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Christopher McCandless, Tool and Fool

Ah, no sooner has the new college semester started than my campus’ circle of hippies is already at their latest round of idiocy. This time it seems, they are asking people to join them in a couple days to join them in celebrating the life of modern hippie folk idol Christopher McCandless, whose death was twenty years ago this month. Their reasoning is that there are lessons people could take away from his life, and oddly enough, I am for once in agreement with them, although for wildly different reasons.
Chris_McCandlessChris McCandless, for those of you who don’t know who he is, was a trust-fund baby who upon graduation from college, burned his money, degree and indentifying documents and became a vagabond for the next several years, without once telling his friends or family. Basing his world-view on the sort vague understanding of romanticist literature and self-reliance you’d expect for a proto-hipster fresh out of college, he worked various odd jobs traveling around the western USA, before traveling to Alaska, where he starved to death in the woods. Briefly an idol in the early 1990s, he earned second life as a countercultural idol with the release of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, a romanticized biopic which painted McCandless as a modern day Thoreau. Not surprisingly, the truth about McCandless is far less heroic or romantic than Penn’s film portrayed him, though it’s not like Penn is the best judge of character to start with.
sean_penn_hugo_chavez_not_a_dictatoIf any folks who claimed to idolize him did even an elementary amount of research on him, they would know there is little to idolize or even sympathize with concerning Christopher McCandless. If you ignore the movie and book that glorify his life, and read his own writings or contemporary accounts, it’s glaringly obvious McCandles just an over-privileged white boy who upon reading Walden a few too many times, abandoned his family and began a journey that was more about self-gratification than self-discovery. He never did become independent–he didn’t eat for days until somebody felt sorry for him and fed him; he got lost in Mexico; even at the end, he left a note on the bus begging to be rescued. He wasn’t their heir of Thoreau or Jack London, he was the fore-runner of the hipsters, only difference was instead of moving to Brooklyn and buying a fixie bike, he went to Alaska and starved to death.
Into-the-wildThe Alaskan trip in particular is worth looking at as a true judge of his character, especially to moment to consider the immense stupidity of McCandless’ actions in Alaska. Not only had he never been to Alaska, never lived off the land for an extended period of time, and had next to no woodsman skills or wilderness survival training, but he went into the wilderness with inadequate equipment, no map, no compass, and without telling anyone where he was going. To anyone with even a basic knowledge of wilderness survival, or a fair amount of common sense, every bit of that should have set off alarm bells in your head as a recipe for disaster, and makes his ultimate fate all the more logical. There is a word for someone who sets out into one of the most hostile wildernesses on the planet alone without telling anyone, without taking a compass or map, or having any sort of wilderness or survival training. That word is idiot, and in McCandless’ case, suicidally so.
chris-mccandless-dead-moronThere is a reason most people live in comfort in civilization as opposed to nature – because nature is cruel, uncaring, and hard as hell to survive in even the best circumstances, even with years of wilderness training. This is doubly so for places like the Alaskan wilderness, which is famous as one of the most hostile landscapes on Earth. People die or go missing there every year, even people just passing through, let alone trying to live of the land. When you consider all of McCandless’ actions in Alaska, you begin to understand why many Alaskans refer to him as “The Idiot Who Went Into the Woods and Died”, which says something considering they’ve seen fools like Timothy Treadwell, to say nothing of the several morons each year who head to McCandless’ camper van and end up getting stranded, needing to be rescued, or getting themselves killed. It’s especially pathetic when you realize if they’d done even a simple amount of research, they’d have known ahead of time the van McCandless died in isn’t there anymore – the state of Alaska paid to have it moved to Healy, Alaska because they were tired of having to rescue all the idiots nearly killing themselves treking to it. Of course, when they idolize a fool who got himself killed by heading into one of the most hostile environment on Earth without training, research or preparation, why should we expect better of them?

