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October 23, 2007

Out From the Wild

"My shadow runs with me - underneath the big wide sun
My shadow comes with me - as we leave it all, we leave it all far behind ...

Subtle voices in the wind - hear the truth they're telling
A world begins where the road ends - watch me leave it all behind."
- Eddie Vedder, "Far Behind" (on sidebar mp3)

It’s been more than 10 years since I thought of Chris McCandless – but like many others, I’ve been dwelling on his story quite a bit lately.

McCandless is the subject of Into the Wild, a movie based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name. The film (not exactly a documentary, but very true to events per multiple reports) chronicles the life and untimely – some would add foolish or misguided – death of a very enigmatic young man.

(The movie also features a remarkably touching soundtrack by Eddie Vedder – two tracks of which are embedded in this page. Think of it as a buy one, get one free mp3 day at R&R - except in this case, the first one is also free. That's just the way I'm rolling today.)

Shortly after graduating with honors from college, McCandless abandoned his life of privilege, gave away all of his belongings, and wandered the country in search of adventure.

His ultimate destination was Alaska, where his emaciated body was found several months later by a group of hunters. What happened between his departure and his demise was pieced together by Krakauer for his 1996 book.

Our collective knowledge of McCandless’s wanderings comes primarily from a handwritten journal he kept along the way, whose sporadic entries are alternately profound and rambling, lighthearted and terrifying. The single unifying sentiment throughout the book is McCandless’s fierce self-reliance, even in the face of danger or despair.

When I first read the book over 10 years ago, I viewed McCandless with a sort of morbid admiration. Like many young adults, the idea of setting forth into the world accountable to nobody, to experience life and nature on my own terms, held a fascinating allure. I identified with the self-determination McCandless demonstrated, and wondered if I would ever make any decisions in life that were anywhere near as bold as the journey of self-discovery he undertook.

Eventually, I put the book back on the shelf, and went about my straitlaced, conservative life. I took on grad school, a career, a family, and other responsibilities that anchor most of us to our relatively mundane daily existence. Gradually, thoughts of McCandless eventually faded away, and I grew to enjoy – even depend upon – the myriad small comforts of life.

The rugged individualist in me never quite disappeared, however. In fact, you could make a case that I’ve been feeding it more and more over the past several years. It comes to the surface most frequently in the midst of my training – whether I’m 6 hours into a nine-hour trail run, or halfway through a 110-mile bike ride, or when I blow off my friends and coworkers to get an extra workout during my lunch break.

Granted, there’s a huge difference between navigating the trails of a regional park somewhere, and fending for survival in the Alaskan wilderness. But it’s only when I’m in those places – alone, willing my body onward, struggling against whatever external forces come my way – that I feel my individual actions have true purpose. And traveling a remote trail on foot, or riding a lonely rural road through the countryside, or swimming through frigid open water, are the best ways I have of communing with the natural world around me anymore. There are very few places where we become free from the influences and annoyances of modern society – so I often find myself clinging to those places and seeking them out as often as possible.

I also think that endurance athletes have a tendency – for better or worse – to believe that the more physical accomplishments they achieve, the less reliant they become on others to assist them towards their goals, or with any other aspect of their life. Either that, or once our weekly mileage gets high enough, the time that's left to spend with friends or family is sadly inadequate. Whatever the reason, many of us frequently grow more isolated from those around us when we excessively dedicate ourselves to our training or racing regimens.

In other words, many athletes continually engage in individualism, isolation, and dismissal of the support systems around us … which brings us back to Chris McCandless.

I picked up my tattered copy of Into the Wild again last week. Flipping through the pages, I realized that the past 10 years have given me a profoundly different viewpoint of the idealistic drifter than I initially recognized. I can’t say I feel admiration anymore – instead, all I feel is a lot of sadness.

Sadness - because as a father, I know what a struggle it is to provide for your children, to help them develop a passion for something, or to give them opportunities to succeed in life on their own terms. To then have a child reject all of that, and willingly set off on a path of self-destruction, would probably be more than I could bear.

Sadness – because there were clearly many gifts bestowed upon Chris that were never used for any greater good. Escaping into the wilderness is noble in some ways, but greatly irresponsible in others. How much positive change could someone with his fortitude and strong convictions have affected working within society, instead of holding it at arm’s length? It’s the great tragedy of unrealized potential, told again and again in various forms, each one as regrettable as the last.

Sadness – because self-reliance is generally a good quality, but when it’s forged by way of isolation from everyone around us, we lose the greater benefit of friendships and connections to others. What good is it to live for an ideal, if you eliminate any possibility of ever sharing those ideals and dreams with anybody else?

