“It’s some kind of internal thing within them that makes them go out to that bus. I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand. What would possess a person to follow in the tracks of someone who died because he was unprepared?” Those are the words of one state trooper in Alaska. And he has a point – why are people willingly trekking the now-famous trail that led one young man to the end of his life?
It all started in 1992 when two moose hunters found an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. In that rusty bus, they found the body of a 24-year-old man named Chris McCandless, a hitchhiker who left everything behind him to pursue a life off-the-grid. The 2007 film ‘Into the Wild’ (a fantastic movie, if you ask me) depicted the life before and up to his last breath. It clearly had an impact on viewers because it led to something of a cultural phenomenon. Ever since the film, people wanted to find that abandoned Fairbanks City Transit bus number 142, which has just recently been airlifted out of its original spot. Why? Because for years, it left people stranded, injured, and some were even killed.
Scroll all the way down if you want to see what McCandless’ sister has to say about why he left home in the first place…
Chris McCandless went into the Alaskan wilderness and never came out. Chris was an ambitious young guy who insisted on going into the wilderness all on his own. Within a few months, he was found dead. And to this day, the circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear. If you’ve seen the movie, you would think it was a work of fiction. But it is very much a real story.
The biopic, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless, is a story that was based on a book also called “Into the Wild,” a 1996 non-fiction novel written by Jon Krakauer. It basically expands on the 9,000-word article he wrote on Christopher McCandless called “Death of an Innocent.”
On September 6, 1992, two moose hunters stumbled upon an old, rusty bus just outside of Denali National Park. What was unusual about their discovery was the crumpled note taped to the door of the bus, which was handwritten on a piece of paper torn out of a book. The note read:
“ATTENTION POSSIBLE VISITORS. S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. 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.”
That note was signed by Chris McCandless, and it was dated: “? August.”
Sadly, by the time those moose hunters arrived at the scene, it was already too late. When they entered the bus, they found the one who clearly wrote the note. Chris McCandless had been dead for the past 19 days. His death (and life) would soon spark an in-depth investigation into his life. Luckily, McCandless kept a diary in which he detailed his adventures.
This way, we’re able to know more or less what he went through. But despite that, there are still many things that remain a mystery, especially the moments leading up to his death. What we do know, for one thing, is that he donated his life savings of $24,000 to charity, packed a small bag, and embarked on what he said would be a two-year adventure across the United States.
We also know that in April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Carthage, South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska. And it was in Fairbanks that Chris hitchhiked again, as he was picked up by local electrician named Jim Gallien on his out way of town. The young hitchhiker introduced himself only as “Alex” and didn’t ever reveal his last name. He actually shed his legal name early on in his journey, adopting the nickname “Alexander Supertramp” after W.H. Davies, a famous writer, and tramp/hobo.
“Alex,” asked Gallien to take him to Denali National Park, where he said he wanted to hike and “live off the land for a few months.” When asked about their encounter later, Gallien recalled having “deep doubts” about the young man’s ability to survive in the wild on his own. Gallien, by the way, played himself in the movie. He was the one who gave Chris the rubber boots in an early scene.
It was known that the Alaskan wilderness was particularly unforgiving. Chris didn’t have the right equipment, but he insisted that he would be fine. Gallien even tried to persuade the naive traveler to reconsider and offered to drive him to Anchorage and at least buy him proper equipment. But he was stubborn and obviously made up his mind a while ago.
From what Gallien remembers, he only had with him a light backpack, a ten-pound bag of rice, a semiautomatic rifle, and a pair of Wellington boots, which Gallien himself had given him. He didn’t have a compass, and it’s unclear as to whether or not he did it on purpose, but he left his watch and the only map he had in Gallien’s truck.
Gallien ended up dropping him off at the head of the Stampede Trail, west of Denali National Park, on April 28, 1992. McCandless gave Gallien his camera and asked him to take a quick photo before heading out into the wilderness. Gallien was the last person to see McCandless alive.
