“The road has always led west.”
Journeys are always fascinating, aren’t they? More so when they’re undertaken without a plan and do not come burdened with the traditional tourist trappings?
Imagine a profusion of wild, open, untended spaces; skies that unroll expansively into infinity; acrimonious battles of dreams with norms- a journey into nothingness, at once frightening and reassuring.
Into The Wild is more than a book or a movie. It is a chronicle, the story of a young man who dared to flout the rules that people were setting themselves for incomprehensible reasons (and still do), about the journey he undertook without a materialistic motive. It requires a great amount of extraordinary courage to take off into the wildernesses- well might we talk about it, but would we really do it? Can we summon up the guts to cut up our plastic cards and burn up our paper money, throw away an inheritance and set out into the unknown, to rough it out where common comforts are unheard of and the only way to live is by going back to the lessons of our ancestors, the times before the wheel was invented? Imagine living in an abandoned bus and knowing your next meal will come only when you shrug off indolence and go out into the cold to hunt it down. Or leaving behind the people who’ve cared for you, the last shreds of gratitude and love shaken off with apathetic indifference.
Christopher McCandless did it. An extensive amount of reading- Tolstoy, London, Thoreau, Auden- shaped his principles, imparted to him his loathing of money and luxuries. With no specific routes in mind, he left home after graduation to journey into Alaska- the people he met on the way were his teachers, his friends, more understanding of his needs than the ‘society’ he had grown up in, of which he spoke with sneering contempt. The duplicity of his father’s life and his mother’s quiet resignation to it didn’t improve matters for him at home. The only person he could confide in was his younger sister, and to her he spoke of his dreams and frustration.
Jon Krakauer, in the book, charts the path that Chris McCandless- or Alex Supertramp, as he chooses to call himself- took over two years, teaching and being taught, ending up in the pristine wildernesses of Alaska. Emile Hirsch portrays the young adventurer in the film version- and for once, it doesn’t seem fair to compare the movie to the book, because both, in their own ways, are a tribute to the dauntlessness and faith of McCandless.
The imagery in the movie, the play of light and shadow, is haunting- McCandless trying to tame the rapids between the enclosing walls of canyons, running amok amidst the wild horses silhouetted against the sun, leaving his footsteps behind on fresh white sheets of snow as conifers close in on him, dipping his blood-stained hands that have just killed a moose in cold, foamy Alaskan waters. Eddie Vedder’s powerful vocals coupled with a haunting background score enhance the realism of every scene- his voice bounces off canyon walls and echoes through emptiness, redolent of raw, primitive cries of freedom and abandon.
Chris McCandless identifies with nature- his assumption of being an entity one with it and inseparable from it is almost palpable. He doesn’t crave a moment in the spotlight or a place in the record books. He sets out on his own because he wants to live, to get away from the dysfunctional family that is fettering him with its hopes. A short life well lived is worth much more than endless years of misery. An uncharacteristic error of judgement cost him his life just as he was beginning to gain cognizance of his desires and preparing for a return to the people he had abandoned; but he must have had the solace of an adventure lived out to completion. We won’t know if the haunted look in his parents’ eyes and his sister’s anguish kept him awake on lonely nights. There must be people who call his actions selfish and unreasonable- but who lays out the norms, after all, and why do we decide to obey them? When asked to find a job and make something of his life, McCandless denounced the idea, as he called careers a twentieth-century invention. One that we insist on believing in stubbornly, despite the dissatisfaction and hopelessness it engulfs us in.
Give a man his freedom. There is nothing less moral about a nudist colony than about the ‘civilized’ lust for power and money. Deep down, all of us crave the delight of pink sunsets and virgin landscapes. The fear of a judgemental society is what holds us back- McCandless stood up against it. He bruised egos and hurt emotions in the process- as every person does- but also found what he sought. He accepted advice and gave some back. He loved people for their kindness. Supertramp he wanted to become, and he did it with conviction.