An hour later he emerges, smeared with grease and chaff but successful. “Sorry about snapping like that,” Westerberg apologizes. “We’ve been working too many eighteen-hour days. I guess I’m getting a little snarly, it being so late in the season and all, and us being shorthanded besides. We was counting on Alex being back at work by now.” Fifty days have gone by since McCandless’s body was discovered in Alaska on the Stampede Trail.
Seven months earlier, on a frosty March afternoon, McCand-less had ambled into the office at the Carthage grain elevator and announced that he was ready to go to work. “There we were, ringing up the morning’s tickets,” remembers Westerberg, “and in walks Alex with a big old backpack slung over his shoulder.” He told Westerberg he planned on staying until April 15, just long enough to put together a grubstake. He needed to buy a pile of new gear, he explained, because he was going to Alaska. McCand-less promised to come back to South Dakota in time to help with the autumn harvest, but he wanted to be in Fairbanks by the end of April in order to squeeze in as much time as possible up North before his return.
During those four weeks in Carthage, McCandless worked hard, doing dirty, tedious jobs that nobody else wanted to tackle: mucking out warehouses, exterminating vermin, painting, scything weeds. At one point, to reward McCandless with a task that involved slightly more skill, Westerberg attempted to teach him to operate a front-end loader. “Alex hadn’t been around machinery much,” Westerberg says with a shake of his head, “and it was pretty comical to watch him try to get the hang of the clutch and all those levers. He definitely wasn’t what you’d call mechanically minded.”
Nor was McCandless endowed with a surfeit of common sense.
Many who knew him have commented, unbidden, that he seemed to have great difficulty seeing the trees, as it were, for the forest. “Alex wasn’t a total space cadet or anything,” says Westerberg; “don’t get me wrong. But there was gaps in his thinking. I remember once I went over to the house, walked into the kitchen, and noticed a god-awful stink. I mean it smelled nasty in there. I opened the microwave, and the bottom of it was filled with rancid grease. Alex had been using it to cook chicken, and it never occurred to him that the grease had to drain somewhere. It wasn’t that he was too lazy to clean it up—Alex always kept things real neat and orderly—it was just that he hadn’t noticed the grease.”
Soon after McCandless returned to Carthage that spring, Westerberg introduced him to his longtime, on-again, off-again girlfriend, Gail Borah, a petite, sad-eyed woman, as slight as a heron, with delicate features and long blond hair. Thirty-five years old, divorced, a mother of two teenage children, she quickly became close to McCandless. “He was kind of shy at first,” says Borah. “He acted like it was hard for him to be around people. I just figured that was because he’d spent so much time by himself.
“I had Alex over to the house for supper just about every night,” Borah continues. “He was a big eater. Never left any food on his plate. Never. He was a good cook, too. Sometimes he’d have me over to Wayne’s place and fix supper for everybody. Cooked a lot of rice. You’d think he would of got tired of it, but he never did. Said he could live for a month on nothing but twenty-five pounds of rice.
“Alex talked a lot when we got together,” Borah recalls. “Serious stuff, like he was baring his soul, kind of. He said he could tell me things that he couldn’t tell the others. You could see something was gnawing at him. It was pretty obvious he didn’t get along with his family, but he never said much about any of them except Carine, his little sister. He said they were pretty close. Said she was beautiful, that when she walked down the street, guys would turn their heads and stare.”
Westerberg, for his part, didn’t concern himself with McCandless’s family problems. “Whatever reason he had for being pissed off, I figured it must have been a good one. Now that he’s dead, though, I don’t know anymore. If Alex was here right now, I’d be tempted to chew him out good: ‘What the hell were you thinking? Not speaking to your family for all that time, treating them like dirt!’ One of the kids that works for me, fuck, he don’t even have any goddamn parents, but you don’t hear him bitching. Whatever the deal was with Alex’s family, I guarantee you I’ve seen a lot worse. Knowing Alex, I think he must have just got stuck on something that happened between him and his dad and couldn’t leave it be.”
Westerberg’s latter conjecture, as it turned out, was a fairly astute analysis of the relationship between Chris and Walt McCandless. Both father and son were stubborn and high-strung. Given Walt’s need to exert control and Chris’s extravagantly independent nature, polarization was inevitable. Chris submitted to Walt’s authority through high school and college to a surprising degree, but the boy raged inwardly all the while. He brooded at length over what he perceived to be his father’s moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents’ lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love. Eventually, Chris rebelled—and when he finally did, it was with characteristic immoderation.
