'I am reborn. This is my dawn': The remarkable life and lonely death of Christopher McCandless

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Oscar-nominated 'Into the Wild' revealed to the world the tragic irony of Christopher McCandless's final days - trapped by the wilderness he adored. Now, a new book of his personal notes and photos collated by his family offers an intimate picture of the adventurer's love for America's backcountry - and desperation as he saw his end approaching

When, in September 1992, a hunter came across the remains of a young man in the Alaskan backcountry, there was little to suggest that the emaciated corpse would be anything more than a footnote in the annals of America's wilderness state: one of the underprepared loners who come to the state to prove themselves against its forbidding terrain and climate, and pay dearly for their inexperience. But if Christopher McCandless had arrived in the state as an unknown 24-year-old, in death he was soon to become one of the more famous adventurers to disappear into the depths of Alaska's interior.

Within a few months, local coverage of the fate of McCandless attracted the national press, and in 1996 the writer Jon Krakauer expanded a long magazine article he had written. In the resulting book, Into the Wild, Krakauer trod the footsteps of McCandless as he gave his savings to charity, turned his back on his comfortable upbringing on the outskirts of Washington DC, burned the cash in his wallet, wandered about the American West, and sloughed off the trappings of civilised society – all the better to live up to the persona he coined for himself, "Alexander Supertramp".

Krakauer traced his quarry all the way to the scene of his death: a remote, abandoned bus on the wild, north-eastern edge of Denali National Park in Alaska. With the journal and photo films recovered from McCandless's belongings, he pieced together the final few months of his life: the elation at fending for himself and communing with nature, and the encroaching despair as McCandless realised he had trapped himself in his idyll, and was starving to death.

McCandless is thought to have succumbed in mid-August 1992, and Krakauer didn't just detail the exploits of a foolhardy young man, but turned him into a figure as romantic and enigmatic as any in America's frontier history. Into the Wild spent two years on the New York Times Best Sellers list, was translated into 28 languages and eventually, in 2007, became an Oscar-nominated film directed by Sean Penn. Over that time, countless pilgrimages have been made by acolytes of the McCandless creed to his final resting place, the "Magic Bus" – yet, as Walt McCandless explains, the appetite for his son's story appears insatiable.

"There are a huge number of people who've contacted us [over the years]," says Walt, 75, a former Nasa engineer. "I don't truly understand it. I'm amazed it's so continuous. There's a part of everybody that looks at what Chris k did and thinks, 'That's something I'd like to do.'" In part response, the McCandless family have decided to publish Back to the Wild, which, using more than 200 of their son's photographs, chronologically arranged and carefully annotated with his writings, tells the story of his final two years, including his fateful trip to Alaska.

McCandless broke off contact with his family over this period, but he wrote letters and postcards to friends he met while travelling and made journal entries emphatically justifying his choices ("I am reborn. This is my dawn. Real life has just begun.") Throughout, he smiles from the photos as if in disbelief at the wide open spaces before him.

Despite the enormous potential audience for the book, Back to the Wild came into being only when Walt was advised by a lawyer to catalogue the photography for copyright purposes – at which point he had had no thought of publishing them. But, due to a procedural error, he had to recatalogue the images, and it was this that led to the idea of the book. "The first time was an act of labour," he recalls. "The second time, the light flashed on."

Moroever, Walt found the "forensic" cataloguing process led him to a deeper understanding of his son's quest: "I think I know him better, and it's been a positive experience. But my wife Billie has a hard time looking at the pictures." The last time Walt or any of Chris's close family heard from him was around his graduation from college in 1990. "Then communication stopped," says Walt. "Why? I have thought about this a lot and can only conclude that he knew that a major effort would ensue to find him if communication occurred. We did make an enduring attempt to track him via a hired investigator."

The exultant, determined young man on the pages of Back to the Wild is far from unfamiliar to Walt, who recalls a teenager enraged by apartheid and inequality in general, and who once housed a homeless person in the family's Airstream caravan. "For years we hiked in the Appalachians, and on [Chris's] last journey we were on our way down a mountain when we heard this clank, clank, clank coming down the trail. A couple of kids came round the corner – they were about 19, 20; Chris was 16. All they had were rolled-up blankets and a cast-iron skillet. We had a super-lightweight stove. Chris turned to me and said, 'That's really the way to do it.'"

The McCandlesses now run a charitable foundation in their son's name, and distribute a substantial amount annually. What is the legacy of Chris's journey? "Hopefully it's to enable people to look at what to do with their lives and take some steps in that direction. Not many people are able to do what Chris did – thankfully, in many ways. It's high risk."

A team of family and friends has assisted in publishing Back to the Wild, and in March Walt took them to Alaska to visit the bus. "When we first visited the bus [after Chris's death], we decided to leave his effects there. But they're now gone. The book didn't change things much, but after the film, people took stuff – instruments [from the bus] were offered on eBay." Nevertheless, says Walt, "The bus is still proud, growing into the landscape."

'Back to the Wild' is published by Twin Star Press, and is available from backtothewildbook.org

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'