McCandless planned for a long hike all the way west to the Bering Sea, but he stopped about 20 miles into his journey when he found a rusty old bus, probably because it seemed like a great place to set up camp. The white, green, and yellow paint was peeling off the sides of the bus, the tires were deflated, and it was almost overgrown by plant life. But he was just glad to have found shelter.
Once Chris set up camp, he had written something on a piece of plywood inside the bus. He wrote the following message: “Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. Anesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause “the West is the best.”
It continued: “And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization, he flees and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”
For about 16 weeks, Chris McCandless lived in that bus. His adventure was difficult, no doubt, as his diary detailed being weak, snowed in, and unsuccessful in his attempts to hunt for game. But, after a rough first week, he gradually settled into his new and trying lifestyle. He managed to survive off the rice he brought with him.
He also was able to find enough local plant life and shoot small game like squirrels and geese to put something in his stomach. At one point, he was able to kill a caribou, but the carcass rotted before he ever could make much use of it. However, the last month of his diary entries painted an entirely different picture.
Knowing the next fact is what makes it all much more tragic. Because it was on his way back home that Chris realized he wouldn’t be able to. After two months, Chris evidently (through diary passages) had enough of living as a wild hermit and wrote of his desire to return to society. He packed up camp and began the trek back to civilization on July 3, 1992.
He had to accept the fact that the path he previously took over the frozen Teklanika River had now thawed. So, instead of a small stream, he had to face the surging waters of a 75-foot-wide river that was fueled by more melting snow. Essentially, there was no way for him to cross the river and head back to where he came from.
Another piece of information that makes his story more heart-rending is that Chris didn’t know that there was a hand-operated tram (or streetcar) just a mile downriver. The tram would have allowed him to easily cross the flowing river. And even more, there was a cozy cabin full of food and supplies six miles south of his bus, which was marked on most maps of the area. But Chris’ map was in Gallien’s truck.
It was the kind of information that could have saved the man’s life. If only he had listened to Gallien and taken more care to prepare for his journey. But that’s in the past, I guess. Since he was unable to cross the river, McCandless was forced to head back to the bus. His diary entry from that day: “Rained in. River looks impossible. Lonely, scared.”
When he got to the bus on July 8, Chris’ journal entries become progressively shorter and sadder. Although he kept hunting and gathering edible plants, he was getting weaker and weaker as he expended way more calories than he was eating during those three months in the Alaskan bush. The last entry in his diary was written on the 107th day of his stay in the bus.
That entry read-only: “Beautiful Blueberries.” From then until the 113th day, which were his last spent alive, his entries were only days marked with slashes. On the 132nd day after McCandless was last seen, his body was discovered by the moose hunters. One of the two, who read the note on the bus, went in to find what he thought was a sleeping bag packed with rotting food. Instead, he found Chris McCandless’s body.
The cause of McCandless’ death has been debated for years. At first, it was assumed that he had starved. He ran out of rice, and the hungrier he got, the harder it was for him to find the energy to get up and hunt. But Jon Krakauer, the first journalist to cover the story of McCandless (and the one who wrote the book on him), came to another conclusion.
According to the journal entries that detailed his food sources, Krakauer believes that McCandless might have eaten poisonous Hedysarum alpinum seeds. In a healthy person, these seeds aren’t necessarily dangerous as the toxin is usually killed off by stomach acid and gut bacteria. But, if he ate the seeds as a last resort, his digestive system might have been too weak to fight the poison.
In the end, McCandless survived for about 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness. One of his last journal entries read: “Extremely Weak. Fault Of Pot[ato] Seed.” Another theory was that McCandless was killed by mold, saying the poisonous seeds were improperly stored in a damp environment. There were other suggestions of poisons and toxins as possible explanations, but no definitive conclusion has been reached.
