Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Men's Journal does a wonderful Job of exploring the life and times of Chris McCandless in condensed form, so I will not bore you with the repeat of all that here. Rather, I wanted to speak a bit about the book and the movie (They are equally wonderful) and a little about my own experiences.

I bought the book a couple of years ago by mistake after purchasing several Jack London novels at a used book store. I scooped up Whitefang and what I thought was "Call of the Wild." When I got the book home I was disappointed at first until I read the back cover and the first few pages then was hooked. I immediately resonated with this story. It was so powerful and heartbreaking while at the same time, so familiar. I had no idea they had made a movie until I saw it on Tom's Netflix list and was happy to see it was about to release to DVD. I just saw the movie tonight with my son, Donovan.

In 1991, I had just completed my B.A. in Psych from UWF and was completely clueless as to what to do. I can remember that May sitting on a beach with Tom and asking him for advice. I wanted to go be a sailor (don't laugh), but felt the call of responsibility and could not bear to disappoint my family, particularly my grandfather. I had a comforting talk with Tom but could not make any real decision at that point. A few days later, on impulse, I enrolled in the "Chapman School of Seamanship" and moved down to the area with my crazy Uncle Dwight. He was in the middle of a major psychotic break, although I didn't know it at the time. I stayed for about 2 months, but never started the school. My Uncle would rant and rave every night about the various organizations and groups who were organizing against him (now I realize this was a bit of foreshadowing of things to come). I dreamed of a life on the sea, away from everyone and everything. After having enough of my Uncle (who at one point would not let me leave his house and held me there under the threat of a gun for a hour or two until he fell asleep thinking I had decided to stay) I left and returned to Bonifay. I drove all night and walked into my parents house that morning (October 1991) and the phone was ringing. I answered it and it was Prof. Rick Parr from Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He said he had gotten my application I had sent prior to graduation and wanted me to come up there to do my Masters in Counseling. Flattered and thankful (to have someone point me in a direction) I accepted, got married that December, then moved a week later. 17 years later, I am now a Professor and Psychologist myself, having fulfilled my own academic life and what I felt was duty to my family. I divorced and remarried during those years, had two sons, lived in 5 different cities and houses, and have about 8 years to go before my own sons are both grown.

When I read the book, Into the Wild (and later Jack London's novels) I was profoundly moved by what they each said. I was in awe of the fool-hearty courage of Chris McCandless. I have often thought about my own call of the wild and wondered what would have happened had my Uncle been a bit more stable and I had a bit more courage (or less sense). Perhaps, I wouldn't be here to write this blog. I've had many "wilderness" experiences before. Most recently was my Vision Quest experience of sleeping out in the deep Canadian wild for a week alone, which was among the top 3 most life altering experiences I've ever had. I think what moved me about Chris's story is the fact that he had the courage to live what I had/have so yearned to do and live myself. I think it is the quintessential story of men; perhaps of human beings. To run away from responsibility, to risk everything for a idea, to fore-go what society tells us is the correct or right thing to do, and simply exist in a moment to moment fashion without any rules or labels or "gotta do's" on our list.

I often think about Steven the sailor. Living in some alternate universe. I imagine him lonely and sad, feeling a failure for not having lived up to his families ideals. But sometimes I wish I could contact him and tell him how lucky and wonderful he is. I wonder if he made it, became a sea captain, and pilots a ship around the world. I wonder if he could find moments of happiness. In 8 years I'll be free of my final bit of responsibilities, having had my career, raised my kids, and had my marriages. I wonder if I will then, finally answer the call of the wild or will I be too old, too happy with my wife, too scared, too happy right where I am to do such a foolish thing----thinking that such adventures are for the young only. Or will I find some middle ground and simply go on sabbatical for a year or two, walking the Earth, and having a grand adventure but returning to what really matters. To what the movie and book and perhaps what Chris were trying to communicate all along----that what is truly of value is not just the adventure, but more importantly, that we have those around who are awake enough and love us enough to share the adventure.

"People say that what we're seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. What we seek is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel that rapture of being alive".
-Joseph Campbell


Mike Austin said...

Dear Sir Saunders:

Well said.

For another take on McCandless see here:


After two divorces and a college degree if found myself tending bar. It was the summer of 1986, I was 33 and I was at a loss of what to do with my life. I decided to make a complete break with my life as I lived it in Portland. There were too many shadows there, too any memories. I was done there.

I sold all but my books and classical music albums, bought some minimal outdoor gear and did some research. By October it was time to put my money where my mouth was.

I walked to the highway heading south, walking and pleading for rides. By September of the next year I had traveled through Mexico, learned about jungle survival in Guatemala, looked for a lost city on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, traveled through Nicaragua, solo backpacked most of Costa Rica, walked the entire length of the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, climbed an Ecuadorian volcano and hiked the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu.

Since that time 22 summers and 1000 years ago, I have spent 13 years in Latin America working, exploring, solo backpacking and traveling in every Latin nation. I have been in a near shipwreck, kidnapped by communists, attacked by animals, infected with many diseases, escaped quicksand, sharks and robbers, and fallen in love with a Peruvian woman. I have spent more time alone in tents in more South and Central American nations and seen more ruins than any man alive. I have walked by myself for weeks at a time in the Peruvian and Argentine Andes and in Central American jungles. Along the way I have lost my fear of death.

Now 4 years back in the US it all seems like some dream of another man, of a life lived long ago and far away, of an eternity spent in ‘wild, weird climes lying most sublime. Out of space, out of time.’

Was it worth it? You know the answer.

Should you go ‘for a year or two, walking the Earth’? Again, you know the answer.

E said...

Your story resonates with every man I think. We have that tension between doing what we're supposed to do and wanderlust.

Thursday of last week a fellow struck up a conversation with me on a 90 minute flight. He told me when we landed that he doesn't normally talk to people on planes but that he had had a strong unction to do so. He was wealthy and accomplished and now he lives simply in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and travels the earth doing good in difficult circumstances. He gave me a phone number to call, of a guy like me, who now does some work with this fellow and finally feels alive. I fear making the call and know I must.

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