A New and Different Sun
I flew to Anchorage in late May of 2002. I don’t remember the plane ride. I also don’t remember which hotel I stayed at, only that I thought it was close to the Aramark headquarters where I had to report in the morning. It wasn’t close. I walked for over a mile—hauling my suitcase and duffle bag—and arrived late for the employee training. After orientation, my new coworkers and I rode on a bus for six hours to McKinley Village, a resort outside of Denali where we had seasonal contracts. The dense green of the forest blurred along the highway, and I poked holes in the seat in front of me like an elementary school student. I was twenty-one years old and I wanted the past year of my life to disappear like the black spruce and muskeg ponds on the other side of the window.
Two days earlier, I’d dropped out of college in rural Minnesota with no plans to return. My boyfriend, Mike, and I broke up the night I left. I told him I loved him for the first time that night because I didn’t think there would be a second chance. We sat on the side of a dirt road, next to my old Chrysler van.
“I love you, too,” Mike said.
He didn’t mean it, at least not the way I did, but it was the right thing to say. Our relationship was complicated.Real life is complicated. Something happens, and then something else happens. But the real story is often what happens after that. I was assaulted at a party in Madison, Wisconsin in March of 2001, about 15 months before I moved to Alaska. Not raped. I woke up on a couch at 2:00 AM with some guy on top of me, starting to have sex. One of the girls I was staying with let him back into the house after we’d gone to bed—he’d forgotten a jacket. Something like that. He kept trying after I woke up, pulled off my clothes, and I shoved and kicked him off the couch a few times. Eventually, it seemed like the easiest way to get rid of him was a blowjob in the kitchen. It was a gray area. I know all about the gray area.
I went to the hospital and filed a report, even though I didn’t know if I wanted to press charges. Police in Madison assured me that all sexual assaults should be reported—even if they were “attempted” or “third degree” and not rape. That report is probably in a box somewhere. No one followed up with me, and I didn’t call the police station in Madison to check in.
Instead, I returned to school at the University of Minnesota-Morris, a small branch campus in the far western part of the state. If you look at a map of Minnesota, Morris is the little bulge in the state line that juts into South Dakota. You can walk from one side of town to the other in 45 minutes. There are five bars and four gas stations.
Mike and I stayed in Morris during the summer of 2001. We were not dating, but we moved into a tiny, one-bedroom yellow house together that cost $300 a month to rent. He smoked cigarettes like James Dean, talked about politics with confidence, and always opened the door for me. I’d loved him from the day we met in class as college freshman. But that summer, we were just friends. I didn’t know how to move the relationship out of the friend zone. This is a reversal, I’ve realized, from the way college relationships typically progress. We spent every waking minute together, and he slept on the couch at night.
Maybe the assault in Madison affected things with Mike over the summer. I was uncomfortable even talking about sex. I remember wanting clear definitions, like: if someone starts to have sex with you, but doesn’t finish, are you still a virgin? I thought it was an important question. Regardless, both of us wanted to keep things easy. We worked at the movie theater to pay rent and survived mostly on theater popcorn. We read Vonnegut in the basement, watched Steal This Movie (the Abbie Hoffman story) dozens of times, and talked about changing the world. The most that happened was a hot-and-heavy make-out session on a mattress on the floor. That shiny, magical summer could have been the first chapter of a romance novel.
Here is where the gray area ends. Mike moved out at the end of August to live with his friends. I kept the lease on the little yellow house. We were still friends, just no longer living together, and we were both at a party on September 7, 2001, the first Friday of the school year.
I drank a lot of tequila at the party and walked home alone. Or started to. It was late and quiet, so it must have been after 1:00 AM, when the bars let out—not that Morris is rowdy, rather, it’s so small you can hear when the bars let out from several blocks away. A truck pulled over, and a couple guys asked if I wanted a ride. They were college-aged, but not college students, and I did not know them. I took the ride. We drove around for 20 minutes. It was disorienting. Perhaps purposefully disorienting, like the beer and vodka they dared me to drink and then poured in my mouth while they held me down in the back of the truck.
