[This week, I’ll be camping with family up in Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park. So I wanted to AmericanStudy come contexts for this longstanding form of national recreation and escape. Share your camping contexts in comments, please!]
On the distinct but equally American cultural traditions for two recent wilderness stories.
From their titles on, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996; later made into the 2007 film starring Emile Hirsch) and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012; made into the 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon) seem to have a great deal in common. Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Krakauer’s book, was 24 years old when he hiked alone deep into the wilds of Alaska’s Stampede Trail; Strayed, the protagonist of her own memoir, was 27 years old when she hiked the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail solo. Both young people were responding to tragedies and traumas in their lives and families and seeking something different, something more and more meaningful, in those wilderness escapes. Yet their stories could not have ended more differently: McCandless died on his trek, his body found months later by hunters, requiring his mysterious story to be re-imagined and told by Krakauer; Strayed not only survived her journey but turned the experience into a bestselling autobiographical book that has helped launch her evolving and very successful literary career.
There are lots of specific details and contexts for each of these individuals and stories that help explain their divergent outcomes, as of course do the vagaries of luck and fate in each case. Yet at the same time, each story can be linked to broader, longstanding American narratives, national images that can help us understand why these stories have resonated so deeply with audiences on both page and screen. Strayed’s story exemplifies two famous American quotes about which I have written previously in this space: Henry David Thoreau’s lines from Chapter 2 of Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”; and John Muir’s belief that “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Like those two iconic figures, as well as many others both real (such as John Woolman) and fictional (such as Rip Van Winkle), Strayed turned to the wildnerness both to escape unattractive aspects of her life and society and to find compelling alternative perspectives and ways of living, ones that she could then bring back with her upon her inevitable return to society.
Yet as McCandless’ story reminds us, such returns are not at all inevitable, as the wilderness is not just and not mostly a place for our own self-discovery; it is also its own distinct world, one with realities and dangers that we ignore or minimize at our own peril. Innumerable American cultural texts have focused on stories of those dangers and their destructive and often fatal effects, from classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1902) to recent works such as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men against the Sea (1997) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (2006). While a cynical case could be made that we return to such stories again and again in the same way that we rubber-neck at accidents on the highway, I would argue that we also and most importantly find in such stories reminders of both our own limitations and of powers and forces outside of and beyond our own identities. While those realities can be too much for any individual to experience first-hand—and I’m not suggesting for a moment that McCandless’ death was anything other than a tragedy, for it certainly was—the stories of them have an important cultural role to play, one complementary to and as valuable as the lessons taken from wilderness survival stories like Strayed’s.
Next camping context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other camping contexts you’d highlight?
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