Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On 'Into the Wild'

Americans can be placed in two diametrically-opposed camps: those whoe view Henry David Thoreau's experiment next to Walden Pond as a great idea, worthy of copying, and everyone else.

I've long placed myself in the former category. The idea of spending two years alone in the woods, with a self-built shelter and a bean garden, sounds pretty darned gnarley. Thoreau allowed himself walks into town for shopping and visits with friends, and that would be fine, too. But the romantic ideal behind Walden is enough conjure visions of daily journal entries, long walks in the isolated woods, and lots and lots of book reading.

For that other group of Americans, Thoreau's experiment sounds like a trip into madness. Living alone in the woods? Finding yourself in solitude with just your thoughts? Cue the spine shivers and dry heaving. For some, an idea like that is not in the cards - now or ever.

I've always done well alone. As a child, I could entertain myself for hours. And now, as an adult, I've taken several long excursions all by my lonesome, and no suffering ensued.

"I don't think I could do that all by myself," people tell me. So it is.

But even the idea of Chris McCandless - the 24-year-old vagabond who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness and subject of Jon Krakauer's magnificent Into the Wild - heading out alone and unprepared seems like madness to me.

McCandless, if you're not familiar with the story, was a well-to-do college graduate who gave away all his money and hit the road. He preferred an uncertain life in the American wilderness to a comfortable, normal middle class existence.

I can respect that. I admire someone who takes the ideals of Thoreau and Tolstoy (or Jesus, for that matter) and other ecstetics and lives them out loud. Living close to the bone is, arguably, the only way to live. For some, giving up all their possessions and lending their life to chance makes our mortal existence more worthy. I dig it.

What I don't dig is a life led foolishly. If you're going to take a chance, then you'd better be able to accept the consequences. In McCandless's case, he paid the ultimate price for his ascetic lifestyle. It didn't have to be that way.

Krakauer paints McCandless's tale as a mixture of preperation and cares-to-the-wind gambling, mostly stemming from the kid's stubborn moralism. McCandless came to idolize Thoreau, Tolstoy, and the stories of Jack London so much that common sense seemed an afterthought. Like taking a canoe down the Colorado River, hoping to reach Baja California and the Pacific Ocean - even though there was no direct route. Or sleeping in his car in a salt flat, only to have a flash flood was everything he owned away.

Breathing the neon of life is a fine way to live, but man - there are always consequences. If I take a cross-country driving trip, sure, I take my chances on exact details. But you can bet I've got the general outline planned out, and that I've done my research. Life can be exciting and well-thought-out. They're not mutually exclusive.

All I know is, heading into the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a 10-pound bag of rice and a rifle is far from proper foresight. It's suicide. What's sad is that McCandless probably knew his chance of survival was nil, but the experience? Well, that was everything.

I feel the same pull that McCandless felt, if only to a lesser degree. Tramping off to climb a mountain or hike through the woods in solitude restores some reptilian center in my brain to full health. Thing is, I want to take more trips and experience more adventures sometime in the future. To do that, I need to keep living. I have neither the constitution nor the wherewithal to survive like some Neolithic hunter-gatherer, and I have the humility to recognize that.

It's a shame that a bright, resourceful, strong-minded young man could've had plenty of more adventures if only he hadn't been so foolish. Hubris is a helluva thing in the face of an uncaring, unsympathetic Nature. Odds are, you're going to lose.

But all that is obvious. Any idiot can see how foolish McCandless was. What struck me was that McCandless was such a rigid moralist that it cost him his life. In the face of overwhelming odds, the kid had no sense of pragmatism. Even Thoreau, alone in the woods, built a woodshed for the winter. His character was not lessened by his prep work. But like most absolutists, McCandless picked and chose Thoreau's lessons to fit his worldview. People often pick Bible passages to prop up their evil. McCandless took only those maxims that justified his rash existence.

So he died. Maybe, in his final agonizing moments, he felt justified. The suffering was the living, and starvation brought him closer to the live wires that light the world.

For me, though, I'll take my adventure with a bit of planning. The sights I've seen and the places I've been have brought me closer to some Ultimate Experience. A glimpse over the top was all I needed.

To guys like McCandless, they're not happy unless they're dangling from the edge, rope frayed from rubbing against their own moral scaffolding.

Lots of luck out there.