Geoff, sanding on a rock at Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park.

Spoiler Alert: Into the Wild

I recently watched Into the Wild, based on the true story of a 23-year-old Chris McCandless. In hopes of connecting with the world, it’s beauty, and the explorers spirit—as well as wrestling with some pretty significant emotional hangups— he sets out on a solo journey across the continent. His adventure lands him in Alaska in the spring, where he survives on small game and what provisions he has left. He dies, painfully, after eating poisonous berries he took for edible.

My relationship with this story is one fraught with fascination and conflict. The story of McCandless is one that was well tread in the circles I grew up in—the modern day beatnik who shot the bird to society and did his best to live free of all chains. If not for a tragic mistake, he may have really discovered some universal truth of humanity or some such thing.

I grew up in a very conservative environment. I learned always to be careful with resources and risk. We were never very adventurous. Everything we did was well within the well-tread, paved roads of what was safe and convenient. Anything that may prove to be moderately uncomfortable we avoided. I mean, why even put yourself through that? What’s the point?

When I left for college, my eyes were opened to just how big, beautiful, exciting the world could be. Since then, I’ve felt like I needed to catch-up, to experience the world fully like all those I had read about—all those I’d met—to find out what I’d missed.

A year or so after college, I had a breakdown. It was as if one day I woke up and the world was fixed again. I had blown by the time when it was acceptable to be free and wild. I had allowed that conservative tendency to wrap me up. I was trapped in this prescriptive world of ‘adulthood.’ I was horrified at the thought that this might just be how the world worked. My world, anyway.

On walks near my apartment, I would stand at the tracks and wait for trains to pass, gripping my backpack, calculating how fast I would have to run to jump on. I carried my passport, some tools, cash–anything I felt would allow me to one day just jump off the map before I got home.

Truly, I didn’t know much about Chris McCandless except that his story was usually told with either an air of longing, or a roll of the eyes. One either thinks he’s a martyred hero, or some dumb, naive kid.

For me he’s usually one or the other depending on the day. My cynicism says he was a rich, white boy feeling trapped in his privilege and unable to see that even in this adventure he was coddled and provided for. Only when he’s truly met with indiscriminate peril does he see who he really is. My bohemian spirit fancies him a poetic Dharma Bum, seeking the pleasures of life outside conventional commercial society, capturing something of the human spirit within that pushes us into unknown and untested experiences and opens us to true beauty.

But really, he’s both.

He was a real, flawed human being with nuance and complexity. His portrayal embodies a person who is both damaged and also whole. A person both foolhardy and brave, naive and wise. His story is both a cautionary tale and a testament to the desire of the human spirit to wonder.

In all of us there is a conservative and a wild spirit. We need both to survive. We need both to really live. The journey of life and survival is walking the line between.

Also, the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder is really good.