When I was a fresh high-school graduate, I followed the status quo and picked a college program to jump into before I’d even really known what I wanted to do for a living. How can you know without experience? I jumped into a Police Foundations program, probably because I’d spent my life watching way too many movies, because I’d fantasized about chasing bad guys in a slick uniform while saying things like, “not on my watch” and “do you feel lucky, punk?”. However, before I’d even graduated from my college program, I felt in my heart that it wasn’t really how I wanted to spend my life; mental stress from continuous conflict, acting as an authority, impossible to separate work from home life. It just didn’t have the same appeal to me as when I started. So when I was free of obligations I would lose myself in video games or movies and just drift into a more exciting existence.
I was working in retail at the time, and sometimes after a shift I would wander over to the electronics section to pick up a new DVD to watch after work. After one exceptionally drab shift I found a movie that really appealed to me, there was a boy sitting on top of an abandoned bus out in the middle of nowhere with the sun shining down on his face beneath a warm blue sky. It was named Into the Wild and it was definitely calling to something primitive inside of me. I bought the movie and watched it that night–not knowing that this random purchase–would change my life forever.
Into the Wild was a tale based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man in his early twenties who came from a well-off family, but had a difficult relationship with his parents. He resented the ideology accepted by society that we must chase money and material, and in that way find happiness rather than in love for others or the simple things. He took off discreetly on an adventure around the United States after graduating with a double major in history and anthropology to travel as a vagabond–free to just move around–with very few material possessions. What he did never came with a diploma and it didn’t look good on a resume–but it made his life feel full–he was alive. The journey started out by car until the car broke down and then continued by foot, train, kayak and the kindness of strangers. He learned that by having very little, it brought out the best and worst of others, and the simple truths of life became more simple to discover. He made many friendships and met many like-minded people who he would stay in touch with along the way.
Even with all of the comforts that he’d known, growing up privileged, this life of drifting and adventure were the happiest moments of his life. I had to know what that felt like… It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Christopher McCandless though; he ended his adventure deep in the wilderness of Alaska, where Chris starved to death, only to be found weeks later by a group of hunters wandering the area. It hurt me, personally, because I felt like I knew why he ran away. I felt like I knew why he never told his family that he was leaving, and I felt like I knew why he never wanted to return. I shared some of those animosities with members of my own family, feeling suffocated by overwhelming demands or attempts to influence my life. I kept Chris in my heart, and a seed had been planted inside of me.
Less than a year later, with some meticulous saving and hard work, I was flying across the Pacific Ocean to the breath-taking islands of New Zealand. The plan came together with the help of a few other friends of mine: Dan, a coworker who was almost a decade older than me, and Gerrit, a high-school friend who had some experience travelling Canada on his own. We relied on each other to find our footing in a country so far away, but none of us knew exactly how we wanted to spend our one-year working holiday after we arrived.
After coming to New Zealand, we found our accommodation for the first few nights and met a non-profit group who helped us to set up our bank accounts, tax numbers and give us advice. We spent the first few weeks of our trip drinking too much with other backpackers, wandering aimlessly, and creating small adventures day-by-day. We lived out of hostels and traveled by bus, and the people that we met inside the hostels were all travelers like us but from assorted countries around the world. My experience was limited with other cultures and this experience allowed me to get to know different cultures more intimately, and while I traveled, I challenged myself constantly to be more daring: mountain carting, white water rafting, volcano hiking, bungee jumping and skydiving (anything that scared me really). Slowly, my confidence was beginning to grow in my own abilities, and I was changing in some way fundamentally which would shape the rest of my life.
As I wandered, I spoke with other backpackers about Christopher McCandless and the movie Into the Wild, only to discover that it was about a book written by Jon Krakauer. I heard that it was great, that I needed to read this book. So, I began my hunt as I traveled the islands in search of this story which brought me so much passion.
Shop, after shop, I could not find this book for the life of me! It had been nearly a month since I’d begun my hunt and every book store clerk told me the same thing– “Sorry, that book goes quickly. We had a copy a few [days/weeks/months] ago but it’s gone now.” So I wandered on, continuing to document my experiences in a journal and exploring my love for writing. I wrote about the winding roads through the snow-capped mountains of the South Island, and of the subtropical beaches to the north, with every bit of variance in between. I recorded epiphanies that I had while travelling and I wrote–not only about who I was–but, who I wanted to be. The time that I had away from the constant obligations of modern living allowed me to begin to finally look inward and to know myself better: my weaknesses, strengths and even my limits. I found confidence in my competence to adapt, humbled by small defeats and discovered friendships with others in passing that I would always remember…
Eventually, I did find the book Into the Wild at a small used bookshop in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.
