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Monday, March 31, 2008

Into The Wild - Again!

I Want to Ride in the Bus Chris Died In
A Man Made Cold by the Universe
AKA: "I Want to Ride in the Bus Chris Died In"

by Sherry Simpson

We do talk about Christopher McCandless in Alaska. We talk about him a lot. We can't help ourselves. Mostly the discussion is in response to the book, and mostly it is not favorable because of the way McCandless stars as a romantic hero. Krakauer described McCandless as searching for something beyond his privileged but disappointing middle-class existence. "It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense," Krakauer wrote. "But the stereotype isn't a good fit. McCandless wasn't some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself -- more, in the end, than he could deliver."

Many Alaskans take a simpler view. They think the entire meaning of his death was this: he made some dumb-ass decisions, and he died. Others believe he secretly wanted to die, else why would he have made the puzzling choices he did? A few say he was mentally ill; one Anchorage columnist insists that McCandless was clearly schizophrenic. And still others say he died because he was arrogant and prideful, because he didn't honor the power of the land, because he didn't have the humility to observe and ask questions and think.

Nevertheless, because McCandless starved to death in the wilderness -- or what many people conceive of as wilderness -- by some strange transmogrification he has become a culture hero. Web sites preserve high school and college essays analyzing Into the Wild, which is popular on reading lists everywhere and frequently seen in the hands of people touring the state. The Milepost, the most detailed road guide in Alaska, now mentions the site: "If you've read Into the Wild and want to visit the memorial at the bus, locals advise it is a long hike in from the end of Stampede Road and you have to cross the Savage and Teklanika Rivers." A composer named Cindy Cox wrote a piece meant to convey musically the dying man's states of mind -- fear, joy, acceptance, etc. A young outdoorsman I know, Joseph Chambers, says that among his friends a new phrase has emerged: "pulling a McCandless." A person who pulls a McCandless may be trying to test himself or to find himself, Chambers explained, or he may be on a fool's mission, risking his life and causing pain to others while recklessly searching for something that may have been meaningless or stupid all along.

And then there are the pilgrims, the scores and scores of believers who, stooped beneath the weight of their packs and lives, walk that long Stampede Trail to see the place where Christopher McCandless died, and never take a step beyond.

Several visitors mentioned that Into the Wild had prompted their trips, but the book must have motivated nearly all of the pilgrimages, because why else would people attach any significance to the bus?

It was not hard to imagine that before long visitors would be able to buy T-shirts saying, "I Visited The Bus" or "I Survived Going Into the Wild." In fact, so many people seemed to have found their way out here that an espresso stand didn't seem out of the question.

Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero, a kind of privileged-yet-strangely-dissatisfied-with-his-existence hero.

For many Alaskans, the problem is not necessarily that Christopher McCandless attempted what he did. Most of us came here in search of something, didn't we? Haven't we made our own embarrassing mistakes? But of all the stories in Alaska -- stories about Raven and Koatlekanee and Oddarne Skaldebo and the two girls from Selawik -- this is the one that people buy in airports and read on the way to their Alaskan adventure. This is the one that makes people walk out to the bus, cry a little, and think they've learned something about the north. This is the one that fools people into thinking they understand something about Christopher McCandless and themselves.

We can't afford to take his story seriously because it doesn't say much a careful person doesn't already know about desire and survival. The lessons are so obvious as to be laughable: Look at a map. Take some food. Know where you are. Listen to people who are smarter than you. Be humble. Go on out there -- but it won't mean much unless you come back.

This is what bothers me -- that Christopher McCandless failed so harshly, so sadly, and yet so famously that his death has come to symbolize something admirable. His unwillingness to see Alaska for what it really is has somehow become the story so many people associate with this place, a story so hollow you can almost hear the wind blowing through it. His death was not a brilliant fuck-up. It was not even a terribly original fuck-up. It was just one of the more recent and more pointless fuck-ups.

Read the full essay and more...

"A Man Made Cold by the Universe" originally appeared in The Anchorage Press and is still availabile through the online journal Nidus: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Literature (Spring 2003), in The Alaskan Reader: Voices from the North (2005), and in Travelers' Tales Alaska: True Stories as "I Want to Ride in the Bus Chris Died In" (2003).

Simpson writes with both humor and humility, harnessing great powers of observation of the natural world. In this essay Simpson offers up the (less reverent) Alaskan view of Christopher McCandless, the wanderer who perished in an abandoned bus near Denali, and subject of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

Read this essay and more by Sherry Simpson in "The Accidental Explorer."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Into The Wild

(read the full article here)

Jon Krakauer's haunting account of the meteoric passage of Chris McCandless, the vagabond loner who cut all ties with family and society, plunged into a remote outback, and unwittingly slipped into his own death trap, was headed for the best-seller list. And if Sean Penn had had his way back in 1996, Into the Wild was also headed for the silver screen. Instead, an ill-timed dream that visited McCandless's mother just hours before Penn was to fly to the East Coast to close the deal brought an end to the project.

Not every reader of Krakauer's book finds its protagonist as sympathetic as Penn did. In Alaska, especially, the take could be summed up in the chauvinistic formula: One more clueless hippie from the lower 48 screws up in the wilderness and buys the farm. Why glorify him?

