Into the Woods
A Sermon Given
by Henry Ticknor
July 26, 1998
at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church
In April 1992, Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man
from a well-to-do family in the Northern Virginia suburb of
Annandale, hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the
wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. He carried with him a ten-pound
bag of rice, a twenty-two-caliber rifle, and his cheap hiking boots
which were neither waterproof nor insulated. He had no ax, no bug
dope, no snowshoes, no compass, and his only map was a torn road
map he had taken from a service station. Four months later his
decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.
McCandless grew up in nearby Northern Virginia. He attended local
schools, Frost Middle School and graduated from Woodson High
School. His father Walt is a noted aerospace engineer who designed
advanced radar systems for the space shuttle before starting his own
consulting firm. Chris' mother, Billie, also worked with the firm.
This was a blended family and there were eight children in all. There
was a younger sister, Corine, with whom Chris was very close, and
six half brothers and sisters from his father's first marriage. As an
eight-year-old, he grew vegetables behind the house in Annandale and
sold them door to door. When he was twelve, he printed up a stack
of fliers and started a neighborhood copy business. In high school he
excelled academically and athletically. In June of 1986 he graduated
from Woodson High School.
Shortly after his graduation he announced that he was going
to spend the summer driving across the country. But as McCandless'
biographer, Jon Krakauer writes, "No one in his family could have
foreseen that a chance discovery during this initial journey would
ultimately turn him inward and away, drawing Chris and those who
loved him into a morass of anger, misunderstanding, and sorrow."
During the initial part of this post high school cross country
journey, he visited the old neighborhood in El Segundo, California
where he had spent the first six years of his life. He called on old
friends and neighbors, and through a series of revelations, he was able
to piece together a part of his father's past that caused him a great
deal of pain. It appears that Walt continued his relationship with his
first wife long after he and Billie were married. He divided his time
between the two families and two years after Chris was born, Walt
fathered another son with his first wife. When his father's double life
came to light, the revelations were terribly painful to all parties.
Although it took nearly two years for this smoldering anger to
surface, when the cause was revealed it had a profound impact on the
young man and his family. However, Chris never confronted his
father with this knowledge. He chose instead to keep it secret, buried
inside, but slowly his anger began to emerge in silence and
withdrawal. He began to see the world in very definitive terms . . . as
good or bad. He began to turn away from friendships and
companions, to espouse unpopular causes and to speak out at every
opportunity against oppression and government intervention.
During his senior year at Emory University he became more
and more distant from family and friends. He hardly communicated
with his parents. However at his graduation, his parents believed that
he was happy and they had hopes that he would enter law school.
However, these hopes were set back when Chris indicated that
following graduation from Emory he was going to take another
extended trip. Although he promised that he would visit the family
in Annandale before he left, he never came north. Instead, he had the
post office hold all of his mail, he donated the balance of his bank
account, an amount close to twenty-four thousand dollars, to
OXFAM, the international relief organization, loaded up his car,
changed his name to Alexander Supertramp, declared he was now
master of his destiny, and vanished. He vanished on a journey that
would take two years and would cover thousands of miles. He
traveled to the deserts of the great Southwest; the marshes of southern
California and the Baja; to Grand Junction, Colorado; Seattle,
Washington; Carthage South Dakota; finally to Alaska and to his final
shelter -- an old and dilapidated school bus along an abandoned
mining road called the Stampede Trail.
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, another notable young
man set out on a journey of self-discovery and independence. He
walked away from the comfortable surroundings of his home, his
family, and his friends, intending to live a solitary and Spartan life in
a rough hewn shack he had built beside a pond. From an early age he
seems to have liked being by himself. Biographers have described
him as a "dreamy child who hated games, street parades and shows
and company in the house." Being out in nature was always
appealing to him because when he was in the wild there was no
human intrusion into the private world of his thoughts. He graduated
from Harvard College at the age of twenty. At that time there were
essentially three career fields open to this young man. He could go
into the ministry, as many of his classmates had done; he could go
into a secular profession such as teaching, the law or medicine; or he
could go into trade. None of these really interested him, but after
some reflection he went into teaching. This career did not really
interest him and so after a couple of half-hearted attempts he left the
profession. His family was concerned that he had no visible means
of support and on more than one occasion, they made it clear that they
would like to know when he was going to start making a respectable
living. No doubt his parents wanted to know, just when did he think
he was going to "get his act together" and straighten out! "Just what
are you planning to do for the rest of your life?" seemed to be the
frequently asked question. Well, after some deep soul searching
Henry David Thoreau made two decisions. First, that he was going
to become a poet, (now there's a reassuring career path, parents of
college students you might want to take note!) and secondly, that if
he was going to be a poet he should live a life style appropriate to this
vocation. Thus, he decided to build a cabin on the edge on Walden
Pond. Thoreau moved to his cabin, "to live deliberately, to front only
the essentials of life." He did not want to be a mere observer of life
but to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
What can be discerned from the lives of these two young
men? Both in their mid to late twenties, both who determined that
mainstream society does not hold a place for them. Both who go
"into the wild" on a journey of self-discovery and illumination.
