Out of the wild

Halfway across Qinghai, sensing that I had a cold coming on, I decided to give myself an early night, bought some cake, pitched my tent in a sunny spot between two fields of barley, and rummaged through the (by now substantial) library on my Kindle for some entertainment. (Ercan, the wonderful Turkish cyclist who hosted me over New Year, gave me a couple of dozen bootleg books, which have made an immeasurable difference to my morale over the past few months – thank you Ercan!)

I found myself dithering between Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild and Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. And noticed immediately that, although they’re very different sorts of book (effectively a comedy and a tragedy), each takes as its subject the American wilderness, and man’s (rarely woman’s) curious, obsessive and often highly perilous relationship with it. But of course! Even though I haven’t consciously begun to prepare for my second continent, my mind and reading habits are leaping ahead, anticipating my desires and ambitions before I even know them myself. Back in summer 2010, I found myself switching from Ian Sinclair to Jay Griffiths long before I sensed that that my mind was about to wrench itself from its comfortable London circles and start yearning for open roads and distant horizons. Maybe in future I should learn to view my literary preferences as an early warning sign – like the strange behaviour of animals several hours before an earthquake strikes.

I chose Into The Wild, Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man who famously gave away his savings, abandoned his car, cut his ties with his family and disappeared into the Alaskan woods, where his emaciated body was found by hikers several months later. Krakauer’s work has been one of my discoveries of the past year, and I admire him immensely. I picked up Under The Banner Of Heaven whilst staying with the wonderful Jez in Bulgaria last October. I found myself reading Where Men Win Glory, an account of a single soldier’s death in Afghanistan, when I was in Bam, almost as close as I’d get to the Afghan border. Again, without really meaning to, I was reading Into Thin Air, about the disastrous 1996 season on Everest, as I approached the Himalayas.

Krakauer, himself an accomplished mountaineer, disdains to keep any sort of authorial distance from his subject. He frequently writes in the first person and is frank about his personal prejudices and shortcomings, and his books are the richer for it. Into Thin Air was the result of a commission from Outside magazine, to investigate the phenomenon of guided expeditions on Everest. At Krakauer’s persuasion, the magazine funded him actually to join one of the teams, and he was present on the mountain during the May 10th storm that killed 11 people. Although this might be considered something of a journalistic coup, Krakauer is frank about the long-lasting psychological effect the deaths of his team mates had on him, and about the guilt and regret that appear to eclipse any triumph he might have felt at conquering the highest peak on earth.

Into The Wild is similarly intimate. Krakauer felt compelled to write the book after noticing unsettling parallels between Chris McCandless’ life and motivations and his own. Both had troubled relationships with overbearing fathers and a consuming urge to escape the manacles of civilization and test themselves agaist the wilderness. Both undertook risky and ill-advised expeditions into the Alaskan interior. One survived; one didn’t.

As I read Into The Wild a grey blanket of cloud drifted across the sky and rain drops began to tap on my flysheet. My throat began to ache. The book depressed me, though I had trouble saying why. I swapped to A Walk In The Woods for a bit of light relief, but after a while a strange sort of compulsion led me back to Krakauer’s book and I finished it the next day.

Jon Krakauer’s books are, among many other things, a study of the angry young man, led by the high principles and absolute ideals of his early twenties, tempted towards the abyss by an abstact idea of death that has not yet gained its sting, repulsed by the fallibility and mere humanity of his family and society. Many of the young men I’ve crossed paths with in the past year have Into The Wild in their backpacks or on their e-readers. One had ‘In memory of Chris McCandless’ inscribed on his bike. For them, McCandless is clearly a hero; Into The Wild a bible.

How then, to explain the simultaneous distaste and fascination I felt as I read it? I am not an angry young man. But I am a stubborn and cynical spinster, who, whilst not abandoning civilization entirely, has recognized her always-uneasy relationship with it and elected to live in its margins.

(Oh, and what a beautifully apt metaphor! For isn’t it the business of marginalia to comment on, and expand, and contest, and subvert whatever is written in the main text? And to draw the reader’s attention to other texts? And to remind them that there is always more to life than this one stream of thought?)

I did find plenty in Krakauer’s portrait of McCandless that I could identify with. The longing to escape from society’s anaesthesis; the lack of interest in money and financial stability; the sincere but temporary or episodic connections with people met along the way; the exhilaration and enlightenment of life among the elements. Perhaps a part of my revulsion was the discomfort of unexpectedly catching sight of one’s own reflection; the momentary unfamiliarity, then the aghast recognition.

Or it could have been the uncompromising extremity of McCandless (and of the younger Krakauer) that I objected to. Perhaps I am more moderate than I thought – or have become so as I left my twenties. Everest was my childhood ambition, but after reading Into Thin Air, and realizing that anyone who sets out to climb Everest has to accept not only the significant possibility of their own death, but the likelihood that they will witness the deaths of others and be unable to help, I realized I was simply no longer interested. No matter what the challenges of my expedition, it seems I will not operate without a reasonable assurance of making it home in one piece.

Krakauer dwells, uncomfortably and no doubt deliberately, on the effects of all this youthful bravado and idealism (and, possibly, naivety) on the families of his protagonists. Into The Wild ends with the pilgrimage of McCandless’ grieving and bewildered parents to the spot where he died. They, like the widow of Pat Tillman in Where Men Win Glory, say they will never fully recover from their loss. His obsession with Everest very nearly cost Krakauer his marriage; his colleagues who died on the mountain all left partners, and some of them children. Always floating near the surface is the question of whether the risks taken by mountaineers, soldiers and angry young men like McCandless can ever be justified against the devastation wreaked on their loved ones when they perish.

