Summary: Chapter 16
Christopher McCandless leaves Carthage, South Dakota in mid-April 1992, on the first phase of his trip to Denali National Park. An RV deliveryman named Gaylord Stuckey picks him up and gives him a ride from a hot springs at the edge of the Yukon territory to Whitehorse, Alaska, after being impressed by his intelligence. Stuckey recalls to Krakauer that McCandless spoke about his family, especially about Carine McCandless and his father’s bigamy. During their trip, Stuckey takes a decided shine to McCandless and agrees to transport him all the way to Fairbanks. In Fairbanks, he urges McCandless to call his parents, though the boy demurs. McCandless visits the university and buys a book about edible plants. He also purchases a gun. Later, Stuckey searches for McCandless in the hopes of finding him again, but he is nowhere to be found. Krakauer relates that as he walked out of town, McCandless passed a satellite designed by his father, Walt McCandless. On April 28, 1992, McCandless is picked up by Jim Gallien, who then drops him off outside Denali National Park.
McCandless then follows a faded snowmobile track into the park. He wades easily across the Teklanika River, which is at a winter low. He falls through the ice at one point along his way but emerges intact. On May 1, 1992, he finds the abandoned bus and records in his journal “Magic Bus Day.” He also writes a message about his independence and having successfully escaped the poison of civilization on a piece of plywood in the bus. He decides to stay, since the bus offers comfortable accommodations and the chance to acclimate to his new way of life. As spring passes, McCandless struggles with snowstorms and a lack of game, recording these struggles in his diary. He fares much better in summer. He hikes away from the bus, but encounters difficulty navigating the soggy summer ground and has to spend too much time stalking game. He returns to the bus, which now serves as his home base. The narrator reminds the reader that although McCandless was very close to civilization, including a highway, he did not know it and was isolated enough not to be able to leave when he was on the brink of death.
McCandless continues his life in the bus. He shoots several small animals as the days pass and is then overjoyed to kill a moose. Butchering it and preserving its meat prove very difficult, however, and he records that his accidental wastefulness makes killing the moose one of the most tragic things he has ever done. He begins to read Thoreau’s Walden and comes to the conclusion that eating animals may be an impure or unnecessary activity. His journal entries suggest to the narrator that he may have achieved some epiphany about his existence and wanted to leave the wild. McCandless made a list of tasks to make himself presentable to other people and also marked passages in his copy of Tolstoy’s short story “Family Happiness” about sharing life with others. In early July 1992, McCandless leaves the bus but is unable to cross the Teklanika River. Krakauer relates that he could perhaps have found a way across by wading at a chest-high point, but there was no reason for him to want to swim. Instead, McCandless heads back to the bus.
Chapter Sixteen extends and complicates Into the Wild’s primary plot, moving the reader closer to learning why Christopher McCandless was unable to survive in the wild. The chapter pushes the reader through a number of central events involving the entry into a new world, including McCandless’s learning to find food, exploring his surroundings, and establishing a shelter. At the same time, it allows the reader a vicarious glimpse of the pleasures that Christopher took in the wild and his excitement as he finally enters what he takes to be the frontier. For example, the account given by the colorful character Gaylord Stuckey at the beginning of the chapter is retold by Krakauer with an almost naïve enthusiasm. Krakauer relates a direct quotation told by Stuckey and attributed to McCandless without comment, even though it expresses nothing but an almost ungainly extroversion rare in descriptions of McCandless and contains a rare exclamation mark. Stuckey’s unremitting folksiness also helps Krakaeur maintain a tone of cheerfulness and progress toward a much-desired goal as McCandless rides with Stuckey into Fairbanks.
Quotations from Christopher McCandless’s diary and a long message he scrawls on a board inside the bus give the reader more direct insight into his happiness. He details his exploits with more exclamation points and underlining. Krakauer describes his hunting efforts as feasts and is careful to relate McCandless’s setbacks only in terms of lessons learned and future triumphs. McCandless’s acquisition and hard study of a book of edible plants at the University of Alaska bookstore shows his dedication and his intellectual acumen. The fact that the book is a compilation of native lore also seems to illustrate McCandless’s savvy and ability to adapt to a minimalist lifestyle of communing with nature. The use of numbered lists in McCandless’s journal, the jotting up of all his successful hunting kills, and his tidy organizing of his chores into short-term and long-term categories seems to bode well for his chances of survival. This supposed competence, though it is soon to be undermined, simulate what McCandless’s state of mind must have been at the time.
Most of the narration in Chapter Sixteen acquires a bittersweet tone from the knowledge that Christopher is going to die. Incidents that could be grimly humorous, including the messy and disastrous smoking of the moose meat, are transformed by the knowledge of McCandless’s impending starvation. If he had been able to preserve the moose, he might have lived much longer. Indeed the lessons McCandless supposedly learns from failing to preserve the meat and his subsequent reading in Henry David Thoreau involve a grandiosity about his rebirth that cast a pall over the latter half of Chapter Sixteen. When he fails to cross the Teklanika River at the end of the chapter, this tone only darkens into a sense of dread. A bleak irony attends the chapter’s last episode, when McCandless turns back, since Krakauer and therefore the reader know he could perhaps have waded across, as well as the fact that he was close to a highway. Krakauer’s explicit statement that McCandless has to head back into the unforgiving bush foreshadows the difficulties that await him.