Would a woman go 'Into the Wild'?

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"You were like Chris McCandless with a plan." A friend said this to me while swapping coming-to-Alaska stories. This is not true. It is especially not true in light of re-reading the book "Into the Wild" and seeing the movie.

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It is true, like many others, I arrived in Alaska basically betting on the good will of the universe. I had a temporary job in a restaurant on the Kenai Peninsula (it was October), a college education, a little money and a roundtrip plane ticket to Minneapolis

My first summer here coincided with Chris McCandless staking his claim, and loosing his life, in the bus. My degree of free-spiritedness, while eclipsing the people I grew up with, was nothing compared with McCandless; I was never, as Jon Krakauer writes, "on the ragged edge of society." I made student loan payments from my tips, paid rent every month and maintained proper insurance on my truck. So much for being like McCandless.

However, I did begin to see the world in a new way, one not filtered through family or the climb to adulthood many of my college friends embarked on. While my friends plodded into cubicles and made car payments, I served food while overlooking the harbor to both tourists and fishermen. I brought drinks to the snowmachiners.

On days off, I went backpacking with friends. I also severely neglected my family and friends down south: parents, sibling, grandparents, everyone. I'm not sure I could say why, except that at 22, if something could be seen as a gift or a constraint, I leaned toward constraint.

This doesn't make me particularly different from many Alaskans. But this, along with the book "Into the Wild", made me wonder why the narrative lived by McCandless (and countless other young, restless men, many of whom are also recounted by Krakauer) is largely not the same one played out by equally young, equally restless women. I might be wrong, but a glimpse through any bookstore adventure section shouts volumes.

Men seek to battle the wild alone. Do women do the same? In a book I recently read, the author maintains that the extreme action adventure story of women was just different than that of men. She believed that women's tales of endurance usually involved caregiving, divorce, loss of a child, interpersonal strife, domestic violence. In short, women viewed their endurance in light of relationships, while the men purposefully set their struggle outside of the reach of relationships.

Is this true? I, and all other Alaskans, know women are outside, reveling in a physical life in a harsh environment. I have known women who were caretakers of remote lodges, scientists engaging in all types of fieldwork, mountaineers and climbers scaling unreachable peaks, cannery rats camped in tent cities, and teachers in stunningly isolated communities. We are infinitely proud of women like Libby Riddles, Susan Butcher and DeeDee Jonrowe, meeting nature on their own terms. But stories of women who walk into the wilderness alone, with the purpose of aloneness; well, that is a different story.

Chris McCandless had a college education and privilege. I have to wonder if women know instinctively that in our society, even today, the ragged edge is somewhat closer for women, even college educated ones. Women, even young ones, can find themselves plunged into the unexpected by the death (or desertion) of a partner or unplanned pregnancy. Is this what limits the stories we hear? Or do women seek the wilderness with a different agenda altogether, one seeking not to sever ties but to make them? Or are women more careful in their pursuits, less likely to die, and therefore less likely to be splashed across the big screen? Perhaps the real answer is not to wonder why our stories are different. Maybe instead we should value the stories of women in the outdoors, and of women on the ragged edge of society however they may present themselves.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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