This last item was the big red flag for me upon my second reading of the story. You know that stuff I wrote about six paragraphs ago, about how endurance athletes isolate themselves? Honestly, I have no idea if that’s true for anybody else – I just know it’s especially true for me. I’ve gotten myself into trouble at times, and let relationships die that I wish I had maintained, solely because of a single-minded focus on the next workout, the next race, the next Great Challenge. It’s easy to say that there should be a balance between our athletic exploits and our other interests and responsibilities; it’s an altogether more difficult task to actually maintain such an accord.

(And while we're here ... in regards to my recent hand-wringing about entering the Western States lottery, this post shouldn’t be taken as an indication of a decision being made one way or the other. It’s just a collection of thoughts that came to me when I revisited a story I thought I knew, but came away believing I had it all wrong. Trust me - if and when I enter the lottery, I won't keep it a secret.)

10 years ago, I saw aspects of myself in Chris McCandless, and it was a point of pride for me. I still see bits of myself in him today, but now I feel ashamed.

I guess I’ve traveled quite far in the past decade – and thankfully, it didn't require an epic journey into the wilderness.

"Such is the way of the world, you can never know -
Just where to put all your faith, and how will it grow ...

Gonna rise up - Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up - Turning mistakes into gold."
- Eddie Vedder, "Rise" (click to play)

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Matt 10/23/07, 9:54 AM  

It's been a while since I read the book, but I distinctly remember feeling like the kid just didn't get what life was really about. He took a hold of an ideal and created his life around it. To me, it was foolish. There's so much joy in family, friends, and being part of something larger than oneself that he missed out on. I haven't seen the movie yet, but from what I've heard it glorifies him a bit too much for my liking.

a.maria 10/23/07, 11:06 AM  

ok, well... i'm with matt.

i actually read the book about a month or two before i heard there was a movie coming out.. which is maybe one of the only reasons i actually finished the thing.
i haven't talked to anyone else that feels the same way, but.. i DONT GET what was so amazing about this kid?!

he frustrated me, to no end, throughout the book. i even watched oprah when sean penn was on to see if i could get more insight and honestly...

i just can't. maybe i'm missing something.. i dunno.

have you seen the movie?!

21stCenturyMom 10/23/07, 12:04 PM  

I have neither read the book nor seen the movie although I intend to see the movie because it is supposed to be good.

To me this post is a tribute to maturity. It is the sort of thing that makes adults want to get kids to listen to them rather than watching them make mistakes and go through their own transformative processes. It is amazing how our perspective changes with age and frustrating that we can't somehow bestow that wisdom on the next generation no matter how we try. Insight is most often received as a lack of understanding.

So great post - very thought provoking. And congratulations on seeing how you isolate yourself. I'm sure that will save you world of hurt in the future. Now - if only someone could have told you that sooner :-)

Spokane Al 10/23/07, 2:46 PM  

As usual, you raised some cogent points. I also suffer from some of those same demons. I tend to believe that one cannot achieve his/her maximum potential in a particular area with balance, so the question becomes one of is the cost worth it? I don’t yet know that answer to that question.

Anne 10/23/07, 3:06 PM  

I remember being profoundly angry as I read the book years ago. (The Glass Castle elicited the same emotions.) I was already a parent when the book came out, and I'm sure that colored my opinion of a guy that I saw only as a self-centered, spoiled brat who thought he was more than he actually was. Krakauer made it a compelling read, but I didn't find the main character the least bit sympathetic, or that intelligent.

I like your analogy though. You always do such a good job bridging pop culture and athletics.

Taryn 10/23/07, 6:03 PM  

First off - thanks for posting Eddie's songs... good stuff. Ohhh Eddie Vedder, you and your Pearl Jam will always take me back to my college-in-Seattle days...

Second - I love this post. Very fluid. I knew little about McCandless's story, except for reading the back of Into The Wild a few times. From that and what you've explained, I like how you linked it to yourself as an endurance athlete. Yet, I don't think you should feel ashamed to relate bits of yourself to his life's path. Why ashamed? You are doing a good thing with your life's path - sharing your experiences with us all via blogging and frankly, inspiring with each feat and post you make. I see no reason for shame in that, simply the opposite.

Third - thanks for the tip on Blink. I will definitely have to read it.

And finally... did you see that you can preorder The Killers' new album on iTunes? You like The Killers, right?

Bolder 10/23/07, 7:10 PM  

a blogworthy post, as usual.

i met a woman this past week, that chastised me for living in 'the Boulder bubble'. she lives in Denver. there's meth addicts on the corner as she runs by them. low income families below the poverty level, and a shooting last week a block away.

she told me if feels raw, real.

i looked at her across the table with sadness, and pointed out, that it all feels raw and real... but, how is she going to feel when she gets attacked by meth addicts, or shot, or robbed living in a poor area.

people live there because they have to live there, not because they choose to live there.

some people are just compelled to throw themselves into the wild.

