At the end of the movie, I was surprised by the epilogue. “This was based on a true story?” I thought it couldn’t be, because McCandleless and his parents were just stereotypes painted in broad strokes. His parents — the well-meaning, upper middle class, keep-up-with-the-Joneses types always worried about what the neighbors might think. Struggling through a long-dead marriage ostensibly “for the sake of the children”. And McCandleless, the idealistic, starry-eyed hippie boy with little life experience taking extreme measures to find himself. Oh yeah, and to denounce capitalism.
His fundamental goal in life seemed to be finding truth. His biographer, Jon Krakauer, defends his journey as that of someone wanting to be “the first to explore a blank spot on the map.” However, in 1992, there weren’t any left* so he just pretended there was no map. Maybe this works on a journey of self-discovery, but just try an analogous statement for mathematics and see what you think of it.
I understand the appeal — truly, I do — to set off once in your life and really live according to your own beliefs. To discover who you are in the absence of society and others. Because those others have expectations for you that you probably can’t disentangle from your own goals without this kind of reflection. What I don’t understand is why one wouldn’t take an extra day with someone familiar with the Alaskan wilderness and learn the proper way to survive. If the goal were to learn to survive or die trying, then fine. But McCandleless stated in his writings that his goal was to live alone in the wilderness and think. This op-ed piece has the full text of McCandleless’ Alaskan diary and if any meaningful thoughts occurred to him, it seems he neglected to jot them down.
In the end, I think this type of story is what gets valid complaints against a society driven by consumerism lost in a sea of derisive sneers and indulgent smiles. “Oh, you’re a little hippie who doesn’t know anything about the world yet. Tell me more…”
The trouble with adults is, you have to talk like them if you want to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Chris McCandleless never managed.
* Not sure I believe this entirely. But it would be an obscure place, and probably not within the US.