Almost 30 years after Chris McCandless passed away, I toured the movie prop bus featured in the movie, Into the Wild, and learned what he might have been feeling in his final days.
It was in a brewery with our guide that I heard the bus where Chris McCandless – the hapless American nomad and subject of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book In nature-was available to visit in Healy, Alaska.
I read In nature in college, when I started to think about what kind of life I was looking to embrace once I escaped the walls of college. I was thirsty for adventure, and there was something that drew me specifically to McCandless, who had shunned technology, society, and modernity.
It’s been 20 years since McCandless perished, but his story buried itself in my brain and stayed there persistently as I experienced my own wild wanderings. I may have forgotten the details of his death, where his family was from or how old he was when he passed away, but the note of caution remained as a reminder to respect the natural world. And of course I remembered the bus.
The real bus, the one where McCandless spent the last months of his life, was taken to the North Museum, where it would be transformed into an organized object for visitors. The bus that is available to visit at Healy is actually the movie prop, In nature. Most visitors seemed unaware that this compelling movie prop wasn’t the real bus, and with beers in hand, patrons at the nearby bar were taking selfies and posting on social media.
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As my husband and I had a drink at 49th State Brewery– a brasserie serving local food and beers outside of Denali National Park – we checked out the propeller bus sitting in the parking lot in the pouring Alaskan rain. I took a peek to gauge the reactions from visitors, which turned out to be invariably mixed. Some jumped up the stairs to voyeuristically examine the props supposed to match those on the real “Magic Bus” (Chris’s name for its original base), while others eyed him cautiously, as if his fate could rub off on them. It has for some.
While you had to actively choose to suffer Chris’s fate by walking in the wilderness near Healy to view the bus, two admirers died on the trip while others suffered from frostbite and near drowning. Angela Linn, the principal collections manager of the Musée du Nord considers the bus a memorial as well as a warning. “A lot of people go missing in Alaska every year,” says Linn. “A lot of people die while going online [with the outdoors] and do what they love.
Others, it seems, saw the bus as a trophy for their Instagram feeds. As I sat there sipping my beer, I couldn’t help but wonder what Chris would do with all the increased tourism in a wild place like Denali after a global pandemic. What would he think of how he inadvertently played a minor but deadly role in this tourism? Chris was a known Luddite, equating the pitfalls of technology with proof that we humans are out of touch with a bigger goal. What would he think of today’s smartphones in our back pockets?
When his parents offered to buy him a new car as a graduation gift, Chris vehemently refused. He was happy with his old yellow Datsun, which was already starting to become a relic from another time in the 90s. It seemed to me that Chris might find his death becoming both a warning and an opportunity to reinforce the beer sales like a bit contradictory.
When asked about having the movie bus as an attraction, 49th State Brewery co-founder David McCarthy didn’t seem to care that it attracted new visitors no matter what the circumstances. attract customers. “Life can be tough here,” says McCarthy. “Sadly, [Chris McCandless] paid the ultimate price for his adventure, but he went for it. This is how we feel about the 49th State, we are going to challenge ourselves and hopefully that will allow us to be successful.
“Do you want to go check it out?” My husband asked, noticing how I continued to watch the bus. I did, but there was something wrong, like we were explicitly going against the point Chris was trying to make in life. A point to which he remained so firmly attached that it cost him his life. We got up from our bar stools and pulled the hoods off our raincoats. We waited for someone to take a selfie before walking to the steps of the bus.
Inside, Chris’s diary entries were strewn in a haphazard timeline from his arrival on the bus to its untimely end. Much has been recorded by his nickname, Alexander Supertramp, an alter ego that was used until his last days. It seemed youthful now, but I had identified with this boy named Alex. Sharing a name and a philosophy at similar times in our lives had forged a bond in my young mind.
It was difficult to be inside the bus, movie prop or not, and see the objects laid out in exactly the same way the hikers who eventually found his body might have had. We took a look at the laminated notes Chris had left on his own and reproduced images that quivered as the wind picked up and blew through the purposely broken window, created for that Hollywood magic again. more authentic.
For someone who pretended to hate technology, Chris took a lot of photos of himself. Some would even be called selfies these days. He had a camera that he occasionally buried in parts of the United States before returning and collecting them later, and he took several photos of himself near his death. In what has become an almost cult snapshot, he can be seen leaning against a metal chair in front of the bus, his left leg crossed over his right. In the photo, he stares at the camera as if daring the viewer to challenge his decision to risk his life for something he believed in.
After seeing the reproduced copy hanging on the bus, I understood why there was a metal chair right outside the door of the propeller bus. A young woman who appeared to be in her twenties handed her phone to a friend and quickly rushed to recreate this photo which was printed in the copy of In nature.
“Did you want a photo? My husband asked. I shook my head. I was starting to feel weird about the whole situation. I felt uncomfortable that the bus was there from all places and that it was not the real bus, but a tourist attraction in which death was so near.
There is some evidence that shows how Chris was looking to return and interact with society after his months in the wild. He had underlined several passages in Tolstoy’s short story Family happiness which indicated that he was seeking to find a new type of connection: “He was right to say that the only certain happiness is to live for others …”. civilization. He was thwarted by the rage of the Teklanika River, which was too dangerous for him to cross. He ended up turning back to the bus and living his last days alone.
My mind swirled like Teklnika as I thought about the human connection he must have missed and how he had spent the last few months of his life completely alone. As much as I felt conflicted about the brewery scene – the selfies and hashtags using the myth surrounding her death as a way to gain followers or attention – the site also acted as a way to connect with our fellow human beings. In a way, Chris was able to find a connection with others, even if it was virtually and metaphysically.
The propeller bus tour made me realize the most important point Chris had come to. Although humans are messy, unpredictable, selfish, and vain, perhaps we deserve the extra time and effort. Maybe we were worth leaving nature and finding our way back.
“You know what,” I say to my husband. “Actually, I think I’ll have a photo. “
I drained the rest of my beer before leaving it on the table and crossing the yard to the bus. Wiping the rainwater off the metal chair, I sat down and crossed my left leg over my right and smiled, just like Chris McCandless once did.