Shortly before he disappeared, Chris complained to Carine that their parents’ behavior was “so irrational, so oppressive, disrespectful and insulting that I finally passed my breaking point.” He went on:
Since they won’t ever take me seriously, for a few months after graduation I’m going to let them think they are right, I’m going to let them think that I’m “coming around to see their side of things “ and that our relationship is stabilizing. And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life. I’m going to divorce them as my parents once and for all and never speak to either of those idiots again as long as I live. I’ll be through with them once and for all, forever.
The chill Westerberg sensed between Alex and his parents stood in marked contrast to the warmth McCandless exhibited in Carthage. Outgoing and extremely personable when the spirit moved him, he charmed a lot of folks. There was mail waiting for him when he arrived back in South Dakota, correspondence from people he’d met on the road, including what Westerberg remembers as “letters from a girl who had a big crush on him, someone he’d gotten to know in some Timbuktu—some campground, I think.” But McCandless never mentioned any romantic entanglements to either Westerberg or Borah.
“I don’t recollect Alex ever talking about any girlfriends,” says Westerberg. “Although a couple of times he mentioned wanting to get married and have a family some day. You could tell he didn’t take relationships lightly. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would go out and pick up girls just to get laid.”
It was clear to Borah, too, that McCandless hadn’t spent much time cruising singles bars. “One night a bunch of us went out to a bar over in Madison,” says Borah, “and it was hard to get him out on the dance floor. But once he was out there, he wouldn’t sit down. We had a blast. After Alex died and all, Carine told me that as far as she knew, I was one of the only girls he ever went dancing with.”
In high school McCandless had enjoyed a close rapport with two or three members of the opposite sex, and Carine recalls one instance when he got drunk and tried to bring a girl up to his bedroom in the middle of the night (they made so much noise stumbling up the stairs that Billie was awakened and sent the girl home). But there is little evidence that he was sexually active as a teenager and even less to suggest that he slept with any woman after graduating from high school. (Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that he was ever sexually intimate with a man.) It seems that McCandless was drawn to women but remained largely or entirely celibate, as chaste as a monk.
Chastity and moral purity were qualities McCandless mulled over long and often. Indeed, one of the books found in the bus with his remains was a collection of stories that included Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” in which the nobleman-turned-ascetic denounces “the demands of the flesh.” Several such passages are starred and highlighted in the dog-eared text, the margins filled with cryptic notes printed in McCandless’s distinctive hand. And in the chapter on “Higher Laws” in Thoreau’s Walden, a copy of which was also discovered in the bus, McCandless circled “Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”
We Americans are titillated by sex, obsessed by it, horrified by it. When an apparently healthy person, especially a healthy young man, elects to forgo the enticements of the flesh, it shocks us, and we leer. Suspicions are aroused.
McCandless’s apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with single-minded passion—Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently— to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact. McCandless may have been tempted by the succor offered by women, but it paled beside the prospect of rough congress with nature, with the cosmos itself. And thus was he drawn north, to Alaska.
McCandless assured both Westerberg and Borah that when his northern sojourn was over, he would return to South Dakota, at least for the fall. After that, it would depend.
“I got the impression that this Alaska escapade was going to be his last big adventure,” Westerberg offers, “and that he wanted to settle down some. He said he was going to write a book about his travels. He liked Carthage. With his education, nobody thought he was going to work at a goddamn grain elevator the rest of his life. But he definitely intended to come back here for a while, help us out at the elevator, figure out what he was going to do next.”
That spring, however, McCandless’s sights were fixed unflinchingly on Alaska. He talked about the trip at every opportunity. He sought out experienced hunters around town and asked them for tips about stalking game, dressing animals, curing meat. Borah drove him to the Kmart in Mitchell to shop for some last pieces of gear.
By mid-April, Westerberg was both shorthanded and very busy, so he asked McCandless to postpone his departure and work a week or two longer. McCandless wouldn’t even consider it. “Once Alex made up his mind about something, there was no changing it,” Westerberg laments. “I even offered to buy him a plane ticket to Fairbanks, which would have let him work an extra ten days and still get to Alaska by the end of April, but he said, ‘No, I want to hitch north. Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip.’”
Two nights before McCandless was scheduled to head north, Mary Westerberg, Wayne’s mother, invited him to her house for dinner. “My mom doesn’t like a lot of my hired help,” Westerberg says, “and she wasn’t real enthusiastic about meeting Alex, either. But I kept bugging her, telling her ‘You gotta meet this kid,’ and so she finally had him over for supper. They hit it off immediately. The two of ‘em talked nonstop for five hours.”
