Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer [Book Summary – Review]

Christopher McCandless set out alone into the Alaskan bush in late April 1992, armed with a gun, a pair of too-large rubber boots, and a field guide to edible plants. It was the latest episode in his two-year quest for adventure, self-discovery, and more significant reality than what he’d known in his polite suburban background.

Moose hunters discovered his death in an abandoned bus four months later. He’d died of starvation 19 days before.

Alaskans have mainly rejected McCandless as a brash dreamer with a death desire. However, the bus where he died became a pilgrimage place for his followers — individuals from all over the world who understand what it’s like to hunger for more. McCandless had a profound impact on the individuals he met during his life. We’ll meet some of them in these chapters and look at what it means to be lost – and found.

You’ll learn a lot in these chapters.

  • how a harrowing discovery pushed McCandless on his doomed path;
  • McCandless’ effortless charisma and open heart made him popular wherever he went; and
  • McCandless’ death was the unintentional consequence of a catastrophic mistake.

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Chapter 1 – Chris appeared cool on the outside, but he was boiling on the inside.

Christopher McCandless was born and raised in Annandale, Virginia, a wealthy Washington, DC suburb. Walt, his father, was a well-known aerospace engineer. He’d relocated his family from California to accept a job at NASA, earning enough to put Chris and his sister into a trust fund.

Chris’s feet have always been itching. He slipped out of his parents’ house late at night, crept down the street, and broke into a neighbor’s house to steal candies when he was two years old. Walt characterized his son’s adventurousness after his remains were discovered: “Chris was courageous even when he was a child.” We were always attempting to draw him back from the brink.”

Chris hated to admit it, but he and his father were quite similar – headstrong, fierce, and obstinate. Chris’ disastrous path was set in motion by their inevitable fight – and one important discovery about his family’s background.

Chris seemed to accept Walt’s rigorous management in high school and college. But he brooded inside, contemplating his departure — even as he planned to attend college in Atlanta.

He drove out in his secondhand yellow Datsun the summer after graduating from high school. It was intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. He made a startling discovery when visiting his parents’ former hometown in southern California. His father had apparently been living a double life for years, as a father to two families and a spouse to another two women. Worst of all, Walt had fathered another son two years after Chris’s birth. His mother, however, was not Chris’s mother. Walt’s first wife, she was the other lady. Chris’s world was turned upside down when he learned of the finding.

His parents had reached an agreement. Chris, on the other hand, couldn’t let it go. He remained reclusive during the following few years, withdrawing from his family. He was living in an austere, cell-like room with nothing but a mattress on the floor by his senior year in college.

After graduation, he informed his parents that he would be living in Atlanta. They drove down for a visit after not hearing from him for a few months. They were greeted with a “for rent” sign outside his flat when they arrived.

Chris had given his trust fund to charity five weeks prior and was driving west in his yellow Datsun once more. What is his strategy? To live an unfiltered life of raw existence out on the road, cut off from bourgeois luxury. To commemorate his transition, he got himself a new name: Alexander Supertramp.

Chapter 2 – In Jan Burres, McCandless made his first road buddy – and a surrogate mother.

Jan Burres and her companion, Bob — two middle-aged drifters in an ancient van – pulled over on the side of the road near the Oregon-California border in August 1990. Jan noticed a pitiful-looking youngster harvesting wild berries in a gallon milk jug with the top cut off while peering into the trees. Jan recalls, “He said his name was Alex.” “He was famished to the point of starvation. But I’m quite delighted.”

Jan took an immediate fancy to McCandless, despite the fact that she was estranged from her own son, who was roughly McCandless’s age. For approximately a week, he joined the couple at their beach camp. Jan assumed that when he went on, traveling north, that was the last time they’d hear from him. McCandless, on the other hand, kept in touch with them, sending them a postcard every month.

He traveled north to the Dakotas from there (he’d abandoned his automobile months before). He hitched back south as the weather changed. He spent New Year’s in a kayak in the Gulf of California, living on five pounds of rice and anything he could catch from the water for 36 days.

From then until the following autumn, when he obtained a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s in the strip-mall sprawl of Bullhead City, Arizona, his diaries and communications are sparse.

Jan wrote back soon away when he sent her a card from Bullhead City with a return address. Jan and Bob were living at the Slabs, an abandoned Navy installation that attracts hundreds of drifters and misfits every winter just across the California border. McCandless resigned his job at McDonald’s in search of a sympathetic company and set out for the Slabs.

According to Jan, he was a charmer. He assisted her in selling used books at the Slabs’ massive swap market, all the while cavorting with Jan’s dogs. He discovered a small electric organ and spent the entire day playing it, attracting large audiences with his unexpectedly fine singing voice. He told everyone he met about his grand aspirations to live off the land in Alaska.

Jan pleaded with him to phone his parents, understanding the anguish of a mother who has lost touch with her son. Jan stated of her son, “He’s out there someplace.” “I’d like someone to take care of him the way I tried to take care of Alex.”

McCandless reawakened Jan’s repressed mothering impulses during their brief encounter. Jan wasn’t the only stranger who grew to view McCandless as family, as we’ll discover later.

