Chasing Alexander Supertramp
Every year, fans of "Into the Wild" risk their lives to reach the bus where Christopher McCandless died
Alaska’s Teklanika River runs fast and cold. One chilly, drizzly day in early September, I stood on its eastern bank and watched two young hikers strip down to boxer shorts and sneakers, stuff their clothes into drybags and then into backpacks, and attempt to cross. Three more hikers stoked a small fire a few feet away, in case their friends fell in and needed to warm up fast; the plan was for two members of the group to tackle the river first, with the other three following if the first pair succeeded.
Scott Wilkerson settled his pack on his back. Minutes earlier, when the 22-year-old had agreed to go first, he’d joked, “I volunteer as tribute!” Now he turned to me and deadpanned, “I have a good feeling about this.”
I’d traveled to Alaska because I was interested in the so-called “McCandless pilgrims” – people, mostly in their teens and 20s, who came from around the world to hike to the abandoned bus where Christopher McCandless died.
McCandless’ story had first been told in a January 1993 Outside magazine article by Jon Krakauer, “Death of an Innocent.” Three years later, Krakauer’s book-length account, Into the Wild, was published and became a bestseller. The 2007 movie version, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch, brought the story mainstream movie house fame. In the years since, a growing number of hikers inspired by McCandless’ free-spirited idealism have made the journey to Alaska in search of the famous bus. Fairbanks City Transit System Bus #142 has become a shrine, its rusting shell etched with motivational phrases left by visitors. But the pilgrimage is risky. One hiker died while crossing the Teklanika in 2010, and dozens more – 12 in the summer of 2013 alone – have become lost, hurt or stranded by the rising river and have needed to be rescued by local authorities.
I wanted to find out what kept the pilgrims coming - more than 100 every year, by one local's estimation - despite the risks. I wanted to see the terrain for myself. And I wanted to hear what the locals thought of the phenomenon. But what I hadn't bargained for was learning firsthand just how treacherous the pilgrimage could be.
Raised in Virginia, Christopher Johnson McCandless began his long journey to Alaska in the summer of 1990, shortly after his graduation from Emory University. He donated the remaining contents of his college fund to Oxfam, packed his Datsun and headed west – without telling anyone his plans. After abandoning his car near Lake Mead, McCandless adopted a new name – “Alexander Supertramp” – and hitched and hoofed his way around the western United States for nearly two years. Then, in April 1992, he headed north. He planned to spend the summer living off the land south of Fairbanks, sustaining himself on wild plants and any game he could bring down with a .22-caliber rifle he’d picked up.
In his journal entries and letters to friends, first published in Into the Wild, McCandless spelled out the philosophy that motivated his travels. He was seeking freedom and adventure, an escape from consumer culture and the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Not long before he left for Alaska, McCandless wrote to a friend:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future … If you want to get more out of life, Ron, 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.”
On April 27, McCandless sent a postcard from Fairbanks to a friend in South Dakota. “It might be a very long time before I return South,” he wrote. “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.”
The next day, he thumbed a ride south from Fairbanks to the Stampede Road, near the town of Healy and the main entrance to Denali National Park, and began his trek into the backcountry. He followed the Stampede Trail through the late spring snow and across a still-frozen Teklanika River until he stumbled upon a derelict bus and made the 1946 International Harvester K-5 his home. He hunted squirrels and porcupines and birds, and eventually shot a moose. He read Jack London, Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau.
But by mid-summer, McCandless was ill and starving. He deteriorated rapidly, and died in mid-August. His body was found by a group of moose hunters in early September. Krakauer’s story was published the following January and a legend was born.
On my first night in Healy, I told a bartender that I was there to write about the bus' ongoing hold on people. He shook his head.
“It’ll be gone soon,” he said. “Too many people are getting stuck out there.”
“You think they’ll take it out?” I asked. Over the years, local authorities had talked about removing the hulk by helicopter to eliminate the temptation.
“Nope. I know some local boys that are gonna blow it up.”
