McCandless stayed with Westerberg for three days, riding out with his crew each morning as the workers piloted their lumbering machines across the ocean of ripe blond grain. Before McCandless and Westerberg went their separate ways,
Westerberg told the young man to look him up in Carthage if he ever needed a job.
"Was only a couple of weeks that went by before Alex showed up in town," Westerberg remembers. He gave McCandless employment at the grain elevator and rented him a cheap room in one of the two houses he owned.
"I've given jobs to lots of hitchhikers over the years," says Westerberg. "Most of them weren't much good, didn't really want to work. It was a different story with Alex. He was the hardest worker I've ever seen. Didn't matter what it was, he'd do it: hard physical labor, mucking rotten grain and dead rats out of the bottom of the hole--jobs where you'd get so damn dirty you couldn't even tell what you looked like at the end of the day. And he never quit in the middle of something. If he started a job, he'd finish it. It was almost like a moral thing for him. He was what you'd call extremely ethical. He set pretty high standards for himself.
"You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent," Westerberg reflects, draining his third drink. "He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing."
At one point Westerberg discovered from a tax form that McCandless's real name was Chris, not Alex. "He never explained why he'd changed his name," says Westerberg. "From things he said, you could tell something wasn't right between him and his family, but I don't like to pry into other people's business, so I never asked about it."
If McCandless felt estranged from his parents and siblings, he found a surrogate family in Westerberg and his employees, most of whom lived in Westerberg's Carthage home. A few blocks from the center of town, it is a simple, two-story Victorian in the Queen Anne style, with a big cottonwood towering over the front yard. The living arrangements were loose and convivial. The four or five inhabitants took turns cooking for one another, went drinking together, and chased women together, without success.
McCandless quickly became enamored of Carthage. He liked the community's stasis, its plebeian virtues and unassuming mien. The place was a back eddy, a pool of jetsam beyond the pull of the main current, and that suited him just fine. That fall he developed a lasting bond with both the town and Wayne Westerberg.
Westerberg, in his mid-thirties, was brought to Carthage as a young boy by adoptive parents. A Renaissance man of the plains, he is a farmer, welder, businessman, machinist, ace mechanic, commodities speculator, licensed airplane pilot, computer programmer, electronics troubleshooter, video-game repairman. Shortly before he met McCandless, however, one of his talents had got him in trouble with the law.
Westerberg had been drawn into a scheme to build and sell "black boxes," which illegally unscramble satellite-television transmissions, allowing people to watch encrypted cable programming without paying for it. The FBI caught wind of this, set up a sting, and arrested Westerberg. Contrite, he copped a plea to a single felony count and on October 10, 1990, some two weeks after McCandless arrived in Carthage, began serving a four-month sentence in Sioux Falls. With Westerberg in stir, there was no work at the grain elevator for McCandless, so on October 23, sooner than he might have under different circumstances, the boy left town and resumed a nomadic existence. The attachment McCandless felt for Carthage remained powerful, however.
Before departing, he gave Westerberg a treasured 1942 edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace. On the title page he inscribed, "Transferred to Wayne Westerberg from Alexander. October, 1990. Listen to Pierre." (The latter is a reference to Tolstoy's protagonist and alter ego, Pierre Bezuhov--altruistic, questing, illegitimately born.) And McCandless stayed in touch with Westerberg as he roamed the West, calling or writing Carthage every month or two. He had all his mail forwarded to Westerberg's address and told almost everyone he met thereafter that South Dakota was his home.
In truth McCandless had been raised in the comfortable upper-middle-class environs of Annandale, Virginia. His father, Walt, is an eminent aerospace engineer who designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle and other high-profile projects while in the employ of NASA and Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s and 70s. In 1978, Walt went into business for himself, launching a small but eventually prosperous consulting firm, User Systems, Incorporated. His partner in the venture was Chris's mother, Billie. There were eight children in the extended family: a younger sister, Carine, with whom Chris was extremely close, and six half-brothers and sisters from Walt's first marriage.
In May 1990, Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where he'd been a columnist for, and editor of, the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, and had distinguished himself as a history and anthropology major with a 3.72 grade-point average. He was offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa but declined, insisting that titles and honors are irrelevant.
The final two years of his college education had been paid for with a forty thousand-dollar bequest left by a friend of the family's; more than twenty-four thousand dollars remained at the time of Chris's graduation, money his parents thought he intended to use for law school. "We misread him," his father admits.
What Walt, Billie, and Carine didn't know when they flew down to Atlanta to attend Chris's commencement--what nobody knew--was that he would shortly donate all the money in his college fund to OXFAM America, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger.
The graduation ceremony was on May 12, a Saturday. The family sat through a long-winded commencement address delivered by Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, and then Billie snapped pictures of a grinning Chris traversing the stage to receive his diploma.
The next day was Mother's Day. Chris gave Billie candy, flowers, a sentimental card. She was surprised and extremely touched: It was the first present she had received from her son in more than two years, since he had announced to his parents that, on principle, he would no longer give or accept gifts. Indeed, Chris had only recently upbraided Walt and Billie for expressing their desire to buy him a new car as a graduation present and offering to pay for law school if there wasn't enough money left in his college fund to cover it.
He already had a perfectly good car, he insisted: a beloved 1982 Datsun B210, slightly dented but mechanically sound, with 128,000 miles on the odometer. "I can't believe they'd try and buy me a car," he later complained in a letter to Carine, or that they think I'd actually let them pay for my law school if I was going to go.... I've told them a million times that I have the best car in the world, a car that has spanned the continent from Miami to Alaska, a car that has in all those thousands of miles not given me a single problem, a car that I will never trade in, a car that I am very strongly attached to--yet they ignore what I say and think I'd actually accept a new car from them! I'm going to have to be real careful not to accept any gifts from them in the future because they will think they have bought my respect.
Chris had purchased the secondhand yellow Datsun when he was a senior in high school. In the years since, he'd been in the habit of taking it on extended solo road trips when classes weren't in session, and during that graduation weekend he casually mentioned to his parents that he intended to spend the upcoming summer on the road as well.
His exact words were "I think I'm going to disappear for a while."
Neither parent made anything of this announcement at the time, although Walt did gently admonish his son, saying "Hey, make sure you come see us before you go." Chris smiled and sort of nodded, a response that Walt and Billie took as an affirmation that he would visit them in Annandale before the summer was out, and then they said their good-byes.
Toward the end of June, Chris, still in Atlanta, mailed his parents a copy of his final grade report: A in Apartheid and South African Society and History of
Anthropological Thought; A minus in Contemporary African Politics and the Food Crisis in Africa. A brief note was attached:
Here is a copy of my final transcript. Grade wise things went pretty well and I ended up with a high cumulative average.
Thank you for the pictures, the shaving gear, and the postcard from Paris. It seems that you really enjoyed your trip there. It must have been a lot of fun. I gave Lloyd [Chris's closest friend at Emory] his picture, and he was very grateful; he did not have a shot of his diploma getting handed to him. Not much else happening, but it's starting to get real hot and humid down here. Say hi to everyone for me.
It was the last anyone in Chris's family would ever hear from him.
About the book:
Into The Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man, who in 1992 walked deep into the Alaskan wilderness and whose SOS note and emaciated corpse were found four months later. Internationally bestselling author Jon Krakauer explores the obsession which leads some people to explore the outer limits of self, leave civilization behind and seek enlightenment through solitude and contact with nature.
Remarkable, powerful, and intellectually stimulating, Jon succeeds in eliciting sympathy for both Chris and the whole of humanity through this poignant story.
Excerpt from The Master and Margarita
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Excerpt from Possession
- A. S. Byatt