Many will remember Chris McCandless as the young man who tried to live off the land in Alaska and tragically lost his life in the attempt. The real story, however, is the reason why he wanted to do this in the first place. Was McCandless an arrogant adventurer, or a young man trying to escape a life he hated?
1. His Family Kept Secrets
Christopher Johnson McCandless was born on February 12, 1968, in Inglewood, California. He grew up in El Segundo, California with his parents and his younger sister, Carine. On the surface, they seemed like an average family. However, as we'll see, they were far more complicated than they seemed.
2. His Love Life Is A Mystery
In trying to make sense of McCandless's dark end, much speculation has been made about his intimate life. Was he straight? Was he gay? Or was he celibate?
There seems to be a glaring lack of any romance in McCandless's life...except for one instance. McCandless's sister said that when he was in high school, he came home inebriated one night—and he was not alone.
3. His Mother Caught Him
Apparently, McCandless's mother caught him trying to sneak a girl into his bedroom, and immediately kicked her out of the house. Though this sound like a pretty normal situation for a hormonal teenage boy, his next run-in with a young woman opened a brand new can of worms.
4. He Was A Walking Contradiction
Later in his life, a 17-year-old girl named Tracy attempted to pursue a romantic connection with McCandless—but it ended in disappointment. McCandless rejected her, but this doesn't necessarily mean he never wanted to find love. His friend Wayne Westerberg claimed that Chris McCandless wanted to start a family in the future.
But here's where the contradictions begin.
5. His Notes Reveal Clues
McCandless was quite a reader and enjoyed classical literature. One author he admired was Henry David Thoreau. In McCandless' copy of Thoreau’s book On The Duty of Civil Disobedience, he highlighted a section of the text: a portion of the book that addresses chastity.
For this reason, many feel that McCandless remained celibate throughout his life. So, what do the people in McCandless’ life say about him?
6. He Was A Sweet Kid
To his neighbors, Chris McCandless was a "sweet young kid" who played basketball and did cub scouts. His coach at his high school remembered him as idealistic but not always prudent—"fun-loving" and "quirky." McCandless didn’t seem that different from most teenagers, so why did he want to get away from it all?
It may have had something to do with his scary home life.
7. His Family Was A Mess
McCandless’s sister Carine later said that her parents were verbally and physically abusive to each other, and their children. She blamed her father’s drinking problems for the dysfunctional way her family behaved.
Of course, Walt and Billie McCandless deny these allegations and say there is no truth to what their daughter is saying. However, there was one instance that stood out for Carine—and she sees it as a turning point in her brother’s life.
8. He Had Rage
According to Carine, when McCandless was a teenager his father punched him during a fit of rage. After the confrontation, McCandless simply looked at his father with a sneer of disgust. Carine says her dad looked as if he was afraid of his son, who just turned his back and walked away.
Little did Carine know, this volatile home environment would have serious consequences for her brother.
9. He Ran From Evil
Even in high school, McCandless definitely had a dark side. While captaining the cross-country team, he scared some of his peers by telling them to run “against the forces of darkness” and continued on to say that they were “running against all the evil in the world, all the hatred”. Was the hatred he was referring to the way he felt about his father?
When McCandless graduated in 1986, he just kept on running.
10. He Discovered A Secret
McCandless’s first run took him back to California, where he had a reunion with friends and family. While he was there, he learned of his father’s ruinous secret. It turned out that Walt McCandless had had two wives at the same time: McCandless’ mother and his first wife.
Walt also had a child with his first wife even after McCandless and his sister were born. McCandless realized that he really didn’t know who his father was—and this really bothered him.
11. He Was An Oddball
Chris McCandless left California with his father’s secret and went to Virginia to study. There, he attended Emory University and double majored in history and anthropology. Just like in high school, McCandless did well academically. He was an oddball to be sure, but he had friends and he did like to party.
One incident, however, stands out in his academic career.
12. He Had Two Sides
In the documentary The Call of the Wild, McCandless's college roommate Fred Widland remembers how McCandless's behavior wildly changed whenever he went out drinking. On one occasion, he arrived back at the dorm completely hammered.
When Fred recommended he just go to sleep, McCandless had a chilling response. Determined to find more drinks, he began vocalizing how he wanted to rob a store.
But McCandless's confusing interior life was about to get even darker.
13. He Warned Them
In his senior year of university, McCandless was already beginning to take a step back. He didn't even submit a photograph for the yearbook. What's more? During his graduation weekend, he said something ominous to his parents: "I think I'm going to disappear for a while".
His parents didn’t take him very seriously—but perhaps they should have as what he wrote to his sister was rather unsettling.
