Fairbanks 142 Goes for a Ride

Chris McCandless in Happier Days

In August 2017 I wrote a post entitled “Fairbanks 142” in which I talk about the end of Chris McCandless, who died isolated in the Alasks wilderness while living in an abandoned Fairbanks City bus.

The problem was that thanks to a book by Jon Kracauer entitled Into the Wild, a number of visitors to the bus site either had to be rescued or even lost their lives while staging a pilgrimage to the site of the bus. According to a CNN story:

In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to Alaska, where a man dropped him off at the head of the Stampede Trail, according to the book. A few days later, he came upon the abandoned bus and lived there for about three months before deciding to head back to civilization.
As he attempted to make his way back, he arrived at a crossing of the Teklanika River. But because the river was running fast and high from rain and the snowmelt from glaciers, he was unable to make his way across, according to Krakauer.
Defeated, he turned around and headed back toward the bus, where he survived for about a month before succumbing to death in August 1992.
Hikers from around the world attempt to retrace McCandless’ steps every year, but many have failed and have had to be rescued. Some even died.
Last February, firefighters and Alaska state troopers rescued five Italian hikers on the Stampede Trail as they were returning from visiting the abandoned bus. Less than a year before, a Belarus woman died on the trail trying to cross the Teklanika River to visit the bus with her new husband.

Alaska National Guard Helicopter Coming for the McCandless Bus

Finally, the State of Alaska decided to airlift the ruined bus before more tax dollars had to be spent rescuing pilgrims. They haven’t decided what to do with it yet, though I think it would make a fine addition to one of the state’s museums—acting as a warning to wilderness buffs who are tempted to follow in McCandless’s footsteps.

 

Fairbanks 142

Chris McCandless in Happier Days

In the spring of 1992, a young man named Christopher Johnson McCandless, who styled himself “Alexander Supertramp,” went to a particularly wild part of Alaska near Mount Denali, was unable to return to civilization because the trail to Healy across the Teklanika River was in flood from glacial melt during the summer months and could not be crossed. Within a few weeks, he was dead of starvation with a possible assist from toxins associated with wild potato seeds. He died in the same Fairbanks City Bus #142 where he set up his base cam three months earlier.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of McCandless, a talented young man of many enthusiasms who broke with his family and yearned to live in nature—without money, without maps, without adequate stores of food, weapons, and insecticides (Alaskan mosquitoes are voracious).

There is something about youth that doesn’t love the prudence of later years. I have always admired people like Henry David Thoreau, Sir John Franklin, John Muir, and, yes, Chris McCandless. But I was never able to follow in their footsteps because of ill health arising from a brain tumor which, even when successfully removed, required a lifetime of prudent medication. Without Prednisone alone, I would not have lasted more than a few weeks.

The Magic Bus on the Shore of the Sushana River

Kracauer’s book made me think about my own life. He even wrote a couple chapters about his own attempt to climb a mountain near Petersburg, Alaska, called the Devil’s Thumb. Fortunately, he survived. McCandless didn’t. Why?

Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless’s friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris “was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people.” In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to his dilemma. He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.

If he had only known where he was, if he had a USGS topographic map of the area, he could have returned to receive care, without even taking any heroic effort. He just did not know that he was a scant sixteen miles from a tourist road patrolled by the National Park Service. Even closer were several Forest Service and privately owned cabins that would have provided shelter and some food.

The Kracauer book is a superb read. It is greatly expanded from a 9,000-word article he wrote for Outside magazine in 1995.