You have probably heard of Christopher McCandless – the young man who was found dead in the middle of the Alaskan forest in a run-down bus — from Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer or seen the movie directed by Sean Penn. But do you know the truth?
An old, abandoned Fairbanks City bus can be found deep in the Alaskan wilderness, and some hikers who have camped there report the bus is haunted. Those who sleep near #142 claim to have heard a lone male voice, creaking footsteps, or scratching on the metal walls. Some locals who believe the stories say it is the ghost of a hiker who was found in that bus in 1992, and rumor has it his spirit remains trapped in the bus. The hiker was identified as Christopher McCandless, and the mystery shrouding his death has finally been solved years later.
In 1992, moose hunters hiking along Alaska’s Stampede Trail, a road located in the Denali region, stumbled across an old bus conversion with a note stuck to the door:
ATTENTION POSSIBLE VISITORS.
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,
When the hunters peered inside the bus, they could see it had been lived in: tiny amounts of food and clothing, a diary, photographs and, finally, a sleeping bag. Inside the sleeping bag was the lifeless body of a young man.
When authorities arrived, they assumed the body to be the note’s author, Chris McCandless. Locals remember Chris coming to town just three months before, but he hadn’t told a soul where he planned to go. Based on their description – a 24-year-old, 140-pound recent college grad – they were hesitant to positively identify the body weighing in at just 67 pounds. Eventually, photographs recovered from the bus confirmed the body was that of Chris. The cause of death was starvation.
Who was Christopher McCandless, and how did he end up dead in an old bus conversion trapped in the Alaskan wilderness? Those and a dozen more questions surfaced as the investigation continued. Two decades would pass before answers would be found.
The McCandless House
Carine McCandless, Chris’ sister, has recently shed some light on the mystery surrounding Chris’ death. She revealed the history of their childhood, which their parents strongly discredit, and what she thinks may have led to Chris’ death. Unbeknownst to anyone familiar with the McCandless family, their house was full of secrets as Chris and Carine grew up.
A Complicated Childhood
When Walter McCandless, their father, moved in with their mother Billie, Walt was still married to his first wife, Marcia. According to Carine, their father was an abusive man. In other words, Billie, Marcia, and Chris all found themselves on the wrong end of Walt’s aggression. Walt divided his time between two houses: one with Billie, Chris, and Carine; and a second home with Marcia and their six children. After Chris turned four, Marcia and Walt divorced.
Growing up, Chris spent most of his life playing the charade of “the perfect family,” all while trying to distance himself as far as he could. When he moved away for school, Chris rarely spoke to his parents after learning about his father’s back-and-forth with his two wives. He did, however, occasionally speak to Carine; they wrote letters that she’s kept all these years. Shouldering the burden of their messy childhood together, the McCandless children were very close. Chris’ diary mentions he will miss Carine the most of all his family members:
July 1st, 1990
Today I have decided to cut off all communication with my family, not like I conversed with them often anyways. I need to find happiness within myself and do this with no interference of sources other than my mind and my soul. I haven’t talked to my family since the letter I wrote to them…I will miss my occasional conversations with my sister Carine. I have the understanding that she understands me more than any other person I have ever met. Still driving.
Source: Dying to Be Wild, 2016
The Journey Begins
After graduation, Chris donated his $24,000 savings to the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, a foundation dedicated to aiding in poverty and world hunger relief. Later, he packed up his 1982 Datsun and left his college town in Atlanta, Georgia. Without a word to friends or family, Chris set off to find his “Alaskan odyssey.”
Chris hit a snag in his plans right out of the gate: a flash flood destroyed his beloved Datsun in the Mojave Desert. Seeing this as an opportunity rather than a setback, he stripped the car’s plates, burned his money, and continued on foot. His journal indicates he then changed his name to “Alexander Supertramp.”
After stealing a bike from a con artist, he hitched a ride from a man named Wayne Westerberg and ended up in South Dakota. Wayne offered Chris a job in the grain elevator he ran in Carthage, which Chris accepted. Chris liked his job and grew close to Wayne. When Wayne was arrested, work came to a complete stop. So, without a reason to stay, Chris left Carthage.
October 23, 1990
After finding a secondhand aluminum canoe for sale and impulse buying it and paddling it down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California, nearly four hundred miles to the south, across the border of Mexico, I was caught and had to spend a night in jail. I am now on the road after leaving the grain elevator in South Dakota. My friend Wayne Westerberg did not have work for me after my imprisonment, so I have left Carthage.
Friends Who Became Family
Without delay, Chris successfully sneaked across the Mexican border and found his path to the Gulf of Mexico blocked. He then met duck hunters who offered him and his canoe a ride to the ocean. Having been passed up by countless people not wanting to help a hitch-hiking stranger, Chris was overwhelmed by the kindness of the hunters. Chris called it “the first time I have witnessed such genuine friendliness.”
He braved the waters of the Gulf, nearly drowning in the high winds and rough seas, but he eventually made landfall back in America. By May 1991, Chris arrived in Bullhead City, Arizona, to settle down from his life on the road and earn some money. Seven months later he decided to head toward the Slabs in California where he met up with a woman who had given him a ride some months before.
Before long, he decides it’s time for his Alaskan odyssey, but he must first stop back in Carthage.
