May 31, 2011

McCandless revisited

Bus 142, March 11, 2011

in March, i had the opportunity to make a trip, a pilgrimage really, to Bus 142 where Chris McCandless died in 1992. my friend Ed, had been asked to guide Walt and Billie McCandless and a group of friends to the bus, 20 some miles off Stampede Trail.

Walt and Billie have recently self published a book of Chris' photos, postcards, and journal pages - presenting the material as a biography of sorts. the journey to Bus 142 was a way of saying 'thank you' to the friends that worked on the book, including Wayne Westerberg and Jan Burres. it was obvious from an early meeting with the group that this trip, more than anything, was made with the expectation of providing closure. Walt and Billie had only been to the bus one other time, with Jon Krakauer, only months after their son's death.

Back to the Wild is an attempt to let Chris write the final chapter to his own story.

sunset, Stampede Trail

my own history with the story of Chris McCandless had, until this day, been unresolved. his life, and ultimate death, was one of myth and bravado - both, inspiring and frustrating. many Alaskan's have a turbulent relationship with his story. i, too, once flirted with the sort of northern entitlement that can allow one to snort at the follies of someone so unfortunate. a gross stance, that ignores the pull of Alaska that brought most of us here, and exacts a sort of unearned ownership of the story. the idea. at 24, many of us have similar pulls to just pack it all in and go. anywhere, just go. most of us don't go.

at the end of that day in March, i didn't know any more about Chris McCandless than when we started the trek. seeing the landscape around the bus wasn't any more enlightening. the sight of the frozen Teklanika, seemed a benign expanse, not the ultimate death knell that it became. the bus itself was in reality, and figuratively, a shell. broken and abused by years of the neglect and cultish love of people who either despised or admired his story. the allure of his story hinges on his unquestionable determination, mixed with a healthy amount of naivete, makes it convenient for us to slide into his boots. we want to claim an abandoned bus on the edge of nowhere as our castle. we want to shed responsibility and expectations. but, ultimately, we have the need to believe that we wouldn't have died - we would have made the right decisions. we would have walked out of that bus and lived to tell about it.

all of this myth and kingmaking dissolved on this day in March. what i saw that day wasn't the glory of a man living by his own rules - a romantic life, and maybe even a romantic death. what i saw was the reality of the toll of Chris McCandless' death. aside from the book, the movie, the folklore was a broken family. on this day I simply witnessed the aged mourning of a family that had lost a son.

Walt McCandless, sitting on the bed where his son died in 1992, Bus 142

all images © Ben Huff


Ned Rozell said...

Thoughtful, insightful post, with the best father photograph I've ever seen.

ben said...

thanks Ned. wish we could have worked something out here.

by the way, i started Finding Mars last night:)

Dennis said...

Thanks, Ben.

Krackower's book was a story about fathers and sons--and most sons follow their fathers, not the other way around. For a father to travel to the site of his son's last resting place is somehow in violation of nature--not the way life is supposed to go--and the look of resignation and bitterness mellowed by years of knowledge on Walt's face--as well as his aversion of the camera--what else can be said--except to silently stare at the horizon... What comes next?

ben said...

that's a good question Dennis. i'd be lying if i said i had any idea..

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