Bangkok, Thailand. When I was younger, I was immediately attracted to the romance and the high ideals of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild. Captured first in a 1996 nonfiction book, then adapted well into film in 2007, the journey of this self-deemed “aesthetic voyager” beyond the constraints of society into the Alaskan wilderness made him something of a modern-day Thoreau. The longings he taps into—adventure, rebellion, frontier, and freedom—are fixtures of the American zeitgeist. Wallace Stegner put it well: “Being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom.”
The book is still widely read, and many continue to focus on its portrayal of wanderlust and its message of anti-consumerism. But as those who are acquainted with his story well know, McCandless’s idealistic vision did not end in a romantic bang but rather in a tragic whimper of unredeemed regret. Some may see this young man’s journey ending with the dying realization captured in his written words, “happiness only real when shared,” as nothing more than a last-ditch cry of a lonely adolescent. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve grown to think that the greatest value of this story is its reminder of the irreplaceable wholeness that can only be found within the limits of community life.
The tension that tugs us back and forth between adventure and community is perhaps present within all of us, especially in young people. One of my favorite meditations on these competing desires is Wendell Berry’s essay “Writer and Region,” which is essentially a commentary on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn is another literary bedfellow of McCandless, sharing his penchant for rule breaking and life in the wild. But Wendell Berry frames Huck’s story as having one true central drive: the desire for escape.
In this classic novel, Huck Finn is motivated by an insatiable need to escape from a variety of constraints. First, he flees from the drunken abuse of his father, then from the oppressive systems of school and church and good manners, and eventually from the “sivilizing” influence of the strict Miss Watson. Huck’s hunger for escape is eventually linked with the runaway slave Jim’s (admittedly much more legitimate) plan of escape, which goes on to drive most of the book’s plot. Then, in what is essentially the resolution of two books, Huck at the end of the story announces his plan to set out for the American West, that abiding symbol of freedom and frontier. Berry in his essay writes, “At the end of this great book we are asked to believe, or to believe that Huck believes, that there are no choices between the ‘civilization’ represented by pious slave-owners such as Miss Watson and lighting out for the Territory.”
We can see an obviously similar drive for escape in the story of Christopher McCandless. After abruptly leaving his life as a university student and cutting off contact with his family, he assumed a nomadic lifestyle. He did all he could to cut off any restrictive ties, going as far as burning his money and abandoning his car and most of his possessions. He adopted a Huck Finn-esque persona (“Alexander Supertramp”) and decried the ills of society as he lived life on the fringes of civilization.
This excerpt from a letter written by 24-year-old McCandless to a friend summarizes his mindset well: “If you want to get more out of life . . . you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.” He did make connections with other adventurous and off-the-grid folks along the way. But the Alaskan wilderness was his Promised Land. Like Huck Finn, he saw the notion of lighting out for the untamed wilderness as a sort of ultimate solution, embodying again that hallowed spirit of the unbridled frontier.
I think that such tales will always carry with them a sense of romance, particularly for Americans. Who doesn’t love a rebel and an adventure story? It might seem easy, then, to accuse Berry of being stuffy and naïve for condemning the inclinations of these young men. But Berry recognizes this and avoids putting forth an immovable standard. He admits in his essay, “There is an extremity, an enclosure, of conventional piety and propriety that needs to be escaped. A part of the business of young people is to escape.” Berry understands that the instinctual drive to break convention and push against boundaries is an inevitable and even necessary part of life. He even recalls his own youth, claiming to have been “a boy resentful of enclosures” who also felt out of place and restricted by the institutions of school and church.
However, Berry sees Twain’s apparent insistence on the virtues of escapism and pure adventure as symptomatic of a deeper social ill. It’s often said that Huck Finn embodies the spirit of America, and Berry puts this idea into a new, searching light.
Huck speaks of and for and as his place, the gathering place of the continent’s inland waters. His is a voice governed always by the need to flow, to move outward. . . . It is arguable, I think, that our country’s culture is still suspended as if at the end of Huckleberry Finn, assuming that its only choices are either a deadly “civilization” of piety and violence or an escape into some “Territory” where we may remain free of adulthood and community obligation. We want to be free; we want to have rights; we want to have power; we do not yet want much to do with responsibility.
To better understand the motivations of these young men, we must contend with their view of freedom. The goals of their efforts after all are to escape restraints and, in their minds, to become “free.” McCandless’s carved declaration in his bus says that his journey was marked by a seeking of “ultimate freedom.” In a letter to his friend Wayne, he wrote that the “freedom and simple beauty” of this nomadic style of life was too good to pass up. Krakauer in his book draws connections between McCandless and Everett Ruess, a young beauty-driven poet and artist who suffered a fate similar to McCandless, disappearing on a 1934 remote solo expedition in Utah.
