In the months following McCandless’ death, Krakauer receives mounds of mail criticizing his portrayal of McCandless in Outside magazine. In one long letter, Nick Jans’ rails against Chris’ ill preparedness, ignorance of the land, and aesthetic values, comparing his death to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Chris’ identity is refashioned post-mortem by the media and critics. By likening Chris’ death to an environmental disaster, Jans characterizes Chris’ actions as arrogance in the face of nature. Krakauer, through his book, seems to argue differently, to cast Chris as not simply arrogant but part of a tradition of people moved to extreme action, often in connection with nature.
To explore Chris’ personality and his motivations for venturing into the wild, Krakauer relates the story of Gene Rossellini, the son of a wealthy, well-connected family and a savant who experiments with living like a Neolithic caveman on the shores of Prince William Sound. After spending a decade camping, foraging, hunting and living in extreme poverty, Rossellini inexplicably stabs himself, becoming front-page news and a local legend.
Like Rossellini, Chris reverts to a primitive existence to test out his life beliefs and the limits of his endurance. Their deaths are similarly scrutinized in the public eye, and make both of them look to some people like fools and to others like legends. Unlike Rossellini, Chris did not kill himself—he wanted to live.
Krakauer then tells the story of John Waterman, a mountain climbing prodigy who scales Mt. McKinley at age sixteen, whose sanity gradually unravels in tandem with his parents’ divorce and the untimely deaths and disappearances of family and friends. To publicize an anti-hunger campaign, the half-crazed Waterman impulsively decides to ascend the most treacherous face of Mt. McKinley alone, during wintertime, with a minimum of food, supplies and gear. Haunted by Waterman’s fatalistic final goodbyes and missives, friends and authorities believe that he likely fell through the ice crevasses to his death, without ever attempting to save himself.
Like Waterman, Chris takes on dangerous challenges with a minimum of resources and planning, but his S.O.S. note at his campsite indicates that he actively strived to live, even when death loomed closely. While Waterman actively embarks on a journey of self-destruction, Chris shows more stamina for living by surviving on his own in the wild for 113 days and by seeking out help when he needs it most. His self-preservation suggests that Chris searches for life in the wild, not death.
Krakauer next moves to the story of Carl McCunn, an affable and absentminded Texan who hires a pilot to drop him in a remote region of the Alaskan bush, where he plans to camp for the summer. In an “astounding oversight,” he fails to arrange with the pilot a time to fly out at the end of the season. Yet just as winter approaches and McCunn’s supplies grow thin, a small plane flies over his campsite. Signaling to the pilot, he punches his fist in the air, but after two passes the plane does not stop. McCunn later realizes that his signal indicated that he was all right. If he had raised two arms he would have signaled for help. McCunn continues to fantasize about being rescued, but overwhelmed by starvation and the cold he ultimately shoots himself in his tent. Alaska State Troopers discover his body two months later.
Like McGunn, Chris is absentminded, naïve, and lacks common sense, but Chris intends to enter and exit the wild on his own terms. McCunn depends on others to get him in and out of the wood, but Chris takes charge of himself to and from the wild. For instance, he turns down Wayne’s plane ticket offer so that he can hitchhike all the way to Alaska and when he decides to leave the woods, Chris attempts to hike back out on his own. While McCunn falls victim to his dependence on others, Chris actively resists depending on anyone for help. Yet there is also a similarity between the two, as their deaths ultimately arise out of simple mistakes that could just as easily be chalked up to luck.