One Man's Paradise

Lost and found

“I was born lost and
take no pleasure
in being found.”

John Steinbeck


That quote resonates with me. What did John Steinbeck feel?

He was a celebrity when he wrote this in “Travels with Charley”, a travelogue about him crossing America in a camper with his poodle Charley in the 60s. John was depressed, in bad health, feeling he had lost his touch with America. In order to reconnect, some say because he had a contract to write another best-seller, he got into a camper and drove across America. As a fiction writer he may have embellished or invented some conversations that made it into the book. Nevertheless his perception about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, and the trashing of the environment was authentic.

A few weeks ago I visited Chilkoot Lake for the first time, a remarkable serene, and peaceful place in Southeast Alaska. Spring had just arrived. An imperceptible breath from the mountains ruffled the mirror-like surface of the lake. I had this mesmerizing place to myself for the whole time. The pleasure of traveling alone, without an itinerary.

Then again, happiness is only real when shared, as Chris McCandless wrote. So here is my ticket to happiness, sharing an image of this magic moment at Chilkoot Lake with you.

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Inside Out

118 drops of rain

“Severe drought. Conserve water.” That’s what California highway signs say these days. They don’t tell us exactly how to do that. The foothills are golden brown, as every yeqr. The wildflowers in the mountains are in full bloom. Is it their effort to fight the drought?

We hiked a few miles on the PCT, which near Carson’s pass is a well-traveled highway. Clouds were lingering for 2 days over our heads. At night, finally, rain drops hit our tent. Not enough to wet the ground. Not enough to make a difference.

At night, I finished “Finding Everett Ruess”. An amazing story that has been told many times by now and I believe, the final word has not been written, yet. The parallels to Chris McCandless are obvious, with notable exceptions. Chris stopped communicating with his parents during his quest, while Everett stayed in regular contact writing and receiving letters even in extremely remote places. While Chris’ body was found a few weeks after his death, the Ruess family never learned the final fate of their beloved Everett, instead they were taken for a ride many times over by crooks, and shady characters looking to benefit from the hope and despair of a family in search of a son and brother that had disappeared in the desert.

I feel the cult around Everett and Chris is a reflection on the fascination of our human society with tragedy, as both adventurers did not seek notoriety during their life time, quite the contrary. They followed their dreams. They died following their dreams. This makes good material for books and movies, because we love it.

I am sitting on the fence here. I did hike to the bus on Stampede trail, and would describe it as a spiritual experience. I do love the Southwest and the relics of the native cultures. I would not go as far as idolizing Chris, Everett, and many other lone travelers. It seems to me, they did not cope well with society. They chose to travel alone, which gave their life purpose. Stable, suitable company remained elusive to them until their untimely death.

“Happiness is only real when shared.” – Chris McCandless

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Into the Wild

“Happiness is only real when shared”

Those were some of the words Christopher McCandless wrote in his diary.

Made me think, when I arrived at the bus on Stampede Trail in Denali. I was glad to be in good company able to share this memorable moment. You can read the book, you can watch the movie, or you can listen to all the opinions on Chris’s life and adventures… Consider hiking to the bus yourself and get a real feel for what it takes to live out here. Amazingly enough the trail was put in by miners hunting for precious minerals and metals… They kept on going beyond the bus, off course. There were folks living in even more remote locations year-round with no road access. Lived in isolation for years, self sufficient, without any services to speak off. Living of the land. This is not to diminish Chris’s life. Just to put things in perspective, sort of.

The bus

The bus in which Christopher McCandless lived and died.

It’s no secret how to get there. Erik Halfacre maintains a detailed web site that contains all the information you need to get there. Information is a good start. You still need to master the hike. 20 miles of mud, snow, ice, water, mosquitoes, maybe a bear or two…, depending on the season and the weather it may be a breeze, or it could be simply suicide.

Standing at the banks of the Teklanika river certainly demands some respect. Haven’t crossed an Alaskan river before? Start at some other place. This river can be a death trap. It’s going to be a cold soaker no matter what, unless you are there in the midst of winter.

When we arrived at the Tek we saw a wet suit dangling in the wind and some size 15 sneakers on the ground. Is that the way you cross the river? I saw the wooden triangle on the other side. The water was moving swiftly, too high for my taste at that location.

We marched South for a half mile to find a spot, where the river is more braided. It took us maybe 2 minutes in the end to cross the frigid river. It seemed longer. Waist deep. Freezing cold. Knowing that Chris could not cross this river on his way back puts a voice in your head. I was relieved when we reached the other side. This river crossing is certainly the crux of the approach. The trail is pretty obvious, although under water in many places.

We were lucky with the weather. Mid September. No mosquitoes, freezing at night, wonderful day time temperatures. We even got a glimpse of Denali. Fall colors in the tundra. And then all of the sudden: the bus. Just like that.

A glimpse inside, just like in the movie. The chair outside…

We are here. No, it’ not just a bus, like the game warden said on the way back. It’s the bus, where Chris lived and died. The bus is disintegrating. It did and still offers shelter in the midst of nowhere. Why come here? Because it’s there, maybe.

We both wrote something in the visitors log. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote. It’s not important. Be kind to each other. Live your life. Something like that.

Even 21 years after his death he is revered by many, ridiculed by others. Interestingly enough the critics may have to reconsider their position, as a recent article by John Krakauer suggest a fatal connection between malnutrition and the poisonous effect of Hedysarum alpinum, a common plant in the Denali tundra that Chris may have consumed.

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