Neither one was particularly unique in the attempt to find himself in
the wilderness. Native Americans went on vision quests, history is
full of aesthetes whether of religious orders or not, who went into the
wilds to find faith and meaning in their lives. One does not have to
be a student of Joseph Campbell to understand the many metaphors
that religion and literature have created around wilderness. One has
only to recall the opening passage of Dante's Inferno which reads in
part, "in the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within
a dark wood where the straight way was lost" to be reminded of how
often throughout literature individuals have used the wilderness as a
metaphor for life's vicissitudes. Moses and the people of Israel
wandered the desert for forty years, and Jesus is reported to have gone
into the desert for forty days and nights . . . and so on.
What drew Chris McCandless and Henry David Thoreau to
seek insight and knowledge in the wilderness? What ultimately led
to the death of one and the spiritual rebirth of the other? Why did one
find only isolation and increasingly narrow thinking, while the other
found companionable solitude?
During his odyssey, McCandless met and lived with several
people whom he considered to be friends. Although he rarely took
their advice or accepted any material gifts from them, he seems to
have left a lasting impression. To one friend he wrote the following:
Ron, I really enjoy all the help you have given me and the times we
spent together. I hope that you will not be too depressed by our
parting . . . But providing I get through this Alaska deal in one piece
you will be hearing from me in the future. I'd like to repeat the
advice I gave you before, in that I think you should make a radical
change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may
previously never thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So
many people live within happy circumstances and yet will not take
initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a
life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may
appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more
damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.
The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for
adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new
experiences, and hence there is not greater joy than to have an
endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different
sun . . . You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally
from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in
everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have
the courage to turn against our habitual life style and engage in
unconventional living . . . My point is (and here he concludes his
letter) you don't need me or anyone else around to bring this new
kind of light into your life . . . The only person you are fighting is
yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances."
The eighty-one year old man to whom this letter was written actually
took the advice of this twenty-four year old, sold most of his
belongings, put the rest in storage, and moved out into the desert and
using an old camper set up camp and awaited his young friend's
We know from the few possessions that were found with
McCandless at the time of his death, that he owned a copy of
Thoreau's Walden. It is easy from the letter, to see how Chris was
influenced by such passages from Walden as, "The mass of men lead
lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed
desperation . . . It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the
common mode of life because they preferred it to any other. I have
lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first
syllable or even earnest advice from my seniors." Thoreau attempted
to escape the resignation and desperation that he saw around him by
going to live at Walden Pond. He intended to "live deliberately . . .
to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . to live sturdilyto
put to rout all that was not life . . . to drive life into a corner." As
similar as Thoreau and McCandless are on this point, there is also I
believe a profound difference. McCandless believed absolutely in his
own abilities to overcome anything and everything that life could
throw at him. He possessed absolute confidence in himself. While
it appeared that he had an active intellectual life, there seemed little
room for the spiritual side of life. Living was a challenge to be met
head on and only the strong would survive. Thoreau on the other
hand, believed that intellectual life and spiritual life were every bit as
strenuous as physical life.
Again, McCandless seems to be drawing from Thoreau when,
after two months in the wilderness he apparently decided to return to
civilization. "I am reborn," he writes, "This is my dawn. Real life
has just begun. Deliberate living; Conscious attention to the basics
of life, and a constant attention to your immediate environment and
its concerns . . . " This burst of self-awareness and joy is further
expressed in a underlined copy of Tolstoy's essay "Family
Happiness" which was found among the items in the bus after Chris'
body was discovered. McCandless had underlined this passage: "He
was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for
others . . . I have lived through much, and now I think I have found
what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country,
with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do
good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then
work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books,
music, love for one's neighbor -- such is my idea of happiness. And
then on top of all that, you (look) for a mate, and children perhaps --
what more can the heart of a man desire?"
The irony of this passage is simple. For if indeed, Chris's
sojourn in the wilderness had taught him that happiness in life is to
live for others, his own life was to take a cruel twist. He attempted
to leave the wilderness but as he was thwarted in his attempts to cross
a river due to the strength of the current and he was forced to return
to the school bus that became his shelter. For a variety of reasons his
condition quickly deteriorated until he died less than a month later.
