The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and changing sun.
The Teklanika River is bigger and far more intimidating then I remember.
The frigid water is opaque with glacial silt, swollen, and careening down valley with surprising force. It was this very same river, 24 years before, which prevented a young idealist, Christopher McCandless, from returning to the itinerant society from which he came. Instead, Chris returned to his wilderness shelter, the ‘Magic Bus’, where he eventually starved to death. His short life was documented in the bestselling book- Into the Wild, later adapted for the silver screen.
Like many young men, I too was affected by Chris’ story. In 1998, while working as a dishwasher in Denali National Park, my friend Dan Musick and I decided to follow in Chris’ footsteps. I was an impressionable 19 year old kid, and at that point, the trip to the bus was the greatest adventure of my young life. Nearly two decades later, I decided to make the journey again, to see how the place, and my views, had changed over time.
Unlike McCandless, I carry with me a small inflatable raft. The Tek rushes down valley at about 15mph, large standing waves between me and the far bank. If I flip or miss the eddy, I’ll be pushed down river into a canyon. Afraid of losing my nerve, I inflate the packraft quickly, and push into the hissing current. I paddle across and pull into the eddy uneventfully.
While eating a congratulatory PB&J, a dark-haired young man materializes on the opposite shore. He sees me and waves excitedly. I return the gesture but the roar of the river drowns out our attempts at conversation. He pulls a raft out of his pack and begins inflating. “OK,” I think, “This guy’s prepared.” As I wait, I find a clear flowing stream and begin filling my water bottle. Unexpectedly, the young man puts his oversize backpack on his shoulders and jumps into the packraft, facing it in the wrong direction. “Oh shit,” I say aloud. He paddles into the current as fast as he can, the backpack threatening to flip him backwards. In a split second he’s out of view. I sprint to the shore but when I get to the eddy he isn’t there. I run up and down the bank but there’s no sign of either him or the raft. I’m certain he’s been pushed into the canyon and I freeze with indecision.
Suddenly he appears, pushing through the alders. He’s soaking wet and breathing hard.
“You alright?!” I ask, my heart thumping. “Yeah,” he says, in a thick Spanish accent. “I grabbed the branches on shore and flipped but I’m OK. My raft went down the river. Forget it; I’ll worry about it later. You’re going to the bus, right?”
His name is Tomas. He’s in his early twenties, a banker from Uruguay. He doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the raft or how he’s going to get back across the river.
In 1992, the summer McCandless made his fateful journey, the chances of meeting another-person on the Stampede Trail were slim to none. Back then, it was only used seasonally by moose hunters and dog mushers from the nearby town of Healy. No one in their right mind went out there in the height of summer when the rivers are raging and the mosquitoes abundant. Since the popularity of the movie, however, hundreds of tourists from all over the world are making the pilgrimage. They call themselves ‘Supertramps’ in honor of Chris’ alias- Alexander Supertramp. As many as 30 people, most of them German, visit the bus in a single day. Many are woefully unprepared, and like my foolish younger self, willing to take great risk.
Every summer, several people are rescued. In August of 2010, Claire Ackermann, a 29 year old woman from Switzerland, died while trying to cross the Teklanika. Claire and her companion decided to tie themselves to a rope someone had left spanning the river. Halfway across, they were swept off their feet. The rope, which was supposed to add an element of safety, now held them firmly, face-first into the current. The man was able to cut himself free- but Claire ultimately drowned.
On the front of Tomas’ T-shirt is the face of a pirate with an eye patch. It’s still drenched and nearly see-though as we resume the hike. Fortunately for him- it’s a warm day. Unbelievably, he’s wearing shorts and the mosquitos are destroying his legs. Even with repellent on, he swats at them every few seconds. Hanging from his hip is a huge machete which extends all the way to his ankle. It acts as a third leg and prevents him from walking with a normal gait.
When we find the trail, we discover a message written on a log:
6/25: The Tek is far too deep to cross by foot. This delay may have the park officials searching. We are okay + good on supplies. Should ABSOLUTLY be out by the 29th… before then, our plan is to head straight south towards Mt. Wright + the Park Rd.
Ted + Michael
The message is dated a week ago. There’s no sign of Ted or Mike, so we continue up the trail as if nothing’s amiss.