Chapter 3 – McCandless’ improbable connection with Ron Franz had a significant influence on the elderly man’s life.

Ronald Franz, 80, stumbled upon McCandless hitching a lift back to his desert camp from Salton City, California, on a Thursday in January 1991. Ron drove McCandless into the badlands, putting him off at some natural hot springs, past a hippy camp. However, as he drove back into town, Ron couldn’t stop thinking about the youngster who introduced himself as Alex.

“I thought he was too sweet a child to be hanging around with those nudists, drunks, and drug users,” Ron recounted. He returned a few days later to attempt to persuade McCandless to change his ways.

Ron, on the other hand, was unable to influence McCandless. Instead, McCandless left an unforgettable impact on the old guy, who eventually stored his belongings and moved into McCandless’s desert camp.

Ron had served in the military. He’d spent most of his life in East Asia. He had also experienced loss. His wife and only son were killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Eve 1957. He turned to booze for solace when they died. He’d put the bottle down by the time he met McCandless, but the agony of those losses lingered.

He and McCandless began spending a lot of time together once he arrived at his camp. Ron showed McCandless how to work with leather, and McCandless created an elaborate belt reflecting his adventure’s tale. Ron got fond of the youngster. Ron insisted on taking McCandless to San Diego when he revealed his impending departure.

Ron’s phone rang a few weeks later. It was McCandless who requested that Ron pick him up. Ron described hearing his voice as “like sunlight after a month of rain.”

Ron insisted on driving McCandless to Colorado after they spent a few days together. Ron asked McCandless if he would consent to be his grandchild before they separated. McCandless politely refused the offer. The burden of this familial familiarity was too much for the young man to bear.

We can only surmise as to why Ron, who was 81 years old at the time, threw up his worldly goods and established a tent in the badlands as his permanent residence. When author Jon Krakauer went looking for him a year and a half later, he was still there. Six months before, Ron had learned of McCandless’ death.

The pain was still raw. The old man’s eyes misted up when Krakauer showed him photos of the bus where McCandless died. He quickly turned and walked away to gather his thoughts.

Chapter 4 – McCandless established his final home with Wayne Westerberg and his family in rural South Dakota.

Wayne Westerberg pulled over in September 1990 to pick up a gangly hitchhiker named Alex McCandless. The young man exuded a laid-back charisma that made an impact on Wayne.

McCandless came up to Wayne’s farm in Carthage, South Dakota, a few weeks later, and Wayne offered him a job at the grain elevator he operated.

It was strenuous physical work. Mucking rotting grain and dead rats out of the silo was one of McCandless’ responsibilities. McCandless, on the other hand, was not like most of the hitchhikers Wayne had recruited over the years. Wayne had never seen someone labor so hard.

Wayne admired McCandless’ work ethic, but he also admired him as a person. They also had a good time together, drinking White Russians in Carthage’s lone pub. They even went to a honky-tonk in a nearby town to dance. McCandless sat down at a piano one night and astonished everyone with his hidden talent: his voice. “It blew us all away,” Gail, Wayne’s girlfriend, said.

Gail and McCandless became fast friends. McCandless would tell her a lot about his family, she added, as though he was “baring his soul.” “It was obvious that something was chewing at him.”

When McCandless was invited to Wayne’s mother’s house for supper, he made a significant impact on her. Mary Westerberg remarked, “We spoke for hours.” “He had an enthralling quality about him…” He was the type of person who insisted on carrying out his ideals, unlike most of us.”

Wayne attempted to persuade McCandless to return to Carthage. It wasn’t often that a decent worker passed through town, and Wayne had grown fond of the young man. McCandless, on the other hand, had his heart set on Alaska. He couldn’t stop talking about his Alaskan trip, as he termed it.

Everyone gathered at the grain elevator the morning he left to see him go. Wayne got a postcard from Fairbanks, Alaska, a few weeks later. “If this trip becomes deadly and you don’t hear from me again, I want you to know you’re a fine man,” McCandless said in his message. “I’m taking a walk in the woods.” 

Chapter 5 – For a few months, McCandless lived blissfully in the woods. He, on the other hand, underestimated his escape plan.

McCandless was filled with anticipation as he began hiking the Stampede Trail in the northern shadow of Denali. He’d finally be able to live out his childhood dream of being alone in the wilderness. Jim Gallien, who had given McCandless a ride to the trailhead and was the last person to see him alive, claimed he virtually leapt into the woods. Gallien, a native Alaskan, was alarmed by McCandless’ lack of preparedness for a long stay in the bush, and urged that the kid bring his waterproof boots and two lunches.

Gear was a burden to McCandless, a barrier between him and the outdoors. And, to be honest, he didn’t actually need it. He lived peacefully for four months, surviving on foraged herbs and small wildlife. In the end, it wasn’t a lack of equipment that killed him, but two mistakes.

He crossed the Teklanika River on his second day out. In Alaska, the spring melts the winter snowfall, turning peaceful brooks into wild floods. It was April, after all, and spring was still months away. The Teklanika was calm and shallow when McCandless found it, making it simple to cross.

