Written by Cab Van Elk
What if a magazine article could change your life?
On this page you will find an impassioned review of Jon Krakauer’s mid-nineties book Into The Wild. But it is also so much more than just that. Reader, it will become prevalent to you upon entering into this article that this is also an ode to all of the canons of work that dwell in the subterranean limbo that hovers under the bar of passions unmet, ambitions quelled in pursuit of a truer existence, and so many other things in life.
Most of which would be redundant to list here, really. That’s not why you are here – you are here to consume good writing about great writing.
Yet, Reader, does every single word on this page not have to come from somewhere?
So it is in this very vein that I ask you:
Where do we find our words and our inspiration, in the moments when they come to us?
This destination, if we refer to it as such, can easily be construed as the jagged shadows which emit from within the dense circle of trees within our mind. Shadows which are cast against the bark by the fickle little flames of thought, all perpetually captured in the wilderness of our subconscious terra incognita.
We can ascertain that the sheer spirit of being human compels us to be creative at all costs. This is a test of our own existence upon ourselves.
Yet creativity is not defined by any kind of language, because it lives far beyond that. Out in the middle of the natural wilderness, in a solitary state, there simply just is no meaningful weight behind things such as words. Nature knows no language except its own. So if words are not essential to creativity, then their conjuring towards meaning becomes a metaphorical dark forest of potential mishaps of its own, doesn’t it?
This is the wilderness which we step into whenever we cast our words and thoughts into the fray or onto the blank page. Subjective interpretation of existence simply adds to the bewilderment of the human experience.
Out here, in this wilderness, there is a threshold where you can almost see your previous self look across to the more modernised (or updated) version of you – for this “wilderness” can be as much without, as it can be within. We step further into it with every single word we conjure in our minds and roll across our tongues, every single day.
It is a subjectively unique problem, yet it follows some ubiquitous aesthetics. Both in the hierarchy of priorities, as well as in prevalence. We all follow the tropes of disillusionment on the road towards finding meaning. For some of us, this can only occur in utter isolation and at a very transparent and connected level with an extremely rudimentary and pastoral lifestyle.
Where we can have the freedom to become the seed of something completely new.
In 1992 Jon Krakauer was writing for an American outdoor lifestyle magazine aptly named Outside, when the story of Chris McCandless first came to him. Much like this article for the recommendation of this book might come to you today – in a brief moment of fascination and chance.
Krakauer himself being an avid adventurer, was struck by this story of a young man ridding himself of all his modern and worldly facets and all of his possessions, before heading into the wildernesses of Alaska to live off the land. Away from everyone and all institutionalised thought or structure.
It was four years later, when Krakauer found himself on an expedition into his own wilderness. He was intent on pushing the boundaries of his own body against nature, by climbing Mount Everest with a small expedition of professional mountaineers. Sadly, in the biting ice blasts of Everest on 10 May 1996, these eight climbers attempted to descend from unforgiving, adverse circumstances, and perished on the side of the most ruthless mountain in human imagination.
Krakauer was one of the only survivors of this expedition.
His subsequent book to the one being reviewed for you today, Into Thin Air, recounts this disaster in poignant detail and also makes for magnificent reading.
Even in his classic work on Chris McCandless, Krakauer finds a narrative spine that weaves around the marrow of ideas behind an arcane spiritual calling that is so historically innate within us, that there are numerous examples of others who can also be included under the McCandless banner throughout history.
This is exactly what Krakauer does in Into The Wild, giving us a greater glimpse into the glory we seek when we pit ourselves against nature and drop all of what seems to be merely societal pretence for the sake of continuing capitalism and the industrialisation of our natural planet.
Ultimately, it becomes clear to the reader of this book that man versus nature is really man versus himself.
We are all driven into our own individual wildernesses in this world. Whether it be through alienation by others or by ourselves about our own uncomfortable personae, disillusionments, inertia-based apathies or any range of concoctions in-between these factors. The fast-paced, ambition-led, modern lifestyle of the average city-dweller does not bode well with these volatile ingredients all together in one pot either. It makes us passively ill in some mildly insidious way.
It certainly conjures no surprise in those familiar with Tolstoy and his philosophies then, that this 19th century Russian author’s work was somewhat influential to the mind of a young Chris McCandless. Or Alexander Supertramp, as he preferred to be known once he shed most of his worldly belongings and donated his $24,000 trust fund to a charity instead, before heading into the wild. Alex Supertramp no doubt drew inspiration from Tolstoy who, in his own life, made a rapid change of lifestyle and shed everything to live a rudimentary and more pastoral kind of life, while growing a very long beard.
As many Transcendetalist authors would most certainly later do (the pastoral escape, as well as the immense cultivation of wild facial hair).
