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 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.
If 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.
The 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.
There 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 either getting killed or needing rescue themselves.
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 20 miles from a highway. Courage and convictions only mean something if they’re used for a decent cause. Not being an imbecile helps.
If 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!