After the dead body of a young man is found inside an abandoned bus in Denali National Park in Alaska, author Jon Krakauer is assigned the story for Outside magazine. The body is identified as Chris McCandless, who abandoned his affluent family after college graduation for a simple and transient life in the wild. Krakauer's investigation reveals an idealistic young man who rejected materialism but did not plan well for a life off the grid. Krakauer's expanded account of McCandless, Into the Wild, is not arranged in chronological order but rather uses shifting tenses to jump forward and backward in time. The book also makes detours into chapters offering historical background and autobiographical material from the author.
Beginning in Alaska in April 1992, five months before Chris McCandless's death is discovered, Jim Gallien picked up McCandless, a hitchhiker, who introduced himself as "Alex" from South Dakota; he was headed for Denali National Park to "live off the land." Gallien worried about McCandless's lack of preparation for survival in the wild and considered alerting authorities but decided against it.
McCandless took the Stampede Trail, crossed a river, and set up camp near an old bus called Bus 142. He did not realize thawing snow would soon flood the river, making it impassable. In September 1992, five months after McCandless's meeting with Gallien, three hunters encountered a couple at Bus 142. The group found an SOS note signed "Chris McCandless" and reported a "bad smell" emanating from the bus. Inside, the hunters discovered a corpse in a sleeping bag. A coroner later pronounced the cause of death: starvation.
Backtracking to September 1990, Krakauer describes the meeting between McCandless and Wayne Westerberg, a grain elevator owner who became his friend and sometime employer. By this point, McCandless had not spoken to his parents since mid-May, just after his graduation from Emory University in Atlanta. He felt his parents wanted to control him and told them he was going to disappear for a while. Worried when they didn't hear from him, Chris's parents traveled to Atlanta but discovered he had left town five weeks earlier. Without informing them, Chris had left to start a new life, changing his name to Alex Supertramp. At other times, he called himself Alex McCandless.
In October 1990, police found McCandless's abandoned Datsun in a California state park. Krakauer recaps McCandless's journey from July 1990 to May 1991. McCandless abandoned his car in July 1990, thinking it inoperable. He traveled up the West Coast, where he was ticketed for hitchhiking. When a copy of the ticket arrived at his parents' address, they hired a detective to find Chris. The detective discovered that Chris had given all his money to charity.
Jumping back to the summer of 1990, McCandless befriended Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob, a nomadic couple. He met Wayne Westerburg, another helper in McCandless's odyssey, in Montana in the fall of 1990. Then, in Arizona in late October, McCandless bought a canoe, intending to follow the Colorado River to the Pacific Coast. The plan failed in Mexico, and he almost drowned during a storm. Arrested when he re-entered the United States illegally in January 1991, he spent a night in jail and then went to Las Vegas.
In the summer of 1991, McCandless traveled through the Pacific Northwest, then briefly settled in Arizona, working for a short time at McDonald's. Back on the road, he rejoined Burres and Bob in California around mid-December and began preparing for his upcoming Alaskan adventure.
In Chapter 6 Krakauer recalls how Ron Franz wrote to him regarding Krakauer's 1992 article on McCandless in Outside magazine. Franz related his friendship with the wanderer he knew as Alex McCandless from West Virginia. He and McCandless became so close that Franz offered to adopt him. But McCandless left to travel the West Coast. He reunited briefly with Franz, who gave him some supplies for his Alaska trip.
McCandless worked for Westerberg in Carthage, South Dakota, from mid-March 1992 until early April. On April 27, 1992, McCandless sent Westerberg and Burres each a postcard from Fairbanks, Alaska, announcing he was "walking into the wild."
In Chapter 8 Krakauer cites objections from readers regarding his article about McCandless in Outside magazine. Many are Alaskans, who resoundingly criticize his "glorifying" McCandless and his Alaskan quest. They think Chris was an arrogant, foolish dreamer who disrespected the power of nature. Krakauer cites three other men who failed to survive the Alaskan wilderness and points out that, while McCandless resembled these men, he differed from them significantly, and should not be dismissed as a typical "bush casualty."