We arrived at a single-story house with an attached garage. I wasn’t blacked out; it was more like browned out drunk—the point where you remember some things but not others. There were six or more men at the house and no women. They took off my clothes and asked me to dance in the living room. I remember going in and out of consciousness and frantically looking for my t-shirt. Someone had his hands around my throat and, as he choked me, another yelled from a different room, “she’s mine next.” Then there was a bedroom in the basement with shag carpet and fake wood panels. One of them raped me while the others watched. Later, I grabbed some clothes off the basement floor, went up the stairs, out the garage door, and ran down an alley.
I kept running straight to Mike’s new place. It was an impulsive decision that I wanted to take back the next day. He and two roommates found out that night. Of all the things I regret, for a long time I just wished I hadn’t told anyone. I’d already been through the gray area of Madison and put myself in a far worse situation. So when my Morris friends tried to get me to go to the police—that night and in the weeks ahead—I refused. Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, well, I couldn’t think of a way to reconcile that.
Mike was better at confronting the obvious. When I didn’t file a police report, he asked me to see a psychiatrist. When that didn’t work, he told me he wouldn’t stay involved if I didn’t admit myself for 72-hour psychiatric hold. Someone had to force my hand. We stood in his bedroom, faced off across a futon mattress without a bed sheet, a sleeping bag, and piles of dirty laundry.
“It’s too much. This is too big,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t take care of you, Annie.”
“I’m not asking.”
“You’re not doing anything.”
I couldn’t lose Mike. It was the only thing I knew for sure. So I agreed to go to the psych ward in Fergus Falls, about an hour north of Morris, for three days. Doctors rotated through Fergus as they made their rounds of the many poor, rural towns in western Minnesota. The place had glaring fluorescent lights and furniture that was 15 years out of date. I spent September 13th through 15th in the hospital and watched CNN most of time. The Twin Towers collapsed on repeat. It seemed like proof the world was falling apart in much bigger ways than had to do with me.
The doctors asked me to call my parents. I hadn’t told them about Madison. My mother listened and probably responded somewhat appropriately at first. But I remember the end of the conversation most clearly. She said, “I hope you learned a lesson about alcohol,” and changed the subject. We never discussed it again, and I doubt we ever will. I didn’t expect real support, but her words reinforced my own guilt. These days, I remind myself that tens of thousands of women are raped in the United States each year, and most do not have supportive families. It doesn’t make me feel better about my mother, but it is an important reminder.
At the hospital, I made up my mind not to take anyone to trial. I wonder about the forgotten police report in Madison and if it influenced my decision, but I’m fairly sure the real problem was Morris—a town where one friend learned about me being raped from a nurse at the ER, my boss at the movie theater heard about it at a bar, and my professors talked about me in committee meetings. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was a good student, a campus activist, and my life was supposed to be devoted to helping others or fighting for a cause. I wanted a different story.
When I was released, I told everyone I was fine and pretended it was true. Gradually, the pressure to press charges faded. I moved in with Mike and slept on the couch for months. In March, I relocated from the couch to his bedroom. I was finally in a relationship with someone I loved, but neither of us was happy. Actually, we were miserable: he was failing out of school, I was clinically depressed, and we had emotionless, drunken sex and avoided conversations about the future. We needed to get out of Morris and figure out our own issues before we could be good for each other. Dropping out of school became the only solution. In May, Mike moved back to his family home in Wisconsin. I found a job in Alaska, bought a ticket, and got on an airplane.
I thought Alaska was cliché. It’s the paradox of being 21. Everything I did felt cliché—being depressed, dropping out of college, running away to Alaska—but I did it anyway. When I got off the plane in Anchorage, I bought another copy of John Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, in the airport gift store. I hadn’t packed my copy. It was the only book I’d read about Alaska, but I didn’t want to cop to my ignorance. Or maybe I didn’t want to acknowledge the allure of tragic stories.
Into the Wild is the biography of Christopher McCandless, a young man who died in the Alaskan bush in 1992 while trying to live off the land. McCandless was, by Krakauer’s account, an idealist and non-conformist. He left behind a comfortable, upper-middle class life to roam across America. He burned his driver’s license and social security card, ditched his car, and spent two years hitchhiking in the West. When he died, he left behind journals that chronicle his adventures and espouse big ideas about freedom, individuality, disdain for material possessions, and the romance of nature. Ideas, frankly, which are much easier to embrace with McCandless’ privileged background.
