January 12, 2010
By , Huntington Woods, MI
Happiness is only real when shared. It took Chris McCandless two years of travel, self discovery and, ultimately, death in the Alaskan wild to understand the value of shared joy. His story, told in Into The Wild by Jack Krakauer, contrasts so sharply with my own seven-week experience in the Alaskan wild that Chris’s journey left me feeling truly conflicted. On one hand, I understand why Chris was drawn to Alaska’s natural beauty, and I respect him for his commitment to follow his dream by having what he called the “ultimate adventure.” What I condemn is that out of his desire to isolate himself, he severed all bonds with the people who loved him.

Chris set out on his journey to Alaska without telling his family where he was going. He also gave his savings to charity, burned his cash, and snipped up his credit cards, leaving no trail and no way for his family to find him. To a man who picked him up hitchhiking, Chris confided that “nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn’t spoken to his family in nearly two years.” Along the way, he met several people who were drawn to his charm and intellect, and as a result offered him friendship, work, lodging and money. One man, Ronald Franz, grew to love Chris so much he even offered to adopt him. He told the book’s author, “I’m the end of the line. When I’m gone, my family will be finished, gone forever. So I asked if I could adopt him, if he would be my grandson.” Despite the tremendous impact he had on people, Chris continued to shun intimacy and to crave isolation, so he would move on, leaving everyone he met saddened and confused.

The philosophy of my own Alaskan experience couldn’t be more different. I traveled with 29 other teens across the United States by bus, through British Columbia where we boarded a ferry to Alaska. Our group’s goal was to become one functioning community with Alaska as the backdrop for our bonding experience. With a great emphasis on teamwork, we formed work groups and took turns cooking meals and doing chores that would benefit all. During long hikes and difficult climbs, we supported each other, often stopping to break into small groups and discuss how the scenery moved us. We learned to care for each other, and we became incredibly close.

For Chris McCandless and me, Alaska presented an opportunity, a personal adventure. For me, Alaska provided a way to build life-long bonds and to live as and contribute to a community. For Chris, Alaska served as a way to isolate himself from all people and to reject society.

Perhaps Chris was too successful at achieving his goal of isolation. After spending six weeks in the wild, Chris died of starvation. Among his belongings, was what is believed to be the last book he read, with “happiness only real when shared” scribbled in the margin. This message reveals that on the verge of death, Chris realized what was the very essence of my trip: the people in your life make your happiness possible.

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