his thirst for adventure one day at a time. Never staying in one place for too long, he found joy in the new challenges and experiences that came to be each day. He became skilled in nature and eventually wanted to test his newfound expertise. Chris developed an elaborate plan to live off of the land, as far away from society as he could get. This led McCandless to our country’s final frontier, Alaska. Through his travels Chris developed relationships with a few friends and told them of his plans. They warned him of the harsh landscape, and tried to convince the young man to prepare and proceed with caution. Chris planned to live in the wild for one hundred days in the depths of the wilderness just outside of the Denali National Park. He would hunt and gather for his food, and learn to survive where he did not have to rely on another human being.
“How important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once.”
Disregarding the warnings from others, Chris first step foot on the Stampede Trail in early 1992. Everything he had learned over the past two years had led to this moment. The ultimate test of survival. With minimal supplies, a bag of rice, a rifle and a camera, he trekked for 20 miles. He soon arrived at his new home. A 1946 International Harvester K-5 bus. This makeshift shelter would be his home for the next 4 months. Through Chris’ journal entries you saw his excitement grow with each day. He documented the day he found the bus, the plants he was eating, and the animals he was hunting. McCandless also documented his many triumphs and his many failures in his entries. For example, on day 43 when he successfully killed a moose for food, and on day 48 when he realized the meat had spoiled and now regrets ever killing the animal and wished he had let it live. Chris also documents the mental and physical challenges of his venture into the wild, stating that he needs to “revamp his soul” and “accept his errors however great they may be.”
You discover a tonal shift in his entries as the days in the wild start to amass. With much physical and mental strain, Christopher McCandless reaches his goal of living on his own in the wild for 100 days. In doing so he states that he is now in the weakest condition of his life. Despite his dwindling physical stature, McCandless packs his camp and heads for the exit. On his way into the Stamped Trail the land was a frozen, snowy wasteland. Now being that it is August, Chris discovers that the Teklanika River he once crossed while frozen, is now a raging waterslide to certain death. He is unable to cross. Dejected, disheartened and downright scared, Chris returns to the Magic Bus. Chris notes that death is looming unless he is able to receive medical attention, but the odds of making it out of the wild grow smaller with each passing day. On top of this crippling fear of imminent death, McCandless discovers through his wild plants book that a seed he had been eating for some time has a poisonous effect on humans, leading to starvation.
Chris’ physical state grows more and more frail, and his journal entries become bleaker by the day. McCandless remains in the bus for another 13 days until he finally succumbs to his irreversible physical state. When he had first set out on his journey, Chris weighed roughly 140 pounds. When his remains were found in his sleeping bag by a group of hunters he only weighed 65. His diminishing state did not deter him from seeing out his journey in a positive manner. He continued to write entries, take photos, and leave notes behind.
“The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure."
As the story concludes you’re probably left wondering, “How does this man dying in a bus in the middle of Alaska relate to your message, Dave?” I’m getting there, stay with me. Two years before his death, Christopher McCandless rejected all social norms due to traumatic relationships he had experienced as he was growing up. He was convinced he was the only person he needed. He felt if his own blood didn’t understand his feelings no one could. Thus, setting out on his own to find the answers to the questions he had asked himself his entire life. In his dying days, McCandless left notes in his dairy citing how he was feeling knowing that his end was near. One of the final things he is said to have quoted was that “Happiness is only real when shared.”
This young man travelled to the corner of the Earth in an attempt to escape society, escape his abusive parents, and create a life on his own, just to realize that happiness is only real when it is shared with those you love. To be able to admit that while you lay alone staring death in the eye must have been so deflating. I can’t even begin to imagine the feelings he must’ve had in those final moments. Despite the assumption of fear, uncertainty, and pain Chris must've been enduring, his final words do not seem to show any regret. It is as if he was content with his decisions, and accepted his fate 113 days earlier when he left civilization behind. Whether it was life or death that met him at the conclusion of this voyage he did not shy away from the outcome of the situation.
“I've decided I'm going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty is just too good to pass up.”
Some tend to think that McCandless is a hero. Someone who tested the waters of life, regardless of how far it was going to take him. Others feel that he was an inexperienced idiot, fascinated with the idea that he knew what everyone wanted to find out. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. Those that argue he was ego-centric and naive may be correct, considering if McCandless listened to the warnings of his friends and carried a map of the area, he would’ve seen that just up-stream was a hand operated cable cart that would have safely and easily allowed him to cross the river and get back to civilization. Or maybe he would’ve found that there were cabins that provided hunters with shelter, supplies, and food during their trips into the wilderness. However, there is something to be said about a man willing to put his life on the line in order to do what he truly wants to do. Chris left the comfort and stability of the life his parents had set up for him in order to chase what he thought would make him happy. He could not find that happiness in possessions and family like the others around him, so he forged his existence on his own terms. As I stated earlier, it is fascinating to see an ordinary person attempt extraordinary things.
You as the reader may wonder why I didn’t choose an uplifting, triumphant story for this piece. While there were plenty to pick from, the story of Chris showcases something others do not. As I said throughout the post, it is vastly important to seek the answers you look for in life. However, it is more important to identify them before it’s too late. Chris McCandless had questions in life, and went looking for answers. Had he come to the conclusion that you must share happiness sooner, he could very well still be alive. His family did not show him the love he craved, but perhaps if he surrounded himself with the correct people he wouldn’t have made that discovery during his final days alone in the forest.
“Don't hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.”
Far too many of us decide to play it safe in life. I am guilty of it to a degree, and I’m sure you are as well. Now please listen to me. Do NOT take this blog post as a message telling you to pack a bag and head into the wilderness and force yourself to stay until you’re on the brink of death. The idea I’m trying to convey is that there is no room for growth in comfort. If you are craving something in life but find yourself asking if it is worth it, just go get it. If you are wondering if you should take that job, or move to that city, go ahead and do it. You’ll leave your current situation with many questions, but just beyond that wall of fear are the answers you’re searching for. Whether you determine if it was the correct decision is up to you. Regardless of your opinion on the situation, I’m sure you’ll have one hell of a story when you get to the other side. Just make sure you read your book on wild plants before you eat those seeds.