Book Review: Into the Wild by John Krakauer

Arrogance is a huge turn off for me. Its why I cringed a bit when writing Je Ne Said Quoi and tried to talk more about others than myself. I have no (well, few) issues talking about my weaknesses and things I still need to learn, because I am constantly battling my own arrogance. This is why Into The Wild by John Krakauer made me so, not angry exactly, but I sighed and rolled my eyes A LOT while reading about Chris McCandless, moron adventurer extraordinaire.

Into The Wild tells the story of a young many who left home back in the eighties with no money, few skills, and only the kindness of strangers and his own colossal ego to live on. Fucking dumbass. I’ll admit that, given the personal accounts of those close to him, he was probably a really cool kid to know, fun, charismatic, good at everything he tried, and apparently he didn’t actually sound arrogant, he just was. He met all advice against his mad adventuring with an unmoving will that, given a more constructive outlet, would probably have led to some truly incredible achievements. And as Krakauer points out, Chris did live completely alone in the Alaskan wilds for several months before his arrogance finally ended his life so he didn’t fail immediately. Krakauer is also correct that, had Chris walked out of the wilderness alive, we would all admire him and his likely subsequent life. But he didn’t. So we don’t.

Chris spent his life after college barely surviving multiple potentially deadly experiences, partly because he was intelligent, fit, stubborn, and charismatic but often because there were people there to help before, during, or after. Someone weighted the dice when rolling this character up and his innate ability to weasel, talk, or just straight up will himself out of dangerous situations gave his arrogance a legitimate platform off of which it eventually threw him. He hopped trains, walked out of the desert, hitchhiked across the country several times, charmed hippy communities across the west, paddled a canoe into Mexico and then to the pacific ocean, all the while congratulating himself on how independent and competent he was. This, of course, ignores the companies running and building the railroads, the kind strangers who fed him when he emerged from the desert, the folks who helped him portage his canoe dozens of miles, and the dozens of other people who helped him get from one place to the next. In this world, we are never truly alone and much of what he ‘accomplished’ would not have been possible without being a charming and handsome (and white) young man.

All this led him eventually to the Alaskan wilderness where he would live off the land, finally actually achieving something without the aid of other people. Unfortunately, without other people to rescue him from the shit pit his arrogance led him to, he fucking died.

Krakauer did a lot of research after Chris’s body was found into why, exactly, he died. Starvation, sure, but his journals let us know that he was eating enough, probably, to have survived just the few more weeks he needed before he got rescued. He really did manage to forage and hunt enough food to barely keep himself alive. He was already slender when he went into the wild so he didn’t have much to live on when food was short but he cobbled it together with some canned goods and supplies (left by other people for emergencies, not for manic flights of adolescent ego) and survived nearly four months alone before his death. Krakauer believes that it was not, in fact, arrogance that killed Chris. Apparently one of his primary foods was poisonous, but no one knew*. It hadn’t been confirmed to contain toxic compounds until several years after Chris’s death, a discovery specifically related to Krakauer’s continued investigation. One of the reasons it wasn’t known to be toxic is because in order for it to kill you, you ave to be a young man, eating a lot of it, and be ALREADY UNDERNOURISHED. It’s like this plant was tailor made to kill this one overconfident kid. If Chris had taken more supplies with him, if he had learned to preserve meat properly, hell, if he had even been just a little curious about the river that trapped him there longer than he wanted to be, he would have made it out alive, by himself.

The river, right, that was important. Two months in, he decided he was good to go. He had achieved his goal of living alone in the wilderness and was ready to rejoin humanity. However, the small stream he crossed getting INTO the woods had grown with snowmelt and become impassable. Upstream and downstream were two separate ways to cross said river, but instead of looking even a few miles in either direction, he just shrugged, assumed he’d be fine eventually, went back into the woods, and died.

The book itself is well written, thoroughly investigated, and a pleasure to read, aside from the content. Krakauer is a really great writer, as well he should be with his education and pedigree, and I am already looking forward to reading other stories. I’m just mad that this dumb kid took all his potential and sacrificed it on the alter of his hubris. Young men with a passion for social justice, bright minds, and iron wills are incredibly useful for making our word a better place and he junked it on a lark.

I will admit respect for his capacity to achieve quite a bit with few resources, his ability to live fearlessly at the margins of survivability. He did many things that I could not have and I probably would have liked him. If I had known him before his death, I am sure my anger would be tempered by disappointment and sadness. His family clearly feels his loss keenly and will never get over it. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever, but I actually think he would prefer it that way. Rest in peace you goddamn dumbass.

*Old theories say he misidentified a poisonous plant as one that was not poisonous but evidence suggest otherwise. It’s just that the plant everyone thought he thought he was eating wasn’t toxic. Except it is, under the right circumstances.