We begin with a recurring scene from my life 35 years ago, when I was a young man, late 20s, working two jobs – six days and 70 hours a week – for craptastic wages and zero benefits. My full-time job was at a small steakhouse chain, which hired me to manage the office and keep the books.
The office was located in the rear of one of the restaurants. I worked there Monday through Saturday, 10 hours a day, and there was a reason those hours conveniently aligned with most of the restaurant’s opening hours. As often as not I’d end up having to cut meat or help out in the kitchen because the staff hardly ever showed up on time, if at all. They were working hard hours for minimum wage. Shit happens.
So, the scene. I am sitting at a table in the restaurant, taking a coffee break, post-lunch. The place is empty because the location sucks and the food ain’t much better and the business is dying on the vine. I stare out the window to an ugly parking lot on an ugly boulevard filled with ugly buildings and billboards.
My eyes are pointed west to the horizon beyond this restaurant, this boulevard, this city, this life. I think to myself, “Well now, I wonder what they are doing in Oklahoma right now? What are they doing in Arizona? In California? In Hawaii, Guam, Japan?”
I did this an awful lot back then – stare out that window, daydream about the wonders out there in the world, beyond this place and this life. I was creeping up on 29 years old, single and restless, sharing an apartment with a friend, working ridiculous hours at a job I had grown to detest. I felt trapped, caged, frozen, resentful at the expectations of society – get a job, keep a job, earn money, save money, pay bills, etc.
I would fantasize, constantly, about just picking up and leaving it all behind.
And so, one day I did. I gave my notice at the steakhouse chain and my other job (working part-time as a bartender at a comedy club). I spent a couple weeks training my replacement. I gathered my savings – maybe a thousand dollars or so – gassed up my ’84 Renault Alliance, said a few goodbyes, and pointed my car west.
My original plan was to drive to New Orleans and check out the scene there, see if it held anything up my alley. The first night I drove about 600 miles and landed in Memphis, Tennessee, about 400 miles due north of New Orleans along the Mississippi River. I found a cheap hotel in Memphis, with designs on turning south the next morning and motoring to the Big Easy.
But by the time I woke up, those plans had changed. I decided to just keep driving west, on Interstate 40, which went all the way to California – another 2,000 miles or so. This was all decided in the quick of the moment.
The next day I drove 700-plus miles to Amarillo, Texas, in the panhandle. It was pitch black when I arrived. I stopped at a cheap motel in the middle of the night and checked in. The next morning, I awoke to a long, flat, empty, endless landscape, barren and desert-like. I had never seen this kind of terrain before, except in the cowboy movies. The sky seemed massive, with no buildings or trees to block it.
I will never forget the feeling I had when I looked out at this barren landscape that morning. It was like my entire being had been transported to an alien land. I was about halfway across the country, further west than I had ever been before, and could feel the magnetic pull of home evaporating into thin air. A sense of freedom engulfed me that I had never felt before. Nobody knew me there, and I didn’t know anyone. I could go anywhere now. Do anything. Be anyone.
So, I drove on west, through the flat and endless terrain and past the cacti and buttes. My next stop was somewhere in Arizona. From there, I pushed north to Las Vegas, where I crashed with my Uncle George for a few days. Then it was on to the California desert, into Los Angeles, then north to the San Francisco Bay area, where I contacted a friend and crashed at his place for a spell.
This trip left an indelible mark on my life. There is something so liberating about taking a solo trip to parts unknown, with no plans or schedule. Your focus is on the journey, not the destination. You forget all about obligations and just soak up the experience, live in the moment. It was one of the most memorable and life-changing few weeks of my life.
Because that’s how long it lasted – a few weeks. I eventually turned around and headed back east to North Carolina. My money was running low. I didn’t feel like finding a job in some strange place, with few contacts. I figured I could get my old part-time bartender job back (I did), and then put my focus on writing again, which I was trained and educated to do.
I’d had a few weeks of freedom, and that seemed to be enough. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to spend the next several decades drifting around aimlessly, wondering where my next paycheck, meal, or bed might be.
With that itch temporarily scratched, a separate urge hit me: figure out what to do with the rest of my life and make a sensible plan, based on my own skills and ambitions. Realistically, the best place to start was back home. So that’s where I headed.
Oh, but I did stop in New Orleans for a few days on the way back. And had a blast…
That trip 35 years ago entered my consciousness again last week as I was watching “Into the Wild,” a 2007 movie written and directed by Sean Penn and based on the famous book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. I had read the book when it was released in 1996, and it became one of my favorite non-fiction books ever. The book itself was an expanded account of an article Krakauer wrote for “Outside” magazine in 1992.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a few grafs explaining it:
“Into the Wild” is the real-life account of Chris McCandless, a rich and bright kid from the northern Virginia suburbs who graduated from Atlanta’s Emory University in 1990. His stated plans – those he told his parents – were to go on to law school and use his remaining college fund of $24,500 to help pay for it.