Backofpack 10/24/07, 8:16 AM  

Good post Donald. I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I get what you are saying.

I love the idealism of youth, though as a parent it is frustrating. We are learning to ride the waves with the boys, discussing their thoughts, ideas and dreams, trying to inject some experience and wisdom into the discussion. It's a fine line to walk - keeping the communication flowing, being heard without overwhelming or shutting them off. We got the open-minded, critical thinkers we desired, but boy oh boy, can't wait for a little more maturity into the mix!

Phoenix 10/24/07, 1:00 PM  

Great post. Like you, when I first heard about McCandless (I didn't read the book but I think it was Backpacker that did an article about it) I admired him to a point. I can definately see the hamster wheel pointlessness of society and the rat race. Now, like you, I have children of my own and find it more hearbreaking. Still, that individualism and self-reliance has a very important place in all of us - it is important to know your own strength and what you're capable of so you can pass it on to others. The challenge, like you said, is not letting it keep others at a distance - let me know when you achieve the balance and how you did it!

Annette 10/24/07, 7:44 PM  

I'm eager to see the movie, as I read the book some time ago, too.

I agree with you about the individualism and isolation we often bring upon ourselves. While at times I think we need to do some things alone, we do need to make it a point to enjoy the journey with others. (Or at least try and drag them along kicking and screaming.) :)

angie's pink fuzzy 10/24/07, 8:17 PM  

hmm, very interesting, much food for thought.

someone very close to me for many years of my life was very much an idealist who wanted to shuck it all in search of self-reliance, self-discovery and adventure. i spent many years of my life with this person, roaming the US in search of ... something, somewhere ... to feed his idealistic views of life. during this time in my life, i was proud of thumbing my nose at conventional society. now, i look back at some of the incredibly selfish and sad choices made. i don't regret them - they are part of what makes me who i am today - but i do feel sadness about them.

Zach 10/26/07, 8:41 AM  

When I saw the preview for the movie I hoped it was based on a book. I'm heading out to pick it up today since I'm sure it will be much better than the movie (as always).

Deene 10/26/07, 10:16 AM  

it's that youthful idealism some of us probably because of pure luck or maturity survived. I've had some of those same thoughts of "wow, i wish i was crazy/brave enough to do this.." didn't the guy suffer from depression or some other disorder? a gripping story either way.

the Dread Pirate Rackham 10/26/07, 9:17 PM  

I too read the book many years ago, and it's haunted me since then. I think about his story every time I watch "survivorman" or "man vs. wild".

I never "got" Chris McCandless - he struck me as a really angry kid. I had never had the same fascination with self-reliance, though I could relate to being idealistic. I figured it must be a guy thing.

The book made me recognize that I have a lot of fear around my own ability to be self reliant. He did what I was always petrified of (go out, be alone, with no money and no safety net), and it's taken me years to accept that maybe I could do the same things. If I wanted to.

This is sort of my own tie in to the endurance athlete thing. Now I know I can do whatever I want to do.

except without the idealistic narcissism.

rick 10/27/07, 12:29 PM  

When I first started running I ran alone. I was embarrassed because I was slow, didn't know much and preferred to go throught the experiment by myself. In time I got confident, started running with friends until I got into the ultras. I went back to running alone because no one wanted to run the trails or go the distances that I wanted, I returned to the isolation and loved it. The more people regarded me as a kook the farther I went out alone. Fortunately I got injured, got plugged in to Triathlon. Triathlon brought me back to people and I discovered, through good role models and balanced friends that there is more to these activities than training and racing. Like you said, what's the point if you don't share those ideals with someone else.

My application is already filled out. Just need to drop it off with the check. They keep raising the fee. I hope they don't go the way of Ironman. The other day I got a flyer for an athlete endorsed, Ironman branded MATTRESS. A mattress that supposed to better for you if you are an athlete. Makes as much sense as female rider specific bike rims but at least they don't brand theirs with the IM logo. Thought of you, out of control. Those people need to be "isolated" for awhile.

Darrell 11/1/07, 7:45 PM  

An interesting perspective on Into the Wild. I remember back when I read the book that I wished that I had had the courage earlier to follow the inner dreamer rather than following the expected status quo route of marriage, family and mortgage.

I saw the movie (and don't remember this from the book) but it seems like Chris realized that life was best when shared but between the river and the food mistake he couldn't get back to civilization again. I guess I have a mixture of admiration for Chris for following his dream and sadness for an end he hadn't considered.

As always, thanks for making us think just a little harder.

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