Posts Tagged ‘Into the Wild’

Lots of people, including me, have fantasies about just ditching it all and moving to some wild, untamed place and living off the land. For me it is the proverbial “cabin in the woods,” but for others it is a cottage by the sea (either on a tropical island or on some pristine northern coast), an Airstream in the desert, or a lodge up in the mountains.

At this point in my life, I’d be happy with a rustic little cottage in the Wisconsin woods, but for a long time I had a mild obsession with Alaska and all points north and acceptably harsh and remote. I read and reread Jack London, Farley Mowat, Gretel Ehrlich, watched Northern Exposure religiously (as if a network comedy-drama would give me a realistic idea of what life in the Alaska wilds might be like), and watched every relevant documentary and nature program I could find.

Although my Alaska ardor has cooled quite a bit in recent years (pun intended – it definitely has something to do with growing less cold tolerant as I get older), I still love a good wilderness read. A few years ago, after it was comfortably in paperback, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. For the three people who haven’t heard of it, it’s a biography of a recent college graduate from an upper middle-class family who, in the early 1990s, after donating his life savings to charity, went on a solo two-year cross-country odyssey, picking up odd jobs as needed, hitchhiking once his car gave out, and basically living the life of a vagabond. His adventure, psychologically and physically, culminated in a trip to Alaska, where he stepped into the wilderness and never returned. He died of starvation, likely exacerbated by eating poisonous foraged seeds that he mistook for edible ones. He tried to return to the main road, but the trickling, snow banked stream he crossed to get to his camp in early spring was a meltwater-fueled torrent by late summer. He was only a couple of miles from a park shelter with food and other emergency supplies.

The story both frustrated and stuck with me. While I could certainly relate to his existential angst and Thoreau-ish disdain for modern society, I just couldn’t help but wonder about his lack of practicality. I’m a preparer, a planner. If I were to decide to abandon my city life and move to the wilderness, I’d make sure I had a few basic things. Plenty of food, for starters (he wandered into the woods with a bag of rice and a local plant identification guide). A map and compass. Fishing gear. Tools. A plan for shelter. Ample cold weather clothing and gear. One of the things that frustrated me most about the story was when, deep into the warm, buggy summer and already suffering from hunger, he happened upon an old moose and shot it. Problem was, he had no real plan for preserving the meat. So a thousand pounds of life-sustaining flesh literally rotted away while he nibbled on berries and toxic seeds. His plan was not to have a plan, that plans were too restrictive, that he could somehow survive on berries and the magical Alaskan ether. See, one of the reasons I’ve never fulfilled my dream of living off the land in Alaska is that I too am a college-educated, middle-class urbanite and, frankly, I probably don’t have what it takes. I realize this about myself. One cannot eat romantic notions and despite its beauty, Alaska is a harsh place that doesn’t put humans above any other creature that is trying to survive. In fact, humans are at a distinct disadvantage being that we are slow, naked and prone to frostbite.

Just last year, as a teacher looking for something interesting for my students, I came upon a quiet little documentary called “Alone in the Wilderness.” It is completely self-filmed by Dick Proenneke who, in 1967 at the age of fifty, built a cabin on the shores of a remote Alaskan lake. He lived there, alone, for the next 30 years. The documentary chronicles the construction of the cabin, and of Dick fashioning everything from door hinges and locks to furniture, counter tops, shelves and utensils, all out of wood, all using hand tools that he brought with him for that purpose. In already snow-covered late fall, the appropriate time to deal with large amounts of meat, he killed a sheep and, using his already constructed, ready and waiting smoke tent, cured the meat so it would last him the winter. He fished regularly, gardened, and had arrangements with a local bush pilot to arrive twice yearly with needed staples. While he certainly had in common a shared urge to leave behind civilization and contemplate the meaning of life, unlike Chris McCandless, or as he called his searching self, Alex Supertramp, Dick had a Midwestern kind of sensibility that I could relate to. Here is a guy who could make a plan, who had a naturalist’s sense of wonder but also an engineer’s practicality and precision.

The other day I saw Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild, which is based on the Krakauer book, and that sense of frustration about Chris and his story resurfaced. It’s a strange tale, about a seemingly brilliant and friendly kid who, troubled by family secrets and betrayals and his tight-lipped suburban D.C. upbringing, decides to intentionally disappear from and divorce his family, only to realize at the bitter end that solitude and loneliness are not the same, that idealism without a plan can be dangerous. Both the film and the book know this ahead of time, both were written by men with a little of the wild in them, enough to relate and feel drawn to Chris’s story, but apparently not enough to share his fate.

Part of me wishes I was like Chris, willing to give up everything save the clothes on my back to have a wild, uncharted adventure. This, I’m sure, is the source of some of my frustration with him. What a less complicated, likely unknown, story it would have been if he had walked out of the woods, a changed and enlightened man. I know though, that of the two I’m more like Dick Proenneke. Practical, simple and rapidly outgrowing whatever little sense of invincibility I ever had. Proenneke’s story will probably never be on the New York Times bestseller list, and mine is even less likely to. Even the most adventurous of us usually have the sense not to squat on our spurs.

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