Whether the claim was simple bravado or not, the sentiment was real. Alaskan reactions to the Into the Wild saga vary, but almost always fall somewhere between a resigned eye-roll and full-blown hostility. A few young Alaskans I met told hand-me-down stories they’d heard from Healy locals about McCandless' behavior in the Totem Bar. “He wasn’t charismatic,” one of them said. “He just sat in the corner, drinking and talking to himself.”
Never mind that in three years of research for his book, Krakauer didn’t find any evidence to suggest that McCandless ever went near the bar, or even the town of Healy proper. For some Alaskans, the mythic aspects of Into the Wild form a balloon they feel compelled to puncture. Instead of Sean Penn’s healing, quasi-mystical vagabond, who changed every life he touched for the better, some locals see an antihero – one whose sad, predictable end has been hyped into fraudulent legend.
Rusty Lasell, the chief of the Tri-Valley Volunteer Fire Department in Healy, coordinates rescues of lost, stranded and injured bus-seekers. He’s more sympathetic to McCandless than most Alaskans. “The kid was a decent kid,” he told me as we sat in the fire hall on my second day in Healy. “He just bit off more than he could chew.” But Lasell also sees the local perspective. Alaskans grow up understanding the dangers of the north country, he said. They know it isn’t a place to be flirted with or taken lightly, nor a place to fulfill dreams hatched in a southern suburb. “You come to this state, you’ve got to bring your A game,” he said. “And so when you see people that come up here and want to try it out, it aggravates you.”
Lasell has been on the job for 25 years, since before McCandless set out from Atlanta. By the time I met him in early September, he’d already rescued 12 Stampede hikers that summer – most of them stranded on the far side of the Teklanika by fast-rising waters. Every time he gets a call from a worried parent about a kid who’s failed to check in, he has to commandeer a helicopter from a local sightseeing outfit and go on the hunt - with the state of Alaska footing the bill.
“We’ve had people die out there," he said. "We’ve flown I don’t know how many people out of there who’ve gotten sick, we’ve had people in winter that overshot it." He has no idea how many hikers have attempted the trip over the years, and either reached the bus successfully or turned back without incident. “They don’t check in with us, they don’t check in with anybody.” But he knows that the problem has been growing over the last six years. “We didn’t really feel an impact from the bus until the movie came out.”
Healy local Steve Tolley figures it was 1975 or so when he and a friend decided to make the old bus their home base for the winter trapping season. The vehicle had been abandoned in 1963, back when the Stampede Trail led out to the now-defunct Clearwater mine. Wilderness had since grown in over the one-time mining road, but the bus labeled Fairbanks City Transit System #142 was still there. “The bus had all the windows in it,” Tolley recalled, “so we took some mattresses, stuff to make it comfortable.” The place became a popular shelter for hunters and trappers each fall and winter. But in summer, when the Teklanika River ran ice-free, the bus stood empty – until McCandless arrived in 1992.
Like Rusty Lasell, Tolley is sympathetic to McCandless. “I think he just wanted to go out there and prove that he could live on his own,” he told me over beers in his homemade cabin, up on a ridge outside Healy. “But that’s a rough spot to try and do that. I think everybody has a stage in their life where they want to test themselves. But I tell you what: it’s a challenge, even living here a mile away from the grocery store.”
Tolley and another local friend, Roger Phoenix, don’t stay in the bus anymore. Two different groups head out to the bus these days, they told me: the pilgrims themselves, and a handful of young locals hostile to the McCandless mythology. “The young punks from around here shot the thing full of holes,” Phoenix told me. “The windows are broke out. You can’t even stay out there no more.” The bus has long since been covered with graffiti from McCandless’ fans – the ancient paint etched with “Please respect Mother Nature,” “The best things in life are free” and other McCandless-esque mantras. But over the years, Phoenix has seen another kind of graffiti appear. One such inscription reads, “Stupid people die fast!”
On the day I headed down the Stampede Trail, I was up and out of my tent before sunrise. I had hoped, when I first set out for Healy from my home in the neighboring Yukon Territory, that I might be able to get to the bus on my own. The worst of the summer floods had passed, but I’d asked around when I arrived in the area and was quickly discouraged from even thinking about crossing the Teklanika solo. It had been a rainy week, and the river was running high. “ATVs are being washed downstream,” one local told me. Only Argos – amphibious all-terrain vehicles – were able to make the crossing. So I planned instead on a day-long hike, down the Stampede Trail to the Teklanika and back again, 20 miles round-trip. I figured I would at least get a sense of the terrain McCandless and his followers were contending with, a firsthand taste of the trail and a good look at the river, the pilgrims’ biggest obstacle.
