The question surrounding Into the Wild is always “why?” Or perhaps “how?” Jon Krakauer poses the same questions in yet another mind-blowing work of nonfiction: Why did smart, relatively privileged, seemingly stable Chris McCandless walk off into the Alaskan bush with little preparation and even less in the way of supplies? When he turned up dead of starvation and Outside magazine assigned Krakauer to write an article about the boy and his journey, the replies, from many Alaskans, at least, seemed pretty uniform. If you walk into the wilderness expecting to live off the land, without preparing yourself for its realities, then you really have no respect for Mother Nature in the first place. Nobody says outright that a young man like that deserves what he gets, but …
Into the Wild is an incredible piece of work, patching together a young man’s life and what drove him, and setting it against a long history of young men drawn by the Siren of wilderness, of living without possessions, by one’s own wits. It is a story of throwing one’s body headlong against Nature, determined to feel alive in a way that a humdrum daily existence can never promise. As with Chris McCandless, there are inevitably heartfelt underlinings in books by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Jack London, and Leo Tolstoy. To live simply, to renounce wealth, to feel, to strip off all trappings, even the most basic physical comfort — only then is one truly alive. It is only when something goes horribly wrong, as it did with McCandless, that we ask why.
For all the exquisite details and honest, heartfelt descriptions in Krakauer’s book, I walked away with a different question. A practical one. I am a mother, and a mother of a (so far) smart, fiercely independent boy. How on earth do I raise him with enough common sense and a deep enough respect for nature that this will not happen to him? How does a parent instill a love of wilderness and the outdoors without inspiring a false romance of the freedom wilderness can promise?
For any mother, reading McCandless’s story is terrifying. He did not come from an abusive family, did not turn to drugs or friends of bad influence. He was talented and intelligent, rebellious and independent. He loved being on the road. He went hiking with his father from a young age. They seemed to do everything right, and perhaps if their son hadn’t eaten the wrong sorts of seeds (or roots, or seeds with mold on them — nobody is certain what caused the young man to become too weak to search for food or to walk far enough to get help) he would have come back after his long journey dipping from South Dakota to Nevada to Mexico and finally shooting up to Alaska. He would have come back, perhaps, to his family, after much soul-searching and self-finding, a bit more at peace with himself.
When I was in 7th grade, about 12 years old, we started getting don’t-be-an-idiot-in-the-wilderness lessons in science class. These were both more interesting and more useful than sex education. We learned about a family who’d tried hiking to a mountain with only a bottle of sunscreen, a magazine, and a single container of water. They were caught in a snowstorm and all died, except the dog. We learned of two boys who’d driven out into the desert and died of thirst after their car overheated and they lost sense of direction. We learned of hypothermia and frostbite and wild animals.
All these lessons ended with detailed videos of survival preparations: what to carry when hiking in the mountains, how to use a map and compass, how to catch condensed water in the desert, what to do if you’re at risk of hypothermia. The upshot was quite the opposite of giving me confidence enough to brave the backcountry on my own. It gave me a healthy mistrust of my own survival skills, even if I did know how to build a fire and find the right sorts of berries.
But not everyone’s built the same way. For some, the lessons would give a thrill. I knew plenty of people who trained in serious wilderness survival, and were good at it. I know plenty of people now who would be entranced by the idea, and are only saved from venturing out into the wild by the saving sense that tells them they’d have no idea how to survive. And I also know, as I’m sure everyone does, those for whom the romance of the risk is stronger than they can handle.
Every moment of reading Krakauer’s book I was feeling the pain of McCandless’s mother, what she still must be feeling. I look at my own son and wonder. I know the strong call of Thoreau and Muir, of the high ideals of those who want to cast off all civilization and truly feel alive. In raising a child with a love of wandering, and love for the outdoor life, how do you make sure they also have the common sense enough to know that teasing death is no way to live? I don’t know the answer. Maybe common sense isn’t it. Maybe all the critics have it right and it’s simply teaching a true respect for Nature, one that acknowledges the truth that she cares nothing for your individual survival — that it’s up to you to learn her ways, and to read her riddles. And maybe it’s teaching nothing more than respect for yourself, this soft animal flesh that is so very fragile.
And maybe, though I would hate to admit the possibility, it’s up to the mothers to simply let go, to let their children walk their own wild way, and hope they are still there to hold at the end of it.