Look, don’t think I’m unsympathetic to the poor sod’s desire to find himself or become self-sufficient – everyone has those desires from time to time, and one of the reasons I joined the military was for my own self-discovery. What I ridicule about McCandless is that his approach was so ill-made and completely naïve, that it could only end in tragedy. Worse still, for all his criticism of modern society, capitalism, and materialism, thanks to his lack of life experience and faulty understanding of how society works, he failed to realize that the comforts of civilization are the only thing keeping the cruel hand of natural selection from snuffing you out. If McCandless wanted to skip the ‘9-5 job security path’ that badly, perhaps he could have done something constructive for humanity, like joining the military or the Peace Corps, or worked for a charity of some sort. Instead, he lived like a hobo for a year before heading to Alaska where he managed to get himself killed 15 miles from a highway. Courage and convictions only mean something if they’re used for a decent cause. Not being an imbecile helps.
Chris_McCandless_MoronIf there is any reason to look at Christopher McCandless, it’s not as a modern folk hero worthy of imitation, but as a cautionary tale that many of the naïve fools that idolize him would do well to pay learn from. Rather than being the poster child as the modern Thoreau, McCandless should serve as an example that more often than naught, the ‘empty materialism of American society’ is the only thing separating you from an early grave. If that’s the lesson that people take away from the hippies telling people to learn about Christopher McCandless, preach on!

36 thoughts on “Christopher McCandless, Tool and Fool”

  1. Stienberg says:

    Well done Korsgaard! I was reading about this fool some time ago and I found myself in complete shock when people were regarding him as some kind of idol, especially in that movie!

    Lo shall we heed the cautionary tale of the fool in the wilderness? Hopefully lest we end up with another whole batch of ‘idols’ that we can make movies about!

    1. Korsgaard says:

      Just take solace in the harsh truth about this dearly departed dimwit. It’s what keeps me from being too upset at attempts to make McCandless a folk hero.

    2. G says:

      Chris wasn’t trying to prove himself to anybody.He was a man that took interest into exploring nature the very thing that many Americans today don’t consider as much anymore.

      1. Jason says:

        He was also a dumbass.

        1. Vicky says:

          I’m sure you’ve been a dumbass many times too! He was naive, yes, and even ignorant about what he did, but he damn sure didn’t deserve to die, you dumbass!

      2. Vicky says:

        Well said Korsgaard!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent work Sean 🙂

    1. Korsgaard says:

      Glad you like it!

  3. Ian says:

    You never cease to amaze me. Funny and witty at the same time, what a mix.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Thank you, thank you kindly!

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    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Harsh, but I did find out several people each year go missing trying to pull similar stunts like McCandless. You think knowing how he died, most of them would realize imitating him not the best way to avoid the angry hand of natural selection.

  5. Bazza says:

    I’d agree with your main point that he was unprepared for the ordeal that he chose to face and this is what killed him and ought to be a lesson to people that are considering such a lifestyle. Such a statement seems so glaringly obvious that it hardly needs be stated.

    I certainly don’t consider him a hero or a rolemodel, nonetheless, I think that you’re being a little too critical of his character when you don’t actually know anything about him or what he did.

    The details are on public record and can be found by anyone with internet access in less than five minutes. So please, in future when discussing someone’s death publically either get your basic facts straight or make your misconceptions amusing.

    Concerning your point here: ‘If any folks who claimed to idolize him did even an elementary amount of research on him,…’, you don’t seem to have bothered doing any research yourself on this matter. He did have a map, he also had identification and about $300 when he was found, what’s all this about him not having a map and burning his identification and money then?

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      I actually did a fair amount of research on my part prior to writing this. My comment regarding him burning his cash and ID regarded a similar incident with him toward the beginning of his cross-country trek. I assume he could have found more money later, or gotten new ID.

      As for his character, I’ve read his journals, testimonies from folks who encountered him, and several accounts looking back at his life. I’ll say it again, given the multitude of options at his fingertips, he could have done any number of things to better himself or better the world. Instead, he lived like a bum and died like a moron, and have inspired several other gullible fools to do the same. By all accounts, he was a detestable waste of a human being.

      1. A.S. says:

        I think your perspective on Christopher McCandless is troubling and lacking in basic humanity. You’re right, he isn’t the Thoreauvian hero some people believe him to be. But he also wasn’t “a detestable waste of a human being.” It’s clear from his behavior and from Krakauer’s book that he was a fairly disturbed young man who struggled with things that are not a struggle for most people. He made reckless choices that no sensible person would make, and they cost him his life. But if you can’t distinguish between a person afflicted by mental illness and some tedious trust-fund idiot, that is a failing on your part.