At first I’m annoyed with Tomas. He’s a liability and I know it. I’ll probably have to babysit him for the next three days. I wonder if I’ll have to share my food and tent. After we talk for a while I start to change my mind. He tells me about his family in Uruguay, learning english in Ireland, and how the story of Chris McCandless changed his life. Exactly how Chris’ story changed his life I never understood precisely, but evidently it did make a lasting impression. It’s his first time in the United States and the one thing he wants to do is fly to Alaska and hike to the bus. He exudes this irrepressible passion for life seemingly fueled by a come-what-may optimism bordering on naivety. In the end, Tomas begins to remind me- of a younger me.
We wander up the trail onto a ridge with sweeping vistas of the tundra below. The tracts in the mud show us where a grizzly bear has been chasing a moose.
Descending back down to the valley floor, we crest a small knoll and suddenly it’s there. Fairbanks City Transit System #142. The place McCandless drew his last breath.
Tomas whoops and gives me a high-five, though his enthusiasm is short-lived. He drops his pack and is abruptly silent. The gravity of the place is suddenly realized. Bus 142 is a direct connection between a story and a real person. For those who have felt a kinship with Chris, seeing the bus first-hand can be an unexpectedly moving experience.
The ‘Magic Bus’ has seen better days. Most of the windows are shattered or missing completely and a shoddy patchwork of old tarps does little to keep the weather out. The green and white exterior is fading away to reveal its former, school-bus-yellow undercoat. The numbers 142, which once sat prominently above the first-row window, have been shot off- in an act of blatant vandalism. I count well over a hundred large-caliber bullet holes. Whoever did this was trying to make a point.
On entering the derelict shelter we are surprised to find a person. Martin- from Czech Republic is in his mid-twenties, bespectacled, with a scraggly beard and a tall, wiry build. He explains in broken english about his week-long tour of the area, sleeping, every night, on the very bed Chris expired on. He’s been supplementing his supply of rice by ‘living off the land’, eating wild mushrooms, blueberries, and even mice, which he lures with food, and then darts with a blowgun. On top of the woodstove I see a tiny mouse pelt, which has been meticulously fleshed, stretched, and dried. Martin appears to have gone “Full Supertramp”.
As I scan the room, I spot a flier with the heading- “Overdue Party”. Below are the pictures of Ted and Michael. The Park Service is looking for them. I turn to Martin and ask, “How did you get across the river?” And he says, “I wait three days, then I swim. Very, very dangerous.”
During my first visit to the bus nearly two decades ago, many of Chris’ possessions remained. His backpack and sleeping pad were there, glasses, a frayed toothbrush. Near the back door, the door Chris used, was a long stick with a red sock attached to the end (possibly to flag down aircraft for rescue?), a water purifier, leather boots, a garbage bag full of goose feathers, a heavily patched pair of sodden pants. The place felt eerie, as if Chris had just stepped out and would be back shortly. Now his things are gone, either hauled out as garbage or taken as souvenirs. Even the steering wheel is missing. The dashboard- plucked and sold on EBay a few years back.
However, despite the vandalism, the place is surprisingly homier than it used to be. Flags from various countries decorate the interior. Quotes and signatures adorn the ceiling and walls. “The best trip of my life”, “Chris, I was so happy to spend a little time with you”, “Happiness only real when shared”. Martin starts a fire in the barrel stove and begins brewing some coffee as Tomas and I read aloud from a guestbook which has hundreds of entries.
“…My most complete respect to Chris, thank you for following your dream, you were a true artist. And my regards to the McCandless Family. Keep love in your hearts and actions.”
“Broken windows and bullet holes decorate this landmark but do not overshadow the remembrance of Alex.”
“Our Mom lived in this here bus in 1961. Our Grandpa built this Stampede Trail that summer… finally made it to see a bit of our family history. Take care of our bus. Thanks Chris for showing it to so many appreciative people.”
“Chris’ story may be inspirational to some people and idiotic to others. Personally, I always admire a person’s quest for adventure, no matter how well it is planned. It’s great to be here, Chris! I can see why you stayed.”
Near the backdoor, hidden behind the bed, is a brass plaque installed by Chris’ parents when they came to honor his memory. It reads:
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON MCCANDLESS
2/68 – 8/92
CHRIS, OUR BELOVED SON AND BROTHER, DIED HERE DURING HIS ADVENTUROUS TRAVELS IN SEARCH OF HOW HE COULD BEST REALIZE GOD’S GREAT GIFT OF LIFE. WITH HIS FINAL MESSAGE, “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL”. WE COMMEND HIS SOUL TO THE WORLD.
