This article was originally published on JustStarz
It didn't take long for Jon Krakauer's 1996 book, Into The Wild, to find an audience. The story, later made into a movie of the same name, followed the life of Chris McCandless and his journey to break away from civilization and just live a life on his own. The plot was simple, as were McCandless's goals, which was probably part of the reason his story and death struck such a nerve with people. And although the details of McCandless's life are now the stuff of some speculation, a recent occurence has shed new light on what really happened inside bus 142.
Chris McCandless spent much of his life after college traveling the roads. However, he eventually made it his goal to make it alone in the Alaskan wilderness. After hitchhiking up to Alaska, Chris went into the woods with little in the way of supplies. He instead planned on hunting and living off the land. However, months later local hunters found his body in an abandoned bus. The details of his death are hard to know for certain since he was alone while in the woods.
But Alaska is known for its harsh and unforgiving weather and terrain, which probably contributed to his death in one way or another.
Chris McCandless's body was found in Denali National Park in September of 1992. Two men were out in the woods on a hunting trip when they arrived at the bus Chris was sheltering in and found a note taped to the door. However, they quickly learned that Chris wasn't out collecting berries when they arrived and instead had passed away inside the bus some 19 days before they got there.
Luckily, Chris had kept a journal throughout his travels and it details some of what he went through while living in the wilderness. Among the things it mentions, is the fact that he'd donated around $24,000 to charity before venturing out on his own.
Throughout his journey and throughout the book, Chris McCandless meets and befriends a lot of people. It speaks to just what kind of person Chris himself was when he was traveling the roads. During the last leg of his journey from South Dakota to Alaska, Chris was picked up by a man named Jim Gallien. Chris told the man that his name was Alex, a nod to the writer who inspired his pseudonym Alexander Supertramp.
When Jim learned that Chris was planning on staying in the wilderness he immediately recognized that Chris's lack of supplies was a bad idea. He tried to stop and buy Chris some supplies at a local store but was turned down, only managing to get him to take a pair of rubber boots.
Although Jim Gallien was worried when he met Chris, he probably had no idea just how right he was. Jim dropped Chris off on Stampede Trail in Denali National Park and would be the last person to see him alive. However, before he left Chris asked to take this photo of Jim. His original plan was to reach the Bering Sea in a thru-hike, but he ended up leaving his watch and map in Jim's truck.
In total, the planned hike would've been about 20 miles, but shortly into his trip, Chris came across a bus that'd been abandoned by construction workers in the 1960s. Having not brought a tent with him, the bus was too good of a shelter not to use.
What must've been shortly after his arrival at the bus, Chris McCandless penned a note documenting his journey and intentions. In the note, he mentioned how he'd set out in search of freedom and a way to get away from civilization. He said that it'd taken him 10 days to hitchhike to Alaska and he tragically eluded to his journey into the wilderness as his last. "His home is the road", Chris wrote.
And after two years of life alone without a phone, a pen, or cigarettes, he wandered into the woods to get "Lost in the wild".
Much of what Jon Krauer wrote about Chris McCandless's time at the bus was gleaned from his journal. Chris mentioned that he'd brought around 10 pounds of rice and a rifle with him into the woods. This isn't much to survive off of in Alaska, but he'd already been surviving on the road for around two years at this point. Sadly, things didn't really go as planned for him.
Chris had caught some small game, but a moose he'd shot, which would've been enough to sustain him for weeks quickly became infested with maggots before he could properly clean and preserve it.
Chris McCandless's journal entries grew more and more desperate sounding as time went back. It was clear that he was not catching enough food to sustain himself and the small stream he'd passed on his way to the bus was now a torrent because of the snow melt. His journal entries mentioned how he'd regretted forgetting his map, but he probably wasn't aware of just how large a mistake this actually was.
if he'd had the map, it's possible he might have noticed that there was a cache of supplies a mile away from his location. There were also cabins upstream that had been ransacked during the winter, though authorities determined that it wasn't Chris and that he'd never gone that far upriver.
Although he was determined to see his trip through, at some point Chris McCandless wrote in his journal that he knew he had no choice but to try and make it back to civilization. On July 3, Chris packed everything he had and started to make his way back in the direction he came. However, when he reached the small stream, he found a large, roaring river in its place.
Because of the snow melt, the river had grown to around 75 feet in width. Instead of trying to brave the freezing waters and almost certainly get washed away, he headed back to the bus.