But after eating the potato sees, in addition to the typical weakness and loss of coordination, the poison would have caused starvation by blocking nutrient metabolism in his body. In 2015, however, Krakauer had the plant tested for toxins. A laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks didn’t find any toxins. Krakauer changed his hypothesis, suggesting that mold (Rhizoctonia leguminicola) may have caused his death. That specific mold is known to cause digestion problems in livestock, and it might have contributed to McCandless’s starvation.
Chris McCandless’s story is even more fascinating when you see all the photographs he left behind. His camera had dozens of photographs that he took along his journey, including self-portraits. The photos only deepen the mystery of the story. In them, you can visibly see his physical deterioration. His body was literally wasting away.
Yet, he seemed to be smiling as he continued to live in solitude, having only asked for help at the last possible moment. Despite all the investigations, we’re still not 100% sure as to how he died and what he thought in his final moments. Did he miss his family back home? Did he realize that this was entirely because of his desire to make it in the wild?
We now get to the aftermath of Chris McCandless’s life and death. John Krakauer was the first to cover McCandless’ story, and over the years, his book garnered somewhat of a cult status, similar to classics like “Catcher in the Rye” and “On the Road.” But experts say that Krakauer’s book is most like Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” which followed his own self-experiment of solitary life between 1845 and 1847 living in a one-room cabin in Massachusetts.
Unsurprisingly, he was McCandless’s favorite writer. McCandless’ story got even more popular after the movie “Into the Wild” 2007 came out. The ‘Into the Wild’ bus became a symbol of his life-ending adventure. The question now is: why do people keep trying to visit that bus?
Every year, travelers hit the Stampede Trail in search of some kind of survivalist enlightenment. But every year, these people have to be rescued along the way. Hundreds of “pilgrims” head to the trail and look for the bus that still stands in the woods about 10 miles north of the Denali National Park entrance.
But the trek to the bus is more than just an “enlightening journey in the wilderness.” It actually costs lives. The challenges that McCandless faced during his ordeal were very real and have remained unchanged, which might just be something that these “pilgrims” are overlooking or underestimating. As a result, they’re either getting hurt, lost, or even killed in their attempt to relive his hike.
Local residents, passing hikers, or troopers usually end up having to save these people. One lodge owner by the name of Jon Nierenberg, who owns the EarthSong lodge right off the Stampede trail, told the Guardian: “There’s a pretty steady trickle all summer. There are different types, but for the most passionate – the ones we locals call pilgrims – it is a quasi-religious thing.”
He explained how these visitors basically idealize McCandless. And apparently, some of the stuff they write in the journals at the bus is “hair-raising.” So what is it that attracts these people to the backcountry of Alaska? Diana Saverin, a journalist and wilderness enthusiast, wrote about this McCandless pilgrim phenomenon and has her own theory as to what’s really going on here.
According to Saverin, these ‘Into the Wild’ hikers are most likely motivated by a self-projection of their own unfulfilled lives. “The people I encountered would always talk about freedom,” she said. “I would ask, what does that mean? I had a sense that it represented a catch-all. It represented an idea of what people might want to do or be.”
Saverin met one man, a consultant, who just had a baby and wanted to change his life to be a carpenter – but said he couldn’t. So he took a week off to visit the bus. All in all, people see McCandless as someone who “just went and ‘did it.’” And that’s where the admiration comes in. It may be all admiration and adventure at first, but people have died…
In 2010, the first death of a hiker that stemmed from the desire to follow McCandless trail was recorded. The same age as McCandless was when he died, a 24-year-old Swiss woman named Claire Ackermann attempted the journey, only to drown while crossing the Teklanika River. It was the same river that had prevented McCandless from heading back home.
Ackermann wasn’t alone, though. She was hiking with a partner from France, Etienne Gros, who later told authorities that the bus, which was located across the river, wasn’t even their intended destination. You would think that after word came out that she died on this trail, less people would make the trek. But that wasn’t the case. While many were able to make it out alive, others weren’t so lucky.