Tolstoy, as an author, was inspired by another important individual when he wrote his most famous work that we know today – War And Peace. That man was famous French Romantic scribe and published article writer Victor-Marie Hugo. Author of such works on alienation and disillusionment such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables. Having served in the Napoleonic wars, Hugo lived during a time in the 18th Century when the first seeds of modern industrialisation were being planted, threatening changes to the pastoral European pastures of the time. It also happened to be the same era in which much of Europe experienced the Age of Enlightenment – the age where science started pointing fingers at spiritual allegories, and vice versa. It would later be known as the catalyst for what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated in his oft-misunderstood and somewhat abridged 1882 quote “God is Dead”.
Three years later in 1885, an infant whose name used to be John, but who is now named Jack London, picksup one of the first books he would ever read, called Signa, written by the Victorian writer Ouida. This single action would change the course of the rest of his life, and it would bring him a sheer amount of inner war and peace. This inward-facing turmoil translates very well to the ambitious young mind who is ready to live a new kind of life.
Running through a tumultuous and rapidly-industrialised heptathlon of decades later in Thatcherian England however, we find a whole generation of disillusioned and strife-laden 1970s Punk kids who were also stepping into the fray and acting wild, preaching about war and peace themselves and living by the credo that “God was dead” – so they had to create a culture in which each person makes God for themselves instead. The kind of televised culture that an American adolescent such as McCandless would perhaps have encountered himself.
This was what Alexander Supertramp and so many others like him sought to find in the Northern American wilderness – that God within themselves, in relation to the God they saw in the natural world around them. Krakauer gives us some harrowing yet ironic examples of many adventurers who succumbed to last minute human foibles and misconceptions. Most of them were driven into the wilderness by the desire to escape and some even in the pursuit to conquer, but most still reflect on their actions as human, even once they have already been out in the wild long enough.
Human foibles escape no man however, especially when he is wandering on his own with no other subjective insights of another human being to guide his ego. Krakauer admits this with all of his subjects, and perhaps even Alexander Supertramp knew this about his own beloved literary hero Jack London.
There is perhaps no more apt title of a book by a self-destructive author than Call of The Wild by Jack London. We can instantly see why Alexander Supertramp carried a copy of the book with him. A classic romanticised fable about survival, adventure in the Northern American wilderness, and perseverance to something of legendary status.
Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?
London himself was at one time in his life a tramp on the streets. Nearly a century to the day when Alexander Supertramp was wandering around as a disillusioned but “newly-freed” young bum of the Alaskan bushes. Since those pavement-adjacent times on the streets in 1894, London took up sailing and various other menial tasks until the age of printing technology allowed for the concept of the printed magazine to become much cheaper to produce and thus much more lucrative, as an Edwardian bloom in magazine crazes swept the nation. Suddenly there was an almost prophetic call for London to step into the new era of writing magazine articles, and face the bewildering possibility that his own destiny might just be met after all.
Writing these articles changed his life, you could say.
The golden age of the American landscape was his to curl into words and meaningful descriptions in various articles. His brief time in the Klondike during the Gold Rush in 1897 contributed to London’s fascination with the pastoral during an age where the Hudson River School was at its peak. This time, unfortunately, also contributed to London’s deteriorating health due to scurvy and cut his period here shorter than expected. London also later suffered from a tropical osteo-epidermal disease known as yaws, as well as two failed marriages. These most certainly contributed to an inner sense of disillusionment in due course, and fuelled the passion for an escape to wild lands in the paragraphs of his fiction.
If you go to San Diego in California today and you travel about 9 hours North along the Pacific Coast Highway with the wild blue ocean stretching out beside you, you’ll eventually get to Glen Ellen. Here you will find a moss-covered boulder which marks the historic resting place of Jack London. Not far from the unfinished building that was yet to be a new home called Wolf House. The Wolf House ruins stand yet to this very day.
Since that mossy boulder was first placed there, London’s legacy was darkened with numerous fabrications of detrimental alcoholism and physical abuse. False claims which prove that, as the legend becomes part of the furniture, mankind loves to reinvent the truth to discombobulating degrees. Like a children’s game of “broken telephone”.
As the generations of more modern eras mostly moved away from these same pastoral yearnings, it seems that the real disillusionment can not be found in London’s own decisions throughout his life, as much as what it can be found in the public reaction to him, being so far removed now in history from the real man and those same wildernesses that he faced in the American landscape.
It shows us that disillusionment does strange things to us and causes us to make radical decisions and create new “truths” in which to exist. It has done so for many centuries now.
This is a magnificent subtext one can extract from Into The Wild throughout all of its stories. Krakauer, somehow without telling us, shows us that these disillusionments are perhaps the most essential drivers for change in human history. That perhaps, what really makes a life worth living, is deeply connecting with our reactions to these disillusionments instead. And accepting them for being the unrelenting factors of modern existence that they actually are.
