USA: Pilgrimage into the Wild

On August 24, two young hikers, a 19 year-old American and a 21 years-old Chinese man were found lost on Stampede Trail, near Fairbanks, Alaska. Troopers who discovered them said they wore only urban clothes and carried little food. It's not the first time unprepared travelers have been found in this wild and inhospitable area.

Like others before them, they had set out to see the “Magic Bus”, one of the two main characters of a best-selling book, Into the Wild from 1996. It was later adapted to screenplay by Sean Penn who also directed the movie in 2007.

The book, by Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless, a college graduate who left behind friends and family for an odyssey through American roads that would lead to his fateful goal: Alaska. He was found dead in 1992 in a converted public bus that used to be a hunters’ shelter.

There are still questions about the actual cause of death, ranging from starvation to poisoning or injury that lends mystery to the story.

Christopher McCandless in the front of the "Magic Bus" (photo found undevelopped in his own camera)

Christopher McCandless in the front of the "Magic Bus" (photography found in his own camera)

According to The Star newspaper in Canada, about 100 people from around the world follow in McCandless’ footsteps on pilgrimages every year. He is considered a symbol of freedom and man's return to nature.

Pilgrimages to the bus

Adventure traveler and blogger Dan of The road chose me, describes the difficulties he had journeying all the way to the spot where McCandless died.

I met two cool Austrian characters, Thomas and (roll the ‘R’) Roland on the Dalton Highway and it took all of 10 seconds to convince them to join me on a trip to ‘The Bus’. We were able to drive about 12.5 miles down Stampede Road before we had to leave the vehicles behind and continue on foot. The first hour and a half of hiking the next morning saw us travel on a really good quad trail, through some small swamps, through a couple of shin-deep river crossings and spat us out at the edge of the Teklinika River.

They wandered upstream, and found a place to cross the river. “I was more than a bit scared when it reached mid-thigh in depth and began to really push hard,” writes Dan. Eventually they reached “Fairbanks Bus 142″:

When bus 142 appeared on the side of the trail, seemingly out of thin air I was quite startled […] but somehow wasn’t ready to be there yet. I paused on the edge of the clearing for a moment, then again in the doorway, trying to take everything in. Even though I’d never been there before, it was very familiar – from the description in the book, the movie and also from the pictures I’ve seen online.

I thought The Magic Bus would be a quiet, sad place to spend time – I was quite surprised to find the opposite was the case.

Desecration of the bus

It seems some visitors don't respect this ‘mausoleum’. Fairbanks, Alaska blogger Ed Plumb describes this in his blog The Edventures. About his second visit to the bus, he wrote:

So we arrived at the bus to find it in complete disarray. A handful of windows had been bashed in, broken glass was scattered about, and most of the items in the bus had been overturned. Garbage was strewn all around the perimiter and into the adjacent stand of spruce trees.

Of course, the bus doesn't only attract fearless adventurers or spoilers. Painter and blogger Heather Horton exhibits a painting on her website inspired by her visit to the bus:

"Fairbanks Bus 142", courtesy of Heather Horton

"Fairbanks Bus 142", courtesy of Heather Horton

Chris McCandless was on my mind when I worked on this painting as much as he was when I was actually at the bus. Fortunately I took a lot of photo reference which helps to bring the emotions and memories back in a flood. I thought of the 113 days he spent at the bus, what he might have thought about, the windows he looked through, the reflections he saw within himself as much as through the panes of glass. This painting is the beginning of my own journey by examining where he experienced the last, fateful part of his own odyssey.

Unfortunately, these numerous expeditions can be a strain on the local community when costly rescue missions are involved. Consequently, there has been talk among Alaskans of one day moving the “Magic Bus” to somewhere that would be easier for visitors to access.


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