As time went by, Chris McCandless grew weaker and weaker. He simply wasn't eating enough to sustain himself. The last thing he wrote that was readable was written on day 107 and it said, "beautiful blueberries". During his last six days, Chris merely wrote in slashes, though he did write something else that many believe was one of his last notes. He wrote, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”.
Whenever the two hunters stumbled upon his note and went into the bus, they originally mistook his body for a bag of food because he'd lost so much weight.
It might be easy to just assume Chris McCandless simply starved to death because he wasn't eating enough, but author Jon Krakauer believed there was another reason. He has said that he thinks Chris ate Hedysarum alpinum seeds. The seeds contain a toxin that can cause paralysis and weakness, which a 2015 analysis of seeds found at the bus confirmed. Because of this, many others have come to suspect that Chris's weakened state was at least partially due to eating these seeds.
Chris even penned a note in his journal blaming the seeds for his weakness, although up until that point it wasn't widely known that they contain a neurotoxin because they are usually fine for healthy adults to eat.
While many chalk Chris McCandless's death up to his consumption Hedysarum alpinum seeds, just as many disagree with this theory. Theories for his death range the entire gamut, but some of the more popular theories include that the wild potato seeds themselves aren't toxic, but instead started to get moldy. Another theory that has come to be embraced by the author is that the bus itself contained mold, which is what weakened Chris.
However, it's unlikely we'll ever know for certain what exactly caused Chris's death as nobody was actually with him during his time in the Alaskan wilderness.
While Chris McCandless's was staying inside the bus, he took many photos. The photos documented the small game he caught and sometimes just included himself holding a sign. However, there is one trend that is a bit disturbing. As the photos continue, it's obvious that Chris was losing weight and becoming weaker for it. By the time he took his last photo, he was a gaunt version of his former self.
Despite all of this, he was always pictured with a smile on his face. This makes it possible that he didn't really understand just how dangerous his situation was or maybe he simply wanted to put on a brave face.
For whatever reason, people are fascinated by cautionary tales of resilience and man's struggle against both nature and modernity. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild, which combined all of these aspects, became such a huge success. What was more surprising was the interest it garnered in Chris McCandless and his life. To many, he was a modern-day Henry David Thoreau. (McCandless was even found with a copy of Thoreau's classic, Walden).
It made people wonder why a boy from a well-off family would give up everything to wander the country and live in the wilderness. His story became so popular that it was adapted into a movie in 2007.
After the book was released, Chris McCandless's story exploded. This led many to try and recreated the journey themselves. So many in fact, that locals began to call those wandering off in search of the bus, pilgrims. However, Denali National Park is immense and the same dangers that Chris had to face are still very much present there 30 years after his death. It also raised a lot of concern among locals and park rangers.
Despite these dangers, and Into The Wild being a cautionary tale, people from all over the world still attempt the journey. Many people even left their own notes scribbled on the inside of the bus.
There are many different reasons people try to recreate Chris McCandless's journey, but most of them have to do with people wanting to find some sense of "freedom". A journalist named Diana Saverin has said that one of the people she met on Stampede Trail told her he was just searching for a change. It's likely that most people who take the trip expect to have some kind of epiphany.
It's also likely, as Saverin believes, that many just see Chris as someone who got sick and tired of being put into a box by modernity and decided to do something about it.
It was only a matter of time before someone again lost their life on Stampede Trail and that came when Swiss hiker Claire Achermann died in 2010. She and a friend named Etienne Gros set off towards the bus in August. But when they reached the same river that Chris had returned to and thought too wild to cross, Achermnann tried to ford it. She made it about halfway before she was swept away.
Gros later told authorities that the two weren't intending to necessarily reach the bus. A true tragedy. But did it happen again?
While nobody knows for certain how many people have actually reached the bus, (bus 142 as it's called), there have been some to do so. In 2012, a man named Eddie Habeck said that he was in the process of hiking around Alaska and just so happened to notice that he was near the site one day. The river was low when Habeck got there, so he crossed and made a safe return.
After his 20-mile trek to the bus, a local on a four-wheeler pulled up to the bus and offered him a beer. The two even still talk, according to an interview conducted by CNN. Habeck wasn't able to make it all the way to the bus on his second attempt two years later.