“There was something fascinating about him,” explains Mrs. Westerberg, seated at the polished walnut table where McCandless dined that night. “Alex struck me as much older than twenty-four. Everything I said, he’d demand to know more about what I meant, about why I thought this way or that. He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.
“We talked for hours about books; there aren’t that many people in Carthage who like to talk about books. He went on and on about Mark Twain. Gosh, he was fun to visit with; I didn’t want the night to end. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him again this fall. I can’t get him out of my mind. I keep picturing his face—he sat in the same chair you’re sitting in now. Considering that I only spent a few hours in Alex’s company, it amazes me how much I’m bothered by his death.”
On McCandless’s final night in Carthage, he partied hard at the Cabaret with Westerberg’s crew. The Jack Daniel’s flowed freely.
To everyone’s surprise, McCandless sat down at the piano, which he’d never mentioned he knew how to play, and started pounding out honky-tonk country tunes, then ragtime, then Tony Bennett numbers. And he wasn’t merely a drunk inflicting his delusions of talent on a captive audience. “Alex,” says Gail Borah, “could really play. I mean he was good. We were all blown away by it.”
On the morning of April 15, everybody gathered at the elevator to see McCandless off. His pack was heavy. He had approximately one thousand dollars tucked in his boot. He left his journal and photo album with Westerberg for safekeeping and gave him the leather belt he’d made in the desert.
“Alex used to sit at the bar in the Cabaret and read that belt for hours on end,” says Westerberg, “like he was translating hieroglyphics for us. Each picture he’d carved into the leather had a long story behind it.”
When McCandless hugged Borah good-bye, she says, “I noticed he was crying. That frightened me. He wasn’t planning on being gone all that long; I figured he wouldn’t have been crying unless he intended to take some big risks and knew he might not be coming back. That’s when I started having a bad feeling that we wouldn’t never see Alex again.”
A big tractor-semitrailer rig was idling out front; Rod Wolf, one of Westerberg’s employees, needed to haul a load of sunflower seeds to Enderlin, North Dakota, and had agreed to drive McCandless to Interstate 94.
“When I let him off, he had that big damn machete hanging off his shoulder,” Wolf says. “I thought, ‘Jeeze, nobody’s going to pick him up when they see that thing.’ But I didn’t say nothin’ about it. I just shook his hand, wished him good luck, and told him he’d better write.”
McCandless did. A week later Westerberg received a terse card with a Montana postmark:
april 18. Arrived in Whitefish this morning on a freight train. I am making good time. Today I will jump the border and turn north for Alaska. Give my regards to everyone.
take care, alex
Then, in early May, Westerberg received another postcard, this one from Alaska, with a photo of a polar bear on the front. It was postmarked April 27, 1992. “Greetings from Fairbanks!” it reads,
This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne. Arrived here 2 days ago. It was very difficult to catch rides in the Yukon Territory. But I finally got here.
Please return all mail I receive to the sender. It might be a very long time before I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again, I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.
On the same date McCandless sent a card bearing a similar message to Jan Burres and Bob:
This is the last communication you shall receive from me. I now walk out to live amongst the wild. Take care, it was great knowing you.
It may, after all, be the bad habit of creative talents to invest themselves in pathological extremes that yield remarkable insights but no durable way of life for those who cannot translate their psychic wounds into significant an or thought.
theodore roszak, “in search of the miraculous”
We have in America “The Big Two-Hearted River” tradition: taking your wounds to the wilderness for a cure, a conversion, a rest, or whatever. And as in the Hemingway story, if your wounds aren’t too bad, it works. But this isn’t Michigan (or Faulkner’s Big Woods in Mississippi, for that matter). This is Alaska.
edward hoagland, “Up the black to chalkyitsik”
When McCandless turned up dead in Alaska and the perplexing circumstances of his demise were reported in the news media, many people concluded that the boy must have been mentally disturbed. The article about McCandless in Outside generated a large volume of mail, and not a few of the letters heaped opprobrium on McCandless—and on me, as well, the author of the story, for glorifying what some thought was a foolish, pointless death.
Much of the negative mail was sent by Alaskans. “Alex is a nut in my book,” wrote a resident of Healy, the hamlet at the head of the Stampede Trail. “The author describes a man who has given away a small fortune, forsaken a loving family, abandoned his car, watch and map and burned the last of his money before traipsing off into the ‘wilderness’ west of Healy.”
“Personally I see nothing positive at all about Chris McCand-less’s lifestyle or wilderness doctrine,” scolded another correspondent. “Entering the wilderness purposefully ill-prepared, and surviving a near-death experience does not make you a better human, it makes you damn lucky.”
One reader of the Outside piece wondered, “Why would anyone intending to ‘live off the land for a few months’ forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain?”