14. He Told Her Clearly
While McCandless seemed to be warning his parents in an obscure way, he was much more direct with his sister. He wrote to Carine that he was going to trick his parents into thinking he’d come around to “their side of things”. But that wasn't all.
He also wrote, "...once the time is right, with one abrupt swift action, I'm going to completely knock them out of my life".
15. He Gave It All Away
McCandless's college fund had a hefty balance of $24,000. Instead of using it to go out and find a job in his field, he made a drastic decision: He gave it all away. His charity of choice was Oxfam, which focuses on ending world poverty. And what was McCandless going to do with no money?
He was going to live like a vagabond—and this was only the beginning.
16. He Worked Very Little
Less than a couple of months after leaving college, McCandless got into his car and began driving out west. He left everything behind, changing his name to Alexander Supertramp. He was free as a bird and worked as little as possible.
When he had to, McCandless found jobs as a farmhand and in restaurants. In his free time, he enjoyed the outdoors, which included canoeing down the dangerous Colorado River. But this rootless lifestyle came with a hefty price.
17. He Abandoned His Car
Apparently, becoming a vagabond also meant having no insurance and using license plates that were out of date. When McCandless came up against a flash flood in Nevada, he worried about getting in trouble for his lack of insurance. He abandoned his car and—to cover his tracks—he removed the license plates.
But before walking away from his car, McCandless did something completely unexpected.
18. He Set It On Fire
Right before he walked away from his former life forever, he took all of his remaining money—$123— and put it in a pile on the side of the road. He then lit the little pile of money on fire. This was all the money that McCandless had left. He seemed determined to separate himself entirely from civilization.
He had no money and no car. What would he do now?
19. He Took What He Needed
Without a car, McCandless set off on foot and hitchhiked. When he arrived in the Sierra Nevada mountains, he stopped. He spent the winter in the mountains but relied on others for food and lodging. It wasn’t that people were kind, McCandless was simply taking from them without their knowledge.
He also met up with other vagabonds like himself—homeless people—in the area. The wandering man had found a community of like-minded people, and yet he continued to run.
20. He had To Make Money
Sometime in the early new year of 1991, McCandless left the Sierra Nevada area and took a circular route to South Dakota. He again found himself without any money, so he took a job in Carthage. This time he was an operator of a grain elevator, and he actually stuck with it for the rest of 1991.
In the end, McCandless left the job abruptly and told his boss in a postcard that being a tramp was easier than working, so he was going to do that now. He did, however, find a special—and very surprising—way to say goodbye.
21. He Let His Guard Down
Before he left Carthage, South Dakota, McCandless decided to let loose a bit and he had a few drinks to celebrate his leaving. At the local bar, he shocked his friends and sat down at the piano, entertaining the entire bar that night. It was a strange thing.
Here was a guy who was shy and generally liked being on his own. And now he’s suddenly an entertainer? It seemed odd that just before leaving a place, McCandless decided to be friendly.
22. He Bought Two Things
McCandless now had a fair amount of money from working in Carthage, and more than anything, he just wanted to be by himself. He went to Colorado and bought two things: a kayak and a pistol. His plan was to go down the Colorado River and follow it all the way to Mexico.
What he didn’t realize—or maybe didn’t care about—was that you need a permit to go down the Colorado River.
23. His Life Was At Risk
Authorities soon became aware of McCandless's presence on the river. Mostly, they had concerns over what they’d heard from other travelers—that McCandless was doing some dangerous white water rafting and didn't have safety equipment. They also wanted to see if he had a permit.
But the area McCandless was in was so huge, authorities had little chance of ever finding him. Something that McCandless obviously liked.
24. It Was Dangerous
McCandless managed to elude authorities and Mexico was finally in sight. Of course, McCandless wanted to enter the country without crossing a border. This meant he had to navigate his kayak through a spillway in the Morelos Dam. He managed that and arrived in Mexico.
The spillway was dangerous enough, but what he encountered after the dam was even more dangerous.
25. He Crossed Over
After crossing into Mexico, McCandless came across something unexpected: huge waterfalls. Even McCandless—as brave as he was—was afraid to do these in his kayak. As a result, he left his boat and proceeded on foot. The first place he came to was a small village called El Golfo de Santa Clara.
It’s not clear what McCandless was expecting in Mexico, but what he saw definitely didn’t agree with him.
26. He Got Scared
After all the danger McCandless had faced in the Colorado River, the sleepy town of El Golfo de Santa Clara intimidated him. He was so scared that he headed straight for the United States again. Without a kayak, McCandless had no other choice but to cross back into the US via the usual border crossing.
McCandless, however, forgot one crucial detail.