        1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

          While I’ll admit I am a bit harsh on him – largely because of efforts to turn him into a folk hero – I don’t think his actions are the result of any mental illness. save perhaps delusions of grandeur. Plus, his ‘struggles’ are quite common in people around his age – millions of young people struggle to find themselves and their place in the world, the overwhelming majority of whom do so without running off to Alaska and starving to death. Like I pointed out in the article, he had scores of options – volunteer at a charity, join the Peace Corp, or do something constructive.

          By all accounts, he had a firm grasp of his actions and the consequences, and there has been no information that I am aware of that he suffered from any sort of mental illness. By all means, if there is such information, point it out to me, and I will be the first to apologize. Otherwise, I maintain he was, as you put quite nicely, a tedious trust-fund idiot who committed suicide in all but name.

          1. A.S. says:

            Craig Medred, an Alaskan journalist, makes a convincing case that McCandless suffered from some form of mental illness, possibly schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

            I don’t know that anyone can provide a definitive psychiatric diagnosis for McCandless at this late date, but it’s clear the man was not in full possession of his mental faculties. From writing split personality manifestos to cutting off contact with his kid sister to making increasingly poor survival decisions, he wasn’t exactly the picture of glowing mental health. I know that some people have naively tried to turn him into a hero. And I know that he was flawed, misguided, and even unlikeable at times. But that’s not enough to justify his vilification. I think you have to pick your battles in this world. And frankly, there are people far more deserving of contempt than a troubled and self-destructive person like Christopher McCandless.

            1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

              Looked up some of his work, interesting stuff. I would point out though, there are already multiple people who are also calling his work out as unfounded, both among McCandless’ fans and his detractors. Jury’s still out it seems.

              Like I said, its not so much McCandless I take issue with so much as the folks who idealize him, especially when a regular number of them die or nearly die attempting to follow in his footsteps. If there was any message to take away from his life, you think “Unplanned trips to Alaska can prove fatal” would be near the top.

              By all means, if you have other more contemptible folks I should take aim at, I’m always open for new targets.

  6. Luis Salcedo says:

    It somewhat pains me to know that despite the sheer idiocy of his actions, there are people who want to emulate him and go out to the Alaskan wilderness.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      It must pain your further than more of them continue to get themselves killed or nearly killed in doing so.

  7. Dannis says:

    I find Chris McCandless to be idolized not because he went into the wild and starved to death, but because he did what he wanted to do. I don’t find him a hero, but each of us need to walk our own path to self discovery. Chris did what he wanted to do. How many of you had dreams? How many of you just pushed them aside because you were too afraid, or you’re the everyday materialist who feeds off of money? His story impacted me in a positive way. Not by telling me to go into the wild, and live off the land, but by telling me to be myself and do what I feel, and not to follow the crowd.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      You know, I can respect that approach somewhat more, but there are DOZENS of others who followed their dreams and make far better models of imitation. McCandless all around is a poor model of imitation – as for being a model of inspiration, that depends on the person I suppose. If you took away something positive from him/his life Dannis, more power to you.

  8. FreshPotOFcabbage says:

    You guys realize that this is the guy who found out his dad had two families? His dad had an entire other family with another women and failed to tell Chris about it? He made a lot of friends and made a positive impact on people along the way. It was his own personal Hero’s journey. Your hate and this article says more about you then Chris.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      I fail to see why this makes his essentially suicidal journey, and his adoration as some sort of tragic folk hero, any less foolish.

      Again, he could have done any number of things instead – join the Peace Corps, volunteer in a charity – and instead, he made the worst possible choice along nearly every step of his journey, and it ended in him starving to death alone in Alaska. McCandless is a cautionary tale – nothing more.

      1. EW says:

        Very true,

        Lots of people have issues, or do things to “find themselves”.

        Some people do very selfless things and help others, some travel.

        Deciding that you want to go out and try something like go out into the wilderness in Alaska and dying as a result doesn’t make him special or inspirational. It’s more of a sad story than anything.

  9. wr says:

    He and Treadwell are pretty typical of a certain type (like the idiot protesters on college campuses today) – they think they know how the world works because they read a book once. They aren’t willing to do the hard work to really learn and prepare. They think they’re special.
    They’re wrong.

