I just received a link to Alaska’s Great Wide Open by Pico Iyer (thanks, Mom) via Smithsonian Magazine. In reference to Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell:
“A lot of people up here have no patience for these guys,” a naturalist at Denali had told me when I asked her about the two men. “Because there are people here who have stayed in that bus, and they had no problems. But you’ve got to have respect for the land, to learn it. The one thing you learn here is preparedness.”
That’s why people in Alaska study how to read wolf scat and the habits of bears. “Right here she knows you’re not going to come any closer, and she’s fine,” a guide at Redoubt Bay had explained about a nearby mother bear with her cubs. “But go somewhere she doesn’t expect you, and Bailey will most likely kill you.”
Iyer relates what Krakauer did in Into the Wild, that McCandless died from either eating the wrong plant (almost indiscernible from one that would have been good for him) or from eating the right one, but a moldy one that poisoned him. It’s the kind of anecdote that makes me less prone to accepting the “gotta respect the land” ethos; we all feel confident right up until the point where we eat the wrong plant.
A few years ago, I assigned Into the Wild to a class of college freshmen and was amazed at how dismissive, even hateful, they were of McCandless’s decision to divest himself of the material world and head off into the hinterland and couldn’t help but wonder if in a few years, once they were his age, they might understand why he did so. One source of their objection was disturbance over his decision to have no contact with his family. I think that colored their ability to read the book but I don’t think that was the only problem. I wondered if they dididentify and found that frightening. I don’t know as I couldn’t get them to articulate what it was that bothered them but I’m guessing it was the latter for at least a few of them.
On the other end and from the perspective of the Alaskans quoted above, what is the reason for pushing back against the interloping tourist on a visionquest? Maybe the objection is to the implication that problems can be solved simply by a change in geography. To the locals such sentiments understandably seem naive since Eden doesn’t exist (despite the claims of National Geographic and Survivor).
I understand thanks to two years in Gabon (cool, but not Eden). Nevertheless, I still hope I get to Alaska one day. Not because I think it will make me a wiser more complete person, no, I wish to visit for the same reason all good Americans do — so I can see Russia.