It’s exactly the kind of sombre, dramatic, emotional power that was conjured up in Europe in the aesthetic movement known as Romanticism.
The age of Romanticism was an age which extracted the need for escape in the average city-dweller’s mind back in the 18th century during the rise of industrialisation, and which served the hunger so well, for which authors such as London could provide the “meal” of freedom to subsequent generations of readers, even over a century (and an ocean) later.
London was adjacent to a more localised and philosophical movement during this time known as Transcendentalism, which ascribed the onset of a higher cause to life in a way befitting of the heart of an ambitious, pioneering nation. It hearkened back to times when the American wilderness was still just that – wild and untamed, and ready to be conquered.
By the time an influential author such as Victor Hugo was born in 1802, much of Europe was already industrialised. Across the pond in the developing New World of America, the mortar and smoke-gloved clutches of the age of Industrialisation grabbed up the landscape all the way West as well, but had not yet conquered all of the land.
The average American citizen who was well-to-do and could afford to commission paintings for their abode or office, strove to conquer a new wilderness instead – the one going inward, dealing with the self. The focus was portraiture, perhaps with a pleasant background. About twenty years later, The Hudson River School would bring the backgrounds and settings of these commissions right into the foreground and almost remove any human subjects altogether, in a reaction based in pure Romanticism. The kind that would make the heart of a man such as Hugo swell tremendously with affection and aesthetic pleasure.
The Hudson River school was a collective of European-inspired painters who conglomerated under the banner of the same aesthetics of the grandeur and beauty of the great American wilderness. It was the result of an age which had Transcendentalist ideals such as those put to paper by the preachers of the pastoral such as Ralph Waldo Emmerson, who was at the helm of the Transcendentalist movement. It was an age where writers such as Henry David Thoreau would have pastoral respites so inspirational that they would dedicate entire books such as Walden to them, while reflecting on escaping into the wilderness of nature and of the lonely human mind.
Deep in the Catskill Mountains, some untouched wilderness captured the imagination of these 19th century painters and this is where many of the Hudson River School aesthetics were first captured and then borrowed ad nauseum. Great Original Masters of Immersion stand out from the rest, however.
Such as Thomas Cole, whose pastoral masterpiece The Oxbow is a painting that perfectly describes this awe of nature in the face of disillusionment with modern life as an American in a rapidly-developing country. The aesthetic philosophies of placing the pastoral on a pedestal are prevalent here, with any semblance of human life being mere brush-tips in the developed fields on the right of the painting. While on the left, a lightning-stricken tree trunk stands rugged and stark in the unrelenting wilderness of the land. Tucked deep into the bushes below, peeking right at us from the border of this pastoral dichotomy, is the painter himself with his easel, painting the very scene we are seeing.
This was more than a simple fun little detail by Cole. It was the catalyst for perhaps the most heart-wrenching image which came in this book we are talking about today – one of the final images of Chris McCandless that he took of himself, out in the Northern American wilderness.
Standing there in the middle of nowehere, in amalgamated awe and fear in the face of the void of nature’s relentlessness against those who challenge it, stands the 19th century Thomas Cole and the 20th century Alex Supertramp, staring at us from the picture, as if being the exact same entity altogether. Following the exact same yearnings and passions, yet centuries apart.
While the Hudson River School found its ultimate inspiration in one particular geographic location, this shows us that fascination with a particular wilderness is nothing new in the American pioneer-minded mythos.
Before those disillusioned Punks in the 1970’s were taking a stand against oppression through war in the UK, not a decade earlier the main clique of the disillusioned youth movement known as the hippies took a stand against oppression using peace, all across the USA. The pipers of peace who penned songs for some of this era’s most prolific folk groups, all found themselves gathered in a particular location as well. Crosby Stills & Nash, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead and so many more all lived around, and found their inspiration in the pastoral surrounds of Laurel Canyon in California. This valley quickly became a like-minded respite and morphed into the Catskills mountains of the 20th century music world.
Our dire need for immersion in something, in the face of existential inertia, quite often compels us to be at odds with our own deepest desires, however.
While it is true that both the Catskills Mountains and Laurel Canyon conjured a fair amount of inspiration and change in the world of art, it’s equally as true that both movements had their fair share of detractors and critics.
It’s flying in sheer face of not being able to please everyone all of the time that drove many of these passionate artists from Hugo to Tolstoy to Cole to Crosby and cohorts, to create their most heart-felt and paramount creative works. It’s also the same societal stigma that drove a young mind such as Alex Supertramp to toss his McDonald’s hat down on the ground and quit after returning to civilization for only a few days and starting a temp job, shortly before returning to the Alaskan wilderness one final time.