I hoped, too, that I might encounter some pilgrims on the trail. A musher who lived on the Stampede Road had told me he saw them daily in the summer.
The sun rose as I drove along the four paved miles of Stampede Road. I bounced along rutted gravel for another four miles, passing moose hunters who were unloading ATVs from pickups and trailers. At Eight Mile Lake, the gravel road narrowed abruptly into a trail and descended into dense bush. I loaded my pack with a full change of warm, dry clothing, plenty of water and food, a headlamp, and a cold-weather sleeping bag - just in case I got stuck out overnight - then I headed down the trail.
I’d always had mixed feelings about McCandless and his story, despite moving to the Yukon Territory in my 20s and enjoying a relatively unconventional life myself. I shared some of his beliefs and passions, but for me the sticking point had always been his refusal to contact his family during his journey. I could imagine the resulting pain and anxiety, and that, as much as anything, kept me from considering McCandless someone to emulate. But at the same time I understood the pull that his story exerted on people: Plenty of us dream, but few make those dreams a reality. What's more, the young men and women inspired by McCandless today live in a world more wired and connected than anything he could have imagined. Small wonder that some of them are seduced by the idea of chucking their iPhones and disappearing into the wilderness.
I hiked alone for two hours, yelling occasionally to let any nearby bears know I was coming. The trail was coated with fallen yellow leaves, wet with the previous night’s rain. Fall's bloom was fading, and winter’s arrival was imminent. I was taking a break, snacking and working on my notes, when a group of hikers came around a bend, laughing and chatting. “Are you guys headed to the bus?” I called. They were, and after I’d introduced myself and explained my mission, they agreed that I could hike with them as far as the river and watch them cross.
They were a group of five friends – Scott, Matt, Jake, Liz and Rick – who worked at a hotel near the park entrance. Four were in their early-to-mid 20s, and the fifth, Rick, was in his 40s. With one exception, they told me, they weren’t diehard McCandless fans. They had spent the summer working and playing together, and they thought the hike to the bus would be a fun way to end the season before they went their separate ways.
All five had seen the movie, but Jake was the only one who seemed particularly taken with the story. The book and the movie were the reason he had gone to Alaska. He didn’t see how he could spend the summer there without visiting the bus. He’d already been to the replica, a leftover from the movie set, now parked outside the brewery in Healy. In fact, his Facebook profile photo showed him in a plaid shirt, leaning against it. The shot is a near-perfect imitation of the iconic McCandless self-portrait.
We reached the banks of the Teklanika just after noon, and the moment I saw the river, I was relieved I hadn’t planned to cross. A sunny early morning had slumped into a grey, cold afternoon, and the river raced by us, its silt-choked waters moving unexpectedly fast. As we scouted upriver and down, checking to see if there were any better crossing options, an icy rain began to fall. The group made plans for the crossing, and I wondered briefly if I should say something to discourage them. I wondered if they would be second-guessing themselves if there weren’t a reporter standing over them with a camera. But grim jokes aside, no one seemed too worried.
Scott and Matt made a fast crossing, facing upstream and sidestepping quickly as the water rose and foamed around their knees, then thighs, then hips. One unfurled a red climbing rope behind them, its near end secured to a young spruce tree on our side. They were a few feet from the far bank when Scott lost his footing and the pair went down briefly, then thrashed their way to shore. Now it was time for Jake, Liz, and Rick to take their shot.
Facing upstream and clutching the rope that Scott and Matt had secured on the far side, the hikers shuffled into the fast-moving water. They were in the middle of the river when Rick went down, splashing face-first into the water but keeping his grip on the rope, now bowed under his weight. Jake and Liz staggered, trying to stay on their feet as they were pulled downstream by the stretching rope. Jake fell, and then Liz splashed down next to him. She scrambled up, pulling herself hand over hand a few steps closer to the far bank, and I thought that, like Scott and Matt, the three might yet make the crossing after stumbling. When she fell again, all of them hung prone for a moment, gripping the rope, their faces in the water, unable to breathe.