Eddie Habeck was one of the lucky ones. He booked a hiking excursion through Alaska in 2012; he didn’t think about visiting the Fairbanks Bus 142. When the 39-year-old from Vermont was in the process of plotting his trip, he realized that he was heading to the state where Chris McCandless’ bus was.
“I realized, Wait a minute, that story took place in Alaska,” Habeck, a government worker who also runs an aerial photography business, said. “I realized that it might be a possibility to go out there.” He mapped out his journey to the bus and hit the trail solo in May of that year. He was able to make it through the waist-deep Teklanika River and reached Bus 142.
The bus, which has been left in place to serve as a shelter for hunters and trappers, wasn’t his main goal, though. “It wasn’t the reason I went there. It was more of an afterthought. But it was a defining moment of my trip. I had a lot of time to think about why Chris wanted to leave society, and what it would feel like to be that far away from civilization,” says Habeck.
“To actually immerse yourself in that surrounding, you don’t know what you’re going to feel until you’re there.” The truth is the actual number of those who made the trek isn’t officially known because hiking the Stampede Trail doesn’t require a permit. So there aren’t any official statistics on how many had to be rescued annually.
Lynn Macaloon, the public information officer for Denali National Park and Preserve, spoke about that in an interview with VICE. She estimates that “several” rescues on the trail take place every year, with park rangers, the fire department, and state troopers among those who are sent to pitch in. According to Alaska state troopers, 75% of all rescues they perform in the area are on the Stampede Trail.
In 2013, for instance, two major rescues had to be done in the area. In May of 2013, three German hikers were rescued. And just a month later, three more hikers had to be saved by a passing military helicopter. But rescuing is the best-case scenario. Claire Ackermann wasn’t the only one to die on the trail. The most recent death was recorded in July of 2019.
It’s a bit creepy, but the most recent death recorded on the notorious trail is yet another 24-year-old. This time, it was a woman named Veramika Maikamava, who was swept away under the strong river currents of the Teklanika River. She and her husband tried to cross the river on their way to the bus. But tragically, she didn’t make it.
The 24-year-old Belarusian woman and her husband, 24-year-old Piotr Markielau, were trying to cross the river when she lost her footing and was swept away. Her husband made it to shore and found his wife’s body downstream. He contacted State Troopers just before midnight on July 25, 2019. He was picked up by a police officer and volunteer firefighters. According to Ken Marsh, a state trooper spokesman, the couple had been married for less than a month.
The Teklanika River is the main obstacle in the popular yet extremely dangerous hike to the bus. It’s rapid, cold, and can go waist-high or deeper in high water. Sometimes there’s even a rope strung across it, intended to help naïve hikers. But that doesn’t ensure safety. The chief of the local fire department said rescues a dozen pilgrims in the summer season alone.
“When I hiked to the river to see it for myself, I watched three hikers get swept downstream by the current.” Luckily, they survived with minor injuries. Maybe the second death will renew the conversation about whether or not to remove or even destroy the bus. But it’s just as likely that nothing will be done and more will take the leap. As it is clearly an ongoing thing…
Alaska State Troopers made a statement, urging travelers to “come prepared” for the Alaskan wilderness, emphasizing its “challenging weather, water, and geographical conditions.” Recently, hikers Michael Trigg and Theodore Aslund had to be rescued during an operation that involved more than 20 people and one helicopter. They made it to the bus but took longer than expected on their return journey.
“They left with an unrealistic idea of when they’d be back,” hiker and Alaska native, Erik Halfacre, told VICE. “They could’ve ensured that someone wouldn’t launch an expensive rescue for them by having a turnaround time and sticking to it, but they didn’t.” Halfacre, 30, has been to Bus 142 three times over the last seven years.
“Obviously, there’s something that draws these people out here,” a state trooper said, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s some kind of internal thing within them that makes them go out to that bus. I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand. What would possess a person to follow in the tracks of someone who died because he was unprepared?”