27. They Stopped Him
McCandless tried to enter back into the US, but the authorities at the border crossing stopped him. When they realized that he was carrying a pistol, they brought him into custody. The people at the border didn’t really want to hold McCandless for long, so they confiscated his pistol and let him return home.
After such a rough go, however, he still wasn't ready to throw in the towel. In fact, his next decision was equally mind-blowing.
28. He Ran The Other Way
McCandless seemed to want to get as far away from Mexico as he could, because his next destination was Alaska. Some witnesses have stated that they saw McCandless at Dot Lake, which had a 2010 population of 13. I guess that’s why he was easy to spot. Other people said they saw him in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The witnesses all said that he was carrying a rather large backpack. Besides this very obvious physical signifier, there was something a lot more worrying about McCandless's appearance.
29. He Was Weird
The witnesses who saw McCandless in Alaska all agreed on one thing: He looked messy, he smelled bad, and— even worse—he looked like he was very suspicious of anyone around him. One individual said that McCandless was strange and had a “weird energy”.
McCandless did, however, meet one man in Fairbanks who didn’t think that he was that weird. In fact, he offered to give McCandless a ride to wherever he was going.
30. He Was In For Trouble
It was in April of 1992 when McCandless met Jim Gallien. They met in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Gallien worked as an electrician. McCandless said he was going to the Stampede Trail and Gallien agreed to drive him there.
The Stampede Trail is a rough and dangerous trail that follows a forgotten road that once led to an old mine. Gallien took one look at McCandless and his meager supplies and thought that the young man was in for a heap of trouble.
31. He Refused His Help
While Gallien was driving McCandless—who had said his name was Alex—toward the Stampede Trail, he tried convincing him that he needed better equipment and supplies. McCandless said he was fine, but Gallien kept trying to change his mind.
He even offered to drive McCandless to Anchorage, where Gallien would pay for a few things that might help him survive. McCandless continued to say that he didn't need anything...He would certainly regret this decision.
32. He Said Goodbye
In the end, Chris McCandless did accept some help from Jim Gallien. He accepted a pair of waterproof boots, a couple of sandwiches, and a bag of corn chips. When Gallien said goodbye, he just assumed that once McCandless got hungry, he’d walk back to the highway and some other good Samaritan would help him out.
Sadly, this is not what happened at all.
33. He Didn’t Bring Much
So, what did McCandless have in that bag of his? What was he going to survive on? Well, the only food he had was a 10lb bag of rice. The rest was going to come off of the land. To help find food, he had books on the local plant life so he would know which plants were good to eat.
To get meat, McCandless had a Remington Nylon 66 semi-automatic. He also had some basic camping supplies. This was obviously going to be a challenge for McCandless, but he was doing what he wanted: living alone and not being accountable to anyone. Still, it was destined to end badly.
34. He Had To Stop
After saying goodbye to Gallien, McCandless carried his bag of meager supplies up the snowy trail. He hiked for a long time, and his goal was to reach the Bering Sea, which separates Alaska from Russia. It would be a huge undertaking to complete this trek. While making his way, he eventually had to stop.
The dense Alaskan bush made it almost impossible to continue. McCandless had to give up on his plans. What would he do now? It was then that he remembered something he’d seen a few hours back.
35. He Survived
McCandless retraced his steps back and returned to something he’d seen on his way: an abandoned school bus. He decided that this would be a good place to set up a camp and live. According to his journals, McCandless lived primarily off of squirrels and porcupines and also ate Canada geese and ptarmigans.
Of course, McCandless didn’t have a hunting license, so the moose he shot on June 9, 1992, was against the law. Sadly, McCandless had no idea how to preserve the moose meat, so most of it went rotten. But his struggles didn't end there.
36. He Wasn't Eating Enough
While living on the school bus, McCandless survived off of fresh game and plants that he found around the bus. There was, however, something lacking in his diet—enough calories to live. If his diet didn’t change, McCandless would never survive.
Some feel that by the end of June, McCandless would have been grossly underweight. What McCandless needed was to get off his Keto diet and eat some carbs.
37. He Wanted To Leave
Chris McCandless lived on the bus and continued hunting until July. For some reason, McCandless decided he’d had it. He wanted to get back to civilization. It was summer now, so the weather was likely good for traveling on foot. McCandless packed up his backpack and retraced his steps.
His goal was to get back to the highway and hitchhike to the nearest town. This should have been easy, but something got in his way.
38. He Felt Trapped
The Teklanika River flows near the trail that McCandless took. But that year, there was a late runoff from the glacier, so the river was much wider than before. Now, the river blocked McCandless from reaching the highway. There was no way for McCandless to reach civilization, at least no way that he knew of.