“Let go! You have to let go!” Matt yelled from the opposite bank. Rick released the rope first, then Jake, and then Liz, and it snapped back with a wet twang, loud enough to carry clearly over the sound of the river. I stood frozen, disbelieving, still holding my iPhone to record the crossing as all three hikers were swept out of sight downstream.
We had joked around, before their attempt, about which of them might not survive the crossing. The grim banter papered over an uncomfortable truth: Someone a lot like them had died en route to the bus, in the cold, dark waters of the Teklanika, on a summer day just three years earlier.
Claire Ackermann and Etienne Gros, young European travelers who’d first connected in an online forum, arrived in Denali National Park in August 2010. They spent a few days hiking in the park itself, and then, on a whim before heading out of the area, decided to hike to the McCandless bus. Though both had seen the movie, neither was a serious devotee. But when another traveler they’d met suggested the trip, they figured they were already in Healy; why not go see what all the fuss was about?
They started down the trail early on the morning of Aug. 14, and by noon had reached the banks of the Teklanika, where they found a rope already strung across the water. After scouting and debating their options, Gros and Ackermann decided to use the rope to make the crossing. Stripped down to their underwear, clothes packed into drybags, each looped a length of rope around the waist and then around the main line. Their individual loops would slide along as the pair crossed, allowing some freedom of motion plus a link to the main rope.
Ackermann and Gros were three-quarters of the way across the icy river, water up to their waistbands, when she went down. Her weight pulled the main rope downstream and underwater, and soon Gros lost his footing, too. The rope bent into a taut V, and the force of the river pinned them into the point. Struggling to hold their heads above water, neither could reach the main rope. They were trapped.
Gros reached back over his shoulder and pulled his knife from the top of his backpack. He had only seconds to make a decision: cut himself free first and try to make his way to shore and back upstream to free Claire, or cut her free and hope she wasn’t lost downstream. He paused, then cut his own rope. As the river seized him and carried him downstream, he was able to see that her head was still above the water.
He kicked and fought his way to the bank and hauled himself out of the water 300 yards downstream. Then he dumped his pack and ran back up, knife in hand. When he got to the rope and waded back out into the river to reach Claire, she was underwater. He cut her free and swam after her downstream for more than half a mile before he was able to get them both onto dry land. There, on the riverbank, he attempted CPR, but he already knew he was too late. Eighteen years after McCandless expired in the bus just a few miles away, Ackermann became the second young adventurer to die on the Stampede Trail.
Gros, now 33, still finds himself questioning the decisions he made that day. “It could have been the opposite,” he told me. “I could have cut her rope and she could have been unable to make it to shore. I mean, if I would have done the opposite, maybe … hard to say. Hard to say.” These days, he’s on the periphery of a discussion about the possibility of getting a bridge built across the Teklanika, to allow the pilgrims to visit the bus more safely. Ackermann’s family is involved in the talks; apparently, so is Carine McCandless, Chris’ sister. Given the annual cost of the rescues, Gros thinks a bridge should be taken seriously. “It could be a small rope bridge, it could even be something that you could remove in wintertime,” he said. “I guess the biggest problem is, are the locals for it?” He’s dismissive of the idea of moving the bus to the near side of the river – another proposal. “It would change nothing,” he told me, adding that hikers would still head for the area where McCandless actually died.
Of course, the river is only one way for pilgrims to get themselves into trouble. They also face grizzly bears, injuries and exposure. And the debate over how exactly McCandless himself died has been ongoing for two decades: In mid-September, Krakauer published a new theory about an amino acid that's found in the wild potato plants McCandless consumed and that can induce fatal paralysis in undernourished people. Still, the Teklanika River is the main source of the hikers’ troubles. And since McCandless tried to hike back out to civilization several weeks before his death but was stymied by the swollen river, you could argue that he, too, was a casualty of the Teklanika.