Had he really paid attention to what he termed the basics of life . . .
and a constant attention to his immediate surroundings, he should
have know that within two miles of the place he had attempted to
cross the river there was a shallows where crossing would have been
possible, and if he had a topological map he would have seen that
even a few miles further there was a wire basket that hunters had used
to pull themselves across the river. He would also have known that
six miles from the bus was a stocked forestry cabin and even closer
were two private cabins each of which contained emergency supplies.
He died on August 18,1992 -- 112 days after he walked into the
wild, and 19 days before six hunters would happen across the bus and
his body inside.
Some may argue that any comparison of McCandless'
experience with Thoreau's is flawed from the start. Thoreau's cabin
was only two and half miles from Concord, while McCandless' bus
was three hours by truck from Fairbanks. We know that Thoreau
made frequent "visits" to town to get supplies and to keep in touch
with family and friends. McCandless entered the Alaskan wild
hundreds of miles from the nearest town. Yet while Thoreau seems
to have gone into the woods, to experiment with his ability to live
deliberately, he also went to ponder nature and the greater world. In
contrast, it seems as if McCandless went to explore only his self-sufficiency, and to prove that the
"inner country of his soul" was
tougher than the rugged country of Alaska. As McCandless'
biographer concludes, it is impossible to live off the land without
developing both a subtle understanding of, and a strong emotional
bond with, that land and all it holds. When Chris McCandless
entered into his valley of dry bones, he had no professed faith or
beliefs to carry in with him. Thoreau, on the other hand, had as a
basis for his inner life a belief in the transcendental power of nature.
He believed that "only that day dawns to which we are awake. There
is more than day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
McCandless had gone into the wilderness to find isolation from
society and to test his ability to survive against all odds. Thoreau had
gone to Walden Pond to find solitude and to explore the connections
of nature and man. Throughout Walden, morning and light become
dominant symbols of rebirth, even in the most Christian sense. The
light that Thoreau sees reflected from the pond into his window in the
morning remind him of a transcendent source of truth. We may never
know exactly what that truth is. There are always unanswered
questions. There are always more days to dawn.
Unlike McCandless' journey, which appears to have been so
futile and selfish, Thoreau's teaches us about the importance of
having a vision, of believing in truth, whatever we call that truth, and
of seeing our existence as the exploration of multiple possibilities.
There are always more days to dawn.
Even in Thoreau's deepest musings on solitude, he
acknowledges his need for visitors. "I had three chairs," he writes,
"one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." I'm not
sure that Chris McCandless had three chairs, or even two chairs. He
appears to have systematically used people to help him achieve his
goals and then cast them off as an old piece of clothing. In an
inscription found in the old school bus where he died, he wrote, "Two
years he walks the earth, no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes.
Ultimate freedom, an extremist, an aesthetic voyager whose home is
the road . . . no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and
walks upon the land to become lost in the wild." And just a few days
before his death, he recorded in his journal, "Death looms as a serious
threat. Too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the
What sense then can we make of this tragedy, and I do believe
the death of Chris McCandless was tragic. It is tragic because he
confused isolation with solitude. If one seeks escape for its own sake
and runs away from the world only because it is intensely unpleasant,
then one will not find peace and one will not find solitude. Chris
McCandless seemed to be running away, away from people, friends,
institutions, and most significantly from living in right relationship
"We do not go into the desert," writes Thomas Merton, "to
escape people but to learn how to find them; we do not leave them in
order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find the way to do
them the most good . . . you do not find it by traveling but by standing
still." I believe that we find our sustaining faith in many ways and
in many places. Like Thoreau we can travel into the woods to live
our lives as simply and as deliberately as possible. But we can also
find our faith in the bustle of the city.
Faith is not something that is thrust upon us, but something
we grow and nurture as we grow and nurture a seedling. My faith
journey has taken me down many paths and into many tangled woods.
When I worship with Christian friends at Wesley Seminary, I can feel
the depth of their profound faith and strong beliefs and I am moved
by it. When I worship in this space and with this community, I feel
our common ground and the strength of our principles and purposes.
I believe that our faith, whatever we call it, and however we define it,
is what carries us through the darkest hours of our lives -- through
the depths and valleys of despair -- and in the end it is our sense of
faith that brings the dawn to the new day.
Did Chris McCandless have faith? And if so, did he leave it
behind when he shed himself of all his worldly possessions? We will
never know. Did Thoreau truly come to terms with the quiet
desperation he saw in his neighbors? We can only guess. When in
our own lives we find ourselves alone in a dark woods or wandering
in the valley of the dry bones brought on by anger or despair, I hope
that is our individual sense of faith that guides to right actions and
right relationships: our abiding life affirming and life giving faith.