There was always a gap between McCandless’ mentality and my own. I had a job by age 14. While he reveled in the joy of exhaustion after an honest day’s work for a rancher in North Dakota, I grew up bailing hay for my grandparents and picking rock for farmers in Morris. He graduated with honors from Emory University and gave away the $24,000 left in his trust fund—approximately the cost of my entire college education.
Still, I related to McCandless. At 21, it’s easy to dismiss economic class and focus on McCandless’ very sincere desire to escape conformity. He epitomized the rugged self-reliance I aspired to. Like McCandless, I didn’t talk to my parents and wanted to make it on my own. Although I didn’t come from wealth, I appreciated his disdain for it. I loved his rebellion, his anger and passion. Even McCandless’ death in the wilderness was interesting. I often thought about living fast and dying young in vague ways: what was the point of life past age 30, anyway? At least he died in a beautiful place, beneath an open sky.
Like McCandless, I wanted to give up on a conventional life. I didn’t belong anywhere. When I left for college at 18, I knew I would never return to live with my family. Morris had been home for three years. Even now, I can tell you where to hop the back of the train to ride through town, describe the rooms in half of the dilapidated 1940s houses college students rent, and insist you order the grilled cheese sandwich at Don’s diner. But it stopped feeling like home in 2001. Moreover, I had an impressive flight response—the type where if asked to order too quickly at a fast-food drive-through, I would hit the gas pedal if I hadn’t decided. I was alone and confused, so I set out for a place where it was possible to vanish.
McKinley Village is 230 miles north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway. The resort was built on a wide peninsula, at a bend in the Nenana River just south of Denali National Park. When you see the river, you know the Nenana carved mountains and tundra to exist in its current form. I arrived in May, shortly after the river broke up, and ice blocks stood 12 feet high along the banks. May and June are rainy months in Alaska. Evergreens drooped with water, and low hanging clouds shrouded the resort for much of the day. But even in May, the sunset glow of twilight lasted well past midnight. Evening was the clearest time of day—the only time you could see for miles and watch the mountains in the distance turn different shades of purple as dying sun hit layers of snow.
I spent my first week at McKinley Village opening the resort for the season. Concessionaires, like Aramark, bid to run the lodges, restaurants, and stores on National Park property. Employees stay in dorm rooms, eat in a dining hall, and are essentially cut off from the outside world. Especially in Alaska. We had one pay phone and two dial-up computers for 55 staff.
Opening a resort is physically demanding. We unloaded furniture from storage, washed and painted walls, arranged hotel rooms, and cleaned lobbies. I didn’t mind hard work. At school, I balanced three jobs, a full course load, and leadership positions in campus organizations. I needed the money, but I also had to stay too busy to reflect on anything. I still prefer this approach. Ninety percent of the time, I don’t think about things that happened over a decade ago. When I do, I see mistakes: I walked home that night, I took a ride from a group of guys, I didn’t scream. I did everything wrong, even if what they did was criminal. Is this a healthy perspective? Not really. Is labeling yourself a victim and making that part of your identity any healthier? I don’t know.
Instead, I devoted myself to the housekeeping department. Cleaning was cathartic and straightforward, an excellent way to avoid reflection. I scrubbed floors, bathtubs, and anything else I could scrub.
At the end of the first week at McKinley Village, the team leader pulled me aside.
“The housekeeping manager’s visa didn’t come through. She’s stuck in Singapore for six weeks. They want you to run the department.”
“Why not you?” I asked.
“Look, I’m a bellhop. I just opened as a favor because I’ve worked here three seasons.”
“Seriously? Do I have to?”
“Yeah. At least you get a raise. And all the overtime you want until she gets here.”
The raise brought me up to $10 an hour, a third the hourly rate he made with tips as a bellhop unloading busses of tourists. In the hierarchy of seasonal park jobs, I was near the bottom.
I reported directly to the General Manager: a 40-something man with slick gray hair who made six figures and represented everything I self-righteously despised about corporate America. He immediately set our room quota at 14 rooms per person. It was almost impossible to meet with a noon checkout and seven lodges of guest rooms. He regularly short-staffed me to cut the budget, threatened to fire people who clocked overtime, and gave us weekly lists of suggestions to speed the cleaning process. I threw it back in his face and made him personally demonstrate any timesaving directives, so we could laugh while he fumbled. The worst part was routine discrimination against international employees. Their timecards didn’t activate for two weeks, but HR usually neglected to mention it. When they swiped a timecard, the computer system didn’t log the hours. After we figured out what was happening, I kept records of everyone’s hours. Still, the paychecks came back short. Finally, I took two giant and furious Russian men with me and sat in the General Manager’s office for hours until all the international housekeepers received back pay.