“Krakauer is a kook if he doesn’t think Chris ‘Alexander Su-pertramp’ McCandless was a kook,” opined a man from North Pole, Alaska. “McCandless had already gone over the edge and just happened to hit bottom in Alaska.”
The most strident criticism came in the form of a dense, mul-tipage epistle from Ambler, a tiny Inupiat village on the Kobuk River north of the Arctic Circle. The author was a white writer and schoolteacher, formerly from Washington, B.C., named Nick Jans. Warning that it was 1:00 a.m. and he was well into a bottle of Seagram’s, Jans let fly:
Over the past 15 years, I’ve run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there’s quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they’re almost a collective cliche. The only difference is that McCandless ended up dead, with the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media.... (Jack London got it right in “To
Build a Fire.” McCandless is, finally, just a pale 20th-century burlesque of London’s protagonist, who freezes because he ignores advice and commits big-time hubris)....
His ignorance, which could have been cured by a USGS quadrant and a Boy Scout manual, is what killed him. And while I feel for his parents, I have no sympathy for him. Such willful ignorance ... amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez spill—just another case of underprepared, overconfident men bumbling around out there and screwing up because they lacked the requisite humility. It’s all a matter of degree.
McCandless’s contrived asceticism and a pseudoliterary stance compound rather than reduce the fault.... McCandless’s postcards, notes, and journals... read like the work of an above average, somewhat histrionic high school kid—or am I missing something?
The prevailing Alaska wisdom held that McCandless was simply one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death. Dozens of marginal characters have marched off into the Alaska wilds over the years, never to reappear. A few have lodged firmly in the state’s collective memory.
There was the countercultural idealist who passed through the village of Tanana in the early 1970s, announcing that he intended to spend the rest of his life “communing with Nature.” In midwinter a field biologist discovered all his belongings—two rifles, camping gear, a diary filled with incoherent ranting about truth and beauty and recondite ecological theory—in an empty cabin near Tofty, its interior filled with drifted snow. No trace of the young man was ever found.
A few years later there was the Vietnam vet who built a cabin on the Black River east of Chalkyitsik to “get away from people.” By February he’d run out of food and starved, apparently without making any attempt to save himself, despite the fact that there was another cabin stocked with meat just three miles downstream. Writing about this death, Edward Hoagland observed that Alaska is “not the best site in the world for eremitic experiments or peace-love theatrics.”
And then there was the wayward genius I bumped into on the shore of Prince William Sound in 1981. I was camped in the woods outside Cordova, Alaska, trying in vain to find work as a deckhand on a seine boat, biding my time until the Department of Fish and Game announced the first “opener”—the start of the commercial salmon season. One rainy afternoon while walking into town, I crossed paths with an unkempt, agitated man who appeared to be about forty. He wore a bushlike black beard and shoulder-length hair, which he kept out of his face with a headband made from a filthy nylon strap. He was walking toward me at a brisk clip, hunched beneath the considerable weight of a six-foot log balanced across one shoulder.
I said hello as he approached, he mumbled a reply, and we paused to chat in the drizzle. I didn’t ask why he was carrying a sodden log into the forest, where there seemed to be plenty of logs already. After a few minutes spent exchanging earnest banalities, we went our separate ways.
From our brief conversation I deduced that I had just met the celebrated eccentric whom the locals called the Mayor of Hippie Cove—a reference to a bight of tidewater north of town that was a magnet for long-haired transients, near which the Mayor had been living for some years. Most of the residents of Hippie Cove were, like me, summer squatters who’d come to Cordova hoping to score high-paying fishing jobs or, failing that, find work in the salmon canneries. But the Mayor was different.
His real name was Gene Rosellini. He was the eldest stepson of Victor Rosellini, a wealthy Seattle restaurateur, and cousin of Albert Rosellini, the immensely popular governor of Washington State from 1957 to 1965. As a young man Gene had been a good athlete and a brilliant student. He read obsessively, practiced yoga, became expert at the martial arts. He sustained a perfect 4.0 grade-point average through high school and college. At the University of Washington and later at Seattle University, he immersed himself in anthropology, history, philosophy, and linguistics, accumulating hundreds of credit hours without collecting a degree. He saw no reason to. The pursuit of knowledge, he maintained, was a worthy objective in its own right and needed no external validation.
By and by Rosellini left academia, departed Seattle, and drifted north up the coast through British Columbia and the Alaska panhandle. In 1977, he landed in Cordova. There, in the forest at the edge of town, he decided to devote his life to an ambitious anthropological experiment.
