Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8 - Alaska
After Jon Krakauer's article on McCandless appeared in Outside magazine, the author received many letters suggesting that the young man had been mentally ill. Other mail simply questioned his judgment: "Entering the wilderness purposefully ill-prepared, and surviving a near-death experience does not make you a better human, it makes you damn lucky," wrote one reader.
Another reader asked, "Why would anyone intending to 'live off the land for a few months' forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared?"
This chapter offers examples of three others besides Christopher McCandless (Gene Rosselini, John Waterman, and Carl McCunn) who traveled to Alaska to live off the land and failed, most of them miserably. In doing so, it attempts to discover why those individuals — and, by extension, McCandless himself — thought they could live a simple life in a harsh landscape.
This chapter offers context for, and thus perspective on, McCandless's situation. By quoting from some of the many outraged responses to his article, Krakauer shares with the reader the typical reaction to McCandless's story: smug superiority laced with disbelief that anyone could be so foolhardy.
And yet, as the examples of Rosselini, Waterman, and McCunn demonstrate, McCandless is hardly the only individual impelled to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. At the same time, these others provide Krakauer with an opportunity to highlight McCandless's uniqueness; the author characterizes him by contrast with his predecessors. Similar to Rosselini and Waterman, Christopher McCandless "was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature," the author writes. Like Waterman and McCunn, he lacked common sense. McCandless was unlike Waterman in that he was mentally stable. And in contrast to McCunn, McCandless didn't expect to be saved.
"Although he was rash," Krakauer summarizes, McCandless "wasn't incompetent — he wouldn't have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn't a nutcase, he wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't an outcast. McCandless was something else. . . . A pilgrim perhaps."