I still think of the General Manager at McKinley Village as my first real nemesis. It’s a little embarrassing. While there’s no excuse for how he behaved, I doubt anyone in his position could have made nice with me. I was by far the angriest 21-year-old housekeeping manager in Alaska.
I read Into the Wild again. Actually, most young seasonal employees did, and there were 5000 of us in the Denali area alone. Krakauer’s writing appeals to the wanderers, the outdoorsy, transplant kids from states without mountains who flock to the West. We were confused and disenfranchised, but at the same time eager and full of romantic ideas about the wilderness. In Denali, we were a geographically-isolated target audience. None of my friends had televisions, so we read at night in our sleeping bags, wedged into uncomfortable dorm bunkbeds.
We discussed the book offhandedly, adopted the tone of Alaskans who constantly point out McCandless’ mistakes as evidence of their superior ability to survive in a harsh landscape. No one openly admired McCandless. The facts alone are damning: McCandless lived in an abandoned school bus from April through August of 1992, 20 miles from the Parks Highway, under major air traffic routes around Denali, and starved to death. According to his journals, he attempted to hike out from the bus and back to civilization in July. Fatigued, weak, with little food left, it was time to give up on living off the land. But McCandless turned back at the Teklanika River: the raging current, engorged by snowmelt, seemed impassable. At the time, many of us thought he chose to die. After all, suicide by wilderness was glitteringly romantic. More to the point, who gave up on crossing a river without traversing up and down the bank? Maps—that McCandless didn’t have—show multiple crossings a few miles north and south of his location.
Conversations about McCandless regularly turned to the bus where he died. Known as “Fairbanks 142” or the “Magic Bus,” it is located on the Stampede Trail, just north of Denali. Krakauer had hiked the Stampede, and we heard rumors of seasonal employees trekking to the bus. Really, who didn’t want to hike 40 miles into the bush to visit a pseudo-famous death bus? As I read Into the Wild, I made notes about river crossings and terrain.
Any chance of three consecutive days off to hike to the bus depended on the stability of the housekeeping department, so for most of the summer it wasn’t a consideration. I worked long hours, and, after work, tried to find a boyfriend. I was still in love with Mike, but I thought he might see me as more desirable if I hooked up with someone else for the summer. Although it’s not true, I felt like a pity fuck for Mike: a dear friend, the girl who lost her virginity to gang rape, someone he cared about but didn’t want to be with. I thought I had a lot of growing up to do to become the confident, strong partner he desired. It’s funny to write about this now, after being in a relationship with Mike for 13 years, after marrying him, after realizing we walked away from our first attempt at dating because we didn’t want to screw it up. We loved each other too much to risk failure. We lived apart in Alaska and Wisconsin, then Washington DC and Connecticut, and found our way back to Minnesota together. But I guess that doesn’t change the hopelessness I felt at the time.
I fell for Greg right away. I wasn’t love-struck, but I was interested. He had green eyes like Mike, loved Sierra Nevada beer, and expressed no desire to think beyond planning a hike. We bushwhacked our way up mountainsides after work three or four times a week. There are no hiking trails in Alaska, and, anyway, Greg preferred the experience of branches slapping you across the face. Like so many of us there, he struggled with a past he wanted to escape. It’s funny how the phrases “the lower 48” or “back in the states” sound foolish when you live in the lower 48. But in Alaska, the distance is significant. You say “the lower 48” without hesitation, whether you are a seasonal, native, or transplant Alaskan. The distance reminds you of what you left behind. In Greg’s case, he resented his divorced parents, grieved for a dead friend, and, most of all, grappled with a mental breakdown he had while serving in the Air Force.
“I told them I didn’t want to be in the military anymore. They sent me to a shrink and then locked me in a mental hospital. I spent my 21st birthday there,” he said. We were on break at work, skipping stones into the Nenana behind the lodge.
