In October 1990, a team of park rangers, led by Bud Walsh, discovers McCandless’s yellow Datsun abandoned in the Detrital Wash, near Lake Mead. Some loose change and twenty-five pounds of rice are left in the car with the keys in the ignition. Another ranger starts the Datsun and drives it out of the desert, while the rest of the team searches for the car’s owner.
The condition in which the car is left suggests that its owner is absentminded and irresponsible. But its mysterious appearance in the desert also suggests that there is more to Chris’ story than meets the eye, encouraging the reader to investigate further.
Using notes from Chris’ journal, Krakauer reports that on July 6, McCandless, ignoring posted warnings, drove off-road into the Detrital Wash and sets up camp. A thunderstorm’s flash flood nearly sweeps Chris away, but leaves the car’s engine wet, preventing him from starting the ignition immediately. Thinking that his car is broken, Chris abandons his car, hides it, and buries his belongings in order to conceal his predicament from the authorities and his parents. He then burns his remaining cash—nearly one hundred and twenty dollars—and sets off into the desert.
Unwilling to seek help, Chris puts his road trip above the law, his wellbeing and parents’ peace of mind, showing his journey of self-discovery to be, at the same time, both an extreme exploration of himself and selfish and self-destructive. This incident also demonstrates Chris’ reckless behavior and good fortune. Chris could have drowned, but survives. Similarly, had Chris had more patience, he would have discovered that his car still worked. By moving on without car or cash, Chris renounces materialism, but also pushes his luck, forgoing safety, security and convenience for adventure.
Suffering from heat stroke and realizing the folly of hiking into the desert without water or proper supplies, Chris flags down some boaters on the edge of Lake Mead. “Allowing his life to be shaped by circumstance,” he begins hitchhiking, traveling from Lake Tahoe to Oregon.
Though liberated by his itinerant lifestyle, Chris’ desert rescue highlights his reliance upon the goodwill of others, who save him from his foolish mistake. Chris’ footloose way appears carefree, but the risks and stakes are high.
Chris works as a ranch hand for a rancher named Crazy Ernie for a short time, but takes to the road when he realizes that he will not be paid for his labor.
Despite denouncing money, Chris maintains a traditional view of labor relations. This can be seen as undermining his strong held disdain for material wealth, or his insistence on personal individual dignity.
On U.S. Highway 101, drifters Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob meet McCandless. Reminded of her estranged son, Jan takes Chris under her wing, teaching him the ways of tramping and hitchhiking. They camp for a week together. After leaving, Chris sends them postcards every few months.
By showing Chris the ropes, Jan becomes a surrogate mother to Chris. While Chris’ real parents attempt to buy their son’s affection, Jan earns Chris’ respect—represented by his postcards to her—by sharing knowledge of the road.
Before meeting Jan and Bob, McCandless is ticketed for hitchhiking and uncharacteristically gives his parents’ address to the officer. When the ticket arrives, Walt and Billie hire private eye Peter Kalitka to investigate. Kalitka does not find Chris, but learns that he donated the remainder of his college fund—$24,000—to OXFAM.
By donating to OXFAM, Chris not only renounces his wealth, but also cuts ties with his affluent family. However, Chris’ run-in with the law tests his resolve to shun his parents, showing that his determination to be family-free is not as firm as it appears.
Later, in Arizona, Chris buys a canoe “on impulse,” deciding to boat down the Colorado River and across the Mexican border to the Gulf of California.
Chris’ spontaneous purchase highlights his impulsive nature, thirst for adventure, and risky behavior.
In his canoe, McCandless sneaks through the Mexican border. He becomes lost in a labyrinth of canals for days, but “by fantastic chance” happens upon a troupe of English-speaking Mexican hunting guides, who pick him up and drive him to the ocean. Chris calls the encounter a “miracle” in his journal.
Chris’ adventurous spirit and good luck serendipitously converge to rescue him from a risky situation. Chris’ description of the encounter emphasizes his good fortune. Had luck not struck so fortuitously, he might not have survived.
McCandless paddles south and camps along the coast, subsisting upon five pounds of rice and the fish and other marine life he catches. On a “very fateful day” in January his boat nearly capsizes in a storm, causing him to abandon his canoe and head north.
Though Chris lives in concert with nature his life is threatened during a storm, highlighting his precarious position in the wild. His survival is not “fate,” simply good fortune. There is little difference between his survival here and death in Alaska other than luck.
While crossing the border without ID, Chris is detained by immigration authorities. He concocts a story to get out of jail, but loses his beloved rifle in the process.
Chris shows a disregard for rules and authority by crossing the border illegally. That he loses his cherished rifle as a consequence hints that Chris’ reckless actions come at a cost.
Hitchhiking throughout the Southwest, Chris goes to Los Angeles to get a job and ID, but returns to the road, feeling “uncomfortable in society.”
Chris attempts to integrate into society after his run-in with the law, but his free spirit cannot be contained, nor comforted by city life.
After abandoning another job in Las Vegas, Chris returns to the desert to retrieve his backpack, but finds that his camera has been destroyed. Even so, he exuberantly writes in his journal that he has successfully fended for himself on city streets and is thankful to be alive.
Having stripped himself of most of his worldly possessions, Chris fully embraces poverty and his itinerant life. Chris’ camera may seem like a small casualty, but suggests that his quest for freedom and self-knowledge also comes at a price.