THE MCCANDLESS FAMILY 7/93
They also left a suitcase full of food, first aid kit, guestbook, and a bible. The original guestbook included the McCandless’ home address and every person who wrote them (I’ve heard) received a letter in return- including me. Dan and I were the 6thand 7th people to sign the old guestbook. But it’s gone now, having been replaced by the newer one, sans address. The bible was Chris’ as a little boy. It is the last of his possessions remaining at the bus.
Never in my life have I visited a place so loved by some, and so hated by others. There are those like Tomas and Martin, who treat the bus with an element of reverence, as if walking on hallowed ground. Others, Alaskans in particular, see the bus as a symbol of Chris’ arrogance- a shrine to a false idol that should be burnt to the ground.
Craig Medred, one of McCandless’ more vocal and virulent critics, writes: “…the poacher McCandless was transformed in his afterlife into some sort of poor, admirable romantic soul lost in the wilds of Alaska, and now appears on the verge of becoming some sort of beloved vampire. Given the way things are going, the dead McCandless is sure to live on longer than the live McCandless, who starved to death in Interior Alaska because he wasn’t quite successful enough as a poacher.” Later in the same article, Medred admits, “…I’d have to plead guilty to some of this myself. Just to stay alive, I did a little poaching when I first arrived in Alaska in 1973, though I never wasted anything in my life.” According to Medred’s code-of-ethics, it’s apparently okay to be a poacher, as long as you’re really good at it.
Martin leads us down the trail. He’s showing Tomas and me how to identify wild edible mushrooms. There are three kinds he says, “For eat, for no eat, and, uh… for die.” He quickly finds one with a brown cap and a spongy, yellow underbelly. He brings it to his nostrils and sniffs it slowly and intently. Then he proclaims, “Classic Alaska!”
Most of these Classic Alaska’s are sludgy or riddled with maggots, so it takes a couple hours to collect 20 fit for consumption. Martin is ecstatic about our haul and decrees, “We have mushroom party!” Tomas and I are a little hesitant about eating these shrooms since McCandless himself was supposedly poisoned by what he considered a wild edible plant. Tomas and I converse around the fire as “Full Supertramp” cooks up a big pot of Classic Alaska risotto. It occurs to me that there are two types of people in this world: Those that would eat the mushroom mixture because they want to have a unique wilderness experience and those that would refuse full stop. As a young man I would have eaten those mushrooms, no questions asked. Now, I make Martin eat them first.
*The author as a young man
Morning comes and no diarrhea. I’m thrilled. Tomas slowly packs his gear and I follow Martin on a hunt. He carries with him a blowgun, a compound bow, arrows, a knife, and several wire snares. He is looking for grouse and squirrels but the Shushana riverbed looks barren and lifeless.
We find a small rise above the riverbed and hike to the top. It’s a perfect vantage point to glass the area. I notice an old fire-ring with a layer of moss growing over the top. McCandless must have spent a lot of time here.
As we return to the bus we hear the loud thwap thwap thwap of a helicopter. I rush ahead to see what’s going on. The copter roars as it hovers and lands nearby. A pilot jumps out along with two Brits who are dressed like mountaineers. I talk to the pilot who says they fly tourists out here about four times a season. It’s a 14 minute flight from Healy. I find it unbelievable that 14 minutes is all that separated the starving McCandless from a hotdog.
They stay for about twenty minutes and Martin is happy when they leave. It’s time for Tomas and me to go too. We have a long hike ahead of us. We try to talk Martin in to coming along but he wants to spend another week at the bus. This is his big adventure and he doesn’t want to cut it short. I give him my map which shows the route to the Park Rd. “If the Tek is too high, don’t swim, just head south, OK?”
As we say our goodbyes, I take one last look at the pretty little clearing above the Shushana. It’s hard to imagine a place so serene, could be the site of an event so tragic. But I am reminded that the wilderness, although beautiful, suffers no fools. It didn’t care when McCandless came into the country, and it cared less when he was gone. All that’s left is a story and the ghost of a dream. The old derelict bus isn’t about Alexander Supertramp anymore. It’s about people, love, and living life to its fullest. I leave there humbled and genuinely happy. Most people do.