“Why did they think you were crazy?” I asked.
“I said I didn’t really care if I lived or died. In the military, that’s enough to lock you up for a couple months.”
It was something we all felt to an extent: a lack of accountability to our own lives. Most kids who work in seasonal tourism aren’t privileged. But terms that defined us in the broader world—working-class, lower middle-class, or poor—didn’t have a place in Alaska. Most of us had read a book or seen a movie and fallen in love with the idea of adventure. This was our way of traveling the world. We embraced a desperate sort of freedom, the type that can only be achieved when the past and future aren’t considered. We didn’t want to think about careers, obligations, or whatever waited for us back home. I think it’s why so many young people identify with McCandless. He found a way to live in the moment forever.
One afternoon, Greg said, “We’re going to the bridge tonight. My buddy says you can crawl out under the railroad and hang on when the train comes.”
He meant the trestle bridge, with the 250-foot drop down to a river gorge below. A bridge that ricocheted in the breeze and probably rocked wildly when a train passed over it.
“Can I go?” I asked. I wanted to hold onto the underpass and scream my face off.
“We don’t have room in the car. Next time.”
Greg wouldn’t let me follow him into dangerous situations. He also didn’t want a relationship. I assumed he thought I was too mainstream, too normal. But a week later, Greg hooked up with a sweet college girl, and I realized it was the opposite. He didn’t want to look in someone’s eyes and see his own sadness reflected.
Most of my coworkers at McKinley Village were men, even in the housekeeping department. The gender gap in Alaska is significant. A common saying, repeated dozens of times, was guised as an unofficial state motto: Alaska: Where the men are men, and the women are, too. So it’s not surprising that a fight club mentality developed in the housekeeping department. Ostensibly, we were upset at the tyrannical presence of the new manager, who eventually arrived from Singapore. She wore business suits and screamed at us in a high-pitched, nasally voice. She also continued the General Manager’s policy of forced overtime without pay. I stayed on as assistant manager, in charge for two days every week when she was off. Almost immediately, my days turned into the perfect opportunity for revenge.
The cast varied. Greg was involved, as was Djorge the Russian. He was one of the giant Russians from the back pay dispute: six foot five, dark skin and hair, a little scary. Like many of the international employees, Djorge was in Alaska because he could make significantly more money than back home. While some international employees stuck together and hesitated to mingle with Americans, Djorge was extraordinarily motivated to learn English. He was a constant presence.
Someone came up with the idea to break things. It might have been me. Hotels are full of extra supplies, and McKinley Village didn’t keep a record of inventory. I unearthed dusty crates of champagne flutes from the back of the storage closet. We lined them like targets by the river and threw rocks until the banks sparkled with shattered glass. Another time, we shredded dozens of down pillows and vacuumed up the mess. Djorge threw the vacuum in the river for good measure.
“That was the most fun I’ve had since I was a kid,” said Greg after the pillow fight.
Our conversation turned to youthful pranks and fistfights.
“I wish I’d fought more as a kid. I don’t even know how to punch,” I said.
“You’re a girl,” said Djorge.
“A scrappy girl.”
“I’m sure somebody would spar with you,” said Greg.
“Really? Will you?” He shook his head.
“I can teach you to fight,” said Djorge.
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Most of the time I was invincible, the leader of a pack of vandals, the instigator—in my own grandiose daydreams—of some version of class warfare. Occasionally, my demeanor crumbled. Once, as I cleaned a room with a coworker, he brought up the guy at a party a few days earlier who had too much to drink and tried to take pictures of girls’ breasts. For several hours, this guy ran from girl to girl, thrusting his camera down shirtfronts. He got pictures of everyone, including me, but I doubt any of the pictures turned out. It was kind of funny. When my coworker mentioned it, I was cleaning the bathroom. Everything blurred. I shook uncontrollably and fell forward, smashing my forearms against the porcelain edge of the bathtub. It’s the only time I had a panic attack. It felt out of place in Alaska, out of character for me.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” my friend asked.
I couldn’t catch my breath, and I laughed and wheezed awkwardly for a minute. “I was raped last year. The guys who did it took a bunch of pictures.”
My friend’s big blue eyes grew bigger. I wanted to apologize for bringing it up.
“I’ll get his camera and make sure there aren’t any photos,” he said.
