Wild Truth
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Wild Truth
Carine McCandless

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the wild truth. Copyright © 2014 by Carine McCandless. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or repro-
duced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of
brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address
Harper Collins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007.
Photographs on pages 4, 5, and 6 of the second insert; 1 and 16 of the third insert;
and 264 and 279 of the interior © Dominic Peters. Photograph atop pages 2 and 3
of the second insert © Mickey Mariner Hines. Bottom photograph on page 7 of the
second insert © Jon Krakauer. All other photos are from the author’s collection.
Endpaper photograph: “Survivor” © Ray Mosteller,
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first edition
Designed by Ralph Fowler
Library of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data
McCandless, Carine.
The wild truth / Carine McCandless.
pages cm
ISBN 978–0–06–232514–3
1. McCandless, Christopher Johnson, 1968–1992—Family. 2. McCandless,
Christopher Johnson, 1968–1992. 3. McCandless, Carine. 4. Adventure and
adventurers—Alaska—Biography. 5. Brothers and sisters—United States—
Biography. 6. Abused children—United States—Biography. 7. Dysfunctional
families—United States—Biography. 8. Child abuse—United States. I. Title.
CT274.M31M32 2014
979.8'050922—dc23 2014011106
14 15 16 17 18 rrd(h) 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
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For Chris
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c o n t e n t s
Foreword xi
Prologue 1
Part One: Worth 15
Part Two: Strength 107
Part Three: Unconditional Love 187
Part Four: Truth 223
Epilogue 253
Author’s Note 265
Afterword 269
Acknowledgments 273
About the Author 279
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I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties
through my love for truth; and truth rewarded me.
— Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done
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f o r e wo r d
On September 14, 1992, I got a phone call from Mark Bryant, the
editor of Outside magazine, who sounded unusually animated. Skip-
ping the small talk, he told me about a snippet he’d just read in the
New York Times that he couldn’t stop thinking about:
Last Sunday a young hiker, stranded by an injury, was found dead
at a remote camp in the Alaskan interior. No one is yet certain
who he was. But his diary and two notes found at the camp tell a
wrenching story of his desperate and progressively futile efforts
to survive.
The diary indicates that the man, believed to be an American in
his late 20’s or early 30’s, might have been injured in a fall and that
he was then stranded at the camp for more than three months. It
tells how he tried to save himself by hunting game and eating wild
plants while nonetheless getting weaker.
One of his two notes is a plea for help, addressed to anyone who
might come upon the camp while the hiker searched the surround-
ing area for food. The second note bids the world goodbye.
An autopsy at the state coroner’s office in Fairbanks this week
found that the man had died of starvation, probably in late July.
The authorities discovered among the man’s possessions a name
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xii Foreword
that they believe is his. But they have so far been unable to con-
firm his identity and, until they do, have declined to disclose
the name.
Although the article raised more questions than it answered,
Bryant’s interest had been piqued by its handful of poignant details.
He wondered if I’d be willing to investigate the tragedy, write a
substantial piece about it for Outside, and complete it quickly. I was
already behind schedule on other writing assignments and feeling
stressed. Committing to yet another project— a challenging one, on
a tight deadline— would add considerably to that stress. But the story
resonated on a deeply personal level for me. I agreed to put my other
projects on hold and look into it.
The deceased hiker turned out to be twenty- four- year- old
Christopher McCandless, who’d grown up in a Washington, D.C.,
suburb and graduated from Emory University with honors. It quickly
became apparent that walking alone into the Alaskan wilderness
with minimal food and gear had been a very deliberate act— the cul-
mination of a serious quest Chris had been planning for a long time.
He wanted to test his inner resources in a meaningful way, without
a safety net, in order to gain a better perspective on such weighty
matters as authenticity, purpose, and his place in the world.
Eager to receive whatever insights into Chris’s personality his
family might be able to provide, in October 1992 I mailed a let-
ter to Dennis Burnett, the McCandlesses’ attorney, in which I
When I was 23 (I’m 38 at present) I, too, set off alone into
the Alaskan wilderness for an extended sojourn that baffled and
frightened many of my friends and family (I was seeking challenge,
I suppose, and some sort of inner peace, and answers to Big
Questions) so I identify with Chris to a great extent, and feel
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Foreword xiii
like I might know something about why he felt compelled to test
himself in such a wild and unforgiving piece of country. . . . If any
of the McCandless family would be willing to chat with me I’d be
extremely grateful.
