Every year, scores of Into the Wild fans tackle a dangerous river crossing to visit the last home of Alaska’s most famous adventure casualty. Why are so many people willing to risk injury, and even death, to pay homage to a controversial ascetic who perished so young?
Ackermann, who was from Switzerland, and Gros, a Frenchman, had been hiking the Stampede Trail, a route made famous by Christopher McCandless, who walked it in April 1992. Many people now know about McCandless and how the 24-year-old idealist bailed out of his middle-class suburban life, donated his $24,000 in savings to charity, and embarked on a two-year hitchhiking odyssey that led him to Alaska and the deserted Fairbanks City Transit bus number 142, which still sits, busted and rusting, 20 miles down the Stampede Trail. For 67 days, he ate mostly squirrel, ptarmigan, and porcupine, then he shaved his beard, packed his bag, and started walking back toward the highway. But a raging Teklanika prevented him from crossing, so he returned to the bus and hunkered down. More than a month later, a moose hunter found McCandless’s decomposed body in a sleeping bag inside the bus, where he had starved to death.
This tragic story was told by Jon Krakauer in the January 1993 issue of Outside and later in his bestselling 1997 book, Into the Wild. The book, and a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn, helped elevate the McCandless saga to the status of modern myth. And that, in turn, has given rise to a unique and curious phenomenon in Alaska: McCandless pilgrims, inspired by his story, who are determined to see the bus for themselves. Each year, scores of trekkers journey down the Stampede Trail to visit it. They camp at the bus for days, sometimes weeks, write essays in the various logbooks stowed inside, and ponder the impact that McCandless’s antimaterialist ethic, free-spirited travels, and time in the Alaskan wild has had on how they perceive the world.