Monday, July 6, 2009

Into the Wild Berry Zinger

"Rather than Love, than Money, than Fame, give me Truth."
Henry David Thoreau

When I was in college, all of my best friends were in the hippie fraternity. By this, I mean that most of them majored in Forestry, Geology, Bird Things, etc. Being a theatre major, this was not exactly something that I could understand. I was more interested in human relationships, in emotion, conflict. They found exhilaration in trees, adventure, solitude. 

One of my best friends freshman year was like this. I remember the day before summer vacation began, going with him to the grocery store to help him pack up for one of his epic adventures. 

"I'll need pasta," he said. "Lots and lots of pasta." 

"What else?" I asked him

"I don't know... kit kat bars?" 

I found out later that he had decided to bike - alone - from our little college in Tennessee to his home in Florida. That's right - FLORIDA.

"Do you have a place to stay during the nights?" I asked him.

"No. I'll just sleep wherever," was his reply. He ended up sleeping in people's yards after it got dark, and then leaving early in the morning before the sun came up so that they wouldn't know.  I think he may have been chased off of a few lawns. But basically, he survived on kit kat bars and packages of Ramen noodles. Later he looked back on that trip and told me that it was the most difficult (and borderline insane) thing that he had ever done. And that was with food, a map, a planned route, and a bike.

That is more preparation than Christopher McCandless had when he decided to go, as the title suggests, Into the Wild. No map, no compass, no money - just a bag of rice, a book about plants, a backpack full of literature, a few supplies, and a new name - Alexander Supertramp. His goal was "to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage." Chris ended up starving to death inside of an abandoned bus - a lucky find in the middle of the wilderness that he dubbed "the magic bus." 

Now, if you read this book, or have read it already, you will probably fall into one of two categories.

  • Category one: The people who think that Chris was a stupid, arrogant kid who deserved his fate (this category includes most of my "outdoorsy" friends who have read it).

  • Category two: The people who respect and admire Chris for being committed enough to his dreams to try to accomplish them.

I find myself in the second category. While most of my friends were unable to even get through the book, I found myself TEARING through it, eating it up,
 page by page. I finished it in a few hours. I found it completely gripping - partially because of the adventure, but mostly because of Christopher McCandless' heart. Yeah, I'm no Jeremiah Johnson, but I can understand passion, drive, trying to find out who you really are and what this crazy world is all about - especially after finishing college. I can also understand believing that a backpack full of books is more important than a backpack full of food. After graduation, you get this feeling in your gut that tells you, "Do something crazy, do something adventurous. This is the last time for you to find yourself before you officially join the world of adulthood." And joining that world, especially after four years of idealism and the search for truth, is a scary scary idea - because once you go down that road, that "adulthood" road, there's no coming back. It looks like a world full of pretense, hypocrisy, and lies. And after spending four years in the pursuit of truth, who would want to go down that road? 

I considered joining a hippie puppet troupe and living in a teepee for a summer after graduation (ME, who found girl scout camp too challenging). Unlike McCandless, I was a little too cautious (some might argue a little too scared) for that. And that is precisely why I loved this book, why I found myself crying at the end of it, why I feel as if Chris is a kindred spirit - because he had the bravery to actually DO that thing that so many people dream about but never do because of practicality, the need for a paycheck, or fear of the unknown. Now, I do wish that he had prepared a little more so that this amazing spirit of his would still be among us, but I love him for doing what scared him, for doing exactly what he knew was right for him, in spite of the criticism he received from others. I think he would have preferred to leave this world the way he did, in the wild, rather than to leave it as an 88 year old in a nursing home. His journey makes my puppet troupe teepee dream seem not so crazy.  

There's just something about these post-college years that make you want to see the world, test yourself, test all of the knowledge that you have acquired and see if it's really possible to survive out there, away from your safe cocoon - to see, essentially, if you can truly grow your wings. I think it's something we all feel.

"The sea's only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don't know much about the sea, but I do know that that's the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head..."
- Primo Levi (from Bear Meat)

Footage of the bus where McCandless spent his last days

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