“I was interested in knowing if it was possible to be independent of modern technology,” he told an Anchorage Daily News reporter, Debra McKinney, a decade after arriving in Cordova. He wondered whether humans could live as our forebears had when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the land or whether our species had moved too far from its roots to survive without gunpowder, steel, and other artifacts of civilization. With the obsessive attention to detail that characterized his brand of dogged genius, Rosellini purged his life of all but the most primitive tools, which he fashioned from native materials with his own hands.
“He became convinced that humans had devolved into progressively inferior beings,” McKinney explains, “and it was his goal to return to a natural state. He was forever experimenting with different eras—Roman times, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. By the end his lifestyle had elements of the Neolithic.”
He dined on roots, berries, and seaweed, hunted game with spears and snares, dressed in rags, endured the bitter winters. He seemed to relish the hardship. His home above Hippie Cove was a windowless hovel, which he built without benefit of saw or ax: “He’d spend days,” says McKinney, “grinding his way through a log with a sharp stone.”
As if merely subsisting according to his self-imposed rules weren’t strenuous enough, Rosellini also exercised compulsively whenever he wasn’t occupied with foraging. He filled his days with calisthenics, weight lifting, and running, often with a load
of rocks on his back. During one apparently typical summer he reported covering an average of eighteen miles daily.
Rosellini’s “experiment” stretched on for more than a decade, but eventually he felt the question that inspired it had been answered. In a letter to a friend he wrote,
/ began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native. For over 30 years, I programmed and conditioned myself to this end. In the last 10 of it, I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental, and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to-face with pure reality. I learned that it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land.
Rosellini appeared to accept the failure of his hypothesis with equanimity. At the age of forty-nine, he cheerfully announced that he had “recast” his goals and next intended to “walk around the world, living out of my backpack. I want to cover 18 to 27 miles a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
The trip never got off the ground. In November 1991, Rosellini was discovered lying facedown on the floor of his shack with a knife through his heart. The coroner determined that the fatal wound was self-inflicted. There was no suicide note. Rosellini left no hint as to why he had decided to end his life then and in that manner. In all likelihood nobody will ever know.
Rosellini’s death and the story of his outlandish existence made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. The travails of John Mallon Waterman, however, attracted less attention. Born in 1952, Waterman was raised in the same Washington suburbs that gave shape to Chris McCandless. His father, Guy Waterman, is a musician and freelance writer who, among other claims to modest fame, authored speeches for presidents, ex-presidents, and other prominent Washington politicians. Waterman pere also happens to be an expert mountaineer who taught his three sons to climb at an early age. John, the middle son, went rock climbing for the first time at thirteen.
He was a natural. John headed to the crags at every opportunity and trained obsessively when he couldn’t climb. He cranked out four hundred push-ups every day and walked two and a half miles to school, fast. After walking home in the afternoon, he’d touch the front door and head back to the school to make a second round-trip.
In 1969, as a sixteen-year-old, John climbed Mt. McKinley (which he called Denali, as most Alaskans do, preferring the peak’s Athapaskan name), becoming the third-youngest person to stand atop the highest landform on the continent. Over the next few years he pulled off even more impressive ascents in Alaska, Canada, and Europe. By the time he enrolled in the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, in 1973, Waterman had established a reputation as one of the most promising young alpinists in North America.
Waterman was a small person, barely five feet three inches tall, with an elfin face and the sinewy, inexhaustible physique of a gymnast. Acquaintances remember him as a socially awkward man-child with an outrageous sense of humor and a squirrelly, almost manic-depressive personality.
“When I first met John,” says James Brady, a fellow climber and college friend, “he was prancing across campus in a long black cape and blue Elton John-type glasses that had a star between the lenses. He carried around a cheap guitar held together with masking tape and would serenade anybody who’d listen with long, off-key songs about his adventures. Fairbanks has always attracted a lot of weird characters, but he was wacky even by Fairbanks standards. Yeah, John was out there. A lot of people didn’t know how to handle him.”
It is not difficult to imagine plausible causes for Waterman’s instability. His parents, Guy and Emily Waterman, divorced when he was a teen, and Guy, according to a source close to the family, “essentially abandoned his sons following the divorce. He would have nothing more to do with the boys, and it crippled John badly. Not long after their parents split up, John and his older brother, Bill, went to visit their father—but Guy refused to see them. Shortly after that, John and Bill went to Fairbanks to live with an uncle. At one point while they were up there, John got very excited because he heard that his father was coming to Alaska to climb. But when Guy arrived in the state he never took the trouble to see his sons; he came and went without even bothering to visit. It broke John’s heart.”