After 34 kms, through a winding forest trail, deep mucky trenches, waist height glacial melt and mountains of barely concealed personal mini drama, the bus appeared round a long wide corner - as if presenting itself with a leafy drum roll. My legs were lead and my shoulders burned a weird pain that was both dull and numb in equal measure. The vehicle sits back from the trail - bigger than I had thought it would be and more imposing than I could have imagined. Arriving in convoy, minutes apart, we just stood in silence - shaking our weary heads in disbelief, all caught in the rusty stare of the 1946 Harvester Fairbanks transit bus - the final home and deathplace of Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp. The planning, the failure, the fear, excitement, cold, wet and uncertainty finally concluded into an utterly surreal moment where folklore met reality. They say you should never meet your hero's - that the real thing can only be a disappointment from the myth of perfection you've built. The theory held no sway - nothing could detract from our moment - we had made it.
I dumped my backpack without care of its contents and floated toward the bus. The tyres' flatness concealed at ground level gave the appearance of the whole structure sinking into the soil - time and gravity rooting it to this most unlikely setting. I touched the cracking turquoise paint to help my senses catch up with my eyes - I needed it to feel real. The evening sun glowed rich and warm down the left side Chris had posed for his now famous self-portrait. Dappled, tree top light melted it into the landscape. My brain soaked in the ‘thereness’ - hyper aware of every sense around me - it was electric and real - like a mindful hallucination. I ventured on board with the quiet respect one might adopt on entering a wake. Afraid to disrupt what so many love - The weight of the well wishes of those that had come before me in floor to ceiling heartfelt messages. Tributes to travel, odes to adventure and heartfelt homilies to perseverance etched and scrawled in every corner. Gifts and trinkets hung in abundance - a dream catcher, a dangling hook string, a padlock with inscription - all homages to their legend. The everyday items he had used placed his ghost right in front of me. The barrel heater, the table, the bed on which he spent his final weeks effectively starving. With a dwindling food source Chris had consumed misidentified toxic potato seeds which compounded the effects of malnutrition. His body was found wrapped in his sleeping bag three weeks later by moose hunters. The previous 3 months had seen him subside alone on whatever the land gave him; living his personal adventure amidst the uncaring, unforgiving but inimitable beauty of the Alaskan Interior. A book 'Into the Wild' and Hollywood film of the same name chronicled his travels around America and his meaningful affect on numerous lives on his way to his final resting place. All around me were supplies left by visitors to help future ‘pilgrims'. The essence of human kindness evident at every step. Blankets, sleeping bags, rice, a spoon - simple items that mean everything if required so far from the supposed safety of convenience. As the dusky Alaskan summer 'night' fell we sipped whiskey and dried our socks with the shadows of our bonfire dancing over the dented, rusting hulk whose allure had enticed and haunted us with the addiction of a drug.
A smatter of gunshot wounds on the roof show how varied the feelings toward Bus 142 are. Locals, at best, had rolled their eyes when we talked of our plans along the way from Anchorage. At worst, they would intimate that this under-prepared city boy got what he deserved. Having stopped by a hard-wear store in Healy to supplement our hodge podge of camping paraphernalia, we were asked by a bearded man in a lumberjack shirt why we would bother visiting where 'some drifter had died'. We had withered without an answer perhaps seeing an appeal to his romantic side as more risky than the trail itself. To be fair, I can see where their frustration comes from. The danger of the river crossings are real and present and sadly, people have died attempting the trail. Seasoned hunters with decades of experience surviving the unpredictable and unforgiving landscape can understandably feel defensive and dismissive of those putting themselves into harms way - to honor a person they see as reckless and incapable. Having walked Chris's footsteps and spent one precious night by his magic bus I'm all the more enthralled by his efforts and achievements. Under-prepared as he may have been he existed in the harshest of terrain without modern convenience nor company. The pursuit of adventure mixed with naive zeal is arguably a dangerous combination but without it where would we be? The next morning a rainbow appeared over the bus with the back drop of blue clouds and tree tops. It was like nature’s thumbs up to our voyage. I affixed my trinket to the ceiling. I'm usually guilty of numbness in such ‘real' moments but my emotions were reachable and plenty. That moment gave my journey an eternal sense of validity.
Talking with my fellow hikers we agreed we felt the bus held no sadness - no record of loss. We could only sense adventure and achievement - both his and ours. Chris braved what countless only dream of and in paying the ultimate price, he inspired countless more to step out of their comfort zones. Is 'Into the Wild' an overly romanticised account of his story? In my view - I would say most likely it is. Having since talked to a trusted person who met him shortly before leaving Fairbanks, I must recognise the role Hollywood has played in the construction of the legend. I feel there is so much speculation as to his motives and state of mind I would think it impossible to pin down many concrete facts of the real Christopher McCandless. Depending on your background and demographic the pendulum of opinion is likely to swing wildly between mysterious, melancholy drifter, troubled, lonely young man and arrogant, ill informed dreamer. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between these depictions but more importantly the wonderment and inspiration the story offers is as real as any argument either way. The essence of disappearing to the ‘wild' stirs in us something deeply emotive. I believe it is ancient and pervading - that it is part of our human condition. Alexander Supertramp took his chance and it is where his enduring legend status is richly deserved. I believe he sought healing in nature and it is an urge I have allowed myself follow. I hope and believe that his final months gave him peace and freedom. To finish on this chapter, as is often the case - thinking of a retort months after it is required - all things considered I now know how I could respond to that bearded man in Healy. I did not go to see where a drifter died - I went to see where Chris lived.