Chris McCandless

The Search Circa 1992

I just finished Jon Krakauer’s fantastic book Into the Wild, which I wanted to read before the film version (directed by Sean Penn) comes out this September. The book tells the story of Chris McCandless, who graduated college in 1990 and went on a two year trek across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience. Tired of a predictable, bourgeois existence in suburban D.C., McCandless decided to “escape” from the real world that frustrated him. He drove his car out into the Mojave desert, abandoned it, burned all his money, and proceeded to live as a wayfaring tramp and hobo for the next two years.

Into the Wild is a fascinating account of McCandless’ adventures as he travels throughout the American West—from South Dakota to the Salton Sea, Las Vegas to Astoria, Oregon, and finally to the Alaskan wilderness, where his Jack London-inspired quest came to a tragic end.

McCandless wrote in letters of his desire to break from “a life of security, conformity, and conservatism” in favor of “unconventional living.” As he writes:

“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future… 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 different sun.”

McCandless longed for a richer, more natural and grounded existence than what his middle-class lot had outlined for him. I can’t help but compare him to another tragic, alienated soul of his generation—Kurt Cobain—who famously rebelled against the comfortable establishment he was born into.

Whereas Cobain vented his frustrations through drugs and music, and McCandless through communion with nature, both men epitomized the “grunge” rebellion and disillusionment of Generation X in the early 1990s. Call them slackers, or neo-hippies, or whatever—but they made explicit the “search” that haunts all generations.

Writer Douglas Coupland, who has come to be the literary voice of Generation X, described in 1995 the mindset of “X-ers” as being the desire “to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence."

I think we all can relate to this desire at some points in our lives—when the weight of success and the expectations of family, society, and self become too heavy a burden. Whether McCandless and Cobain are to be respected or pitied (for their searches both ended in solitary deaths, in 1992 and 1994, respectively), I’ll leave to you to decide.

But regardless of their failures and ultimately tragic ends, McCandless and Cobain were earnest in their longings—and through culture (music, movies, books, etc) their rupturing of the status quo lives on for future wanderers to ponder.