“It’s okay. It’s not the same thing. I guess it just reminded me of it.”
Later, I retreated to the quiet of the linen room, stood next to shelves of perfectly folded sheets and pillowcases, and slapped myself across the face. I would not be vulnerable again.
Near the end of the summer, I finally got my chance to hike to the bus with a young couple I met at McKinley Village. She was from Georgia, he was from New Jersey, and we worked together for six weeks before they quit to spend the summer hitchhiking around Alaska. They stopped by the resort to tell me they were going to the bus, and I begged for the time off.
Preparations for our bus trip were disheveled. Employees had to wait in line to use the Internet in 15-minute blocks. Our grocery options were limited to what we could take from the dining hall or purchase at the camp store: breakfast cereal, apples, and peanut butter. But we were experienced hikers. My friends had a camp stove, water filter, and tent. Even without a map, we were reasonably confident we could complete the trek.
The Stampede is a popular snowmobile trail, easy to follow and relatively uneventful. It’s a long slog through five-foot brush with plenty of mosquitos, dust, and unrelenting sun. The only significant obstacle is the Teklanika River, the crossing that prevented McCandless from leaving the bush in July of 1992. My limited research focused on the river and the likelihood of crossing upstream. The Teklanika is about 10 miles into the hike, so there was no way to know for sure if we could cross until we reached it.
The day we left, I worked an eight-hour shift, met my friends, and hitched a ride to the trail. The man who picked us up lived in Healy and shook his head at our plans. Of course he knew where to drop us off and gave us a final warning, “Don’t be stupid.” There was enough light to hike until midnight and set up our tent in an open meadow. The sky was pale rose, and Denali was visible on the horizon.
We arrived at the Teklanika before noon the next day. As the book, or any published description of the Stampede trail notes, it’s a nasty crossing where the trail intersects with the river. Downstream, the banks narrow and steepen into a furious gorge. Since our trip, I’ve read accounts of hikers who died attempting to cross. It’s not surprising. The water is too cold and the current too strong to fight in the gorge. We waded in waist deep with our packs hoisted in the air, but knew it was useless.
“You can always cross a river upstream,” I said. It’s not true, but in our case up was a better choice than down. Within two miles, we got across safely. It was an obvious decision, and we only wanted to get to the bus, not out of the wilderness to avoid starvation. We talked about it on the trail after we crossed.
“He was an idiot. No business being out here,” said my friend. In his mind, the river crossing supported the Alaskan theory: McCandless was green, out of his element.
It’s the question of the McCandless story. How much was decided by lack of experience, and how much by lack of will? We can’t know. The Alaskan mentality blames the victim. As is often the case, it has more to do with Alaskans than McCandless. His death exemplifies the difficulty of living in such a harsh environment. Where they succeed, he failed. I don’t condone the Alaskan mentality, but I think it’s important to ask: would McCandless call himself a victim? Would he want to be remembered that way?
Fairbanks 142 sits in a clearing on the banks of the Sushana River. It’s a creek compared to the Teklanika, and the water sparkles clear and free of runoff. Thick brush willow encroaches on the trail, the bus, or anything in its path. But nothing grows much taller than five feet in the interior. Even the aspen by the river are dwarfed by the climate. You can see for miles when you look to the south or west. It’s especially beautiful in autumn as the brush turns every shade of red and gold. We were there on the cusp of autumn. I suppose McCandless never saw the full, resplendent panorama.
As we approached, the bus appeared suddenly, around a corner or over a hill—it has been so long I don’t remember. But I know we gasped. It was strikingly out of place, surreal and oddly beautiful against the hazy horizon. I guess I experienced a little of what Chris McCandless may have felt: a break from the monotony of the hike, joy at the unexpected, childlike awe. Perhaps a sense of comfort.
We pitched our tent next to the bus, but didn’t go in right away. Instead, we ate cereal, stretched our legs, and swatted mosquitos. It’s not a place you want to rush in to. Everything was too quiet. There are very few songbirds in Alaska, something only noticeable when sitting silently by an abandoned school bus, 20 miles in the bush.
