I recently re-read the book “Into the wild” by John Krakauer. The story is based on the true story of Christopher John McCandless, a college graduate from an upper middle-class family who turned his back on convention to quiet his demons and chase his own ideals and dreams.
(Christopher McCandless self-photo: Popular internet photo)
After he graduated from Emory University, Chris gave the balance of his education savings account away, left his friends and family and chose to leave society with a dream of living a solitary existence in the wilderness of Alaska.
The book pieces together his story through the strangers he met along his journey, family accounts of his adolescence, and his own written notes he left behind documenting the adventures and failures leading to his untimely passing.
I knew nothing of this story until the Long Beach Peninsula where I live, specifically our beautiful Beard’s Hollow, was chosen as one of the film shoot locations for the movie based on the book. It was then I picked up my first copy of Into the Wild.
I have read many accounts of individuals who have chosen to live off the grid either for a time or permanently, divesting themselves of the normal comforts of our society. Thoreau’s writings of his life on Waldon Pond, Anne LaBastille’s story of her decision to live in the Adirondack wilderness, Helen Thayer, the first solo expedition of a woman to the magnetic north pole, Richard Pronnecke who created his simple world and lived alone beside a lake in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years. These are just a few of the true accounts you can pick up from any bookseller. Some have been successful in their ventures, some ended in misfortune.
There is something about these stories that sends an almost dizzying lust through my soul. A yearning for their kind of courage, for greater adventure, a deeper immersion into the natural world. But I have also been mellowed by age and I have no desire for recklessness. Still, I read the accounts and feel the way domesticated geese must feel when they hear their wild relatives honking overhead in freedom on their way to spring and autumn destinations.
Anyone who knows me understands that I spend a lot of my free time in nature. It’s there that the ever-lurking sense of restlessness finds real stillness, my soul gets satiated, my mind clears. My adventures are ridiculously tame and safe by comparison to any of the biographies I read, yet even those simple treks fill me in a way nothing else does.
(Photo credit: Marianne Mott)
Is the need to be close to nature something learned or do we all have a craving for wilderness to some degree? Maybe it’s part of our DNA. Wilderness areas are the top destinations for vacations.
In summer, along some of the ocean beaches here on the pacific coast we literally find small villages of elaborately engineered “forts” constructed from all the driftwood that gets thrown to shore by winter storms. The fascinating challenge of carving a place to dwell, if only for a day, from available materials.
(Photo credit: David King)
Do we start our lives closer to nature as fearless youth? Maybe without realizing it we lose that connection in the years we feel the obligation to conform, make our mark, find our “niche” in society. Then at some point we begin to feel the strong pull back to nature again, like the mysterious internal summons that return salmon to their spawning grounds. Maybe the real formidable wilderness is in all the years we try to be and achieve, the years we habitually pound ourselves into an identity that doesn’t ever seem to fit quite right, feels a bit hollow, is part of a way of life that constantly itches and irritates like cheap wool socks. We wonder why we aren’t fulfilled, why we keep adding to the endless storage spaces of “stuff” we acquire in hopes of being happy, unable to understand why the happiness is so fleeting. Each year we wait with great anticipation for a couple weeks of vacation to immerse ourselves in nature and then spend days in mourning when it ends.
Chris McCandless like so many others, set out to find that deep sigh of simplicity, a way of ecologically sound and purposeful living. I find myself longing for more of that constantly. Some critics think he was selfish, avoiding intimate relationships and social responsibility. Maybe that is true. Maybe there are just some souls who find society too frantic, unpredictable and overwhelming. How do we reconcile the need to be true to our individual nature with the desire to be responsible to our fellows?
I have always craved solitude and have come to understand it as something I need to maintain healthy emotional balance. But I also need social interaction. I need family and friends and opportunity for service to others to feel complete. It always comes down to balance. My dreams now are for less square footage, a smaller foot print, more spontaneity, more mobility, less indoor obligation in exchange for more outdoor stewardship. And yes, I long to stand in wilderness spaces few people have ever seen, stunned speechless by my surroundings.
Is such a lifestyle possible for me, for any of us?
Maybe the answer lies in the rather famous quote from the Chris McCandless story, echoed in the title of his biography, the final line he wrote purposely to anyone in the outside world.
“I now walk into the wild.”
As I finish this article I can hear a large group of geese calling out as they pass over my house and I can only smile and say, “Nature doesn’t ask, it ACTS.”