According to Denali National Park, they have to conduct rescues every year on the trail. These have involved park rangers, police, and firefighters. In 2013, three German hikers had to be rescued after the river rose on their way back from the bus. Three other hikers just happened to catch the attention of a military helicopter months later, which evacuated them to safety. One of the last rescues on Stampede Trail occurred in 2020 when five Italian hikers were picked up by helicopter.
They'd made it to the bus, but couldn't make it all the way back. One of the hikers suffered from frostbite, but the rest were physically fine.
The most recent death on Stampede Trail came in 2019. Veramika Maikamava and her husband tried to ford the same river that had stopped Chris McCandless from returning, but Veramika was washed away. Her husband found her body downriver. Tragically, the two had just been married when the accident occurred. The local fire chief has said that the river had stopped his previous attempts to cross and that he'd seen hikers being washed away on the river before.
Families from some of the victims who've died on the trail had lobbied the local town to build a bridge across the river, but the mayor and some officials argued that a bridge would only encourage people to make the trip and provide a false sense of security.
Bus 142 was removed from Stampede Trail in June 2020. This was after multiple people had died and many others had to be rescued on the trail. The bus now sits in the Alaska Museum. The Alaska National Guard used a chinook helicopter to transport the bus out of the woods. The local mayor had signed a resolution that asked for the bus to be hauled off months earlier but said he was still sad to see it go in an interview with the New York Times.
Construction workers hauled the bus into the woods and used it as shelter in 1960 while building a nearby road. They abandoned it a year later, where it sat, only greeted by the occasional hunter or local until Chris McCandless's arrival. But do people still attempt the risky trek now that the bus is gone?
There haven't been any high-profile rescues on Stampede Trail since the bus was removed. However, there are bound to be some sooner or later due to the site's popularity. Locals have also shared their thoughts on the rescues, saying that they weren't very thrilled to think that their tax dollars were going towards rescuing people who ventured out without being prepared. Of course, the idea of living off the grid is what attracts many to live in Alaska in the first place.
Whenever the bus was moved, an official with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources named Corri A. Feige said that they understood people's fascination with the site. However, they should enjoy the wilderness safely, he said, adding that the bus was costing some people their lives. But that's not all the is to Chris McCandless' tragic story.
In Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild, he mentions Chris McCandless's father as being "overbearing" however, it's not ever fully explained as to how. That question was answered when Chris's sister released a book of her own years later detailing how her father was an alcoholic and would take out his anger on their mother. Most importantly, she revealed how her father secretly had another family. The revelations have led some to speculate that was at least part of the reason Chris has such a negative view of modern society.
Whatever the truth, it's clear that although the family was wealthy and everything appeared normal on the outside, that was not actually the case.
Chris McCandless and his siblings, it turned out, were the other family. His father was already married when he met Chris's mother while both of them were working at Hughes Aircraft. According to Chris's sister, they both figured this out pretty early on in their childhood. Their father had six children with his other wife but he eventually divorced her and married Chris's mother.
In the book, Chris's sister says that there were times when her parents could be caring but there were also times when they could be harsh towards their children.
Although Chris's sister has said that she was relieved that she got to meet her brothers and sisters from her father's first marriage, Chris apparently never got over the entire thing. She's speculated that this is what fueled him in his journey to escape into the wilderness. The family secret also interfered with the making of the movie, which was directed by Sean Penn. He set out to get the family's permission to tell the special tale.
But waiting to make the movie until he had permission from the entire family to tell the story set production back by about 10 years.
Chris McCandless's parents weren't very thrilled when their daughter, Carine, wrote her tell-all book. They claimed some of the things she'd said in it weren't true and that she was just trying to make a name for herself. However, Carine had told all of this to Jon Krakauer when he originally interviewed her for Into The Wild. She'd even asked him to not publish it in the book.
Carine has said that she simply wasn't ready to share with the world a bombshell as large as her father having a secret family. Her parents have also cast doubt on some of the things Carine wrote about Chris in her book.
Carine's parents weren't the only people that were upset with her writing about her life experiences. Other members of the family were also reportedly upset. However, she has said that she didn't intend for anything to come across as disrespectful, and instead wanted people to know the full story. Luckily, the upset family members weren't the majority and she received support from her half-siblings after she wrote the book.
Jon Krakauer wrote in the forward for the book, that Carine's was a courageous story. She also details the beatings she and her brother would endure, which she said her father seemed to enjoy.