Eventually, morbid curiosity got the better of us. We entered the bus and turned in slow circles. It felt like a movie where time is frozen and you walk through a landscape picking things up. The bed at the back of the bus, where Chris spent his final hours, was a mess of fabric scraps, perhaps remnants of the clothes or blankets he died in. But the broken windows were covered in semi-clear, tattered plastic, so presumably someone had patched things up in the 10 years since his death. Spotlight beams of sun leaked through holes and cracks in the plastic, and dust twirled in heliocentric patterns around the light. There were lyrics written in large, black Sharpie letters across one of the walls: I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can. Perhaps I may become a Highwayman again. Or I may simply be a single drop of rain—but I will remain. And I’ll be back again, and again and again…
I had to break the silence, and my voice cracked.
“Johnny Cash?” They nodded.
At the front of the bus was the visitor log. Someone suggested we take it outside to read. You can only stand for so long in a mausoleum.
We spent the next day in camp, next to Fairbanks 142, and took turns reading the visitor log. Of course I knew others hiked to the bus, but I wasn’t aware of how many. It’s a pilgrimage. At least a hundred people were there in 2002, and the number has quadrupled in years since. Alaskans talk of removing the bus to halt tourism, but it remains on the Stampede Trail. No one really wants to haul it 20 miles out. Visitors sign their names and write their stories in the book. I guess it’s a life changing experience for many of them. Most entries dealt with the search for meaning, purpose or redemption: a collection of survival stories. Some hiked to the bus to overcome loss, and others depression or divorce. I was startled by how many people believed the experience changed them. Healed them. I identified with their desire for epiphany— I just didn’t experience it. For their sake, I hope half of what they wrote was true.
There were no stories about rape. I didn’t add mine.
I had nothing profound to say, so I gave up on the logbook. Instead, I sat by the river and read Into the Wild a third time. I skipped Krakauer’s autobiographical sections and focused on the chapters about Chris, especially his journal entries. All around me, the bright pink fireweed of summer was slowly dying, the petals dry and tattered, but still strikingly beautiful against the sky. There was some sort of peace there—at the bus, the river, the place itself—that surprised and did not surprise me at the same time: a fleeting peace that defied interpretation, existed only in moments like the flash of light on water.
Can an essay about Chris McCandless—or for that matter, a book—somehow render his life more meaningful? I don’t know. I suppose it all comes down to what you see of yourself in someone else, and how their experience relates to your own. What always struck me about the McCandless story is that no one tells it better than Chris. Before the book or the movie, before thousands of people hiked to the bus, Chris gave voice to something in all of us:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
His writing is the story of the kid who lived, before he became the kid who died. I always liked the first story better.
The night we returned from Fairbanks 142, McKinley Village held a bonfire off-property on the peninsula across from the hotel. It was August 5th, the air was colder and the nights a little darker. I had to get on a bus the next day to return to Anchorage, and many other employees were near the end of their contracts. We wanted one last celebration. The beach of the peninsula was barren rock, limestone and shale, an ideal place for massive bonfires. That night, we dragged dead trees to the beach and built pyres, said our goodbyes beneath flames that stretched in wisps and tendrils 20 feet in the air.
It was also the night Djorge kept his promise. I still wanted to learn to fight. After a few beers, I no longer felt the cramps in my legs and back from the hike.
“Let’s do it,” I said to Djorge.
“You want I hit you, too?” he asked.
“Yep. Wouldn’t be fair otherwise.”
I wanted it all: the hot-tempered fistfights of adolescence, the constrained and remorseful anger of adulthood, the punches I should have thrown. And I wanted to be knocked flat, repeatedly, by a giant Russian who was probably angry about something, too. We hit on the upper arm, hard enough that our skin turned red and purple upon impact. He knocked me down first, but I got up and hit again and again until he fell, too. The shock reverberated from my fist to my core.
Several coworkers swapped in and out with Djorge and me, fighting us and fighting each other. We were drenched in sweat, striking and falling, laughing, our cheers and screams overpowered by the churn of the Nenana raging west. The next day my arm would be blackish purple from elbow to shoulder, like everyone else who participated. We would high five each other and grin sheepishly. We would be confused, uncertain about the future, and speak in noncommittal voices about going home and what that meant. But that night, we spent entire lifetimes beneath vast skies that stretched beyond the horizon, all the way to the top of the world. Maybe we needed a space that big to realize how small our lives are: how fragile and impermanent, how special.