The Cult of Chris McCandless
Credit: Courtesy Wayne Westerberg
With the mythology that has grown up around the story, it is easy to forget that McCandless was a real flesh-and-blood person, that those who knew him and loved him are still around. Westerberg, for example, has had his life transformed by their brief friendship. He picked McCandless up hitchhiking and gave him a job working at his grain elevator in Carthage, South Dakota. The boy told him his name was Alex, and they became good friends in the nearly two years before he left for Alaska. Westerberg was the one who helped identify the body.

I ask Westerberg if he feels as if the Alex he knew has been lost.

"Well, yeah," he says. "All this shadows the original story and clouds it to a point."

And what would McCandless have felt about all this? "I'm sure he's sitting up there smiling. He liked to write all those diaries," says Westerberg. "If he wouldn't have documented it there wouldn't have been a story."

McCandless clearly believed in self-mythologizing, in the power of storytelling and self-invention. Had he lived, perhaps he would have gained enough perspective to tell the story himself, rather than leaving it for others to tell. As it is, he has entered the realm of myth, and myths are shaped by those who can make use of them.

Penn, for one, doesn't feel conflicted by presenting McCandless's life on-screen, despite the mysteries. "I think the things that are most important are there," he says. "It was clear Chris made the decision to go back to the world. And he left an awful lot of clues, so you go with your gut. That's what I did." To criticize Hollywood for being Hollywood, for taking a real story and mythologizing it, is like telling a bear not to shit in the woods. It's what they do.

With a year-round population of around 200 and winter temperatures that frequently linger at 40 below, Cantwell is tucked in the shadow of the icy vastness of the Alaska Range. Everyone I met there spoke highly of the movie people. The production, which used almost every available ATV in town and hired many locals, was the biggest thing to happen there since the railroad came through nearly a century ago.

Penn's production company acquired a '40s-era International Harvester bus from a junkyard in Fairbanks, identical to the one out on the Stampede Trail, and set designers modeled it into a dead ringer of Fairbanks 142. It sits now in the crowded yard outside Gordon Carlson's house in Cantwell, not looking terribly out of place amid rusted machinery and old pickup trucks.

Carlson, a barrel-chested Athabascan who worked as a tribal liaison on the shoot, shows me around the bus. He chuckles through a handlebar mustache and offers an unburnished appraisal of McCandless: Another fool bit the dust. "We grew up here. You learn how to make a campfire when you're a kid. This, I didn't think much of it at the time. That kid's mistakes started a long time before he got here."

And what will happen to this bus?

"Not sure what we'll do with it. Make it some kind of attraction. Maybe a cappuccino stand. I know that sounds like we're profiting off someone else's story, but you do what you have to do to survive here."