The Cult of Chris McCandless
Credit: Courtesy Wayne Westerberg
The eerie quiet at the bus, broken only by the drone of mosquitoes and the rustling of alder leaves, would be more unsettling were it not for the presence of Brent Keith, a local hunting guide who has driven me out to the bus on his six-wheeled Polaris Ranger ATV. I feel relieved to have the burly 38-year-old Alaskan here, wearing a "Team Glock" hat and carrying a 10mm on his hip to prove it, plus a satellite phone and a six-pack of Moosehead behind the seat. On the way to the bus, a two-day hike from the nearest road, we spotted enormous bear tracks, and Keith had told me about dropping a charging grizzly from 15 feet away.

To reach the spot where McCandless died we forded two rivers, the Savage and the Teklanika, the latter milky with glacial till and running so high and swift it had come up to our seats when we plowed through, nearly drowning the air intake on the Ranger. As he steered into the rushing water, Keith had shouted to me over the straining engine, "You know what the state motto of Alaska is? 'Hold my beer and watch this!'" An even fiercer torrent had prevented McCandless from hiking out when he tried to leave the bush in July of 1992.

On the way in we'd come across Kevin and Rob Mark, brothers from New Jersey, who were hiking two days back to the trailhead after staying a night at the bus. They had read Krakauer's book and wanted to see if they could make it out on foot, to gain some sense of what McCandless had endured. "It was a great adventure getting out there, but crossing the river was terrifying," Rob told me. They were both knocked down and nearly carried off in the swift icy water of the Teklanika.

A year younger than McCandless would have been today had he lived, Keith has a distinctly Alaskan viewpoint on his death, unsentimental and unswayed by romanticism. He points to a clear pool in a stream not 50 feet from the bus, in which dozens of foot-long grayling swim against the current. "You could practically shovel those out with a spruce branch," he tells me. "And I just don't get why he didn't stay down by the Teklanika until the water got low enough to cross. Or walk upstream to where it braids out in shallow channels. Or start a signal fire on a gravel bar." He peers inside the bus and shakes his head at what he sees as a greenhorn in over his head who had retreated to the only sign of civilization for miles when he realized he couldn't make it. "Tough enough to live out here without trying harder," he says. "We're hard up for heroes if that's what it takes – some guy who starved to death in a bus."

The majority of Alaskans share some version of the opinion that McCandless was deeply out of his element. Medred, the outdoors columnist for the 'Anchorage Daily News,' believes that he was suffering from schizophrenia and compares him to Timothy Treadwell, the unstable filmmaker and bear enthusiast who (along with his girlfriend) was killed and eaten by a grizzly in Katmai National Park in 2003. "McCandless didn't need the wilderness," he says. "He needed help."

Alaskans fault Krakauer for romanticizing McCandless, thereby encouraging others to model themselves after his life. Before the film has even been released, it has become common to blame Hollywood for further glamorizing a senseless tragedy. As Dermot Cole, a columnist for the 'Fairbanks Daily News-Miner', puts it, "To sell the story, they've made it into a fable. He's been glorified in death because he was unprepared. You can't come to Alaska and do that."

Butch Killian, one of the moose hunters who discovered McCandless's body in September 1992, considered it just another day in the bush and doesn't understand why such a big deal has been made out of the story. He told me he had never read the book and had no idea that it had been a bestseller, that thousands of people had felt a deep identification with Krakauer's portrait of McCandless. "I don't know what his problem was, but it wasn't surviving. If he's a hero, he's a dead hero." Killian doesn't think that a visit to the site will provide many answers. "So many people have asked me to take them out there. What in the world would you want to go back there for? It's nothing but an old bus."

Old bus or no, Fairbanks 142 has become something of a reliquary, a shrine to which many have come seeking understanding: of McCandless, of the wilderness, of themselves. A memorial plaque to McCandless is screwed to the inside of the bus, bearing a message from his family that ends with the phrase "We commend his soul to the world." Inside a beat-up suitcase on a table are a half-dozen tattered notebooks. The first entries, from July 1993, in red pen on paper yellowing with age, are personal notes from his parents. They visited the site with Jon Krakauer by helicopter. Krakauer also left a note: "Chris – Your memory will live on in your admirers. – Jon"

And those admirers came: The dog-eared notebooks are filled with hundreds of entries from pilgrims who traveled the arduous 22 miles out to try to feel some connection with the McCandless spirit. They came by snowmobile, dogsled, mountain bike, and mostly by foot, usually taking two days to hike the boggy, mosquito-plagued trail and ford the freezing rivers. They came from across the U.S. and from as far as Bulgaria, Finland, and the Czech Republic. They came because there was something about the story, and about Alaska, that drew them there.

Together the entries form a chorus of voices, some questioning, some praising, all trying to wring some meaning out of his story, and by extension, their own lives: I am 20 years old and feel a kinship with Chris…. This is God's country and a beautiful place to leave this world…. We shouldn't Romanticize or canonize him…. What went on here, at this bus, transcends the ordinary and mundane…. Chris was completely awake to life…. for the first time in many years I am crying…. Chris may have fucked up, but he fucked up brilliantly…. he found the serenity of the spirit that most die without…. pray for Chris's critics…. There is something about Alaska that changes you…. You go your way – I'll go your way too.