Saturday, November 8, 2008

Into the Wild

A year after the movie, nobody else has died at Bus 142.

It's been a bit more than a year since Sean Penn's film version of Jon Krakauer's modern Alaskan classic, Into the Wild (first published itself in 1996) came out. There was an Eddy Vedder sound track of the same name and even an independent documentary oddly called The Call of the Wild, a century old title belonging to another story of Northern cheechako hubris.

An entire year! And yet none of the new pilgrims to "Bus 142" out on Alaska's Stampede Trail have yet died. So sure were Healy residents that even more "idiots" would stumble out there with little food and less sense, that they proposed the Bus be removed as an attractive nuisance. Another version of that most common sentiment of Alaskans who've moved up here: "I'm here, shut the door".

There's a long history of tourists visiting the Bus, starting soon after it was abandoned as a makeshift camp along an old mining road leading from Healy to Antimony Creek, site of an antimony mine on the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River, now in Denali National Park.

Winter time saw mushers, snowmachiners, maybe a trapper on snowshoes, or a even an XC ski-tourist. Fall-time saw mainly hunters, like the ones who discovered McCandless dead there. Summer vistors were rare. Until twenty years ago when early hell-bikers Jon Underwood and Bob Kaufman pedaled their mountain bikes into Alaska's Denali National Park, then packrafted the Toklat River to the Stampede Trail (a trip recently repeated ).

This was only four years befor Chris McCandless, aka "Alexander Supertramp", stumbled on ol' Bus 142 and infamy. The Stampede Trail, mostly overgrown with alders, studded with boulders, and often flooded in beaver ponds, was also the route taken by Mark Stoppel and myself in 1989 when, en route to Lake Clark, we stopped at the Bus during a thunderstorm and cooked up some noodles.

The bus, parked in an opening between two creeks, the trail, and a black spruce bog, was a pleasent shelter, with a 55-gallon wood stove, two beds, shelves, drawers, and chairs. We left noodles and other food there, as our packs were heavy and we wanted lighter loads and didn't need all the food we carried. In retrospect it was a bit like setting a trap. No doubt McCandless found both food and shelter there, enough to get him through through to break-up when he became trapped in the wild.

In September 1992, we had just moved back to Alaska when I read with interest the Anchorage Daily News story about an unidentified, partially decomposed body in the Bus that Jon, Bob, Mark, and I had visited only a few years earlier. Like everyone in Alaska and ultimately America, I wondered who it was and how his end had come to pass. The answer came with Krakauer's piece in Outside Magazine in January 1993.

In the summer of 1993, pretty much a year to the day after McCandless had died, Jon, Andrew Liske, and I pedaled mountain bikes to the Bus. It was an easy day in and we spent the night there. Jon in his characteristic way of investigation found McCandless artifacts a plenty, artifacts used to reconstruct the story of McCandless' demise.

There was the grizzly skull with the "signature" of Alex. There was the "manifesto" on the plywood, his pants, a log desperately shoved in the wood stove, his chewed toothbrush and lost gold crown. As a biologist, I took offense to Jon when he challenged my identification of the ungulate bones outside the bus as small moose, not caribou.

"Are you sure?" he asked. I held back my impatience. I didn't tell him I'd butchered a dozen moose and caribou in my years in Alaska, that I held a PhD in Biology.

"Yea, I'm pretty sure. It looks like a young cow to me." The nose bones were long, relative to the brain case, and the crown more bowed.

I empathized with the young dead man. He'd clearly made a mistake, no bigger a mistake than I'd made when I was young and shot an animal, then improperly stored the meat. The only difference was that I was lucky enough to find a way out of the situation I was in -- lucky, not smart. And this kid was no more stupid than me, or any of the rest of us who come to Alaska for the same reasons he did - because we want something else, something beyond what disappoints us so in the "Lower 48". Andrew, Jon, Dan and I were all sympathizers, making us the first "Bus Pilgrims".

And yes, many more of us will die in Alaska, from the lethal intersection of bad luck with innocence, naivety, ignorance, negligence, or plain old stupidity -- call it what you will. But the arrogance of most Alaskans, those typically overweight and comfortably esconced on the grid, their outdoor experiences limited to fly-in fishing and ATV hunting, will lead them to second guess. As if it's a simple fact that "real Alaskans" hide from the "real Alaska" with modern technology making them better equipped to survive than those who seek to test themselves without cable TV or the contents of Cabellas catalogs.

As if Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer and all the rest who've told the McCandless story without as much of a snicker and sneer as with sympathy and substance don't really get what it means to be a "real Alaskan." But I guess it's true: to be a "real Alaskan" you simply can't die before your first winter up here is over.
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