Summary and Analysis
Chapter 11 - Chesapeake Beach
Jon Krakauer interviews Walt McCandless at home after his son's body is recovered from the abandoned bus. Walt wonders how " . . . a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain."
Krakauer reflects on the dynamics that might have caused a break between father (and mother) and son. Why did Chris disappear and stay out of touch with his parents for two entire years? Like his son, Walt McCandless was an intense individual, often mercurial and at times brooding. A NASA scientist and radar specialist, he was considered brilliant by his colleagues.
According to his parents, Chris was a smart child who was placed in an accelerated school program for gifted students — a program eight-year-old Chris tried to get out of since he didn't want to do the extra schoolwork associated with it. Chris was also eight when he went on his first backpacking trip.
His parents worked hard and weren't readily available to Chris and his younger sister Carine. Additionally, with both parents working together on a consulting venture, the atmosphere around the house was often tense. But the family traveled frequently together, buying an Airstream trailer and taking to the road. Carine McCandless recalls, "There was always a little wanderlust in the family, and it was clear early on that Chris had inherited it."
Though small, Chris was strong for his size and well-coordinated. He had trouble following rules. At the age of 10, McCandless began to run competitively, and in his teens he became a top distance runner in his region. He became interested in ending apartheid in South Africa, and in his senior year of high school, McCandless started talking to friends about smuggling arms into South Africa so they could join the struggle against apartheid. Concerned as well about hunger in America, he bought and distributed hamburgers to indigents in Washington, D.C. McCandless once arranged to let a homeless man live in the trailer his parents had parked near their house. After high school, he was offered a job working in Annandale, but he declined, instead driving across the country before leaving for Emory University in Atlanta.
This chapter asks more questions than it answers — and understandably, since the riddles it poses cannot be solved definitively. Are Christopher McCandless's parents responsible for their son's death? Was his personality shaped by, or even inherited from, them? Could his parents have interceded and altered his behavior, thereby changing his fate?
For that matter, what exactly was McCandless rebelling against, aside from middle class ennui? Also, wouldn't it have been more productive for him to have resumed his work on behalf of the homeless, hungry, or disenfranchised after college, instead of indulging his whimsical notions of (his own) survival?