From my side of the river, I watched in horror as Rick, Liz and Jake vanished around a bend. After a moment, I stopped the video recording on my phone; I wasn’t sure I wanted to document what might happen next. I could see Matt and Scott running down the far bank, trying to keep their friends in sight. I stuffed my camera in a pocket and did the same, my adrenaline surging as I sprinted down the sandy, rocky shore. Liz reached the other side first, maybe 100 yards downstream on the far bank, and as I came around a bend I could see Jake clinging to the bank a bit farther down. Scott shouted, “I’ve got Liz!” as he pulled her out of the water, and when she was on dry land, he hurried to pull Jake clear, too. Matt and I kept running, dodging trees and brush, hurdling over downed logs, watching Rick bob in the water as he floated downstream. We must have run for half a mile. I was pretty sure I’d never run faster in my life, but I could barely keep Rick in sight. Every time his face reappeared above the churn, I squinted to see if he was still conscious and breathing. But drowning was only one concern; the river hovered just above freezing, and hypothermia loomed, too. I knew that in minutes, he could be past saving.
I cut inland to dodge a thick stand of brush and trees, and when I’d gone around the tangle and come back in sight of the water, I saw that Rick was clinging to a steep gravel slope on the far side, his feet just inches from the rushing water. Matt caught up and scrambled down to him and the pair climbed carefully back up to solid ground.
Rick was 47, the oldest of the group by a couple of decades. He'd spent three seasons working in the Denali area and plenty of time backpacking alone in the park. He told me later that he kept pretty calm as he plummeted downstream. He tried flipping onto his stomach to paddle toward shore, but on every attempt his heavy pack drove him underwater, and he was afraid to shrug it off and let his dry clothes and shelter vanish downstream. Soon, he realized he could no longer feel his arms or legs. He wasn't cold anymore, just numb. Rick looked over his shoulder and saw that the river had swung him close to the gravel bank. He gathered himself for one last effort and thought, “I’ve gotta get over there somehow.” Though he couldn’t feel his limbs responding, he was soon free, splayed against the rocks.
After Matt reached him, he retrieved his dry clothes from the pack. Matt tied a bandana around a big, bloody gash in Rick’s leg, and then they started a slow walk upstream to find the others. Halfway there, Rick started shivering – a good sign, he figured, that his body was coming back to life.
By this time, Jake and Liz were bundled into dry clothing, too, and they had a tarp up and the fire going. All three were scraped and bruised; Jake would later learn that he had torn his right rotator cuff trying to grab the bank, and Scott had cracked his kneecap during the crossing. When Matt and Rick reached them, Matt took a good look at the cut in Rick’s leg and pulled out his multi-tool to remove the worst of the embedded rock and gravel. He took out a flask of whisky and told Rick to brace himself: the alcohol on the open wound would burn. Rick shrugged. He still couldn't feel his legs anyway.
I stayed on the riverbank, anxious and watching from afar, until everyone was warm and dry on the far side. Then, my stomach still churning from witnessing the ordeal, I retraced my steps to town. The trail is nobody’s idea of a lovely hike – one of many things that mystify the Alaskans who watch the McCandless pilgrims set off each year. (“Of all the places you could hike in Alaska …” one local had said to me two nights earlier, shaking her head in disbelief.) The Stampede Trail is a boggy thoroughfare for motorized off-roaders. During the day that I spent on it, I counted seven bus-bound hikers, 22 four-wheeling moose hunters, two guided Jeep tours and one guided ATV tour. Hiking there today is no way to capture the solitude and engagement with nature that McCandless was seeking. As I slogged back to my waiting car, I could not see the point of the pilgrimages. Nor could I fathom how the loss of more young lives honored his memory.
The pilgrims, of course, see the journey differently. A spiral notebook left in the bus by the McCandless family when they visited by helicopter in 1993 has since been filled with handwritten entries, each praising McCandless and the impact his story has had on the writer's life. One 2002 visitor left a poem: “I came up here to get away / It’s the last frontier they say / I came across this bus today / It’s gorgeous here I think I’ll stay.” Another entry, left by a man in 1999, reads: “I started my journey here hoping for two things, one that somewhere out here I would find myself, and two that I would find some hope for the future. Now I am here at the bus, and I am happy because the future looks up and I know who I am.”
