A story of steadfast dedication, exploration and — ultimately — isolation. That’s what Into the Wild, a 1996 Jon Krakauer novel and 2007 film, shared with wanderlust hippies the world over. But many people skimmed the tragic death and illness, both mental and physical, that pervaded the story, simply wishing to exemplify Chris McCandless by reaching his point of death: the Into the Wild bus itself.
How the fame of the Into the Wild bus began
The Krakauer novel was a true story, something that made it all the more wrenching to read. Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University only to leave his home, without telling his family or friends where he was going (or that he left at all). His ultimate goal? The Alaskan wilderness.
Krakauer was able to collect bits and pieces of McCandless’ journey by connecting with people he met along the way. A couple along the Mexican border, a family in Slab City, truckers in rural Alaskan towns — McCandless left an indelible mark on so many people that they couldn’t forget him if they tried.
The last stop of McCandless’ journey was deep in the woods of Denali National Park, along the massive Teklanika River. He crossed the river in wintertime, ending up in an isolated destination and taking shelter in a 1946 Fairbanks City Transit System Bus, number 142.
Eventually, McCandless became hungry and struggled to hunt, but he was unable to cross the now-raging river to get back to gentler land. This led to his ultimate fate: starvation and food poisoning. He stayed in the bus for more than four months before dying in 1992. His body was eventually found and identified, along with snippets in a diary and a self-portrait he took himself.
Getting to Chris McCandless’ camp was no easy feat
McCandless didn’t put the bus there, but ever since he made it his temporary home almost three decades ago, hikers have been vying to recreate his famous self-timed photo. Even the chair he sat in stayed put, rusting away over the years.
Krakauer himself visited the bus in 1993, just a year after McCandless’ death. He saw his shoes sitting there, his clothes atop the stove left to dry.
But many hikers, even experienced ones, put themselves in danger making the trek to the holy-temple-of-sorts. The land is tough, and you have to cross a wild river to get to it. Some hikers died, and many were injured, prompting rescue crews to fly them out by helicopter.
In 2010, Claire Ackermann attempted to cross the Teklanika River to get to the bus, but drowned in the process. She was 29 years old.
In 2019, Veramika Maikamava tried to do the same but lost her life in the process. She was 24.
The National Guard referenced 15 on-site rescues and innumerable others en route to the bus.
Considering McCandless himself died at the fateful location, this should really come as no surprise. Still, it doesn’t make it any less tragic.
The National Guard removed the bus, and Krakauer reflected on his decision to write the book
This June, the National Guard decided that the Into the Wild bus was a danger to hikers and decided to airlift it out of the park to an undisclosed location.
“We encourage people to enjoy Alaska’s wild areas safely, and we understand the hold this bus has had on the popular imagination. However, this is an abandoned and deteriorating vehicle that was requiring dangerous and costly rescue efforts, but more importantly, was costing some visitors their lives.” – Corri A. Feige, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner
When asked to speak on the removal of the Into the Wild bus, Krakauer himself had some thoughts to share.
“It really gobsmacked me. This place has been desecrated and now it’s been obliterated. But it’s really tragic people keep dying doing stupid stuff.” – Jon Krakauer to the Washington Post when asked to speak on the removal of the Into the Wild bus
Krakauer recognizes that his book was the work that changed everything, and questions whether he should have written it in the first place.
But while the bus led to multiple deaths, including that of McCandless himself, Krakauer’s captivating book influenced a generation of mountaineers and wilderness seekers, only some of whom made ill-informed decisions.
Even now that the Into the Wild bus is gone, we should not forget the spirit of Chris McCandless. Still, we should remember not to strip his tale of the tragedy it was drenched in: a family’s lost son and brother, an unresolved desire to return across the river and, most importantly, a culture that failed to nourish a footloose soul.