Maybe as a woman, albeit an unconventional one, I am just more attached to the world to start with. Over a year ago I stated that I had no interest in abandoning civilization altogether – just of shaving off the bits of it I considered superfluous; finding the optimum balance between the technology of humans and the immanent power of nature. Yes, I need a bicycle, but no, I don’t need an engine – I have my legs.

And in fact, since I left them all behind, I’ve become closer to many of my friends and relatives. Perhaps it’s my age. It becomes more obvious to me with every month that passes that I will not be settling down and having babies. Unexpectedly, this realization has caused me to strengthen my ties with the families, social and genetic, that I already have. Instead of a spouse, I have my brothers and sisters to look after me. Instead of my own children I will have those of my friends to read books to and ride bikes with. When all the nuclear families get together and tuck themselves in for Christmas, I and my fellow spinsters will pop open the gin and congratulate each other on the choices life has made for us.

But none of this can be taken for granted. My situation has made me realize that the spiderweb of our connections can just as easily be a tightrope we might fall off at any minute. It will take an awful lot of love and trust to maintain the ties that bind us, and I am not prepared to trample the vulnerability of that love and trust by wantonly getting myself killed.

Was this what spurred my instinctive revulsion to Krakauer’s angry young men? I don’t know. There may be much more to it, and you probably haven’t heard the last on this subject.

And has anyone ever documented the emotions and motivations of the restless spinster as extensively as Krakauer has those of the angry young man? If not, then I fear I might be about to.

Leave a Comment


  1. zero
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    So – if you suddenly find yourself reading Jules Verne and H G Wells, should we start worrying?

  2. Don
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Restless spinsters rock! Bring on the book…

    …once the bike ride is finished of course 😉

  3. Posted July 18, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    love your work

  4. Posted July 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    “One had ‘In memory of Chris McCandless’ inscribed on his bike. For them, McCandless is clearly a hero; Into The Wild a bible.”

    You know, that’s from me:-)

    Welcome my dear friend,

    welcome to the club of pathfinder. The Boy Scouts for a different life. I am glad that you now have read this remarkable book, and touch your heart. And you thought the same of me and my dedication on the wheel.

    Yes, Chris McCandless is a hero to me. Like many others, you’ve already taken on your long journey. No, the book is not a bible for me. It was more of an awakening experience. Nevertheless, without this book I probably never would have broken out of my boring middle-class life, we would have never met in Croatia. I think this book speaks to a whole generation. A generation which is looking for new answers to life. Similar to our parents at that time, the 68s, the “Woodstock kids.”
    But today it is much faster. Networking is much faster. We, all between 20 and 35 years to learn a lot faster.
    Emily, we are brother and sister in our hearts. And we meet our brothers and sisters on the streets this world.

    After my travels I am trying now for 3 months leading to a “normal” life, with flat, boring job and sitting around. I find it harder and harder. I KNOW there is more out there and inside us, as what we believe to be in this materialistic society.

    And yes, he added to his family much pain, but he went HIS way. And what could be larger to achieve in this life?!

    Your article made ​​me very emotional. What Chris McCandless was trying to achieve, was more a feeling than an ideal. And this feeling is: Freedom and Unity ..

    Keep going your way. All the best. I just became very thoughtful.

    “Rather than love, than money, than fame give me truth.”
    H.D. Thoreau

  5. peter
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    What a strange coincidence..I flicked through “Into the Wild” earlier today. I decided against buying it after skim reading afew pages…behind the idealism, McCandless seems to have been quite a isolated, angry person. I was shocked to discover he was only on the road for four months. What a tragic end to a young life.

    Emily, have you read “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp” by W.H Davies ?

    • Oliver
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Sure, he was careless, selfish, uncompromising and very disappointed by the society. But he was wrong with the description of the condition of society?Isn’t it??! And this in the 90? What’s now, 20 years later?

      You do not have to share everything, what and how he did it. But he has important things mentioned above that everyone can think of. And then it tinkers your own way – no, not even I would starve in the wilderness!

  6. Jon Day
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    This is great Emily, hope all’s well.

  7. Susie Alexander
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. The book made me very angry, too. However, I think it was the endless description of the self obsession and selfishness of the individuals that I couldn’t stomach…

  8. Jamie
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I will be trying out some (mini) cycle touring for myself over the next few days. Tomorrow and Friday I am cycling to London from Northants. I am planning a route into London of St Albans, Shenley and Borehamwood and then down the A5 for some miles to Abbey Road and ultimately to Buckingham Palace and on to my brother’s house in Battersea Park, on Saturday I’ll head through Chelsea and then to Richmond Park and down to Box Hill for the Olympic cycling.

  9. Peter Walker
    Posted July 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the thought-provoking posts, Emily, and I look forward to more!

  10. q
    Posted July 30, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    i loved this post. about families and ties. yes, one person who did write about the angry young woman is emily dickonson, and the brontes. i need to read into the wild before i can comment, but for starters, anger looses its appeal after the twenties. :)
    there might be other reasons as well that make us connect to our social and genealogical families, like appreciating them coz they did stick with us…esp through the Turbulent Twenties :p