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Into The Wild: a tale of discovery, adventure and tragedy


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10 years ago Sean Penn's Into The Wild opened in theatres and went on to receive widespread acclaim, featuring on top 10 lists everywhere.

It was a film about discovering the world and discovering yourself on the journey. Based on the heartbreaking true story, the biographical film centres on Chris McCandless, a young adventurer on a journey of hitch-hiking beauty.

Chris McCandless graduated from college in 1990 and went on to travel across America, hitch-hiking his way to Alaska in April 1992. From there he travelled the Stampede Trail. He had with him only a .22 calibre rifle and a 10 pound bag of rice. He survived in the wild for more than 100 days.

It's a story that gripped the public for 25 years. Was he inspiring or foolish? Well, at the end of the day Chris McCandless did what he needed to do. He followed his dream, and we can't fault him for that.

Chris, along with Carine, his sister, grew up under the tumultuous relationship of their parents, Walt and Billie. Walt was a bully, abusive towards Billie and the kids, while Billie would throw belittling comments at the children. This caused them to distance themselves from their parents. 

Chris was a good student, a member of his school's cross country team. He graduated from high school in 1986 and after a short solo adventure to Southern California returned 2 days before college was to start. It was on that trip he learned the truth that would devastate him: when he was born his father had not yet divorced his first wife and was leading a double life with two families. It is perhaps this journey in particular that had a huge impact on Chris' life and future decisions.

When Chris graduated with honours he would go on to say he found university a 20th century fad and not something to aspire to.

On 15th May 1990 he wrote a cheque to Oxfam totalling $24,000. His life savings. He then quietly left his home and began his adventures under the name Alexander Supertramp. A name he got from 'The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp' by William H. Davies.

By the end of summer 1990 Chris had driven his car through Arizona, California and South Dakota. When his car was disabled in a flash flood, he removed his license plates and carried on his travels on foot, by train, hiking and canoeing; he paddled a canoe down a portion of the Colorado River.

Chris would alternate between having odd jobs such as a restaurant food preparer,  a farm hand, a grain elevator, or he would live with no money or human contact. The people he worked for would try to convince him to stay and would insist on giving him supplies. He rarely accepted.

Chris had no map with him, he just carried the will to explore.

In April 1992 he would travel from Carthage, South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska to begin his Alaskan adventure. He was last seen by Jim Gallien at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992.

Gallien had given Chris a ride from Fairbanks to the start of the track just outside the town of Healy. Gallien has said that Chris, who introduced himself as Alex, carried only a light pack and minimal equipment. 

Yet Alexander Supertramp ignored Gallien's warnings and attempts to persuade him out of his trip. He would refuse Gallien's assistance, accepting only a pair of boots, two tuna melt sandwiches and a packet of corn chips from him.

After finding an abandoned bus near an overgrown section of the trail he would set up camp there as the Alaskan bush was too thick to continue on.

He would live off the land with only 10 pounds of rice, a .22 calibre rifle, a few books including one on plant life and a few items of camping equipment. He hunted porcupines, squirrels and birds. In June 1992 he stalked and killed a moose. Unfortunately, the meat spoiled within a few days with Chris describing it in his journal as "one of the greatest tragedies of my life."

In July 1992 after living in the bus for three months, he decided to leave but found the trail blocked by the Teklanika River which had risen since he first crossed it in April. It was unknown to Chris that a hand-operated tram crossed the river only eight-tenths of a mile from where he had previously crossed. He would return to the bus.

Chris McCandless survived in the bus, living off the land, for a total of 113 days.

By day 100 he wrote in his journal expressing both glee for making it so long and heartbreaking desperation due to the condition he was in: "Made it! But in weakest condition of life. Death looms as serious threat. Too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild - no game."

More time passed with the journal entries lessening. Near the end, Chris left an S.O.S note:

"Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?"

Chris' final self portrait was a picture of him smiling, holding a farewell note in his hand and waving. Days 108-113 in his journal were marked only with slashes and no comment. His final words, written on the other side of a Robinson Jeffers poem said, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL."

Chris was discovered on September 6 1992, around 19 days after he died, by a hunter.

He was found in his sleeping bag, weighing only 67 pounds. Chris McCandless died officially of starvation but other factors leading to his death have been widely debated. Such as the poisoned sweet peas given as the cause of death in Into The Wild, or leg paralysis induced by lathyrism preventing him from gathering food.

Walt and Billie McCandless visited the 'magic bus' 10 months after Chris died. A plaque memorial was affixed to the interior of the bus where it remains today. The bus proves a popular location among explorers that admire Chris' free way of living.

In order to stay as respectful and true to the story as possible, Sean Penn waited 10 years before starting production in order to have full approval from Chris' family. Moreover, Emile Hirsch who plays Chris, used no stunt men, lost 40 pounds and wears Chris' real watch. It was gifted to him at the start of production.

Into The Wild was not shot at the real Bus 142 out of respect and due to the difficulties filming in such a dense location, instead an exact replica was created. This replica was created and filmed in Alaska.

10 years later the film and Christopher McCandless' life remains fascinating for all who hear his story.

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