Back at the bus, where nature flourishes in the summer heat, McCandless continues with his routine of hunting and gathering, though he grows very thin. In the margins of Doctor Zhivago, McCandless scribbles an inspired epiphany: “happiness [is] only real when shared.”
Though Chris’ body thins, life thrives around and within him. Nature has not only blossomed, but so has his soul, which has discovered that true happiness is communal experience, celebrated among others. Again, remember that this is happening right around the time when his mother in Chapter 12 hears his voice in her dreams.
Going off this lead, Krakauer popularizes the theory in Outside magazine that a starving McCandless ate wild potato seeds at the recommendation of his edible plant guide, but mistook the wild potato for the similar-looking, yet poisonous sweet pea plant.
By assigning Chris’ death to a simple mistake, Krakauer’s cover story portrays Chris as a careless and incompetent woodsman, incapable of distinguishing between safety and danger.
Yet unsatisfied with his own theory and still suspecting potato seeds to be involved with McCandless’ death, Krakauer takes some seeds from Chris’ campsite to scientists for testing. The results show no trace of poisonous toxins. Upon further investigation over the next four years, however, Krakauer concludes that McCandless, following the suggestions of his guidebook, unknowingly ate a plethora of edible potato seeds that happened to be laced with mold, thereby inciting swainsonine poisoning, which produces an effect that stops the body from being able to absorb energy from food, leading to starvation.
These seemingly innocuous potato seeds actually reveal a complex biochemistry, becoming a metaphor for Chris’ story. While Chris’ death initially appears as an instance of incompetence, Krakauer here shows that Chris’s death was not the result of such a simple, ignorant mistake as mixing up two types of seeds. Rather his death resulted from something that was beyond his knowing, as it was not explained in his foraging book.
Krakauer further observes that had Chris carried a map, he would have known that four cabins circled the bus site. Chris could have sought them out for help, though in fact they were unoccupied at the time and Chris was too weak to walk.
While Chris’ willful ignorance of the land and extreme self-isolation appear to contribute primarily to his death, Krakauer’s comment that the cabins were empty show that even had he known of them it wouldn’t have helped. In this way Krakauer once again emphasizes the role of luck in Chris’ death.
Unable to walk, McCandless spends his last days reading books and pens a goodbye in his journal, thanking God for a happy life, before crawling into the bus for his final rest. In one of his last acts, Chris photographs himself. In the picture, Chris looks emaciated, but Krakauer believes he is at peace.
Even though Chris has traveled thousands of miles, his soul makes the greatest leaps and bounds when he is lost in thought. His picture—as interpreted by Krakauer—is a reminder that life’s greatest discoveries are made in the country of the soul.