En Route to Carthage
Chris met an older gentleman named Ron Franz, and the two instantly bonded. He took Chris in, trained him in leather-making, and treated him like his own son. However, Chris wanted to continue on his journey, so he asked Ron to drive him to Grand Junction, Colorado. They said their goodbyes, and days later Chris is back in Carthage working for Wayne.
April 15, 1992
I left the grain elevator today in South Dakota after having worked there for a little while. Wayne Westerberg had provided me with a stable job. He has become one of my closest friends. Today I have decided to finally make the trip to Alaska, which has been my goal for some time now. I am hoping that this proposed trip will fill a hole in my life that has been empty for so long and that I will finally find true happiness. I have exactly one thousand dollars in my boot and a little meat on my bones.
Into the Wild
On his way up to Alaska, he hitchhiked with a man named Jim Gallien. Jim agreed to drop him off at the Stampede Trail – Chris’ final destination.
April 28, 1992
I am entering the bush. I found a .22-caliber Remington, and I hope it will serve me well. I have been walking for God knows how long. I do not have much food or clothing and it seems as if I had not prepared enough for this part of my journey. Hopefully, this trip into the wild will provide me with the happiness that I have for so long been looking for. I will update when and if I can.
His next few entries were encouraging and optimistic; he gathered plant-based food, built fires, and made a home for himself in an abandoned Fairbanks City bus. He would call this bus home two months.
He had a handful of good hunting adventures, and he journaled that hunting was the most exhilarating part of his new life.
However, the guilt of having killed a moose took a toll on Chris’ outlook. His confidence began to whither as loneliness began. Still, he carried on. He kept seeking his idea of the ultimate Alaskan adventure of living off the land.
Attempting to Leave the Bush
Ultimately, it was the loneliness, the guilt, and the lack of proper provisions that led Chris to the decision to leave the bush. After two months in the wild, he packed up and set off to find his way back to civilization.
July 24, 1992
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.
Happiness is only real when shared. I was wrong. I think it is time for me to return home, to right the wrongs. Did my family deserve to be torn from my life so harshly? What did Carine do to have an emptiness in her life where I should have been? Though he has his shortcomings, did my father? All of this thinking saddens me.
Then he set his sights on the Teklankia River. Once he reached the river, anxiety set in. It was impassable. The waters were so high he could not safely cross it. With no way to leave the bush, he headed back to the bus. He guessed the waters would die down eventually, right?
Without a map, Chris would never know that just upriver was a junction that would have brought him home.
As he waited for the swollen waters of the Teklanika to calm, he set off to hunt and gather food. He brought back blueberries, potato seeds, and the occasional squirrel as sustenance for the next few weeks. Meanwhile, life in the wild began to weigh heavily on his mental and physical state.
Fear and weakness set in as the days passed. He found it difficult to stand; his muscles pained and ached. Chris suspected this was a result of consuming wild potato seeds, according to his journal entries. He felt death loom over his shoulder as his condition worsened. With very little strength, he left the bus to find food. Before he left, he posted an S.O.S. message on bus’ front door in case anyone was to come across the bus. When he returned, there was nobody waiting for him.
On his 100th day in the wild, Chris’ strength was gone. No longer able to move, all he could do was yell for help to the vast emptiness of the frozen forest. He had told nobody where he was going; he was trapped and alone.
The Final Entry
August 18th, 1992
This may be my last entry. I cannot move. I have not eaten in three days and am trapped in my sleeping bag due to weakness. Hopefully, my family is doing well and my death does not pain them too much. It was a literal, once-in-a-lifetime chance to be able to experience a life without any interaction or connection to the outside world. I have learned what it is like to truly love and be loved and to be, in the most literal sense possible, happy.
To Wayne – thank you for everything that you did for me in the short time that I knew you. I will never be able to repay you. To Ron – I would’ve loved, for your sake, to have the chance to act as an adopted son to you. You are an amazing man. To Jan and Bob – Thank you a million times. It is not often that souls as wonderful as both of yours are encountered. To my family – Do not grieve over my demise. Celebrate my existence. I have experienced more in the past two years than I ever did previously. I love each of you. I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all.
Author Jon Krakauer read about a young man who longed for fulfillment and true happiness and sought it out in a wild adventure across America only to end up dead in the middle of nowhere. Inspired by the tale, he decided to write his own.
While doing research for the book he would later name Into the Wild, he found himself in an ensuing debate. Was Chris a character people ought to look up to, or was his arrogance and inexperience a cautionary tale? Was it starvation or the poisonous potato seeds that killed Chris? Krakauer intended to find out. He describes his decades-long research in this article from The New Yorker (2013).
Ignorance or Arrogance?
Finally, after years of research and debate, scientists confirmed wild potato seeds were the culprit behind Chris’ death. Wild potato seeds are coated in an alkaloid as protection from predators, but it’s typically not poisonous to humans. The alkaloid prevents the body from absorbing nutrients, and, consequently, in Chris’ malnourished state, this was fatal.
The paralysis symptom trapped him in the bus, unable to gather food, and as a result, he perished 19 days before anyone would find him. Had his guidebook warned him of the potential dangers of wild potato seeds, had he brought a map which would have shown him a way out of the wilderness, or had he been more prepared for the journey, Chris might have made it out alive.
If he had, Chris would be 50 years old this year.
Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild
Website inspired by Chris’ story
Concise timeline of his story