Twenty-three years ago today, on September 6, 1992, a hunter walking along the Stampede Trail in Alaska came across an abandoned 1940s bus which had been there for a long time. Inside he made a horrifying discovery: the dead emaciated body of a young man who was identified as Christopher McCandless, a/k/a “Alexander Supertramp,” age 24. McCandless had hiked into the Alaskan bush months before as part of a journey of self-discovery, but unprepared for the harsh conditions of wilderness living, he either starved to death or was poisoned by something he ate. His story famously became the subject first of a 1993 article and later a book, Into The Wild, by journalist Jon Krakauer, which was made into a movie in 2007 directed by Sean Penn. McCandless’s story is well-known, and the bus on the Stampede Trail, which is still there, has become sort of a pilgrimage site for young people who admire McCandless and his wilderness quest. That said, many others regard his actions as extremely foolish and his death meaningless. As a result, in popular culture Chris McCandless has become quite polarizing.

It’s interesting that this historical anniversary came to my attention, because I was thinking about Into The Wild–at least the movie version–just last week. I saw another film, based on another book about a wilderness journey of self-discovery, called Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, which was highly regarded and nominated for several 2014 Academy Awards. Wild is based on the 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, who is portrayed powerfully in the movie by Witherspoon. In 1995 Strayed, her life in disarray as a result of a divorce, drug use and the death of her mother, walked over 1000 miles from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington state, and emerged much stronger both spiritually and physically. Wild was an excellent film, highly uplifting at its conclusion whereas Into The Wild is a tremendous “downer.” I thought about the contrast of these two stories, and about the cultural and literary phenomenon of wilderness journeys of self-discovery in general. Stories like McCandless’s and Strayed’s speak to us in an interesting way that has a lot to do with how we live our lives in modern America–and what we may be missing from them.

Caveats: I have not read the books Into The Wild or Wild, and I can’t say that I’ve been on a long solo wilderness hike myself. But the main focus of my comment on their stories is less about what one actually experiences on journeys like these–negative consequences like in McCandless’s case, or positive ones as in Strayed’s–and more about why those of us who haven’t been on wilderness self-discovery journeys are attracted to them. There’s something in our American tradition and our historical relationship with wilderness and the environment that makes stories like these uniquely resonant. In 1862 Henry David Thoreau wrote that “[i]n wildness is the preservation of the world.” Many Americans have taken that quite literally. John Muir, the famous 19th century naturalist, certainly did; so, in his own way, did Teddy Roosevelt, though his method of preserving “wildness” involved a great deal of killing. But more than conservation or appreciating the environment for its own sake, Americans have often assumed that wilderness journeys have a spiritual dimension. Where do you go to “find yourself”? Someplace wild, of course. A “blank spot on the map,” as Chris McCandless is quoted as saying.

Into The Wild and Wild add a modern gloss to this very old idea, but in markedly different ways. McCandless’s background was solidly white American middle-class; his father worked on the space program and McCandless attended Emory University, studying history and anthropology. Much of the criticism of McCandless’s experience focuses, explicitly or implicitly, on the idea of privilege: he was a pampered suburban kid who knew little about what it was really like to “make it” in a harsh wilderness but insisted arrogantly on trying. (I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this view, I’m just identifying what it is). Cheryl Strayed was also college-educated,  but her early life growing up in Minnesota was hard and lean; her family didn’t even have running water or electricity. While neither characterization is without its potential criticisms, the film Into The Wild emphasizes McCandless as essentially coming from a white collar background, while the Wild movie portrays Strayed’s life as much more “blue collar.”

Both stories are about their protagonists seeking to find some personal meaning in wilderness. McCandless’s motivations were complex, having to do not merely with family issues but perhaps personal ideology; after graduating from Emory University he famously gave away the rest of his education fund, some $24,000, to Oxfam. He disconnected from his family and the modern world and sought to retreat to what he seems to have believed was a superior lifestyle, living off the land. Strayed’s motivation, at least as portrayed in Wild, was to find a process of healing after the death of her mother. Notice both stories involve some form of escape: from family, from jobs, from expectations and circumstances in which we live in the modern world. The role of the wilderness in both stories is a sort of personal utopia which also has a redemptive quality. That idea certainly links strongly to 19th century traditions like Muir and Thoreau.

Is this an accurate vision of what the wilderness can do for you? It’s too easy to conclude that Into The Wild would answer that question a resounding no, while Wild answers it yes. It’s more complicated than that. Chris McCandless’s tragic end is certainly a cautionary tale that no one should undertake such a journey lightly, or without adequate supplies, preparation and knowledge of what you’re getting into. But that conclusion says nothing about whether McCandless really did find what he was looking for in the wilderness, or, if he had managed to survive, he might have regretted going on the journey. Strayed’s narrative is less opaque. She did find what she was looking for. Yet even in her story there’s something a little illusory about the redemptive power of wilderness. It doesn’t seem automatic or guaranteed, as it might have if the film was more carelessly made than it was.

bus 142 by erikhalfacre

The bus in which Christopher McCandless died, known as “Bus 142,” is still on the Stampede Trail. Many visitors come here every season (though not all, obviously, because of McCandless).

Maybe the lesson to take from Into the Wild and Wild is this: wilderness journeys might be redemptive and transformative, but they can also be terribly destructive. Like almost everything else in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Perhaps the right quote isn’t Thoreau, but Yoda, from the movie The Empire Strikes Back. When Luke asks him what he will find in a dark cave he’s about to enter, Yoda’s reply is, “Only what you take with you.”

The photo of Bus 142 is by Wikimedia Commons user Erikhalfacre and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The other image is public domain. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.