"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Friday, August 14, 2015

Review #37: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

I'm going to Alaska next week because my best friend is getting married. A couple of friends are coming with me, along with their son and The Kid.  Somehow or other, I got conned in to agreeing to go camping in Denali during this trip. And not even in a cabin, but outside. In a tent. With a sleeping bag. On the ground. With, you know, bears and moose. I've gone nearly 40 years without peeing outside; I have a real fear that streak may be broken next month, much to the Kid's utter amusement and my total dismay.

In other words, I'm not really the outdoorsy type. 

So Into the Wild is not my kind of book. A book about camping? Backcountry exploring? I can't identify with people who willingly wander off in to the woods to climb icy mountains with sheer faces. On the surface I get the adventurous aspect of it, but my adventurousness runs more to a road trip with no hotel reservations. But this book grabbed me and didn't let me go, and I was amazed at how quickly I was caught up in the story.

Chris McCandless - aka Alexander Supertramp - is a young boy just out of college when he disappears in to the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992 and never returns. Months later, his body is found wrapped in a sleeping bag his mother sewed for him, tucked in to the back of an abandoned bus that is used by hikers and hunters as sort of a way station in a remote section of the woods on the edge of Denali National Park. What happened between him setting off on his last adventure and the discovery of his body is a mystery that will most likely never be solved, but how he died becomes less important as the story goes on. Filled with stories of Chris' adventures as a young boy and of other adventurers who walked in to the wild and never returned, this nonfiction account reads like a suspense novel and I devoured the book over the course of a couple of nights.

This is a heartbreaking story. The reader knows from the outset that Chris doesn't survive. Reading his journal entries and the reconstruction of his final days was difficult, knowing that he would soon be dead. Chris seemed very lost to me, someone who should have been born in another time perhaps, someone who didn't quite fit in to "normal" society, someone who simultaneously needed to be alone and surround himself with people. He was a drifter, picking up odd jobs here and there as he made his way north, and it seems as though he made a positive impression on everyone he came in contact with. He was definitely searching for something, and I can only hope that he found a few moments of peace towards the end. and while I'm sure that starvation is not an easy death, there are indications that one of the possible contributing factors to Chris' death may have also brought a sense of euphoria. For Chris' sake - and that of his parents - I hope that's true.

It's a romantic notion, going off on one's own, becoming one with the earth, with nature, living off the land and one's wits. Even I (in very, very, very, very faint tones) hear that call. But then I think that I'd miss things like indoor plumbing and air conditioning and diet Coke. And, as JB said the other night when we talked about this book, I'd miss my mom. Reading the epilogue, where Chris' parents hike out to the bus to see the place their son spent his final days, tore my heart out, both as a daughter and as a parent. The moment that started the tears flowing was when Krakauer described Chris' mom leaving a suitcase stocked with survival supplies in the bus, alongside a note that read "call your parents as soon as possible". I know from Sophia's review of Chris' sister's book The Wild Truth that the McCandless family wasn't always filled with sweetness and light, but no parent deserves to not know where their child is, and I can't imagine what Chris' parents went through during the months he was wandering.

Krakauer is an excellent narrator for Chris' story. He tells it like it is, never glossing over what I'm sure were painful memories for his family, and the family definitely deserves kudos as well for being so open and honest in their interviews with Krakauer. His books have been turning up in my life lately - Boss just finished Missoula and a few Cannonballers have excellently reviewed MissoulaInto Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven. I'd like to add Into the Wild to that growing list. This is the book I wanted Wild to be, and I'll definitely be adding Krakauer's other books to my TBR list.

I originally wrote this review before I left, but a flurry of packing and work and sewing projects left it unpublished. I got back last week and am just now getting around to posting reviews. I'm too lazy to rewrite the review, but I want to add two things. One, I survived camping. Camping, it turns out, kind of sucks. Actually, camping itself isn't too bad. It's the sleeping on the ground thing that I didn't like, in a tiny two person tent with the Kid, who decided that my bladder was an excellent pillow. I thought we gave that up after she exited the womb, but apparently not. Bonus points though, that I made it to an actual bathroom each time and didn't have to break my I've-never-peed-outside streak. 

Two, while I was there, I went to 49th State Brewing in Healy, just north of Denali. (Crazy amazing Scotch and whiskey selection, plus beer, plus yak burgers. How can you go wrong?) They have the bus used in the Into the Wild movie in the corner of their patio area. While I know it's just a replica - the real bus remains 20 miles in to the wilderness, and they highly recommend a guide if you want to go - it was a sobering experience to see it. It's small, much smaller than I thought it would be, maybe twice the length of a VW van. It's run down and the windows are broken. The floor is a termite's wet dream. The cot in the back looks like it's been chewed by bears and slept on by too many unwashed bodies, and all I could think about was McCandless' joy at having an actual bed when he saw it. There are copies of photos and journal pages, along with the infamous last postcard - "I now walk into the wild" - hung along the top of the bus walls. His handwriting seemed almost familiar, the carefully printed letters, straight and neat, even the entries towards the end of his life. I saw a lot of things on this trip - whales and bear and moose and caribou and mountains and the sheer enormity and power of Mother Nature - but seeing this bus will remain with me for a long time.

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