Summary: Chapter 17
Almost exactly a year after McCandless turned away from the Teklanika River, Krakauer visits the bus where McCandless. Traveling with three companions, he uses his topographic map to locate a large aluminum basket strung across the river. The reader learns that this infrastructure left behind by a hydrological survey team, and allows for easy crossing of the river. Krakauer reflects that McCandless must not have wanted to know about nearby traces of civilization. He brought no map with him, which also prevented him from knowing that he could have crossed the Teklanika at another point only a few hours’ walk from his original crossing point. Krakauer and his friends then ride across the Teklanika river in the surveyor’s basket. As he is riding across, Krakauer experiences a moment of fear and exhilaration and yells before he realizes that he is in no danger.
As the four hike progresses, Krakauer admits that he is glad he has people with him, and that for once in his many travels in Alaska he finds the landscape unnerving. Later that night, at around 9 PM, they reach McCandless’s bus and are struck by the bones of all the animals he shot, which are still scattered around it. Before entering the bus, Krakauer takes the opportunity to reflect at length on the presence of a nearby moose skeleton. He recalls that in his early interviews, the first people to find McCandless’s body thought it was a caribou skeleton. They assumed McCandless had mistaken a caribou for a moose, which would have signified his unpreparedness. However, Krakauer writes, after the publication of his original article in Outdoor Magazine, McCandless’s own photographs proved the animal to have been a moose.
Inside the bus, the narrator observes a wide array of possessions and supplies that once belonged to McCandless. The sight unnerves and moves him, he relates. He lists McCandless’s toiletries, clothes, and books. Krakauer also takes special interest in gifts that other people gave McCandless, identifying Jim Gallien’s boots by his name written on them and a custom machete scabbard made by Ronald Franz. Krakauer also reads the graffiti written in the bus by both McCandless and other visitors. He begins to feel nauseated by how eerie the scene appears and leaves the bus. He and the others cook moose meat on the same grill McCandless used to prepare his own meals. As they eat, they discuss McCandless’s death.
Krakauer then describes the fate of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, to whom McCandless attracted comparison after his death because of his perceived lack of preparedness and his hubris. He cites the artist and explorer John Muir and the writer Henry David Thoreau’s nature writings to attempt to make sense of McCandless’s instincts and to differentiate his arrogance from Franklin’s. McCandless was prepared and had a different philosophy. He wasn’t there to conquer. Instead, he had come in search of a blend of self-sacrifice and independently achieved happiness. Krakauer and two others stay up late drinking and attempting to determine what kind of person McCandless was. Then they fall asleep.
Chapter Seventeen functions in three ways: it is a unified personal narrative in its own right, an inversion of Christopher McCandless’s own joyful arrival at the bus months earlier, and a means of building suspense between the day that McCandless turns back from instead of crossing the Teklanika River and the day that he dies. Krakauer’s use of this structuring brings together the novel’s two plots and brings the rising action of both McCandless’s final blunders and the narrator’s investigation of McCandless’s mind to a head. This complex but elegant structure as well as the chapter’s first-person, present-tense narration immerses the reader in the last phases of Into the Wild. It is worth noting, too, that Chapter Seventeen sits between two others that are related mostly in third person, acting as a bridge between them and demonstrating the book’s careful structuring of different points of view.
Within the chapter, Krakauer maintains a lively style that moves the reader briskly toward the bus. As Krakauer and his companions head to the bus, Krakauer generates suspense with the description of an exciting basket ride over the Teklanika and Krakauer’s suspicion that a bear is traveling in the brush near the trail he takes with his friends. This suspense is dispelled in part by an out-of-place yelp of fear on Krakauer’s part and by other forms of comical behavior, but it underlines the tension at work throughout the chapter. Significant irony emerges as Krakauer literally steps into the places where McCandless spent his last days and reviews the mistakes that led, one after another, to his death. Nowhere to be found is the joy that McCandless apparently found when he discovered the bus. Instead, Krakauer approaches with trepidation, even horror.