We want our lives to be the great story we imagine it to be, and for that to happen we need the kind of pleasing immersion that bears both the weight of being magnificent but then also at the same time, the weight of being open to critique.
Because anything that exists enough, becomes open to critique by the objective human mind.
Take the example of the benchmark gaming title for a developer studio in California known as Rock Star San Diego – Red Dead Redemption 2. You need not be familiar with the lore of the game itself or even the developer studio, but what is prevalent information is knowing that we have been yearning for deep immersion in gaming since Generation X kids like Chris McCandless were mulling around the local arcade – playing Pong or hanging around a Dungeons & Dragons boardgame with their personal avatar about 4 decades ago. For years, development and techniques have sought ways to carry us into new worlds, and use mechanics to trick us into immersion in a made-up world. Much in the same way some of the greatest novels can, whether it be the wildernesses of Jack London’s Alaska or the vast landscapes of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, for instance. Escapism has always run adjacent to worlds of both fantasy and reality – even Thomas Cole in his later years turned from pastoral scenes to ones from worlds in his own mind.
So in October of 2018, the world was given a sequel to the extremely popular game Red Dead Redemption – a classic tale of cowboys, betrayal, disillusionment, and the wild and untamed American West. As told by the great Original Masters of Immersion, Rock Star San Diego Studios. The series of games strives to be akin to the greatest Charles Porter or Louis L’Amour novels, and drew heavy inspiration from the works of transcendentalist authors such as James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to name a few.
But what made Red Dead Redemption 2 so special as a game? Its intense levels of immersion mechanics and its rich and vast depiction of the American Wilderness.
For years, gamers had wished they could be given ways to feel as if they are really in a new world, and are experiencing every single part of it. Surprisingly, Red Dead Redemption 2, in amongst all its praise, received a considerable amount of backlash for the sheer volume of mechanics involving its immersion. In this game you aren’t just some avatar that runs from location to location with minimal repercussions. In Red Dead Redemption 2 you have to worry about stamina, eating, cooking, sleeping, drinking water and so many more things that would make the average natural human life seem real and even somewhat cumbersome. Many people slated Rock Star San Diego for creating a game that was “too immersive to be fun”.
Krakauer sets us out on an incredible journey of the human spirit in Into The Wild. He shows us that this yearning is nothing new and is, in fact, tied to a whole deep and rich history of a similar line of thinking. He admits to us that even in his own ventures, the aesthetic of pitting himself against the impossible was the destination, with the sheer beauty and magnitude of nature being merely the awe-inspiring scenery along the way. But the real destination was within himself all along.
That’s where the real wilderness lies.
Into The Wild is a true tale weaved around other true tales but it might as well be the great allegory for disillusionment in the 20th (and 21st) century. The struggle we all have with the version of our ourselves which our altruistic minds want, versus the fallible human equivalent we get in reality. Which is perhaps the great dissatisfaction that drives us all towards ambition in life. Tolstoy changed the face of modern writing well outside of his own lifetime, as did Victor Hugo. The European Romanticists and the American Transcendentalists changed the focus of modern art in ways we can even see today. Especially when we look at modern day Internet aesthetic cultures such as Cottagecore, which envelops and worships the aesthetics of the pastoral and celebrates remote hermitage and “tiny living”.
But what we see in the final days of Alex Supertramp, is the equally-human tendency to place more value in things viewed in retrospect. Experiences are rare to value in the moment, and we should all cherish those that are able to give us that value as we experience them. Time with family, friends, doing what we love. Sometimes, as we become more extracted from something, then we start to see the value.
As Alex Supertramp became removed from his own body, he surely saw the value in his own life as a human being. As Thomas Cole and Tolkien became extracted from their own surroundings, they ventured into the wild and undertook creations that brought generations of value beyond their own lifetime. As the radicalised hippies started to become disillusioned and drop the façade and pretence so many of those young ego-filled minds bore, the truly-valued messengers who were of honest worth stayed behind in the Laurel Canyon hills, for many generations after the initial spark of revolution had long-since burnt out.
Alexander Supertramp, as Krakauer depicts him for us in Into The Wild, seems as if he chose to be that spark itself, instead of simply being content to sit back and watch it light the world in-front of him. He has doubtlessly inspired countless young sufferers of wanderlust to face their own inner fears and strengths, and thanks to brilliant authors such as Krakauer, perhaps he will continue doing so for generations more.
After all, it is in the words of writers and the lyrics of singers in which legend mostly lives on.
It was after being back in England, after having visited the rolling green hills of California, when the British progressive rock group Supertramp, in retrospect, crafted and recorded their Breakfast In America album, on which the swansong of a man such as Chris McCandless can be found:
“Goodbye stranger, it’s been nice… Hope you find your paradise…”