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.