The continued deaths have ignited debates about whether something should be done to the bus itself. Some believe it should be permanently moved, while the others advocate for constructing a footbridge across the river where many either faced death and came out alive or simply didn’t make it. Whatever the decision may be, something needs to be done.
Erik Halfacre, the Alaskan native, claims that journalists tend to cover the stories of the Stampede Trail rescue operations by “writing negative and nasty things about anything that happens out there. We as Alaskans have to spend our tax dollars to bail them out, and that’s an irritating thing for a lot of people to look at,” he told VICE.
When it comes to a hiking trail, learning when to give up is as important as knowing how to succeed. Two years after Eddie Habeck’s first trip to Bus 142, he tried again with his wife after their wedding. But that time, the waters were too high and too rough. Halfacre himself turned around twice during his own excursions to Bus 142.
It might be that these amateur adventure-seekers are finally getting the message, according to Denali National Park and Preserve’s manager Kathleen Kelly. She says that rescue operations are becoming less frequent. She assumes that people are going better prepared, fewer are attempting it, or they’re just going out with more information.
But we know that people are still going to make the trek out there – all in the name of finding some inner nirvana. People still find the obsession a mystery in itself. “I don’t quite get the appeal,” one Alaskan native said. “We find people not only going to the bus but wanting to come up here and build a cabin wherever they want to and live off the land. Alaska is the place where people can get to where they think they can live out those dreams—or try to.”
Chris’ sister, Carine McCandless, wrote an explosive memoir in 2015 that provides new details about their toxic family environment that essentially drove her brother out of the house and into the wild. The book covers many years in their childhood, and much of it is emotionally powerful. She said mostly positive things about her brother.
For the most part, she considered her late brother to have always been loving and protective. But their family history features a large amount of toxic behavior, mostly coming from their parents, Walt and Billie McCandless. Carine described her parents, at their best, as good providers and fun, caring people. But at their worst, they were cruel and abusive. Unfortunately, this was the side of them that their children saw most of the time.
Carine and Chris grew up with their parents in El Segundo, California, and later in Annandale, Virginia. According to Carine, their father was a belligerent drunk and would sometimes get into rages that ended with beatings of his wife and children. Their mother was the primary victim, according to Carine. But apparently, Billie was also a victimizer herself, belittling and betraying both her kids.
Carine gave a vivid example in her book about a time one week after she graduated from high school in 1989. She came home from a date just before her curfew. Walt was waiting for her at the door, drunk, and he grabbed her violently to get into the house. A violent tussle that didn’t end well. Billie was away that night, but when Carine called her mom, she only confirmed what her husband did.
Carine’s book also explores another McCandless family drama: how Chris and Carine were illegitimate. In the early 60s, when Walt worked at Hughes Aircraft in California, he was married to a woman named Marcia. They had six children together. Billie also worked at Hughes as a secretary, and (as cliché as it is), they began having an affair.
For years, believe it or not, Walt kept up two households: one for Marcia and the kids, one for Billie, Chris, and Carine. Chris was born in 1968, just three months after Marcia gave birth to a fifth child, a boy named Shannon. Quinn, Walt, and Marcia’s sixth and last child was born in 1969. Carine is the youngest of Walt’s eight children, and she was born in 1971.
Walt and Marcia eventually divorced, and he married Billie a few years later in 1972. How did the two families blend? Carine found her second family to be a godsend. She’s close with them still, but the legacy of abuse and deception weighed especially heavily on Chris. One of the main points in her book was that his famous and fatal journey was motivated by a desire to escape his parents.
This was a theme that will resonate with anyone who saw Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild’ from 2007. Penn had to wait 10 years to make the film because he wanted to make sure he had the approval from the McCandless family. But with Carine’s book, people can get much more detail about Chris’s actions. “People think they understand our story because they know how his ended,” Carine wrote, “but they don’t know how it all began.”
She also includes another fascinating piece of their history, which was unknown until now. Carine told Jon Krakauer about Walt and Billie’s flaws while he was researching for his book. But at the time, Carine wasn’t ready to go public with the information, and so she asked Krakauer to keep that part private. Krakauer wrote the foreword to her novel.