“You got lucky, somebody just traded it in,” she told me.
“Sweet as!” I shouted out, trying too hard to incorporate New Zealand slang into my vocabulary. Over the course of the next week, with ample time on my hands and only short-term work assignments, I read that book in its entirety.
The book gave me further insight into Chris’ reasons for departure–he was extremely driven to just get away from home and to break that chain of control and influence that he was exposed to at home–just as much as he wanted to travel or live off the land.
“Since they won’t ever take me seriously, for a few months after graduation I’m going to let them think they are right, I’m going to let them think that I’m ‘coming around to see their side of things’ and that our relationship is stabilizing. And then, once the time is right, with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life.”
–Chris McCandless, Into the Wild
This passage resonated with me deeply since one of my biggest motivators to get away was to be distant enough from my family that I couldn’t make the holidays or feel harassed by the latest family drama; I just wanted freedom, peace and space in my life. I had problems with my own controlling and belittling father who pushed his ideologies on me, and I was familiar with the lightness that came from being so far from that world–I felt for Chris.
Towards the end of the fourth month in New Zealand, Dan had separated to work on a kiwi farm up north, and my friend Gerrit and I were separating in Blenheim after I came down with tendinitis in my wrist and could no longer work with grapevines. My bank account was quickly dwindling and after speaking with other backpackers about where the money was, I was told repeatedly that Australia was the best place to earn money and work. So, adapting on the fly I set my sights on Australia. I left my hostel with an Irish man named Tommy who was also heading back up north, but rather than heading directly up, I’d like to think we took a hike worthy of Chris McCandless himself; one week out through the remote hills surrounded by ocean in the Marlborough Sounds.
While reading I was surprised when I discovered that Jon Krakauer himself was able to relate to Chris’ drive for adventure and that many other great adventures had begun because of some form of personal trauma. Maybe it’s a healthy outlet for all that pain to be channeled through; maybe the risks are bearable because the thought of destruction seemed less frightening when life already felt hard; maybe coming out the other end of a challenge was like the Universe’s way of telling reminding those who remained that they were strong and still belong.
Krakauer described his mountain climbing obsession in his twenties as “bath[ing] the world in a halogen glow that caused everything–the sweep of the rock, the orange and yellow lichens, the texture of the clouds–to stand out in brilliant relief. Life thrummed at a higher pitch. The world was made real.” And although my life was not in danger–most of the time–I did feel as though it were the first time that I had truly lived.
After hitchhiking to the Queen Charlotte Track and hiking for five days through the hills that trailed into the ocean, we finally emerged from the trail and returned to the mainland on a water-taxi. Like amateurs, we over-packed, ran out of fresh water along the way and brought difficult foods for a hiking trip, but we learned.
Afterwards, we returned to the North Island, went our separate ways and I applied for a Working Holiday Visa to Australia this time. It wasn’t long before I received approval from the Australian government that I could take my flight to Melbourne and with about 1,500 AUS dollars to my name, I was feeling stressed and desperate. No longer invincible, I felt the burning threat of failure and my anxiety caused me to suffer. But, against all reason, I stuck to my plan and within a few weeks had made my way to a working hostel in the middle of nowhere, Mildura, where I started to earn just enough to keep me afloat and after a while, enough to save.
I went on to stay another year and a half in Australia. I was also fortunate enough to visit Fiji, Thailand and France before returning home again to Canada again reluctantly. Those were two of the greatest years of my life, and even though they were very emotional with ups and downs, they were important. Unlike Christopher McCandless, I was fortunate enough to come back from my adventures alive and able to continue my journey. Years later, I was also able to divorce a few toxic people in my life without running away.
However, I do wonder sometimes, if Christopher McCandless had not lost his life doing what he had done, would he have influenced so many others to follow in his footsteps? Would I have ever traveled overseas in the first place? How many people would still be stuck in the rat race that they felt obliged to participate in? I suppose I’ll never know these answers, but regardless, I know his passion for adventure and the simpler things will live on in the lives of many–myself included.
Quote Highlighted in One of Chris’ Books
“Everything had changed suddenly–the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, whom to listen to. As if all your life had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need of committing yourself to something absolute–life or truth or beauty–of being ruled by it in place of the man-made rules that had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life that was now abolished and gone for good.”
– Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
This was a non-fiction story written for Wilfrid Laurier University
Who’s inspired you in a big way in your life?