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Alaska Removes “Into the Wild” Bus…

Blogger Thinks About Roadtrips, Intersection, and Connection

The abandoned bus where Chris McCandless breathed his last took flight last week. The state of Alaska got tired of tourists risking and losing their lives making pilgrimage to the old bus in the backcountry and hauled it out with a helicopter:

In a press release the National Guard said that a team of 12 soldiers cut holes in the bus’s ceiling and floor in order to rig chains to the vehicle’s frame and attach it to a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter, which then carried the bus away from its resting place near the outskirts of Denali National Park.

Also known as the “Magic Bus,” the abandoned 1940s-era Fairbanks transit bus first served as a shelter for hunters harvesting game in the forests off of the Stampede Trail. In 1992, adventurer Chris McCandless spent 114 days living in the bus, where he starved to death after becoming trapped by the fast-flowing Teklanika River. McCandless’s story became famous with the release of the 1996 bestseller Into the Wild and its 2007 Hollywood adaptation [Adam Roy, “Alaska Has Removed the ‘Into the Wild’ Bus,” Backpacker, 2020.06.19].

28 years ago, during the spring that Chris McCandless marched to his death, I hooked four panniers, a sleeping bag, a tent, and a bag of Mom’s taco salad to my Cannondale bicycle and headed west from Lake Herman to pedal a triangle to Yellowstone, down into the Rockies (funny—I can’t remember now what far turn-back point I set for myself), and back. I took Highway 34, the same road McCandless surely crossed while thumbing his way to Carthage a couple autumns before and again just a few weeks before my ride… the same road Sean Penn took fourteen summers later when he brought his crew to Carthage to turn McCandless’s life into a movie. I cranked unknowingly through that intersection, just thinking I’d ride 90 miles a day for a few weeks and see what I could see.

The temperature hit 90 pretty quickly, and I reached Wessington Springs before noon. I didn’t find much to do but get up that hill, finish off that warm taco salad before it could grow a mind of its own and abandon ship, nap in a shady ditch, and keep going. I hit Fort Thompson around 5:30 p.m., talked a bit with an old Lakota man named Gingway Straw, and then decided to keep chugging to Pierre. With a hot southeast wind at my back, I dodged two rattlesnakes on the highway and made Pierre by sunset.

Facing the Missouri bluffs and the vast empty beyond, I was struck by the absurdity of my situation, the fragility and minusculity of my unsheltered frame against the high plains, and the distinct numbness in my crotchal region. In an early outburst of good sense amidst a generally reckless (not so much dangerous, just lacking reck) youth, I two nights and a slow-moving day in Pierre, called the parental sag wagon, and got a gas-powered ride home, and did faint penance painting houses for my dad for a few weeks, then set off for safer travels by bike, truck, Bronco, and aeroplane, to places where I would find people I loved.

My travels that year warranted no book—they were brief and I came home alive from all of them. But a few years later, when Jon Krakauer turned his 1993 essay into his 1996 book about Chris McCandless’s travels and solitary death, a pretty woman who loves books showed me that photo of McCandless seated beside the derelict bus in which he would die. She said that he looked like me.

I tend to remember things pretty, bookish women say to me.

After reading Into the Wild, I debated what the man she said I resembled might illuminate about my life. At times I fancied myself a rugged individual, but I turned back after a day of solitary travel, in far less harsh terrain, with Gingway Straw and an uncle and aunt and a host of other people to whom I could turn for support. McCandless forged ahead, seeking his own path, unafraid of solitude in the unknown. But in the immortal words of Harold Weir, “You know what he’s doing now? He’s dead.”

I settled on the meaning I wished to make from the McCandless mythos several years later when I watched Sean Penn’s cinematographic treatment of Krakauer’s book. Of all the handsome Hollywood people in the film, the one more than twice my age, Hal Holbrook, grabbed me most with his portrayal of Ron Franz/Russell Fritz, one of the last people who befriended McCandless. In the real world, McCandless persuaded the old man to break out of his routine life and go camping in the desert. In the movie, the old man gives the young traveler gear and love and offers him companionship, only to have McCandless deflect the offer.

