The Cult of Chris McCandless
Credit: Courtesy Wayne Westerberg

Fifteen years have passed: 15 howling Alaska winters and 15 brief frenzied summers, and the ancient bus on the Stampede Trail still rusts in the wilderness, almost exactly as Chris McCandless left it. Twenty-two miles from the nearest road, shaded out by alder and black spruce on a moraine rise above a creek, the green and white WWII-vintage International Harvester looks surreally out of place, like an artifact from a vanished civilization. The bus doesn't at first seem a likely time capsule of American mythology, a shrine to which people from around the world make pilgrimages and leave tributes in memory of a young man whom they see as a fallen hero. It doesn't look to be the sort of place that would inspire a best-selling book, much less a major motion picture. But that's exactly what it is.

Fireweed and wild potato grow up in the wheel wells. On the side of the bus FAIRBANKS 142 is still legible in paint that has been bleached and scoured by the seasons. A few bullet holes have starred the windows; whether they were fired out of anger or boredom is unclear. Other than that, the people who have made the trek out here, out of respect or superstition, have left the site largely untouched. The vertebrae of the young moose McCandless shot lie scattered. The bones, and a smattering of feathers, add to the spooky aura of a charnel ground. Inside, near an old oil-barrel stove, McCandless's jeans are neatly folded on a shelf, knees patched with scraps of an old army blanket, seat patched with duct tape. And the bed is still there too, springs and stuffing bursting from the stained mattress, as if a wild animal's been at it. The same bed where they found his body.

It was a haunting tale, capturing the imagination of the country. September 1992, deep in the bush of the Alaskan interior northeast of Mount McKinley, in an abandoned bus on a disused mining trail, the decomposed body of a man was found by a moose hunter. The remains weighed only 67 pounds, and he had apparently died of starvation. He carried no identification, but a few rolls of undeveloped film and a cryptic journal chronicled a horrifying descent into sickness and slow death after 112 days alone in the wilderness. When the man's identity was established, the puzzle only deepened. His name was Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old honors graduate, star athlete, and beloved brother and son from a wealthy but dysfunctional East Coast family. With a head full of Jack London and Thoreau, McCandless rechristened himself "Alexander Supertramp," cut all ties with his family, gave his trust fund to charity, and embarked on a two-year odyssey that brought him to Alaska, that mystic repository of American notions of wilderness, a blank spot on the map where he could test the limits of his wits and endurance. Setting off with little more than a .22 caliber rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice, McCandless hoped to find his true self by renouncing society and living off the land. But, as Craig Medred would note in the 'Anchorage Daily News', "the Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself." No one ever saw McCandless alive again. Fifteen years later his story continues to resonate as a quintessentially American tale, and its hero has assumed near mythic status, blurring the lines between living memory and the creation of a legend.

When writer Jon Krakauer first heard McCandless's story, he later told a reporter, "the hair on my neck rose." Krakauer's profound empathy for his subject and obsessive research yielded 'Into the Wild', a heartbreaking portrait that has sold more than 2 million copies and become the authoritative version of the McCandless story, around which all discussions are framed. In Krakauer's telling, McCandless represents the human urge to push the limits of experience, to live a life untouched by the trappings of culture and civilization. Now that portrait has been taken up by the ultimate mythologizer: Hollywood. The film, to be released in September, was written and directed by Sean Penn and filmed on location in the many places McCandless traveled.

Woven through with the timeless themes of self-invention, risk, and our complex relationship to the natural world, the enigma of Chris McCandless is once again being debated, more vociferously than ever. Was his death a Shakespearean tragedy or a pitch-black comedy of errors? What impact has the tale and its renown had on our perception of Alaska? And perhaps most tantalizingly: Did Krakauer, and now Penn, get key parts of the story wrong?

From almost the moment he was found, the meaning of Chris McCandless's life and lonely death has been fiercely argued. The debate falls into two camps: Krakauer's visionary seeker, the tragic hero who dared to live the unmediated life he had dreamed of and died trying; or, as many Alaskans see it, the unprepared fool, a greenhorn who had fundamentally misjudged the wilderness he'd wanted so desperately to commune with. If the cult that has grown up around McCandless is any indication, we want the romantic portrait to be true: that he made a series of small mistakes that compounded in disaster. But the truth doesn't always conform to Hollywood's ideals.