On May 2, Jon Krakauer came out with his latest treatise on the particulars of Chris McCandless’ death almost 24 years ago. McCandless was the young man who wandered into the Alaska wilds with a .22-caliber rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice and lived there for more than 100 days, hunting and foraging, before he died at age 24 inside an abandoned bus. His journey was made famous in Krakauer’s 1996 book, Into the Wild, which Sean Penn adapted as a film in 2007.
How exactly McCandless died has been debated since his story first surfaced. Krakauer first wrote about McCandless in a 1993 article for Outside, and he has been trying to nail down the precise details of McCandless’ decline ever since—asserting himself in online comment threads, testing his hypotheses in science labs, and writing periodic feature-length revisions of his theories.
“The debate over what killed Chris McCandless, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering and occasionally flaring for more than two decades now,” Krakauer wrote in the lead to his latest article, posted on Medium. (A version of the article is also included as an afterword in the newest edition of Into the Wild.) If you’ve been following Krakauer’s work—he outlined his fifth theory in an article published last spring on NewYorker.com—you’ll see that the new piece is more an overview of his research from the past two decades than a new proposition.
When Krakauer first tackled the question in his 1993 article, he wrote that McCandless had likely eaten poisonous seeds from a wild sweet pea, mistaking it for a wild potato seedpod he’d been safely eating for weeks. When Into the Wild came out a few years later, Krakauer changed his theory: McCandless had eaten seeds from the wild potato plant, and those seeds contained a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. Additional testing later refuted that theory, and Krakauer continued trying to figure out what was wrong with those potato seeds. After all, one of McCandless’ terse journal entries indicated the role the seeds had in his own demise: “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.”
In 2007, Krakauer suggested that a toxic mold had grown on the seeds McCandless stored in a damp Ziploc. Then, in 2013, he wrote that wild potato seeds, which McCandless had been eating, contained ODAP, a neurotoxin that could cause paralysis in malnourished young men. Krakauer’s most recent revision replaced ODAP with a similar amino acid called L-canavanine, which was present in the seeds and apparently toxic enough to do McCandless in. Krakauer also co-authored a paper, “Presence of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and Its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless,” published in the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in March 2015.
I’ve sometimes puzzled at Krakauer’s desire to figure out what exactly happened in that bus so many years ago. It is, after all, his style to relentlessly pore over facts and straighten them out when necessary, as he did in a postscript to another of his books, Into Thin Air, in 1999. But with the seeds, I couldn’t help but wonder whether these are all just different ways of saying that McCandless starved.
Some Outside readers have expressed bewilderment at the continued coverage of the subject, too. (One Facebook comment: “Seriously who gives a shit about this anymore? Move on.”) In his latest New Yorker article, Krakauer justified his persistence, writing that “because many people—both admirers of McCandless and his detractors—regard Into the Wild as a cautionary tale, it’s important to know as much as possible about how McCandless actually may have died.” The question remains: Does knowing the precise circumstances of the young man’s death fundamentally change the way we read and understand his story?
The botanical update does not fundamentally alter the story for those already convinced that McCandless was brave and adventurous rather than naive and dumb, unless they’re planning their own foraging foray in the Alaska bush. The theory does equip these fans with more factual ammunition in their fight to prove their hero’s worth in the ongoing debate about McCandless, which has unfolded largely online. Many of the most outspoken fans have various Facebook pages and Internet forums, where they post pictures of Bus 142 tattoos, pendants, and Lego models, among other tributes. Followers number in the millions.
On the other side of the debate are people who believe that McCandless was a foolhardy greenhorn who died because he was unprepared for the northern wilds. Many of these detractors are Alaskan. I met some of them while living in Healy, the town nearest to the bus where McCandless died, where I was working on a story for Outside about the so-called pilgrims who hike out to that bus. Just mentioning McCandless’ name quickly reveals that the rage these detractors feel hasn’t faded. The famous “142” on the bus is so shot up with bullet holes that it’s now illegible.
Perhaps no one is a more prolific voice for the anti-McCandless camp than Alaska Dispatch News columnist Craig Medred. He has written articles arguing that McCandless was schizophrenic and an “ignorant city kid.” He has pointed out how richly ironic it is “to think of some self-involved urban Americans, people more detached from nature than any society of humans in history, worshipping the noble, suicidal narcissist, the bum, thief, and poacher Chris McCandless.”
Should Krakauer’s latest theory challenge these critics’ beliefs and rebuke their claim that McCandless was an idiot? Krakauer thinks so. In his 2013 article, he wrote that the neurotoxin theory “validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.”
Regardless of the precise circumstances of his death, McCandless was undertaking a risky endeavor when he died. He did not attempt his “Alaskan odyssey” in the Boy Scout way. He wandered into the backcountry without a topographical map or enough food to keep himself alive for an extended stay. He left himself with no backup plan or safety net, and so, when things went wrong, he had no way out.
If people object to this kind of risk taking in the woods, there is no reason why any of Krakauer’s theories, new or old, about McCandless’ death should change their thinking. Under such a view, McCandless was doing wrong the moment he stepped onto the Stampede Trail. Whether he survived wouldn’t change the view that he was on a fool’s mission and that he had packed foolishly for it.
But lots of people, including McCandless’ detractors, take risks in the backcountry and have had close calls along the way without receiving the kind of scorn McCandless does. During one of Medred’s backcountry exploits, for instance, he had to survive for ten days in Alaska without any food. Most McCandless-hating Alaskans I’ve spoken with reflexively respond to any mention of Into the Wild by listing people who are tougher and more skilled than McCandless—people who took risks but lived to tell their tale. These critics bemoan the fact that McCandless’ death made him famous while others who survived haven’t received the same fanfare.
This subset of readers who approve of some level of danger in the backcountry but disapprove of McCandless’ journey is the subset whose interpretation of the story is due for revision if Krakauer’s theory holds. These readers don’t dismiss McCandless’ intention—spending time in the wilderness—as invalid or stupid. Rather, they reject his endeavor because of the consequence it led to: his death.
If we accept Krakauer’s theory, however, that means that McCandless’ death was a fluke. It means McCandless didn’t die because of some obvious mistake he made while in the woods or an overestimation of his skills. It means he may have simply run into serious bad luck. He would have had to know more than his field guide, Tanaina Plantlore, to know about the neurotoxin he had ingested. The seeds he ate came from a plant the guide describes as edible.
So, will the latest update quiet McCandless critics, or at least complicate their view of the story? It’s doubtful.
At the end of Into the Wild, Krakauer describes a trip he took to the bus with Roman Dial, Alaska’s backcountry guru, among others. As the group sat around the campfire one night talking about McCandless, Krakauer pointed out some of the dumb mistakes that could have easily been avoided and would have prevented the young man’s death. Dial responded by defending McCandless, saying how difficult it is to live completely off the land in interior Alaska in the way McCandless did for several months. From Dial:
I guess I can’t help identifying with the guy. I hate to admit it, but not so many years ago it could easily have been me in the same kind of predicament. When I first started coming to Alaska, I think I was probably a lot like McCandless: just as green, just as eager. And I’m sure there are plenty of other Alaskans who had a lot in common with McCandless when they first got here, too, including many of his critics. Which is maybe why they’re so hard on him. Maybe McCandless reminds them a little too much of their former selves.
Krakauer’s new theory may help people relate to McCandless’ story by showing that his fate was a fluke. It nullifies the argument that McCandless got what he deserved or had it coming all along. Instead, it suggests that if McCandless had just a bit more luck, he might have survived.