The Finest Relic of Chris McCandless

Fairbanks Bus 142 on the cover of the first-edition paperback of Into the Wild (1997)

On June 18, 2020, the Alaska National Guard lifted the legendary bus,where Chris McCandless finished his adventure in 1992, out of the Alaskan woods for good.

The bus is from Fairbanks and was built in the 1940s. It is also 30 miles from the nearest road. The bus is beyond a river that appears to have run dry during part of the year, but is a deadly torrent the rest. McCandless stumbled on it when he ventured into the wild and used it for shelter. In attempts to see it and connect with McCandless for themselves, people would visit his “magic bus” every spring. Since, two more people died there and several others have necessitated organized rescues.

I am presuming you’ve read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996) or saw the 2007 movie by Sean Penn that it inspired. The first time I picked up the book, my parents saw the description that started “In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness…” It was definitely my kind of story, but the cover takes on a cult-like mystery; my parents were immediately weary of what it might do to me. Later, when I went to Alaska, staying with my friend Steve, he and I talked about three things: Climbing Denali, girls, and visiting Fairbanks Bus 142. We ultimately decided not to trek down the Stampede Trail and cross the creek; we realized that there were other more remarkable places that would change us without chasing Alexander Supertramp.

For some readers, the McCandless story awakens in many of us an inner sense of being independent, wild, and free. It’s the dirtbag life and not giving a damn about our job or convention. (Of course for others, he was an irresponsible, unprepared, rebellious, reckless youth.) Regardless, he challenged our perspective and made some of us reconsider our notion of how and what we live and work to accomplish.

And then there is this place. This memorial. This shrine. This bus several miles off the beaten path. It may as well have been a remote temple in a lush Himalayan valley only accessible by crossing glaciers, hiding a portal to reach a wise sage.

I wanted to visit too for many years. I was startled one day when studying my Denali National Park and Preserve Map years before visiting Alaska, I found the Stampede Trail indicating the path to the Bus 142. I marked approximately where it was and shared it with Steve. I admired Chris McCandless for his bold and deliberate actions. So many things about him were abstract ideas, which were challenging, but the bus was real and tangible. I could show you where it was. Maybe it could bring clarity?

Around 2014, long after the book and the movie, Chris McCandless’ sister Carine came out with a revision, or enhancement, about what she had known but diluted for years, about why Chris vanished the way he did and went on his journey. She said, in addition to embracing his love of nature, he had great anger directed toward his parents and wanted no more part of them. His parents were abusive to each other, and Chris and Carine felt helpless. Chris McCandless’ quest for freedom was not just from the things you and I want a break from, like responsibilities of a society and cultural norms, but an oppressive relationship.

I once heard that we have much to learn from addicts and eccentrics, and it is sometimes true (though not always.) I would put McCandless in the category of eccentric and hurt or traumatized person. The conventional approach to eccentrics or the traumatized is to just ignore or dismiss many hardships. McCandless is a worthy curiosity. It’s okay that that the bus was removed; the bus isn’t the vehicle to reach McCandless. I think Jon Krakauer has more to share about McCandless’ adventure, or what was known about it in 1996. It created a record, better than the bus, in his book, Into the Wild. The real artifact worth preserving and revisiting — or rather, re-reading — is the story that inspired us to look at things differently.

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P.S. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is not a mountain book or a climbing story as a whole. In my opinion, it is part of the general adventure genre, which is a broader category of what I normally cover here on T.S.M. In the book, Krakauer talks about his experience climbing Devil’s Thumb in Alaska. (It’s my favorite chapter.) The value statement and hashtag for this blog “#climbingmatters,” which used to be the tag line on the website’s masthead — Climbing Matters… Even though we work nine to five. — was partly inspired by Krakauer on page 134 of my 1997 paperback edition from Anchor Books: “By fixing my sights on one summit after another, I managed to keep my bearings through some thick postadolescent fog. Climbing mattered… The world was made real.”

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