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The wilderness is composed of a variety of landscapes that are both captivating and treacherous in nature. Such environments inspired Chris McCandless to substitute his life of conformity for spontaneity, and to trek across the country unto his death. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer retraces McCandless’ obscure journey across North America. Before presenting the findings of McCandless’ travels, Krakauer introduces each chapter with one or two epigraphs, often excerpts highlighted by McCandless himself. A particular epigraph originates from Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, arguing the purpose of the wilderness:
Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made for his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation. (quoted in Krakauer, 157)
This epigraph captures the utilization of the wilderness as an escape from humanity and a platform to openly express thought. However, Nash fails to mention the instinctive need for socialization and the inability of nature to solve all problems.
Wilderness can be characterized by land in its rawest form, free of industrialization and human intervention. Because nature strikingly contrasts cities, it is often a location where people flee in order to not only escape society, but also escape their problems in it. McCandless fled for the wilderness to evade “the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it” (Krakauer, 55). Nature’s isolation from society allows for one to sever their contact with the rest of the world and achieve ultimate solitude. Upon entering the wilderness, McCandless was finally “emancipated from the stifling world of material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence” (22).
Wilderness is the perfect environment in which to actively practice philosophical thoughts, especially those instilled by the Romanticism movement. Romantic thought is heavily influenced by inspiration drawn from nature. McCandless, “born into the wrong century” (174), was a modern romantic of his time and openly displayed his enamoration in the freedom of the wilderness. Nature provides the inspiration needed to fuel creative drive while maintaining insusceptibility to government control or criticism. Universal freedom granted by the wilderness allows uninhibited expression of a large spectrum of beliefs and emotions. In the wilderness McCandless adopts and develops his own philosophy of “Deliberate Living” and the “Great Holiness of Food” (168) successfully without anyone to debunk his beliefs.
Although the wilderness is an environment for ultimate freedom, it must not be demeaned into a platform to balance problems. The epigraph captures the positive aspects of the wilderness but leaves negative traits associated with the wilderness unacknowledged. Nash portrays solitude as a benefit in nature, but deprivation of social contact can cause intense loneliness or psychological weakness. Humans have adapted to be social creatures, and therefore tend to enjoy the company of others, especially in unnerving circumstances. Krakauer explains, “I’m happy as hell that I’m not here alone” (176), when traversing through the disquieting landscape of Alaska. Even McCandless kept in contact with close friends Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg throughout his journey. And although many seek to escape their problems in the wilderness, sometimes the problems will still remain when they return. Such is the case of Krakauer after climbing the Devil’s Thumb “it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams” (155).
Overall, Nash rightfully portrays the wilderness as a perfect setting for those who seek to escape humanity, judgment, and ignorance, as well as and a canvas on which one can paint their soul and emotions without hesitation. However, the impending threat of loneliness and the inability of the wilderness to assist in solving problems should be recognized in order to avoid misconceptions of reality. The wilderness reaches to the far ends of the Earth, bordering the corners of ever-expanding industrialization. Although it may not hold all of the answers to the world’s problems, it extends open arms to all the world’s hopes and dreams. Taking up the priceless offering of freedom, McCandless, like many others, did away with society and threw themselves into the wild.
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