Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: Into The Wild

Into the Wild is a book my brother recommended to me and I'm really glad he did. This is more of a personal review than most I've put up on the blog, but this one struck me in a very personal way, so it's all I can do.  Reading Into the Wild was like taking a trip back in time to my 20s, before husband, kids and house, when I was obsessed with Edward Abbey, Thoreau, etc. and listening to excessive amounts of Joni Mitchell.  Looking back, it was the most formative time for me.  Al Gore's Earth in the Balance had just come out and I was excitedly assigning chapters of it to my freshman writing students at USC and having them write argumentative essays on the environment.  I was spending lots of time skiing and hiking and was never happier than when I was with my brother somewhere up in the mountains.  Years later when the opportunity to escape the smog and clog of Long Beach and actually live in the mountains arose -- I jumped on it.  No matter how stressed and depressed I become, walking outside (even just to breathe awhile) calms me.

Anyway, back then, I had a close friend from high school who was similarly obsessed with nature and the environment.  He was living in the forests near Humboldt in an old camper with no heat, not terribly unlike McCandless' abandoned bus.  We'd visit back and forth, but one visit, when I stayed for a week, definitely sticks out in my mind because of subsequent events.  That week we hiked a lot through the woods and then we'd go back to the camper to huddle in our sleeping bags and shiver through the nights. It's a trip I'll never forget, though the aftermath was a bit dramatic (fodder for some serious fiction, but not this blog - sorry).  These personal experiences influenced my experience of Into the Wild and were impossible to escape, so they color my review as well.

Much of the criticism of Christopher McCandless, the focus of this biography, comes from people who just can't wrap their heads around the way he thought about things.   He set off on a two year odyssey, eschewing (for the most part) money, friends, technology, etc.  He traveled around the U.S. and a bit of Mexico with nothing but his backpack, enjoying the solitude and his growing sense of self-sufficiency. He felt passionately about nature and about avoiding the trappings of modern life -- and because there was a time when my inclinations (& those of my closest friends) pointed the same way, I can't relate to the criticism detailed in the book.  I find him more of a kindred spirit than an oddity.

McCandless was born just a few months after I was, so when he was on this trek, we were basically the same age, reading the same things and sharing the same philosophical outlook... only he was walking the walk and I was mostly just talk.  His walk led him to the Alaskan wilderness where he lived in the wild for a few months before dying (likely from starvation induced by ingesting a poisonous potato seed).  He'd been hunting for his food and eating berries, seeds and herbs that grew wild, but happened on one that made him terribly sick and even after his initial recovery the poison inhibited nutrients from being metabolized properly in his body.

This author, Jon Krakauer (who also wrote Into Thin Air about a Mt. Everest trek), does a great job of researching every bit of information that could be discovered about the elusive McCandless who had severed ties with his family before setting off on his journey, likely out of a sense of disillusionment with what he saw as their hypocrisy (and hell, probably everyone can relate to feeling that way at that age -- that break would likely have been mended).  Krakauer has very little to go on:  a few letters, McCandless' notes/underlines in books found in the abandoned bus where McCandless died in Alaska, and testimony from a few people he met along the way.  He made a strong impression apparently on just about everyone he met.  He was quite smart and clearly his philosophy was rather unique.

Personally, McCandless struck me as so similar to my high school friend, toughing it out in the wilds of the Humboldt County forests during the same time period, that he just seemed like an old friend himself.  I can still relate to his philosophical outlook, which was fostered in me early on by reading and re-reading all the old Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  Much of what I read as a child, My Side of the Mountain, Where the Red Fern Grows, Robinson Crusoe, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and many others, fed this notion of self-sufficiency and living closer to the land.  I always felt mis-placed in this century -- clearly a mistake had been made.  Anyway, I thought Krakauer's book was fantastic and highly recommend it.

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