Into the Wild


Column by Retta Fontana.

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This recent Netflix release was an engaging, thought-provoking journey of reckless youth against a backdrop of breathtaking beauty. The cinematography is also excellent. Even a Western scene with run-down motor homes selling flea market junk, complete with trash lying around has such blindingly bright sunlight that the contrast is visually intriguing. The mountains in Alaska are stunning! The pristine waters, the, trees, deserts, and wildlife are all striking, inspiring images which call to one’s soul.

This story is based on a biographical account of Chris McCandless’ young life. Even though he was accepted at Harvard for grad school, after finishing his undergrad at Emory, he gave away his life savings to charity, burned his driver’s license, SS card and every dollar he had left. He began calling himself Alexander Supertramp and struck out on his own for adventure.

The Supertramp kept a journal and explains his actions thus: "It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations--absolute freedom."

When his car broke down, he abandoned it and became a “leather tramp,” who traveled on foot (as opposed to a “rubber tramp”with wheels.) He met a pretty girl and he got beaten up a few times. He stowed away on trains and hitched lots of rides. He worked jobs for money when he needed it. He visited many places and eventually decided to kayak down the Colorado River.

When he asked a guide for information about kayaking, he was told that it had dangerous rapids, that he would need a permit and that there was a waiting list. He was astounded and amused that anyone would need a permit to kayak down a river. With a wry smile he asked how long the waiting list was. He was told 2003 was the next available. The year was 1991. “I need a permit to travel down a river and I have to wait twelve years to do it?!” He didn’t wait. He bought a kayak and launched it unlawfully! Without government, who would protect us from such fiends?

He met good, interesting people in some very unexpected places, which is something I have also found true. The Grand Canyon was no exception. He rode that kayak over white water, eluding police, and made it all the way to Mexico. You can imagine the trouble he had trying to get back through customs into the U.S. on foot with no papers--something that would land him in a cage today. One must prove in triplicate who they are, what they are carrying, and their lack of use of drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, an “illegal” who can run, jump or swim here can have free food, housing, schooling and healthcare (proving once again that government is simply a cruel joke at best).

The Young Supertramp took reckless chances with his life, as the young are wont to do."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 the blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head."

I understand the need to feel free and to experience life at your own behest. I know this is particularly strong in young men and it is to be encouraged. However, well into the film, as a mother, I felt angry that a young man would so thoroughly abandon his family for so long without even letting them know that he was alive. The story is not chronological, but as it progressed, flashbacks revealed a lot of buried pain that he and his sister carried from a very dysfunctional, violent home. This eventually evaporated the anger I had felt at the beginning.

At times his youth is revealed in his journal entries: “You should make a radical change in your lifestyle! I mean the core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences. You’re wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from human relationships. God’s placed it all around us. It’s in everything. It’s in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at those things.” (And while running with wild mustangs): “I've decided I'm going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty is just too good to pass up . . . .”

The Supertramp found real happiness in the outdoors, a feeling to which I can relate. He encountered many people along the way who helped him. Each one of them had a story and he helped some of them. He learned from them and from his mistakes, as one is bound to do living in the wild. The story was very realistic.

His ultimate destination was Alaska.There he found an abandoned bus that he called home. He became a part of the landscape. He studied classic literature and poetry and did a lot of soul searching. He encountered harsh realities. The quietness of his mind and the clarity and bliss in his eyes were very believable. He hunted and read and in the quiet finally decided that, “happiness is only real when shared.” He grew up and once again became Chris McCandless.

Reading aloud Tolstoy’s short stories: “I have lived through much and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor--such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children perhaps. What more can the heart of a man desire?”

This sounds an awful lot like the writings of Henry David Thoreau and his love of nature and introspection. I won’t spoil the end of the movie for the reader, but it is as moving as the story itself. I hope one day it again becomes the norm for young people to go out into the wilderness and find out what is important, to find that quiet place inside that makes for a rich life. I know that the lust to really live exists in the hearts of young people--I know it because it’s still in me. I’ll meet you there!

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Retta Fontana's picture
Columns on STR: 59

Retta Fontana lives in the Great Smoky Mountains. Children are her favorite people. She loves to connect with readers - please writer to her here:


KenK's picture

One of my favorite films too.

Alex R. Knight III's picture

I've read the book.  Fascinating story.

Brian Mast's picture

I had never read the book or saw the movie, so I Startpaged the topic and quickly learned about the reason for Chris's demise. I immediately lost interest because as luck would have it; I had just a few days earlier discovered a low cost way to travel and to experience different lifestyles.
Workaway joins home and small business owners with people who want to travel within the U.S. or worldwide. The traveler works up to 25 hours per week for a place to live and meals, which allows the traveler to learn new skills and plenty of time to go sightseeing or something. I myself want to learn about raising hair sheep and beef cows, building an in-the-ground greenhouse, growing and marketing produce to local high end restaurants, and a great many other things so that later I lease pasture land and become self-employed profitably.
I believe that being a volunteer or a host at Workaway is a much better plan than traveling to Alaska alone and living in a bus. Perhaps some of you anarchist businessmen living in New Hampshire, Mexico, or elsewhere can use this sort of help.