    1. David Wilson says:

      totally agree with your comment

  10. David Wilson says:

    Saw the movie a few years ago then came across it on Aerial America Alaska recently, i was surprised that AA chose to focus on it for a good 3-4 minutes (i.e. almost 10 % of the entire show). I did not find his story inspirational at all. I don’t have any ill-will for Chris per se, however, I think he should have at least done his homework before heading to Fairbanks (with it’s -65F winters). It’s the follow up media hype that sensationalized his journey and portrayed him as some sort of role model for anyone disillusioned with society. He should really be a role model of the consequences of being unprepared and how not to live in the wild neophyte style. There are so many non-conformists Johnny-come-lately’s searching for themselves these days and they idolize this movie. It is dis-ingenuous and hippocritical for someone who is born with everything to feel that they have nothing. Those who want a true self discovery journey should hook up with a NGO to Africa or a medical mission to S. America to see how having nothing lends one to discover how the littlest things become a blessing.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Agreed on all counts.

  11. Justin says:

    I agree that mccandless was a complete moron, but you seriously need to proofread your stuff before you post it. There are so many grammatical errors it makes you look like an idiot as well.

  12. Sam says:

    He did have a map. So…

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Most accounts, including Jon Krakauer’s book, say he did not. Thus why McCandless starved to death within 15 miles of a highway.

  13. Brad says:

    I watched Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild” about a year ago and read news and blog articles at that time about Christopher McCandless, and have had a recent resurgence of interest after reading an article published last week in which a writer expressed inane envy of McCandless escaping into the wilderness instead of having to deal with the writer’s upcoming boring chore of shopping for common household items. I don’t wish to criticize McCandless – the dead have no way to defend their actions in life, and he seemingly took the path that he wanted to take – but I agree that he was foolish in the way that he went into the wilderness with apparently next to no preparation, no credible food ration supply, and no emergency plan. Nature and the wilderness are both beautiful to visit and wander through, but completely unforgiving, and the idea of walking out of the front door and ‘roaming free’ like a hobo is slightly attractive every once in awhile, but having some savings in the bank for self-dependence, a secure home and a bed to sleep in, food in the pantry, access to medicine and hospital facilities, and a holiday away planned after working for a year to earn that holiday, having material goods that provide comfort in our lives… These are good things. When I read about Chris and his decision to forego material objects and in his making decisions that eventuated in him losing his life , with no disrespect to him, ironically this makes me appreciate the material goods that I have in my life so much more.

    1. Sean CW Korsgaard says:

      Honestly, I think two things about the whole McCandless narrative bug me enough not to allow him a pass for having died.

      The first being the utter magnitude of what he did – that is, after playing hobo for a year or so, went off into the Alaskan wilderness, one of the most unforgiving landscapes in North America, one that regularly claims the lives of locals with decades of experience, and in utter defiance of every modicum of common sense, headed out without proper supplies or wilderness training. There is good reason that when asked, Park Rangers say he essentially committed suicide.

      The second, and perhaps graver sin, is that the idiot is being treated as some kind of folk idol, and has inspired imitators. Getting yourself killed is one thing, getting other people killed is quite another.

      I have got to see what writer expressed inane envy of this joker this time though.

      1. Brad says:

        Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote an exceedingly sensible article ‘From an Alaskan Park Ranger’s perspective’ about why McCandless was a fool to go out into the wilderness unprepared.. and of course years later, fools are still hiking out there to that exact same spot only to go back to their cars and straight home again afterwards.

        I’ve had a change of heart since my first post. One thing I’ll readily criticize McCandless for is shooting and killing a protected moose without a permit (imagine if every visitor to Alaska wandered into a national park and did the same thing) through lack of rations, then seemingly having all the time in the world to take photos of himself posing with his moose ‘prize’, but not enough concern or common sense or preparedness to immediately start preserving/dehydrating as much meat as he could. There would have been no shortage of resources or helpful advice available in Fairbanks for him to learn about this. The electrician who dropped Chris off at the trail had offered out of concern and kindness to make a detour and treat Chris to survival equipment and supplies, but Chris refused.

        His story should be a strong warning to others not to do exactly what he did, instead of being seen as some ’embrace yourself and truly live life’ freedom warrior rubbish.

        I liked your article by the way, I’ll shortly have a read through some of your other work.

  14. Hummus Godchaux says:

    McCandless actually had tons of identification in his bag. It’s romantic to think he didn’t. Factually his wallet was intact with money and all sorts of identification. It’s all out there. The way I see it proves he wasn’t insane. Foolish for sure. I was 21 when I read the book. Now I just shake my head when I think back about how I used to this he was somehow “cool”.

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