October 1, 2007 – Inaugural Issue
When Christopher Johnson McCandless graduated with honors from Emory University with a degree in English literature, he knew too much. The focus on language and the great characters and the classic stories gave him a depth of insight and understanding and perception that left his peers bewildered. Most of his classmates shared a common view of what their education meant. It was the launch pad for a “career.”
But McCandless would have nothing of the predictable notion of career. For most, an Emory degree meant privilege; open doors for higher paying entry level employment with the assurance of rapid upward mobility. Many continued their academic quest, entering graduate programs in business, medicine, law or education among others. The assurance of upscale living seemed to energize theirdreams; but not the dreams of Christopher Johnson McCandless.
Maybe it was the conflict between his mother and father that informed his contrarian views on career. Walt and Billie McCandless pursued dueling careers that left them weary, combative and rich. Chris and his sister Carine observed from close range the regular post-workday sniping. Every night, the quibbling progressed to clever squabbling and after a few drinks escalated to feuding and finally full-on marital warfare. Young Chris would lose himself in his books. He surmised that his embattled house under siege from within was the reflection of a social order gone amuck. The demands of the workplace combined with the pressure to perform at an acceptable level in a neighborhood of over-achievers caught in a consumer culture devouring ever greater volumes of meaningless stuff, expecting an ever expanding display of conspicuous affluence; well, it all made for a private hell. From the curbside it all looked so pleasant and appealing. But by bedtime night after night, the alcohol drenched arguing in the room down the hall drove the young boy into a world of epic story; a world alive with imagery and passions and ideals. Tolstoy and Jack London and Thoreau. A world beckoning him from somewhere out there beyond the hedges and junipers and magnolias.
He didn’t view the manicured neighborhoods of suburban Atlanta as the Promised Land his fellow graduates longed for. He rather considered them as a sad kind of dressed up prison house. The mindless conformity, the sacrifice of joy, the relentless pressure to prove one’s self worthy, the obsession with efficiency and high-performance had no appeal to the new college graduate.
So when Chris turned down the new car as a graduation gift and then gave the remaining twenty-four thousand dollars in his education account to charity, he set out on a new odyssey. He didn’t expect approval or encouragement or permission from anyone. He just left. Into the wild.
It all ended sadly. But the Emory graduate who loved words left a trail of notes and letters and journals. And in them, he documented a rich journey that in a not so random way led him to encounters with people, places and most significant – a natural world of wonder.
Sean Penn read the book (Into the Wildby Jon Krakauer) and then made the film. There is an undeniable spiritual dimension in the chronicle; with lots of Christian imagery. McCandless traveled light – a backpack stuffed with a few good books and some simple tools to live off the land.
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. The true story of Christopher McCandless, aka “Alexander Supertramp,” will draw you in. It may be the memory of that time in your life when the world was new and mysterious and wonderful and you followed those impulses in a full on discovery mode. You were not content with someone else’s version of reality. You had to find out for yourself. Remember? But it will also remind you that there is something more out there than simply getting things done. Much more.
McCandless meets a retired military man, Ron Franz (played with panache by an aging Hal Holbrook) and spends a few weeks in his sparse desert house. Franz lost his wife and daughter nearly forty years before in a random car crash. Alone, somewhere near California’s Salton Sea, Franz moved on from his military career and lost himself in his leather art. He shows McCandless how it’s done. The young college man takes to the craft and makes a leather belt. From one end to the other, in words and symbols, the belt tells the story of his odyssey that began in Atlanta and took him out beyond Mississippi up into the Rocky Mountain high country down the Colorado River into Mexico and up to California. (Later, he would trek the forests of the Pacific Northwest and on to Alaska.)
The friendship sparks something in the older Ron that died a long time ago. Through young Alexander’s eyes, Franz begins to rediscover the world he’s left behind. Up on a mountaintop, where weeks before the young sojourner set up camp, there is a spectacular view of the valley below and the Sea in the distance and he wants to share with the old man. Ron declines to climb the steep rocks to the top. “Too old,” he explains. And he sits back down on the back of his banged up four-wheeler.
“Too old?” Chris calls back from high above. “Too old?” he says it again. “How long you gunna sit on your ass and miss it?”
“Sit on my ass?” the old man yells back. What’s with the blatant disrespect?
But the challenge is on. Ron gets up, mutters something unintelligible and up the mountain he climbs.
At the top, the aging former soldier, breathless but triumphant, turns and takes in the view. The two laugh uproariously and high five the achievement and they sit down on a rock and they talk.
About friendship. About dreams. About God.
Copyright October 1, 2007 Kenneth E. Kemp