Those who have read Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild or watched the 2007 Sean Penn’s movie by the same name, should be able to recollect Christopher McCandless. His story is well known. McCandless was a 24-year-old American hiker, who abandoned his safe suburban upbringing, donated $24,000 in savings to charity and ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment, hoping to live simply for a time in solitude. Almost four months later, a group of moose hunters discovered McCandless's starved remains inside an abandoned bus which he had used as shelter during the last few days of his life. Today, the Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142, also known as the “Magic Bus”, located just outside the northern boundary of Denali National Park, in Alaska, is a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of tourists who follow in the idealist's trail.
A photograph of Christopher McCandless recovered from his camera.
Christopher McCandless was born in California, and was raised in Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. His father was employed as an antenna specialist for NASA, while his mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft and later assisted her husband with his successful home-based consulting company. Shortly after graduation, McCandless gave the remaining money from his education fund to charity and quietly left home to begin his adventures. In April 1992, McCandless hiked some 20 miles down the Stampede Trail, a muddy hiking trail located in the Denali Borough, in Alaska, and after crossing two rivers, came upon an old bus left there in the 60s by a construction company. He started using the bus as a hunting shelter and began to live off the land. His supplies were minimal - 4.5 kilograms of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of ammunition, some books and some camping equipment. He poached porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. At one point, McCandless tried to return but found himself trapped on the wrong side of the Teklanika river that was in full spate from summer meltwater. Making a crossing was out of the question.
McCandless lived in the bus for a total of 113 days. When he was found, he was starved to death, weighing just 30 kilos. Most believe he died of starvation. Some insist he died from eating toxic plants he misrecognized. What everyone agrees is McCandless’ death was preventable. He was woefully ill-equipped and inexperienced to handle everything nature threw at him, and many consider his actions stupid and his death tragic, amounting to suicide. McCandless’ story has raised many question and caused different debates on safety in the wild and what not to do.
Christopher McCandless Plaque on the bus. Photo credit
After the 2007 movie Into the Wild, the “Magic Bus” – as McCandless called it in his diary – became a major attraction drawing hundreds of tourists each year. The strange attraction and fascination with McCandless has become a cause of concern for park authorities, as the path leading to the bus is fraught with peril. Last year a dozen pilgrims needed to be rescued by park authorities and state troopers, and a few years ago, a Swiss tourist drowned in the river. Even worse, some attempt to follow his footsteps camping next to the bus and depriving themselves of food. A quick Internet search shows that many enthusiast consider taking the trip seriously, just like McCandless did. Web forums and blogs offer advice how to cross the the Teklanika River, many of which are dangerous.
Many believe the bus should be removed because it is “beacon of stupidity”, although it could be gone before the park authorities act. For the last 20 years the bus has been slowly ripped to its skeletons by tourist taking away a piece of the bus as token. Someone took the steering wheel a few years ago, then the dashboard. Its windows are all gone, and the bus is showing signs it may rust into oblivion.
“I don’t think, with the current condition of the bus, and the amount of people who go there and take a piece of it with them, it will last very long,” said Kris Fister, spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.
A tourist reenacting McCandless’ famous pose. Photo credit
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