Mystic or Idiot
It's doubtful that more words have ever been written about someone who accomplished so little than Chris McCandless, a social misfit who dropped out of mainstream society, tramped across America for two years, and then hiked into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992, only to starve to death.
First came Jon Krakauer's 9,000-word article in the January 1993 issue of Outside magazine. Then other long magazine features; Krakauer's 1996 book, Into the Wild; three folk songs; an episode of the TV show Millennium; and even two plays produced locally that were inspired in large part by McCandless' story.
But all that is a relative trickle compared to the torrent generated by Sean Penn's film version of Into the Wild. Reviews are obviously ubiquitous, but even that can't match the Internet chatter. Just consider imdb.com's message board: At last look, there were 650 threads with thousands of posts, including 95 responding to the succinctly titled "An a-hole glorifies an a-hole."
Polarized opinions about McCandless are nothing new. One extreme paints him akin to a line in Boston songwriter Ellis Paul's 2002 gorgeous paean "The Ballad of Chris McCandless" as "a holy man walking a dirt road." The other is openly hostile to "the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media," as expressed in an early letter to Krakauer. Or the Time Out New York review of Penn's film that condescendingly dismisses McCandless' "woo-woo nature fetishization," or an Arizona Republic hack that blasts his "hippified musing and near-suicidal choices."
There's anger and sadness, but no contempt, for the McCandless-like character in Julie Marie Myatt's play My Wandering Boy, which premiered in May at South Coast Repertory. It begins with a family investigating the disappearance of their son, Emmet, who left home on a walking tour of America and never bothered coming back.
In an interview earlier this year, Myatt told the Weekly that she'd long wanted to explore the iconic American theme of characters traveling across the country to find themselves and was also intrigued by the idea of missing people who choose to stay missing. After reading Into the Wild, she became equally fascinated with how people view those missing wanderers.
"A lot of people get very angry with these kinds of characters," Myatt said of both real and fictional Emmets. "Why do they get to have no responsibility? Why do they get to have adventures and get to leave whenever they want?"
Myatt's play ultimately became less about the fate of the selfish but charismatic Emmet than what his absence forced those he left behind to grapple with.
The other play, Going to Greenland, was a 15,000-word gabfest I wrote after reading Into the Wild that Stages Theatre produced in 2001. As grim as McCandless' ultimate fate, there was no doubting his great passion for the open road, or the spiritual connection he sought in the untamed places beyond shopping malls and office cubicles. It was positively inspiring to read about a real kid who didn't just criticize society and act out through token acts of nonconformity (piercings, tattoos, going bi for a year). He really acted and stayed committed till his tragic end.
The longer I thought about McCandless, the more intriguing the idea became of how much one is willing to lose in order to find oneself. That metastasized into Greenland and its central character, Dante, a poetry-spewing, materialism-loathing eccentric who embarks on a quest to find the one place he feels is unsullied by human society: Greenland.
Though intentionally far-fetched, Greenland, like Myatt's play, left its protagonist's fate a mystery. Both featured intentionally elusive characters and ambiguous endings that served as empty canvases on which their fellow characters—as well as audience members—could project whatever they liked.
And that's exactly why so many are struck by McCandless' story, both positively and negatively. Praised or scorned, souls like his, those who break—psychotically, perhaps—from social norms to follow the insistent cadence of their particular rhythms, force the rest of us to reflect on our own choices and compromises.
If that reflection is welcome, it can lead to insights about ourselves and the people and world around us. If not, it usually prompts knee-jerk reactions that reveal more about our own limited perspectives and the concessions we've made to the "man" than honest appraisals of the person in question.
Whatever the case, while those who bristle at calling McCandless a hero or role model have a point (kids: bring a freaking map next time you explore Alaska!), they're flat wrong for claiming he's not an inspiration. Krakauer's book, Penn's film, Ellis Paul's gorgeous song and at least one play have put that discussion to rest.
And to the naysayers who dismiss him as an ignorant, naive, self-absorbed brat—he may have been. But one thing is clearly beyond debate: His balls were much, much bigger than any of ours.
Into the Wildis currently screening throughout Orange County.
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