'Into the Wild' pilgrimages increase

Posted: Monday, June 30, 2008

HEALY - Ron Alexander has long been intrigued with the true story of a fierce idealist who met his death in Alaska's unyielding wilderness.

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Courtesy Of Villard-Mccandless Family
Courtesy Of Villard-Mccandless Family

Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" only cemented the mystique of Christopher McCandless for Alexander and others heading to Alaska this summer to retrace the steps of the young adventurer along the Stampede Road near Denali National Park. In particular, they want to see the old abandoned bus where the 24-year-old Virginian starved to death in 1992 after more than three months alone trying to live off a harsh landscape.

"That's sort of the heart of the story," said Alexander, 44, of Arlington, Va. "It's almost like a Jim Morrison grave site, where people just want to go see it."

This is exactly what residents in the interior town of Healy, 25 miles east of the bus, feared with the release last fall of "Into the Wild," adapted from Jon Krakauer's best-seller of the same name. They envisioned hordes of copycats making dangerous pilgrimages for a character portrayed as a spiritual visionary rather than an ill-prepared misfit, as many Alaskans view McCandless.

People from all over the world have journeyed to Fairbanks City Bus 142 over the years. But there are signs this could be a boom year for those captivated by a college graduate who turned his back on his wealthy family for his restless wanderings.

The local chamber of commerce has already receiveda couple dozen e-mails from would-be visitors wanting to track the unmonitored route taken by McCandless to the 1940s-era International Harvester bus, used for decades as a shelter for hunters and other backcountry travelers. Former chamber president Neal Laugman writes back warning about a terrain - about 180 miles north of Anchorage - with no cell phone service, unpredictable weather, clouds of mosquitoes and the raging Teklanika River, whose swollen banks prevented McCandless from seeking help. Laugman has gotten replies from people who are determined to make it to the bus no matter what.

"I don't want people to go out there and die. It's that simple," Laugman said. "We won't know that they're there until it's too late."

The EarthSong Lodge is among the last developments along the Stampede Road, which eventually gives way to an old mining trail that traverses the Savage and Teklanika rivers, although the Teklanika is often too high and swift to cross. Alaskans say it's much easier to reach the bus in winter by skis, snowmobile or, as lodge owner Jon Nierenberg prefers, by dog sled. If conditions allow, it's a two-day hike to the bus.

As the weather warms, Nierenberg sees hikers walking past the lodge every couple days, starting the 22-mile trek to the bus. Most of the travelers are young men.

Also, this year most of his guests are familiar with McCandless. Or rather, Nierenberg said, they're aware of a romanticized figure, a characterization not shared by many Alaskans or others. Released about the same time as Penn's big-budget movie was the independent documentary, "The Call of the Wild," in which filmmaker Ron Lamothe attempts to debunk what he calls lingering myths about McCandless.

A musher and former backcountry ranger, Nierenberg has experienced his own share of wanderlust and found himself in situations where he could have died. He understands the draw for other like-minded travelers.

"I don't look at them as nut jobs," he said. "I can easily see where they're coming from. But I think they're sort of idealizing an idea rather than a person."

Alexander, who plans to make the trek with a friend or two in late August, considers himself a bit of a wanderer with a passion for the untamed West in general and hiking national parks in particular. Leaving his urban surroundings as much as possible is crucial for him, said Alexander, a salesman for a Washington, D.C., documentary production company.

McCandless reminds him of himself - to a point. Alexander said he'll be much better prepared and will visit other parts of Alaska not connected to the doomed young man.

"We're not coming up just to do this little pilgrimage," he said. "This is one little element. We're not completely nuts."

Even tourists without plans to see the bus can still view a piece of the saga. Excursion businesses in Denali National Park and Preserve are offering popular off-road McCandless tours that take visitors partway along the muddy, rutted Stampede trail. Some people are disappointed that the scenery is flatter than the flashy snow-covered peaks shown in the movie, only to discover those scenes were filmed closer to the tiny town of Cantwell about 40 miles to the south.

Ridership is significantly higher in the "backcountry safari" offered by Alaska Travel Adventures, which this summer is noting the "Into the Wild" connection. Also up are the backpackers tramping past a cooking camp where safari riders stop for a wilderness meal, said manager Nick Prosser. Many hikers heading back are dehydrated, blistered and "pretty beat," he said.



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