But Penn, who as a budding star in Hollywood had his own much publicized troubles, was quick to identify with the alienated youth.

In the film, McCandless is played by 22-year-old Emile Hirsch, known mainly as a teenage heartthrob in The Girl Next Door and as a pioneering skateboarder in Lords of Dogtown. By turns gallantly romantic and awkwardly shy, jubilant and full of rage, hungry for experience yet saddled with something like a death wish, Hirsch's McCandless is calculated to make the viewer care deeply about this mixed-up young man.

Many of McCandless's Alaska critics point out that if the kid had had a map, he probably wouldn't have died. The USGS quadrangle of the wilderness into which he ventured clearly indicates a gauging station with a cable across the Teklanika River, only a mile (two kilometers) downstream from the spot where McCandless, as he tried to hike out, was turned back by the swollen river. The map also locates three cabins in which he might have found emergency rations and supplies. As I read the manuscript of Into the Wild, I voiced the same stricture.

Jon, however, had a compelling rejoinder. McCandless's deliberate choice not to take a map, like his choice to carry only a ten-pound (five-kilogram) bag of rice into the wilderness, was, Jon argued, the very kind of upping the ante that we admired in other adventurers. Many landmarks in the history of exploration have come about when bold innovators chose not to use all the means their predecessors had counted on. McCandless's deliberate self-limitation, in this view, was like Reinhold Messner climbing Everest without bottled oxygen, or Børge Ousland skiing across Antarctica without airdropped supplies or prelaid depots.

Stampede Trail

Take A Closer Look

Download Map Here

Visit The Bus

Into the Wild to visit the Bus?

Since the release of Sean Penn's movie "Into the Wild," there have been many more inquiries about the infamous bus on the Stampede Trail.

Please use caution if you are planning to travel to the the bus and dress appropriately. Some of the windows in the bus are broken and there is no way to use the bus to stay warm. Remember, you will be in a backcountry situation.

If you do not know what kind of gear you need or have this equipment to travel safely into the Bush, then you probably have no business trying to do so.

For example:

If you had decided to carry 10 pounds of food with you, a 10 pound bag of rice is probably the wrong choice.

The Alaska bush IS NOT the Cascades or Rockies.

Death is always a possibility.

There are no provisions or supplies at the bus.

View Larger Map

Monday, March 17, 2008

"Home" The Movie

NY Daily News
How the pluck of the Irish made NYC their new 'Home'
Monday, March 17th 2008, 4:00 AM Alan Cooke (here on the Brooklyn Bridge) takes the same journey his ancestors did. "Home." Monday night at 9, Ch. 13. Made over three years with very little money, the documentary "Home" examines New York like a cat. It prowls the perimeter, prowls the interior and checks all the angles before it decides that its initial impression was accurate and it's okay to settle down here for a nap. The nominal thread of the film, and the angle that doubtless got it played on WNET/Ch. 13 for St. Patrick's Day, is the emigration of narrator Alan Cooke from Ireland to New York. That journey has a very different tone in this film, obviously, than did the same journey made by some of Cooke's fellow Irish 140 years ago, when "famine ships" brought desperate people whose primary hope was that their children not starve. Cooke starts with much larger dreams. He and Dawn Scibilia, the film's director, see New York as a place of infinite possibility, a city where the whole human experience comes together to lay out a rich palette of cultures that incorporates everything from food to art. "Home" illustrates this point in two primary ways. First, it travels throughout the city and takes its picture from every conceivable angle - across shimmering water, looking into Times Square, crossing a dark, abandoned downtown street in the early morning. It makes New York look as fascinating as the most buoyant immigrant would always have dreamed. At the same time, Scibilia films New Yorkers talking about their town. Woody Allen is a little cryptic, Susan Sarandon is effusive, Pete Hamill talks about how Irish and African cultures came together in the Five Points around 1840 to create tap dancing. Fran Lebowitz is annoyed over gentrification, but hey, at least this answers the question of what happened to Fran Lebowitz. What differentiates this from another attractive filmed homage to New York are the reflections by Cooke and other speakers like Malachy McCourt about what people leave behind to come here. McCourt explains the parts of Ireland that remain with him, like the way of speaking. Cooke speaks about more concrete things, like missing his family and his friends and the land. In the end, that's the real rumination of this film: What exactly is "home"? Scibilla and Cooke never treat that as a black-and-white question. But to the extent it can be a place, they cast a strong vote for New York.

Monday, March 3, 2008


"If you're too busy to go fishin', then you're just too busy!"

Watch the Show Online

When Indie film director Michael de Avila hooked his passion for story-telling onto his love of bass-fishing, he spawned the award-winning television show, “Lunkerville” (a Rockville Pictures production). Each week, host and co-producer “Mike D” uses his compelling charisma to charm both guest and fish out of the water. While most fishing shows focus on fast-paced pro-tournament competition, Mike D prefers to cast his line at the everyday, recreational bass fisherman, his secret spots and special techniques. In his signature laid-back manner, Mike D reels in the camaraderie, the banter and the bass. And sometimes, his guests even bite back. There’s never a dull moment on “Lunkerville”, the show that catches real people with real fish stories week after week.

“Lunkerville” currently airs in the U.S. and Canada on The World Fishing Network and Water Channel. The shows can also be viewed online at