Ron stubbornly swipes that helping hand away as he climbs that hill, but  he finds joy in Chris’s company at the top, in the human relationship that Chris insists even in that moment of love is not our principal font of happiness. Sure, we can enjoy experiences in solitude—we all do well to learn to be comfortable in our own company—but we survive and thrive in our social and personal connections with others. Chris turned his back on those connections and walked away.

More years have passed since McCandless’s death (28) than he lived to experience (24). McCandless would be 52 now, only a year younger than Stace Nelson, only three years older than Kristi Noem and I. His trip ended before most of our trips really get going. But here I am, rolling on with the rest of you into old age, through day after (for the most part) wonderful day of experiences (dare I say adventures?) which I spend in meaningful connection with others—not many others, amidst a sort of social hermitage enhanced by the current pandemic but originating in some deeper part of my character that that pretty bookish woman saw reflected in that picture. I wander off by myself sometimes, but I keep the map handy, and I come back home.

Chris McCandless’s last shelter took flight last week. People working together to prevent others from harm tied chains to a bus and lifted it into the sky, lifted the old rusting hulk as they would have lifted Chris and carried him to a secure location in the embrace of society. There is sadness in that image, and a poem that McCandless in April 1992 might have loathed… but which McCandless in August 1992 might have conceived himself in his last fevered dreams.


  1. Curt 2020-06-22 23:22

    I saw the same news item and think the photo briefly carried me metaphorically away much as the Chinook lifted the bus away. Cory’s prose is far more eloquent and this post is one of his great gifts to all of us.

  2. Jason 2020-06-23 06:34

    That brings tears to my eyes. So well written. The soundtrack to that movie is wonderful as well.

  3. Donald Pay 2020-06-23 08:50

    Some of you may know Michael Melius. His book, “True: a last book,” relates his thoughts about nature and philosophy and writing that grew from a grueling hiking/biking trip through South Dakota in 1987. I started reading this book in 1991 or so, and finished it this spring during the coronavirus safer at home order. Michael advised in the first sentence of the book, “writ slow to be read slow,” but I don’t think what I did was what he had in mind. It’s a deep book about South Dakota and nature, and it’s worth a read, whether it’s fast or slow.

    There is something in these experiences that appeals to many young folks. As teen boys, we spent some lazy days canoeing on the Big Sioux River. We just paddled around aimlessly, but we developed this group dream of canoeing or rafting down the Big Sioux to the Missouri to the Mississippi to the Gulf. We didn’t know when or how we were going to do it, but we were going to do it. Of course, none of that ever happened.

  4. DaveFN 2020-06-23 23:57

    Heartened you see your options differently, Corey. Not that there isn’t a part of my who thinks I understand Chris and his troubled family situation which seem to have determined his choice to separate and isolate himself from civilization. I traced his family tree (I do a great deal of genealogy including genetic genealogy) and find he is related to our Ryan McCandless, RCPD police officer tragically shot and killed here in Rapid City in 2011, both descending from the same Irish immigrant.

  5. DaveFN 2020-06-24 00:07

    Heartened you see your options differently, Corey, and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of those options. Not that there isn’t a part of me who thinks I understand Chris and his troubled family situation which seem to have determined his choice to separate and isolate himself from civilization. I traced his family tree (I do a great deal of genealogy including genetic genealogy) and find he is related to our Ryan McCandless, RCPD police officer tragically shot and killed here in Rapid City in 2011, both descending from the same Irish immigrant.

  6. Debbo 2020-06-24 00:18

    I like to think about things, especially people. How we are, the experiences of our lives and how that gets us to where we are. What we need, what we lack, what motivates us.

    We’re such complex creatures and capable of almost unfathomable beauty of soul.

    We are magical. The trick is to recognize that in the people around us.

    Thanks for this lovely post Cory. ❤

  7. mike from iowa 2020-06-24 07:07

    Treadwell was just begging to be killed by the bears he professed to love and understand. Too bad he had to expose his girlfriend to the same fate.

    Mother Nature has her own ways to edit the gene pool.

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