One undated entry, written in pencil, is addressed directly to McCandless:
“Christopher J McCandless, AKA Supertramp, I envy the ability you had to put this world aside and live out your dream, something so many of us lack. If your spirit still looms here, if this is your eternal paradise and you watch us come and go year by year season by season, I hope you help instill some of your awesome qualities in each of us that make the grueling trip to your resting place.”
Dan Grec, an Australian who now lives in Canada, visited the shrine in 2009, at the start of an epic road trip from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. When I spoke with him, he explained why he kicked off his journey at the bus. “I really associate with Chris not liking the world, not liking society, and not turning his back on it, exactly, but wanting to pick and choose the parts he wanted to be involved in.” In Grec’s estimation, McCandless was a social guy who just didn’t want to be stuffed into a cubicle for eight hours every day.
Grec has powerful memories of his visit to the bus. “The most vivid thing that I remember,” Grec said, “[is that] you get inside, and Chris died there, you think it’s going to be like a funeral. But there’s something going on there that I don’t understand – some kind of happiness or energy. That’s why I want to go back – I’d like to spend a week there and just soak it in.”
Grec is what you might call a true believer – someone who sought out the bus because he felt a connection to McCandless after reading the book and seeing the movie. Within the core group of like-minded pilgrims, some go back again and again. But many others are more like Claire Ackermann and Etienne Gros, or Scott Wilkerson and his friends – young people who find themselves in the Healy area and are drawn to the bus out of sheer curiosity and a sense of adventure.
Back in the fire hall in Healy, Chief Lasell doesn’t see anything changing on the trail anytime soon. Until more people get hurt or die, there will be little motivation to remove the bus, he said. As for a possible bridge over the Teklanika, he added, “I don’t see that happening.” The environmental permits and other paperwork involved would be intimidating, he figures, and without local support – with active local hostility, in fact – there is little incentive.
He seems resigned to more rescues. The flow of pilgrims shows no sign of tapering – “It might actually be growing,” he said – and because the Stampede Trail is public land, there’s no way to ban the hikers from making the attempt.
More than a month after my visit to the Stampede Trail, I was still trying to wrap my head around the whole phenomenon. Just days after I’d gotten home, Krakauer’s new theory about McCandless' death was published, and I watched it light up the internet for the better part of a week. We are, clearly, still fascinated by the extraordinary life and death of Alexander Supertramp.
For more perspective, I spoke to Walt and Billie McCandless, Chris’ parents, who’ve watched their son’s death turn into a global phenomenon – Krakauer’s Into the Wild has been printed in 28 languages, Walt told me, and their own book of Chris’ writings and photos, Back to the Wild, has been sold on six continents. I asked the McCandlesses what they make of the whole thing.
“We’re still as amazed as you are,” Walt told me. Billie offered a possible explanation: “I think everybody has this inner person that wants to have their own world, you know, and of course fulfill their own dreams, and would like to do it inconspicuously … especially young people. If they’re interested in something, why does there have to be a rule about it? ‘Why can’t I just find out about it? Why can’t I just experience it?’”
The McCandlesses - who get emails from bus-bound pilgrims, and from Alexander Supertramp fans worldwide - have visited twice themselves. They never encourage anyone to make the trip. If asked, however, the couple suggests that hikers make the attempt in winter, when the river is frozen, and that they consult with a local guide. And they have a message for anyone considering the trek. “If they are going to go out and fulfill their own dream,” Billie told me, “they have to remember that their family, their loved ones, are part of their journey. They have to include them, they have to stay in touch. Don’t abandon them.”
Before we hung up the phone, I mentioned that I sometimes worry about the impact my own wilderness adventures have on my parents; the close call at the river still weighed on my mind. “Listen, young lady, I hope you call home,” Billie said. I promised her I would.
"Chasing Alexander Supertramp" was originally published in December 2013 by SKYE on AOL, a website (now offline) created by Whalerock Industries.
Photos of the bus and the graffiti by Matthew Power. Photo of Claire Ackermann's memorial by Etienne Gros. All other photos by Eva Holland.
Thanks to my editor at SKYE, Jim Benning, and to Matthew Power for his assistance during my reporting.