The continuing (and confounding) story of “Into the Wild”


Two weeks ago a teenager, obsessed with the tragic story of Chris McCandless, who died of apparent starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, died in troublingly similar circumstances in Oregon.

Over the past six months, David Croom said, his son had shown a growing interest in the movie and possibly wanted to emulate McCandless' actions.

"He's been watching the movie a lot," Croom said before his son's body was found. "Maybe he said, 'I want to do it.' That's our theory, because he kept talking about the movie."

Johnathan's green Honda CRV was found on a lonely road in the quiet country town of Riddle, Oregon, on Wednesday, two days after he was supposed to start college at Mesa Community College.

"We still don't know what happened," Croom said, "but he was lost in the wild. He got in over his head, and things didn't go well."

In Alaska, meanwhile, several tourists have gotten in trouble trying to cross the river to visit the "Magic Bus" in which Chris McCandless lived in the wilderness. A Swiss tourist drowned trying to cross the Teklanika River. Alaskan Sean Dooley is sick of it:

I must admit up front that as an Alaskan,
raised in Fairbanks, I had long ago made up my mind about the 1946
International Harvester K-5 bus some 20 miles down the Stampede trail,
near Healy. The now (in)famous metallic husk was the site of the 1992
death of Christopher McCandless — the inspiration for a book, and
successful movie – were a siren’s call, it seemed to me, for people who,
like McCandless himself, were woefully ill-prepared to handle
everything the area had to throw at them. 

“Two cans of gas and a match would solve all our problems,” I used to say. The May 27th rescue of three German tourists from the area,
after they made a poorly-planned pilgrimage to the bus, only seemed to
reinforce my dark opinion of the bus and the people who visited it.

But what if McCandless died not of foolishness, but an understandable ignorance of an incredibly rare plant toxin? That's what Jon Krakauer, who wrote the book that set off this strange social phenomenon, now believes. He writes of the evolution of his opinion at length in The New Yorker

 In “Into the Wild,” the book I wrote about McCandless’s brief,
confounding life, I…speculated that he
had inadvertently poisoned himself by eating seeds from a plant
commonly called wild potato, known to botanists as Hedysarum alpinum.
According to my hypothesis, a toxic alkaloid in the seeds weakened
McCandless to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike
out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation. Because Hedysarum alpinum
is described as a nontoxic species in both the scientific literature
and in popular books about edible plants, my conjecture was met with no
small amount of derision, especially in Alaska.

I’ve received thousands of letters from people who admire McCandless for
his rejection of conformity and materialism in order to discover what
was authentic and what was not, to test himself, to experience the raw
throb of life without a safety net. But I’ve also received plenty of
mail from people who think he was an idiot who came to grief because he
was arrogant, woefully unprepared, mentally unbalanced, and possibly
suicidal. Most of these detractors believe my book glorifies a senseless

The full story is worth reading, but here's the toxicity punchline;

According to Dr. Fernand Lambein, a Belgian scientist who coördinates
the Cassava Cyanide Diseases and Neurolathyrism Network, occasional
consumption of foodstuffs containing ODAP “as one
component of an otherwise balanced diet, bears not any risk of
toxicity.” Lambein and other experts warn, however, that individuals
suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially
sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin.

Considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are
found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described
and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason
to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds.
As Ronald Hamilton observed, McCandless exactly matched the profile of
those most susceptible to ODAP poisoning:

"He was a young, thin man in his early 20s, experiencing
an extremely meager diet; who was hunting, hiking, climbing, leading
life at its physical extremes, and who had begun to eat massive amounts
of seeds containing a toxic [amino acid]. A toxin that targets persons
exhibiting and experiencing precisely those characteristics and
conditions ….

It might be said that Christopher McCandless did indeed starve to
death in the Alaskan wild, but this only because he’d been poisoned, and
the poison had rendered him too weak to move about, to hunt or forage,
and, toward the end, “extremely weak,” “too weak to walk out,” and,
having “much trouble just to stand up.” He wasn’t truly starving in the
most technical sense of that condition. He’d simply become slowly
paralyzed. And it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was
ignorance. Also, it was ignorance which must be forgiven, for the facts
underlying his death were to remain unrecognized to all, scientists and
lay people alike, literally for decades."

Hamilton’s discovery that McCandless perished because he ate toxic seeds
is unlikely to persuade many Alaskans to regard McCandless in a more
sympathetic light, but it may prevent other backcountry foragers from
accidentally poisoning themselves. Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible
plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin
that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild
in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the
wild in April, and would still be alive today.

If that were the case,
Chris McCandless would now be forty-five years old. 

And, it's worth noting, a complete unknown, as somebody used to say. 

Back in Alaska, Sean Dooley has decided that the bus — despite its siren-like appeal to naive wilderness lovers — deserves to stay: 

Alaska is a beautiful and dangerous place.
While the “Magic Bus,” or “Sushana Bus,” may tempt travelers into
trouble, so do many other parts of the state. And tourists aren’t the
only ones that get caught in Mother Nature’s web. Most of the search and
rescues attempted in Alaska are for locals, not tourists. 

better, or worse, Fairbanks City Transit Bus #142, has become a part of
the landscape of the Interior. McCandless’ story is part of its lore.
Both are worth remembering.  

Leave the bus where it is. It
will fade away eventually — whether by nature, or packed out,
piece-by-piece, by McCandless enthusiasts themselves.

What's fascinating to yours truly is the fascination of this story itself. Why do we obsess over Chris McCandless, when every year countless good people find sanctuary and relief in the wilderness?  


Beats me. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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