My letter resulted in an invitation from Chris’s parents, Walt and
Billie McCandless, to visit them at their home in Chesapeake Beach,
Maryland. When I showed up on their doorstep a few days later, the
intensity of their grief staggered me, but they graciously answered all
of my many questions.
The last time Walt or Billie had seen Chris or spoken to him was
May 12, 1990, when they’d driven down to Atlanta to attend his
graduation from Emory. Following the ceremony, he mentioned that
he would probably spend that summer traveling, and then enroll in
law school. Five weeks later, he mailed his parents a copy of his final
grades, accompanied by a note thanking them for some graduation
gifts. “Not much else is happening, but it’s starting to get real hot
and humid down here,” he wrote at the end of the missive. “Say Hi
to everyone for me.” It was the last anyone in the McCandless family
would ever hear from him.
Walt and Billie were desperate to learn everything they could
about Chris’s activities from the moment he performed his vanishing
act until his emaciated remains were discovered in Alaska twenty-
seven months later. Where had he traveled and whom had he met?
What had he been thinking? What had he been feeling? Hoping that
I might be able to find answers to such questions, they allowed me to
examine all the documents and photos that had been recovered after
his death. They also urged me to track down anyone he’d met whom
I could locate from these materials, and to interview individuals who
were important to Chris before his disappearance— especially his
twenty- one- year- old sister, Carine, with whom he had had an un-
commonly close bond.
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xiv Foreword
When I phoned Carine, she was wary, but she talked to me for
twenty minutes or so and provided important information for the
8,400- word article about Chris, titled “Death of an Innocent,”
published as the cover story in the January 1993 issue of Outside.
Although it was well received, the article left me feeling unsatisfied.
In order to meet my deadline, I had to deliver it to the magazine
before I’d had time to investigate some tantalizing leads. Import-
ant aspects of the mystery remained hazy, including the cause of
Chris’s death and his reasons for so assiduously avoiding contact with
his family after he departed Atlanta in the summer of 1990. I spent
the next year conducting further research to fill in these and other
blanks in order to write a book, which was published in 1996 as Into
the Wild.
By the time I began doing research for the book, it was obvious to
me that Carine understood Chris better than anyone, perhaps even
better than Chris had understood himself. So I phoned her again to
ask if she would talk to me at greater length. Highly protective of her
absent brother, she remained skeptical but agreed to let me interview
her for a couple of hours at her home near Virginia Beach. After we
started to talk, Carine determined there was a lot she wanted to tell
me, and the allotted two hours stretched into the next day. At some
point she decided she could trust me, and asked me to read some ex-
cruciatingly candid letters Chris had written to her— letters she had
never shown to anyone, not even her husband or closest friends. As
I began to read them I was filled with both sadness and admiration
for Chris and Carine. The letters were sometimes harrowing, but
they left little doubt about what drove him to sever all ties with his
family. When I eventually got on a plane to fly home to Seattle, my
head was spinning.
Before Carine shared the letters with me, she asked me not to
include anything from them in my book. I promised to abide by
her wishes. It’s not uncommon for sources to ask journalists to treat
certain pieces of information as confidential or “off the record,” and
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Foreword xv
I’d agreed to such requests on several previous occasions. In this
instance, my willingness to do so was bolstered by the fact that I
shared Carine’s desire to avoid causing undue pain to Walt, Billie,
and Carine’s siblings from Walt’s first marriage. I thought, moreover,
that I could convey what I’d learned from the letters obliquely, be-
tween the lines, without violating Carine’s trust. I was confident I
could provide enough indirect clues for readers to understand that, to
no small degree, Chris’s seemingly inexplicable behavior during the
final years of his life was in fact explained by the volatile dynamics of
the McCandless family while he was growing up.
Many readers did understand this, as it turned out. But many did
not. A lot of people came away from reading Into the Wild without
grasping why Chris did what he did. Lacking explicit facts, they
concluded that he was merely self- absorbed, unforgivably cruel to his
parents, mentally ill, suicidal, and/or witless.
These mistaken assumptions troubled Carine. Two decades after
her brother’s death, she decided it was time to tell Chris’s entire story,
plainly and directly, without concealing any of the heartbreaking
particulars. She belatedly recognized that even the most toxic secrets
could possibly be robbed of their power to hurt by dragging them out
of the shadows and exposing them to the light of day.
Thus did she come to write The Wild Truth, the courageous book
you now hold in your hands.
Jon Krakauer
April 2014
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