A few days later, McCandless discovered an abandoned 1940s Fairbanks city bus outfitted with a bunk, a barrel stove, and provisions left by visiting hikers and hunters, dubbed “MAGIC BUS DAY” in his notebook. He made the bus his base of operations, striking out every day.

It was a difficult task. In the summer, that portion of Alaska becomes flooded, making it impossible to cover the ground needed to discover unharvested plants. He dropped weight because he burned more calories than he ate. His notebook, on the other hand, reveals that he was content to be there.

Nonetheless, he made the decision to return to the world one day. On July 3, he packed his belongings and set off on foot for Fairbanks.

However, when he arrived at the Teklanika River, it had flooded tenfold due to snowmelt. “DISASTER… RAINED IN,” he wrote in his journal that night. RIVER APPEARED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE. SCARED AND LONELY.”

He could have discovered an area where the river wasn’t as strong if he had traveled a mile upstream. He may have located a steel rope used by hydrologists to span the swelling river if he had proceeded downstream.

He didn’t, however, perform either of those things. He instead chose to return to the bus and wait for the water levels to recede.

Chapter 6 – In late July, McCandless committed a blunder that cost him his life.

Hundreds of individuals have wandered out into the wilds of the Last Frontier over the years, never to be seen again. The harsh beauty of Alaska’s scenery may inspire romantic ideas of communing with nature, but it’s a challenging life that even the toughest Alaskans can’t always make it through. Hundreds of people, including Alaskans, have died of starvation in the wilderness throughout the years.

For months, McCandless had been making do in the woods. That, in and of itself, demonstrates that he was resourceful, resilient, and tougher than the average person.

But why didn’t he make a more concerted effort to return to civilization when he was ready? Why did he return to the bus? The simple explanation is that he was too weak to trek out by the time he knew he was in grave danger.

McCandless had harvested and eaten a lot of wild potato plants in May and June after identifying them as edible in his field guide. These plants generate seeds during the summer months. These seeds contain an amino acid that causes paralysis and finally death, as author Jon Krakauer found after much investigation. Malnourished men between the ages of 15 and 25 are particularly vulnerable. This amino acid, referred to as ODAP, hinders the body from converting food into energy.

McCandless gradually became aware of what was going on with him. He noted in his journal on July 30 that he felt exceedingly weak. Potato seeds were the source of the problem, according to him. He rejoiced in his journal on August 5, his hundredth day in the wild. He wrote, “BUT IN THE WORST CONDITION OF LIFE.” “DEATH APPEARS TO BE A SERIOUS THREATENING.”

The sufferer of famine experiences muscular pain, sensitivity to cold, hallucinations, and great tiredness as the body begins to consume itself. However, as the game progresses, the anguish fades and is replaced by ecstasy and mental clarity.

“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD,” McCandless wrote shortly before his death, somewhere between August 13 and 18. THANK YOU AND MAY GOD BLESS YOU ALL!” After that, he climbed inside the sleeping bag that his mother had made for him and passed away.

Chapter 7 – McCandless took a rash decision. His death, however, was an accident rather than a suicide.

Author Jon Krakauer has come to certain conclusions about McCandless’s tragic death after spending years getting to know him via his letters, images, and the enduring impact he left on the people he encountered on the road.

First, he does not believe McCandless was a brash young man with a death desire, as many Alaskans mock him. He wasn’t suicidal; he had strength and perseverance, and he came dangerously near to dying in the wilderness.

He also thinks McCandless’ search for truth in the outdoors – truth about himself and the world – is a natural, healthy drive. Because of McCandless’s intense personality, he pushed risk-taking to its limit. Krakauer has discovered other cases of identical young men, including himself, who have taken grave risks.

Young men have been risking their lives since the dawn of time in search of significance or a greater sense of aliveness. Risky efforts appeal to a wide range of people, not just the young. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, nearly died when climbing a mountain at the age of 36, when he was far past the initial flush of youth.

Jon Krakauer was a brash, self-absorbed adolescent with a grudge against his father. Krakauer, like McCandless, was enamored of the vast outdoors. He climbed mountains to have a better perspective on life. The thrill of danger was a part of the experience.

At the age of 23, Krakauer made the decision to climb Devils Thumb, an Alaskan peak, alone. The concept grew into a unique preoccupation. He headed off from Gig Harbor, Washington, getting a ride on a commercial salmon boat. He felt at ease once the mission was underway as if he was aligned with a need that was beyond his control or comprehension.

After taking great risks navigating — and then vertically ascending – an ice cap plagued with miles-deep crevasses, he ultimately reached the peak of the Thumb. However, he was unaware of the risk at the time. He’d been wanting to climb the Thumb for so long, so hard, that even a tiny setback like poor weather or a crevasse didn’t seem to be enough to deter him. Death was a traumatic experience. 

This is arrogance and naiveté. However, toying with death – a game won by Krakauer and many others but lost by Christopher McCandless – is not the same as wishing for death.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer Book Summary – Review

Christopher McCandless died in the same way he lived – with all his might, having put his all into the endeavor of life. His is a tale of self-discovery and ferocious desire. His legacy lives on in the lives of the individuals he encountered along the way, as well as the millions of others whose lives have been touched by his narrative since then.

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