I was born on March 7, 1992. Almost six months to the day after I was born (September 6) a moose hunter found Christopher McCandless’s body in an abandoned Fairbanks City bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.
The 24-year-old guy from Virginia had been dead for more than two weeks. Our lives overlapped by a few months, his last few months. I was a newborn while he was alone in the wild.
Chris is someone we have all tried to understand. We’ve written books about him and made films about him. The most noted film, Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, is based on the outstanding book of the same name by Jon Krakauer.
The book is a feat of investigative reporting and deep empathy from an author whose books all show a fearsome determination to explore complicated truths about why people do the things they do. His other books include Into Thin Air and Under The Banner of Heaven.
We don’t know why Chris did what he did. I definitely don’t, but I think about him all the time. I read everything about him I can find. His story has had a profound impact on my life.
When I was in high school, my parents made me talk with our pastor once a week about my gay problem. We would sit in his clean-smelling office and read Bible verses and he would tell me in detail what the Lord thought about homosexuality, why it existed, and what I could do to change my thoughts and behavior. All remedies involved prayer.
I had a fight with my parents almost every night. I dreaded going home. I hated that house. I sat in my room, did homework, and went downstairs to dinner. After dinner I knew my father would come knock on my door with his Bible, sit down in my rocking chair and tell me it was time for our nightly devotion. We’d read together and talk about the verses.
Every day after school, I crossed 1-20 West to get home. And every single day I was tempted to simply turn the wheel. It would be so easy.
Just turn the wheel. Get on the highway. Head West. See how far I could get. Hitchhike the rest of the way to California. Never come back.
I planned it out many times. Some days I drove very slowly past the entrance ramp, debating. Many days I almost made the turn.
I know how alluring it is to leave. My life has changed, and I still fight that urge. When relationships get hard, I flee. I fantasize about the life Chris chose when he gave everything up. I wonder if he felt as disconnected and trapped in life as I do sometimes.
Chris, I hope you found that great American wild that Kerouac wrote about, a land that doesn’t exist anymore. I tell myself that death took you back to the prairie and let you explore this country anew. Or futher back, to the first temple explorers. A conquistador hunting for gold.
Go before me, my brother, and I will follow.