Whenever Carine finished the book, she sent a copy to her parents, hoping they would respond to give some kind of feedback and to give them a heads up if journalists called asking questions. However, her email was met with silence and the relationship is still frayed. She has said that before she wrote the book, there were times when either she or her half-siblings would try to ask questions about their situation, but her parents just brushed the conversations to the side.
Carine has also said that one of the reasons she chose to ask Jon Krakauer not to include the family secret in his book was in the hopes that her parents would change.
Possibly one of the strongest links to their troubled childhood and Chris McCandless's journey is that, according to Carine's book, he told her he'd been planning on leaving for a while during his graduation ceremony. During the graduation ceremony, in 1990, the two also talked about their weird childhood. Despite all of this, Carine has said that her parent's still do not see a need to talk about what happened when they were younger.
Carine's father often cites religion as giving him a clean slate and her mother says that the past is basically just the past. However, Carine has said that having to keep a situation like that unresolved and secret for so long was not fair to her and her siblings.
According to his sister, Chris McCandless's taste for adventure didn't begin when he graduated from Emory University. Instead, she has said that he was a curious kid, who'd often push himself to his limits. Chris was also an avid reader, which she suspects fueled his desire to have his own adventures. Still, Chris's appetite for danger was driven mostly by his desire to separate himself from his dysfunctional family, according to Carine.
Chris once wrote a letter to his sister, which said that he wanted to "divorce them as parents". Many who've read her book also say that it provided them with what was so weirdly missing from Into The Wild — Chris's motivation for leaving everything behind.
Although her parents claimed Carine was seeking attention by writing her book, she's said that was not her reason at all. Instead, Carine said that she hopes her book can be of some help to others who have had a rough upbringing. She also wanted people to finally know the truth about her brother and why he ultimately chose to give up a life of comfort after college.
Either way, it certainly fills in blanks that were so confusingly absent in Into The Wild and helped shed light on Chris and his journey.
Chris McCandless might be the most famous person to go missing and pass away in a national park, but he was far from the only one. For nearly as long as there have been national parks, there have been missing persons. One of the weirdest and most recent disappearances occurred at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming in 2021. A 27-year-old man went missing while out on a trail. This normally wouldn't be too strange.
However, the trail was reportedly his favorite and he'd been spotted walking in without a backpack, meaning he probably wasn't planning on staying there very long. Despite a search that lasted for two weeks, he was never found.
In 2017, Jacob Gray rode his bike into Olympic National Park during a storm. Park rangers thought nothing of it when they found his bike on the side of the road one day but decided to check back the next day to see if it was still there just in case. Whenever they came back the bike was still where they left it and they quickly began trying to locate whoever owned it.
Jacob's father and some friends drove up to the area and immediately began searching. He would go on to sell his house to fund the search. Unfortunately, it didn't turn up any results. Months later researchers found Jacob's body further up the mountain, most likely having succumbed to hyperthermia.
Prabhdeep Srawn was studying in Australia when he decided he wanted to see everything the country had to offer by taking a 1,700-mile road trip. So, he rented a van and took off from the Gold Coast. However, when the rental van wasn't returned the company called authorities. Police eventually found the van parked in Kosciuszko National Park. However, Srawn was nowhere to be found a two-week search didn't turn anything up.
Investigators were able to track his last cell phone signal to a dangerous part of the park called Western Fall Wilderness. But a body has still not been found.
David Gonzales's family was staying at a campsite in California's San Bernardino National Forest when he went to the car to grab a snack and never made it back. The 9-year-old's mother watched him walk to the parking lot, but after looking away just briefly, she turned and he was gone. Police searched for clues: signs of a struggle or abduction since his mother reported seeing a truck speed away around the same time he went missing, but nothing ever turned up.
After a little more than a week, the search ended and it wouldn't be until hikers stumbled upon his body a year later and a mile from the campsite that his parents finally got closure. At first, authorities thought the boy was attacked by a mountain lion, but there was no blood found in the parking lot.
Vermont's Green National Forest is no stranger to disappearances. There was a string of unusual disappearances from 1945 to 1950 that earned an area of the forest the name Bennington Triangle. One such disappearance in 1946 involved a young woman named Paula Weldon. Weldon was attending a local college at the time and told her friends she was going for a walk one night but never returned. She was last seen hitchhiking to a trail and even walking into the woods.
A frantic school administration began their search the night of her disappearance and had students help in the search. Weldon's father eventually got the police involved but they were never able to locate her body.