Why American Culture is Obsessed with “Into The Wild”

When I first heard about Chris McCandless, I thought, “Why would anyone celebrate the life of a moron?”

If you’re not familiar with Chris McCandless, he’s the subject of the 2007 movie “Into The Wild”.

As the story goes, after Chris graduated college, he went into the Alaskan wildness, determined to live off the land.

But by many accounts, Chris didn’t prepare at all. He just sort of winged it, which strikes me as both naive and arrogant. Naive because he didn’t understand the hardness of Nature outside the cityscape. Arrogant because he assumed he could do what few others had done without much preparation.

The story ends abruptly for Chris: He starved to death at the age of 24.

And it wasn’t a pleasant or a noble death. In fact, by Chris’ own account, he was really desperate towards the end:

Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?

And if that was all that happened, I wouldn’t be writing about Chris more than a decade later.

But then a book and then a movie was made about his life, and I was struck wondering why?

The real question isn’t why Chris did what he did. It’s why we care about what he did.

People die constantly. Why should Chris rise above the fray? Why should he become one of the mythic heroes of our lore?

It’d be easy to dismiss the cultural fascination with his story as a fad, and for while I did that.

But then I read a bit about Peter Thiel and the way he used movies to understand the psyche of our culture. And I started listening a bit more to Jordan Peterson and realized the stories we tell ourselves sometimes have great wisdom hidden beneath them.

More than a decade has passed, and yet Chris McCandless continues to emerge in the national consciousness as something like a mythic hero.

Why?

American Culture

I think it’s for a simple, albeit, wonderful reason:

When the new land mass of the Americas was discovered in the 15th century, it broke people’s conception of what was possible: People had grown up with an understanding of the world and the discovery literally broke that understanding.

It made people question what they knew about reality. It made them search for new answers, and rethink old ones.

And most importantly, because of the vast terrain of the Americas and the unrivaled gun power of Europe, many people were rewarded for taking risks.

People who went into the wildnerness sometimes failed, but sometimes they won big either in territory or resources.

This happened over and over again, as people expanded into new territories, made victories and consolidated resources. The Americas were large enough so that people had the feeling if they just tried, and with considerable effort, they could get a piece of the pie too.

That mindset has embedded itself into the American consciousness and persists to this day.

And it’s very strange.

It’s strange because no other culture has ever prized innovation and the willingness to explore uncharted territories the way America has. It’s become part of the ideals and the values by which we navigate and understand the world.

Most cultures punish you if you step outside the known boundaries. They reinforce the same traditions. And humans, being the social mimicking creatures that we are, dutifully follow those traditions.

No other nation has ever prized the single-mindedness of the American individual. I believe that’s why America is the cradle of innovation in the globe. From birth, people are trained to look for the paths others have not yet dared to walk, perhaps no longer in a geographic sense but a metaphorical one that applies across many domains.

And it’s for that reason, we admire people who we believe best represent that ethos.

Chris McCandles, for all of his shortcomings, comes close to that ideal. His failure isn’t important. In fact, it’s almost expected in American culture that you will fail many times before you succeed. That ethos is resurected again in Thomas Edison.

The road to success is long and arduous. And a lonely road. But there lies a great reward at the end for the people courageous enough to walk it.

What a strange philosophy. What a strange ethos, if only because it’s not self-evident it’s good to explore new paths.

You must remember, when people started on new paths, most times you were expected to die.

“Goodbye” is a variation of “God be with you” and travelers said it to each other in the old days when they were leaving a city, because the probability of death was high. You were probably going to die if you left the city. The world was that dangerous and uncertain back then.

We’ve kept that same phrase, but for the space explorations, now simply spoken as “Godspeed.”

In the East, you’re expected to keep up the family tradition. To do what your ancestors did before you. This is because again, people died when they didn’t follow tradition. We didn’t have a sufficient enough understanding of reality to navigate it without our ancestral heuristics. Tradition was like a series of game theory solutions to the problem of survival, even if we couldn’t always understand why they worked. They were passed down the generations and encoded as a set of behaviors, as a part of the culture.

America is an anamoly in that respect.

Other countries may do what America does better, but Americans tend to be the first movers — the first ones outside the known boundaries of what we think is possible.

“Into The Wild” is a celebration of that ethos.

I don’t think it was wise for Chris McCandless to go into the wilderness unprepared.

And I’m not going to end this essay with a lofty reflection of the individual. He made a mistake and we should be careful not to repeat it.

But I do think the movie is an oddly endearing attempt to capture the best of the American spirit. And perhaps it’s only because Chris died, because he took such large risks that we salute him as a hero today.

At least, Americans believe, he tread the path no one else did.