The Wild Truth
by Carine McCandless
…As I made my way up the short trail, Jon allowed me the time and space I needed to digest what was waiting just beyond the overgrown vegetation. As I entered a clearing, I saw it, just to my right. Fairbanks City Transit System bus 142 was parked beside a thicket of aspen and scraggly clumps of fireweed with blushing blooms. The green and white paint was peeling from over forty years of battling the elements. Rust devoured the metal as it crept across each point where yellow primer was exposed. I slowly turned, full circle, taking deep breaths to soak in the pain and the peace. I could see what had attracted Chris to this serene and beautiful place, and I remembered how he could be alone without being lonely. But sadness returned as I recalled his journal entries that revealed he was lonely and scared toward the end. In front of the bus sat the chair in which Chris took his now infamous self-portrait—the sole image Jon used in Into the Wild—during a happier time here, one leg comfortably propped up on the other, his wide smile lighting up an expression of absolute content. I cemented the image in my mind as the memory I would take from this place.
The whining of mosquitoes at my ears motivated me to move on, and I asked Jon to show me the location of the cave where Chris tried in vain to protect the moose meat from hordes of flies and their maggot offspring. The bus sat about ten yards from a small cliff overlooking the Sushana River. We scrambled over the precipice toward the water on a narrow and scarcely used trail. Despite the throng of insects that followed, it was a beautiful setting, with the soft sounds of water running over and between rocks, meandering through forest as far as the eye could see. I imagined Chris pausing to take in the secluded view as he hauled his bath and drinking water up and over the edge. A small opening appeared in the bedrock not far from the top, where Chris had removed enough of the compacted dirt for his improvised smoking pit. The weight of his despair bore down on me as I stood in the same footing where he would have agonized over the failure of his attempt.
Back atop the overhang, I stared across the clearing and steeled myself to examine the interior of the bus. As I entered, I looked directly to the mattress where Chris took his last breaths. Tears blurred my peripheral vision as I walked slowly to the back. As I sat on the makeshift bed and cleared my eyes, I tried to imagine Chris here: stoking the fire in the oil-drum stove, having his meals, reading his books, and writing in his journal. Some of the windows were broken, some were missing, allowing the cool damp air and mosquitoes inside. The floor was strewn with leaves and dirt. I felt the urge to clean it up. But not the energy.
As my gaze traveled upward, I saw graffiti covering the worn sheetmetal walls, much of it scrawled by pilgrims inspired by Jon’s book to visit my brother’s final resting place. Many had come from distant points around the globe. While the messages had their differences— some were quite heartrending, while others appeared to have been written with elation—they all led me to believe that what draws individuals to this place is not so much about connecting with something they’ve found in Chris but rather to reconnect with something they’ve lost in themselves.
I heard Jon moving around outside the bus and it struck me that I owed him a debt that I could never repay. The fact remains that if Jon had not written such an intriguing book, my family and I would have been able to just grieve in silence. However, the world would have lost the inspirational story of my brother. And I would be stuck only with every day’s sadness, without the constant influx of gracious strangers and their stories to offset that grief.