Additionally, with both the book and the film being structured using nonlinear chronologies, the frequent flashbacks to McCandless’ upbringing shed even more light on his motivations. Growing up, his parents pushed a lifestyle of consumerism and materialistic success, which later turned out to be a facade that masked their dysfunction and disconnection. He scorned this possible future for himself, in the same way that Huck Finn scorned the adult models of his father and Miss Watson. McCandless also endured domestic abuse—confirmed in greater detail later by his sister—which is another striking similarity to Huck Finn. It is difficult to blame these young men for desiring escape and seeking freedom in the abandonment of connections and responsibilities.
McCandless would surely agree with many of Wendell Berry’s critiques of American culture, who on the subject of freedom remarked in another essay, “Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please: to sell ourselves for a high salary, a home in the suburbs, and idle weekends.” But is the answer, then, to escape from society and responsibility, like McCandless or Huck Finn or Thoreau? Is true freedom and fulfillment found in adventure and isolation? Berry suggests an alternative route. “The other kind of freedom,” he writes, “is the freedom to take care of ourselves and of each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.”
In “Writer and Region,” as Berry criticizes Mark Twain’s championing of Huck’s final move of ultimate escapism, he remarks that another part of Twain’s failure is his inability “to imagine a responsible, adult community life.” This possibility is hinted at through the characters of Aunt Polly and Aunt Sally whom Berry calls “the true grownups of the Mississippi novels.” But Twain, in Berry’s estimation, made “no acknowledgment of their worth . . . [insisting] upon regarding them as dampeners of youthful high spirits.”
Berry proclaims, throughout the corpus of his work and lived example, that true and abiding freedom is actually found within the limits of willing community membership. To him, living in a community gives meaning to work and culture. It grounds our connection to nature and to each other. Berry believes that experiencing mutual affection and forgiveness “within the context of a beloved community” is the only possible way to endure the tragedy of life, connecting us to the world’s “ancient cycle of loss and grief, hope and joy.” Early in his career, Berry summarized the ideal of community in these visionary terms, which, again, draws us to re-think any shallow definitions of freedom: “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. Nearly two decades later, he puts it even more directly in “Writer and Region”: “Living is a communal act, whether or not its communality is acknowledged.”He defines his “beloved community” simply as “common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.”
Returning to Into the Wild, what perhaps makes the ending of McCandless’s journey all the more tragic and poignant is that he experienced small tastes of this kind of community throughout his travels. The film highlights such experiences beautifully. He saw a relationship marked by commitment and perseverance in the couple Rainey and Jan Burres, who worked through the emotional baggage of their past and chose true intimacy. Laboring alongside Wayne Westerberg in the farming community of Carthage, South Dakota, he carried out communal work that was meaningful and fruitful. Through a chance friendship with aging widower Ron Franz, he experienced a taste of mentorship and the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Ron climbs a mountain with McCandless, and the pair sit next to one another in the light of the sun. McCandless tries to persuade Ron that the “joy of life” does not come primarily through human relationships, but in experiencing all the sources of beauty that “God [has] placed around us.” Then, marvelously echoing the ideals of Wendell Berry, Ron remarks that forgiveness and genuine love and care for one another is where “God’s light” is truly found.
I don’t think that we should see perspectives like Berry’s as judgmental voices, scolding those who long to strike out on their own. He pleads with us to see that true joy and fulfillment— the very motivations at the heart of Huck Finn and Christopher McCandless—are to be found not in escape and isolation, but in willing membership and participation in community life. This is what I think must have struck McCandless in his dying moments, as he lamented the loss to which his isolated travels had led. To use Berry’s language, McCandless needed limits to rein in his ideals of limitlessness—such limits, paradoxical though it might seem, may have opened his eyes to life and beauty that far surpassed any sublime Alaskan peak.
This, I think, is the deeper lesson that Christopher McCandless’s story has to teach us: not the blunders of a haphazard adventurer, but a prophetic reminder of the wholeness that is found in communal life. This is Berry’s beloved community, or, as he puts it elsewhere in a poem, individual people who are
in the circle of a dance
the song of long time flowing
over them, so they may return,
turn again in to themselves
out of desire greater than their own,
belonging to all, to each,
to the dance, and to the song
that moves them through the night.
Original Video Essay