I was sitting at my desk in Seattle, struggling to write a crappy magazine article that would enable me to make an overdue mortgage payment, when the phone rang. The call was from Mark Bryant, the editor of Outside. His voice was animated. Skipping the small talk, he said he’d just read an odd snippet in The New York Times titled “Dying in the Wild, a Hiker Recorded the Terror.” It had been published the previous day — September 13, 1992 — and Bryant couldn’t stop thinking about it. On September 6, according to the Times piece,
a young hiker, stranded by an injury, was found dead at a remote camp in the Alaskan interior. No one is yet certain who he was. But his diary and two notes found at the camp tell a wrenching story of his desperate and progressively futile efforts to survive.
The diary indicates that the man, believed to be an American in his late 20’s or early 30’s, might have been injured in a fall and that he was then stranded at the camp for more than three months. It tells how he tried to save himself by hunting game and eating wild plants while nonetheless getting weaker.
One of his two notes is a plea for help, addressed to anyone who might come upon the camp while the hiker searched the surrounding area for food. The second note bids the world goodbye.
An autopsy at the state coroner’s office in Fairbanks this week found that the man had died of starvation, probably in late July. The authorities discovered among the man’s possessions a name that they believe is his. But they have so far been unable to confirm his identity and, until they do, have declined to disclose the name.
Although the short article raised more questions than it answered, Bryant was captivated by its handful of poignant details. He asked if I’d be willing to investigate the tragedy, write a meaty article about it for Outside, and complete it quickly.
Already behind schedule on other writing assignments, I was stressed-out and feeling overextended. Committing to yet another project — a challenging one, on an exceedingly tight deadline — would add considerably to my misery. But the story about the Alaskan “hiker” resonated for me on a deeply personal level. I agreed to put my other projects on hold and look into it.
The deceased man turned out to be 24-year-old Christopher McCandless, who’d grown up in a Washington D.C. suburb and graduated from Emory University with honors. It quickly became apparent that walking alone into the Alaska wilderness with minimal food and gear had been a very deliberate act — the culmination of a serious quest Chris had been planning for a long time. He wanted to test his inner resources in a meaningful way, without a safety net, in order to gain a better perspective on such weighty matters as authenticity and purpose and his place in the world.
I called Mark Bryant and told him I was all in: I would accept the assignment and do whatever necessary to write an 8,000-word piece by October 21.
Hoping to benefit from whatever insights about Chris’ personality that his family might be able to offer, on October 5, 1992, I mailed a letter to the McCandless’ attorney, in which I explained,
When I was 23 (I’m 38 at present) I, too, set off alone into the Alaskan wilderness for an extended sojourn that baffled and frightened many of my friends and family (I was seeking challenge, I suppose, and some sort of inner peace, and answers to Big Questions) so I identify with Chris to a great extent, and feel like I might know something about why he felt compelled to test himself in such a wild and unforgiving piece of country…. If any of the McCandless family would be willing to chat with me I’d be extremely grateful.
My letter led to an invitation from Chris’ parents, Walt and Billie McCandless, to visit them at their home in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. When I showed up on their doorstep a few days later, the intensity of their grief gutted me. Despite the weight of their loss, however, they graciously answered all of my many questions.
Walt and Billie hadn’t seen Chris since May 12, 1990, when they’d driven down to Atlanta to attend his graduation from Emory. Following the ceremony, Chris mentioned he would probably spend that summer traveling, and then enroll in law school. Five weeks later, he mailed his parents a copy of his final grades, accompanied by a note thanking them for some graduation gifts. “Not much else is happening, but it’s starting to get real hot and humid down here,” he wrote at the end of the missive. “Say Hi to everyone for me.” These were the last words anyone in the McCandless family would ever receive from him.
Walt and Billie were desperate to learn everything they could about Chris’ activities from the moment he performed his vanishing act until his emaciated remains were discovered in Alaska. Where had he traveled and whom had he met? What had he been thinking? What had he been feeling? Hoping that I might be able to find answers to such questions, they allowed me to examine all the documents and photos that had been recovered after his death. They also urged me to track down anyone he’d met whom I could locate from these materials, and to interview individuals who were important to Chris before his disappearance — especially his 21-year-old sister, Carine, with whom he had an uncommonly close bond.
When I phoned Carine, she was wary, but talked to me for twenty minutes or so. Before she hung up, she provided me with important information for the 8,400-word article I wrote about Chris, titled “Death of an Innocent,” that was published as the cover story in the January 1993 issue of Outside. Although it was well received, the article left me feeling unsatisfied.
In order to meet my deadline, I had to deliver it to the magazine before I’d had time to investigate some tantalizing leads. Important aspects of the mystery remained unresolved, including the cause of Chris’ death, and his reasons for so assiduously avoiding contact with his family after he departed Atlanta in the summer of 1990. I spent the next year conducting further research to fill in these blanks in order to write a book, which was published in January 1996 as Into the Wild.
From my short initial phone conversation with Carine, it had been obvious that she understood Chris better than anyone, perhaps even better than Chris had understood himself. So when I began the research for my book I phoned her again to ask if she would talk to me at greater length. Highly protective of her absent brother, she remained skeptical, but agreed to let me interview her for a couple of hours at her home near Virginia Beach.
Once we started to talk, it turned out there was a lot Carine wanted to tell me, and the allotted two hours stretched into the next day. After deciding she could trust me, she asked me to read some excruciatingly candid letters Chris had written to her — letters she had never shown to anyone, not even her husband or closest friends. As I began to read them I was filled with sadness and admiration for both Chris and Carine. The letters were harrowing. They left little doubt about what drove him to sever his ties with his family. When I eventually got on a plane to fly home to Seattle, I was reeling from what I had learned.
Before Carine shared the letters with me, she asked me not to write about any of the painful family secrets revealed by the letters. I promised that I would abide by her wishes.
It’s not uncommon for sources to ask journalists to keep certain pieces of information confidential or “off the record.” I’d agreed to such requests on several previous occasions. In this instance, my willingness to do so was bolstered by the fact that I shared Carine’s desire to avoid hurting Walt, Billie, and Carine’s six half-siblings from Walt’s first marriage. I thought, moreover, that I could convey what I’d learned from the letters obliquely, between the lines, without violating Carine’s trust. I was confident I could provide enough indirect clues for readers to understand, to no small degree, that Chris’ seemingly inexplicable behavior during the final years of his life was in fact explained by the volatile dynamics of the McCandless family while he was growing up.
Many readers did understand this, as it turned out. But many did not. A lot of people came away from reading Into the Wild without grasping why Chris did what he did. Lacking explicit facts, they concluded that he was self-absorbed, unforgivably cruel to Carine and his parents, mentally ill, and/or suicidal.
These mistaken assumptions troubled Carine. Two decades after her brother’s death, she decided it was time to tell the entire story of his relationship with their parents, plainly and directly, without concealing any of the heartbreaking particulars. Even the most toxic secrets, she’d come to believe, could be robbed of their malevolent power by dragging them from the shadows and exposing them to the light of day.
Thus did Carine decide to write The Wild Truth, which was published in November 2014. It was a courageous act that provides crucial insights about what motivated Chris McCandless to embark upon his fatal Alaskan adventure. I urge anyone who wants to gain a more complete understanding of this perplexing young man to read Carine’s book.
This post was adapted from the foreword I wrote to The Wild Truth