In Chapter 9 Krakauer compares McCandless and Everett Ruess. Ruess headed to the wilds of Utah because, like McCandless, he was dissatisfied with life and wanted to live fully and adventurously. For Krakauer, the two men, both in their early 20s, were passionate wanderers, "romantic," and "equally heedless of [their] personal safety." Neither returned from the wild.
Chapter 10 details the inability of Alaska state troopers to identify the body in Bus 142 based on minimal clues: photographs and a journal. Finally, after hearing news reports about the body, Gallien and Westerberg phoned the troopers. Westerberg produced McCandless's Social Security number, the missing clue that solved the mystery. The police notified Sam McCandless, Chris's half-brother, of Chris's death; he informed Chris's parents.
Chapter 11 delves into McCandless's family background. Chris's father, Walt, built a successful career as an aerospace engineer. Walt and his wife, Marcia, moved to California, had five children, and then separated. Billie would eventually become Walt's second wife. Chris was born, then Carine, and the family relocated to Virginia. Walt expected his son to enter an ambitious profession. Several aspects of Chris's personality foreshadow the young man he becomes: a love of the outdoors and a strong sense of independence and stubbornness.
In the fall of 1986, McCandless returned from a solo transcontinental trip during which he discovered his parents had kept secrets about their family, including that Walt fathered a child with his ex-wife. Angered, McCandless withdrew from his parents without explanation. McCandless entered Emory University in fall 1986. The summer before his senior year, he visited Alaska, a place he loved. In 1990, after graduating, he cut ties with his family, leaving again without explanation.
Krakauer interviews Chris's sister, Carine, then their mother, Billie. Carine and her brother were close, and she was devastated to learn of his death. Billie, grieving deeply, comments, "I just don't know why he had to take those kinds of chances."
In Chapter 14 and Chapter 15, Krakauer relates his own attempt at age 23 to summit the treacherous northwest face of the Devil's Thumb Mountain in Alaska. Because of mishaps, miscalculations, and bad weather, Krakauer almost died on the mountain but stubbornly insisted on summiting. Krakauer's family history is similar to McCandless's. Both had domineering fathers who pressured their sons to succeed. Both sons rebelled, choosing unconventional lives of danger.
Chapter 16 resumes McCandless's story. He headed to Alaska in late April 1992. Gaylord Stuckey drove him to Fairbanks, where he bought 10 pounds of rice and a book on edible plants, but he still lacked a decent map or other supplies. Stuckey implored McCandless to call his parents, but McCandless refused. A few days later, Gallien dropped McCandless off at the Stampede Trail.
McCandless struggled to hunt game in the wild, but he gradually improved his skills. On June 9 he killed a moose but was unable to preserve the meat. On July 3 he hiked away from camp but discovered he could not cross the now-raging river. He returned to Bus 142, where he recorded in his journal that he was trapped and scared.
Chapter 17 relates how Krakauer and three hikers visit Bus 142 in July 1993. Krakauer hypothesizes that a better map might have saved McCandless. Inside the bus, Krakauer finds McCandless's belongings, including his journal, in which he wrote mainly about food. That night the men discuss whether McCandless had been too naïve and ignorant about living in the wild, deciding this conclusion is reductive. From McCandless's journal and the notes in his books, Krakauer constructs a timeline of his final days from July 8 to August 18.
On July 30, 1992, McCandless wrote he had been poisoned by the potato seeds he had been eating and was now starving. Krakauer considers different theories about what killed McCandless, including McCandless's confusing the seeds of two similar plants. McCandless began to experience the late stages of starvation in August. It is thought that he died on August 18, 1992, leaving his final message, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!"
In July 1993 accompanied by Krakauer, Chris's parents visit Bus 142 to see where Chris died. They erect a memorial plaque to their son and leave a suitcase filled with food and medical supplies with a note urging travelers to "call your parents as soon as possible."