But privately, McCandless had other plans. He donated the entire $24,500 to Oxfam, gave a notice to his landlord, hopped in his beat-up Datsun B210, and drove west without telling anyone, including his parents and sister. His travels took him all over the west. He kayaked down the Colorado River all the way to Mexico. He spent time working on a grain farm in South Dakota. He hooked up with some middle-aged hippies in California. His family had no idea where he was, and only got word about him when his abandoned Datsun was found out West.
Per Wikipedia: In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in deepest Alaska, where he walked a snow-covered trail with only 10 pounds of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, several boxes of rifle rounds, a camera, and a small selection of reading material—including a field guide to the region’s edible plants. When a driver picked him up hitchhiking, McCandless declined the man’s offer to buy him sturdier clothing and better supplies.
About four months later, McCandless was dead at the age of 24.
Things started out well enough in the Alaskan wild. McCandless happened upon an abandoned bus in the woods and set up camp there, with a wood stove and makeshift bed. He showed great resourcefulness in gathering essentials and killing game to eat (though one moose he shot went to waste because McCandless wasn’t fast enough to keep the carcass from rotting before he could cook it).
He also might have broken into some cabins to steal food and supplies.
McCandless did seem to enjoy the solitude and freedom of living completely off the grid, in one of the last bastions of true wilderness in America. He kept a diary, which later became the basis for much of the book and movie.
Eventually, McCandless decided to leave the wild and return to a more civilized life. But on his way down the trail, he found that the frozen stream he had crossed earlier had thawed out and was now a raging river. He couldn’t cross it, and found himself stuck in the wild with no way out. Many of the game animals had migrated elsewhere, so there was little or no food to kill. McCandless wasn’t experienced enough to know which edible plants to eat. He may or may not have eaten something poisonous.
In any event, he died of either starvation or poison (or both) in the abandoned bus, some 4,300 miles from home. A couple of hunters found the bus and his emaciated body a couple weeks after he passed away.
There is controversy over the accuracy of Krakauer’s reporting, but the basic story is true: A young man seeking freedom from society’s shackles headed into the wild to discover something greater in life, only to find himself trapped in the woods with no escape, and nobody around to help.
The movie got excellent reviews, and much of it is compelling. But it also grated on my nerves in a dozen different ways – not least because of the often smug attitude the Chris McCandless character has about the righteousness of his quest and the emptiness of the rest of the world.
There are too many earnest, cliché-filled monologues about the ills of society, the ills of professional ambition, the ills of possessions, the ills of laws and rules and this and that – all coming from a rich 20-something who might have been wise about some things, but was incredibly naive about almost everything else. I have no idea if Chris McCandless the human being ever talked this way. But Chris McCandless the movie character talked this way a lot, and you find yourself wishing he’d just shut up.
It was later learned that McCandless was mainly escaping a toxic and dysfunctional family situation – including his bickering and abusive parents, who had a dark backstory of their own (too much to go into here – google it).
Depending upon who you ask, McCandless was either an inspiration or a fool. Yes, he chose a different path, and it took courage to do so. Many of the things he questioned were worth questioning. But he came from a life of privilege and comfort, and probably knew deep down he could always return to that life when his adventure ran its course.
How many poor people disappear into the wild because they are tired of the demands of society? I’m guessing the vast majority mostly dream about a decent job, enough to eat, and a home with reliable electricity and clean, running water.
Many Alaskans thought McCandless a fool for venturing into the wild without proper supplies or preparation. For example, he decided to leave a map behind that would have told him of a nearby river crossing that would have led him to safety. He wasn’t nearly experienced or learned enough to survive in a harsh, unforgiving environment like Alaska. He embraced the wild, but the wild has its own rules, and didn’t embrace him back.
I don’t consider Chris McCandless either a hero or a fool, but just a young guy with a restless soul who sought a better way and got in over his head. I understand his quest for freedom. I sought it myself as a young man many years ago, on a much smaller scale, and for a much shorter period of time, and with much less risk.
But here’s the thing about freedom, or any other single-minded quest: When you spend enough time chasing it, the chase itself becomes its own burden, its own cage. Eventually you become beholden to it, just like anything else.
Chris McCandless never escaped from it. Maybe he died happy, or maybe he died miserable, with a body that longed for nothing more than food, water, shelter, warmth, comfort, and a hug. I wish he had found his way out of the wild. I wish he were a 50-something man now, with many marvelous tales to tell, and much wisdom to share.
I’ve only been bitten hard by the freedom bug once since 1987. That happened in 1999, when I left my hometown for a new adventure in a new place, which I blogged about a few years ago. That adventure eventually led to the rich and happy life I have now.
I am glad I made the choices I made in earlier quests for freedom. But I am gladder still for the life I have now, with its beautiful structure and obligations.
Note: Below is a photo of McCandless and his bus. He took it himself, I imagine from a makeshift tripod. He would be dead not long after.