He said that honoring this promise was not a problem (journalists keep stuff off the record all the time). In addition, he wrote: “I shared Carine’s desire to avoid causing undue pain to Walt, Billie, and Carine’s siblings from Walt’s first marriage.” Krakauer also believed that people would grasp, from “indirect clues,” that Chris’s behavior in his final years was explained by the “volatile dynamics” of his family.
The Wild Truth was published in 2015, but Walt and Billie haven’t said too much about their daughter’s work, a piece that lays everything out on the table and could be extremely damaging to their reputations. What they did, however, do is provide one blanket public statement. They responded to a request from ABC’s 20/20 to comment.
“After a brief review of its contents and intention, we concluded that this fictionalized writing has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, or his character,” Walt and Billie commented. “The whole unfortunate event in Chris’s life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams—not a spiteful, hyped up, attention-getting story about his family.”
Carine McCandless spoke with Outside about the ‘what, why, and why now’ of her memoir.
Carine McCandless hopes that the new information in her book about such a well-known story is going to be helpful to people and eye-opening. She wants to empower those who face tough circumstances, particularly domestic violence. Her intention wasn’t to villainize her parents in any way, shape, or form. The way she sees it, people don’t learn from villains.
Her point, on the contrary, is to humanize them so that people can learn from the situation. “I don’t like to use the word “expose.” This is just the truth, the information, the answers to all the “why” questions that have been lingering about why Chris felt the way he did, why he left the way he did, and what pushed him to the extreme,” Carine said.
Carine was asked what kind of reactions she is getting from her extended family, including the sons and daughters of Walt and Marcia. Carine said it was important for her to acknowledge that, while all her siblings were supportive and gave her their trust and respect, there were a few who wished she wasn’t doing it.
It’s tough having your family drama in the public in the first place, and then getting thrust into it again. “I really want it to be clear how much I worked, in the writing… to respect my family’s space and their comfort level. I worked very hard not to speak for anyone who chose not to have their voice directly present outside of the facts, including my siblings, and I also was careful not to speak for Chris, unless it’s something he directly said to me or wrote to me in a letter.”
According to Carine, there were there different instances in which Chris, Carine, and the other kids tried to confront Walt and Billie, either by letter, e-mail or in person. They tried to have a healthy discussion about their behavior and why they think it needs to change. But every time, they just gave them a flippant and dismissive response.
Carine was asked if her parents even read the book, and if she knew how they felt about it. She sent her parents a copy of the book ahead of time, because “I did want to allow them, with all due respect, the opportunity to respond however they wished to. And I didn’t want them to be blindsided, you know, by the media or in an e-mail.”
Billie told Carine once that because of their religious beliefs, the slate has been wiped clean. The events of their past just don’t matter anymore, according to Billie, and that they’re non-existent. But Carine feels that honesty is imperative in the process of healing from turmoil and tragedy in the family.
“I don’t expect it to be a pleasant situation. But over the years, I’ve really come to feel that I did a disservice to Chris and my extended family, maybe even to my parents, by allowing these things to be buried and to manifest as misconceptions about Chris.” She spoke about something important in her memoir about the time of Chris’s graduation from Emory University in 1990.
Chris told Carine that he’s going to allow their parents to fool themselves into believing that their dysfunctional relationship with him is getting better. Chris told her what he really had in mind in a letter that she shared for the first time in her book. In his letter to his sister, Chris wrote: “I’m going to completely knock them out of my life … I’m going to divorce them as my parents.”
Carine knew that when Chris set his mind on something, he stuck with it. She also spoke of Chris’s sense of adventure that was established at a very young age. He had a love of nature and was drawn to Alaska by the books he liked as a young boy. Because of Chris’s childhood situation, he felt a need to push himself to extremes and prove something. And that, unfortunately, led to his demise.