39. He Didn’t Know
Sadly, there was a way to cross the Teklanika. Just down the river, there was a cable car that was hand-operated. People are free to use it in order to cross the river. McCandless had no knowledge of it, but he would have if he’d brought topographical maps with him.
It was for reasons like this, that many people feel that McCandless suffered mostly from a lack of preparedness and not bad luck. Without the essential knowledge of the cable car, McCandless could see no other option but to return to his bus and live there until he could get to the highway.
40. He Left A Desperate Note
At some point, McCandless must have injured himself, because he wrote an SOS note. He was worried that while he was out looking for food, a potential savior might pass by and not stop to help.
Here’s what his note said: “Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near losing conscience, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?”
Sadly, no one saw his desperate plea for help.
41. He Kept Writing
McCandless continued to keep his journal, but the entries were getting sparser and sparser. On the 107th day, he wrote only: “Beautiful Blue Berries”. After that simplistic poem-like entry, he wrote only dashes on the page for each day that passed. On day number 113, there was nothing written at all.
He did at some point take a picture of himself. In the picture, he relayed a heartbreaking message.
42. He Took One Last Picture
The last picture that McCandless took is of himself waving to the camera. He is smiling but looks quite gaunt. He’s wearing a warm-looking coat and loose fighting pants. In his hand is a note, and it is tragic to read.
It was a simple message: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless you all”.
43. They Found Him
On September 6, 1992, some hunters sent a radio message to the local authorities. They said that they had discovered an abandoned bus, and the foul smell coming from it concerned them. They originally thought the smell was rotting food.
When they went inside, they realized that it was a gone and decomposing person. When officers got to the site they confirmed it: it was Chris McCandless.
44. His Life Began Again
While McCandless' life may have been over, in some ways it was just beginning. For some reason, people couldn’t stop talking about him. Many people began speculating about McCandless's life, but even more about his cause of passing.
Some claimed he lost his life due to his over-reliance on meat for his diet, while others believed it was a poisonous plant that McCandless consumed that did him in.
In 2013, another wild theory came out.
45. A New Theory
Ronald Hamilton posited this theory: He said that McCandless probably ate wild potato seeds. According to Hamilton, eating these seeds would lead to lathyrism, which could cause the paralysis of McCandless's legs. If McCandless couldn’t walk, how could he go out and get food? And, maybe more importantly, he also couldn’t leave the bus to find the highway and get out of his situation.
But is there anything to suggest this theory is any better than the others? Actually, there is.
46. He Couldn’t Stand
Hamilton’s theory is also substantiated by one of McCandless's journal entries. On July 30, 1992, McCandless wrote that he was extremely weak and blamed it on the potato seeds he had been consuming. He also said that he had a lot of trouble just standing. He ended the entry by saying he was starving and in great jeopardy.
Of course, there are even more people willing to give this mystery their two cents.
47. He Made A Discovery
One big question is: Why didn’t McCandless try harder to get back to civilization? In The Call of the Wild—a documentary about McCandless—the filmmaker, Ron Lamothe, makes an unsettling discovery. In one of the pictures McCandless took of himself, one of the sleeves of his shirt seems to be empty.
Lamothe says this could be the indication of a shoulder injury or an arm injury that had eventually healed. This could certainly have made it impossible for him to cross the river and get the help he needed.
We may never know what really happened to McCandless, but his effect on popular culture is very clear.
48. They Wanted To Follow Him
The bus that Chris McCandless lived in—and ended his life in—has since become famous. It was a 1946 vehicle that road workers left on the trail in 1961. But now, because of McCandless, hikers have transformed it into a pop culture destination, calling it the “magic bus”.
Tragically, some hikers have faced incredible hardships trying to reach the bus—two even lost their lives trying to get over the river.
49. They Made It Disappear
Due to the dangers of reaching the bus, authorities decided that they needed to move it. On June 18, 2020, the Alaska Army National Guard flew the bus away from its original sight and refused to tell anyone where it was.
It wasn’t until September of that year that the public learned about the fate of McCandless's bus. It now sits at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska.
5o. They Don’t Agree
Chris McCandless's life story has split the public's perception of him down the middle. Some see him as a hero: A man who lived the way he wanted to live and did it bravely. Others hold a different view.
For instance, an Alaskan park ranger described McCandless's actions as “tragic,” “inconsiderate,” and even “stupid”. Many people consider his passing to be self-inflicted and not at all heroic.
51. He Captured Us
Whether he was brave or stupid, one thing is clear: People find themselves fascinated by McCandless's story. From a New Yorker article to a nonfiction book. From a documentary to a feature-length film made by Sean Penn. Many people want a piece of McCandless's story.
He has captured the imagination of the American people. His is a hero’s journey—or at least a cautionary tale—for anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to just walk away, and keep on walking.