Subtitled: America, like it or not it’s beautiful, even if patriotism isn’t in vogue, because I haven’t been patriotic since post 9/11 pickup trucks turned me off the idea ten years ago, but I think I still love America, kinda
Having recently completed a five-day road trip across the American Southwest, I found myself reflecting on the soul of America.
I don’t know how much I, personally, can speak to it, not having been to the Midwest OR the South which are America’s proverbial heart(andsoul)lands. But I’ve been to three corners and three islands of the contiguous country—15 states—besides myself living in the West — so that’s a pretty good chunk of it eh? And not one but two books I’ve recently read—Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, and American Gods, by Neil Gaiman—deal with the topic of traveling the road in America, as does one of my favorite books of all time, Nabokov’s Lolita. And with the American road trip, intentional or not, comes the search for the meaning of America.
Into the Wild is a nonfiction work by outdoors journalist Jon Krakauer that chronicles the life and death of Chris McCandless, self-dubbed Alexander Supertramp, focusing on the two years he spent living out of his backpack in the Western United States in the early 1990s up to his untimely death. He perished in the summer of 1992 after months of living out of an abandoned bus near Denali National Park, at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. He probably starved.
In terms of what drove him on this crazy quest: Chris was from a fairly well-to-do DC-area family, but had a difficult relationship with his parents, who he seemed to see as Caulfieldian phonies. As an honors student at Emory University he experimented with asceticism and grad-student theory, growing increasingly disillusioned with his privileged lifestyle and fantasizing about throwing all material possessions and former-life connections to the wind, and instead just existing, body and nature and no commitment to the corruptions of modern human society.
A lot of people think he was stupid or crazy, or at least arrogant, and there is definitely an argument to be made in that vein. But Krakauer’s portrait is deeply sympathetic. He interposes a personal story of his own foolhardy attempt to climb a glacial mountain in Alaska as a youth, solo, as well as the stories of many others who have wandered off into the wild for various reasons and, in most cases, not survived. McCandless, Krakauer implies, was not some loony but rather an idealistic young man following the time-honored tradition of looking for meaning and fulfillment in nature.
On my own road trip, my path twice crossed Krakauer’s and McCandless’s, once in the physical sense and once in the narrative sense. McCandless lived and worked for a time in Bullhead City, Arizona, which sits just across the river from “Las Vegas for families” Laughlin, Nevada. We stopped at this hokey casino town on the Colorado River for a very hot, very dry, not entirely interesting night.
Say what you will about Laughlin, but it truly is an American place, down to its classic American origins story of pluck and business know-how. Don Laughlin (b. 1931) worked in Vegas and attended card dealing school, teaching himself all the tricks of the casino trade, before buying an old hotel in this rundown little community across from Bullhead City. This he gradually grew into a mini-gambling empire that was later named for him. “What you’re looking at is the realization of one man’s dream,” the tour boat guide (a recording) told us. The American Dream, right?
For many tourists, it’s a weekend trip from their nearby Arizona, Nevada, or California hometowns; for (less fortunate) others, it’s their vacation destination of the year. For me, it was a pit stop on a road trip and nothing more, a mere geographic location, something that wasn’t made for me and that didn’t really welcome me in the physical or metaphysical sense. For McCandless, it was also just a stop: a stop on his cross-Western journey, where he put in hours at a part-time food service job to help pay for his ultimate destination, Alaska.
“Bullhead City is a community in the oxymoronic, late-twentieth-century idiom. Lacking a discernible center, the town exists as a haphazard sprawl of subdivisions and strip malls stretching for eight or nine miles along the banks of the Colorado, directly across the river from the high-rise hotels and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Bullhead’s distinguishing civic feature is the Mohave Valley Highway, four lanes of asphalt lined with gas stations and fast-food franchises, chiropractors and video shops, auto-parts outlets and tourist traps.” (p. 39)
The second time my path crossed McCandless’s was when we browsed a tiny espresso ‘n’ books ‘n’ outdoor gear store near our hotel in Kanab, Utah, a small town located just north of the Arizona border and south of Utah’s grandiose national parks. The subject of several of the display books was young Everett Ruess, one of those other foolhardy youths that Krakauer speaks about in his book.
Everett Ruess (b. 1914 in Oakland, CA– a fellow East Bay Areaite!) left his family and friends at age 16 to hitchhike around the West and live out of his backpack. This he managed to do for a few years, until somewhere between 1934 and 1935, in the Utah wilderness near Glen Canyon Dam, he disappeared. All that was left of Everett were his packs and his mules. They never found out what happened to him; it’s surmised he probably fell off a cliff. Whatever the case, the mystery surrounding his wanderlust-fueled death transformed him into a local legend, if the proliferation of Everett Ruess-themed books in the area gift shops is any indication.
For all the times that McCandless seems like an idiot who didn’t plan ahead—kind of like Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame, except that dude pulled through—there’s this flip side of empathy because he did what maybe a lot of us have thought about, even just for a brief second. Maybe he lived in a way that none of us ever will: with no earthly connections, existing in nature and outside the bounds of society, being completely self-sufficient. There’s times when I’ve gazed out a car window and wished I could just hop out the door and run out into a particularly beautiful landscape (kind of a comical image, I know) but reason and logic and practicality and fear of bugs and all these other societal values and inhibitions forbid me. Sometimes I want to make snow angels in a dry meadow. Grass angels.
The search for the transcendent, the desire for life to have meaning could undoubtedly be considered universal sentiments. So could the desire for absolute freedom, particularly as the conditional freedoms of technology bind us, as we are ever more connected and ever more restricted by our connectedness. Even more, though, the special brand of McCandless’s search could, I think, be considered an American sentiment: a messy mixture of rugged individualism and self-reliance and reverence for the natural world that McCandless found in American writers like Emerson and London and Muir. (He also loved Tolstoy.) That these values ultimately took precedence over self-preservation (even before his sojourn to Alaska, McCandless put himself in danger several times) says a lot about their power.
For what it’s worth, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who profess or attempt to live lives of utter self-sufficiency. I think it’s a uniquely American fantasy that’s incredibly indulgent, manifested politically in Ron Paul-style libertarianism. The rejection of society—the societal fabric, the society of others—is a lie unless it is undertaken to its utmost extremes (I’m thinking, hermit on an island?), and anyone else who claims it is a hypocrite who doesn’t appreciate that society does so much for them, that society made them.
McCandless was probably indulgent; he was a privileged kid who hadn’t really experienced hardship; he undoubtedly failed to live completely independently, whether or not he thought that he had. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed to a greater extent that most people ever will; and it definitely doesn’t mean there isn’t value in his story. Even as I shake my head at him, I admire him.
(The film version of this book, by the way, is lovely. Sean Penn directed it and Eddie Vedder wrote a perfect, rambling acoustic soundtrack, and Emile Hirsch was a very fitting and earnest McCandless. Ironically, the relationships McCandless made on the road while trying to escape society were unnaturally deep and meaningful for their short duration—he made an impression on everyone he met, and the film captures this beautifully. Most touching is the scene when Hal Holbrook’s character “Ron” [name changed from real life], who lost his wife and kids in an accident decades earlier, asks to adopt McCandless as a kind of grandson. McCandless demurred until he got back from Alaska, which of course he never did. I openly wept. Holbrook was nominated for his first Oscar.)
Into the Wild is compelling because from the very first page we know what happens in the end. Yet despite the inexorable direction of the story and McCandless’s sensational death (I was too young to follow the news in 1992, but my mom tells me it was a big story), the real value of the narrative is the journey– which in an ironic-but-oh-so-expected twist is ultimately and chiefly life-affirming.