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The Bus That Went Into The Wild

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After sitting at the same spot for over fifty years, the Fairbanks 142 bus, also known as the “Magic bus” or the “Into the Wild” bus finally made a journey yesterday. Dramatically so. An Alaska Army National Guard Helicopter airlifted the bus and moved it to a ‘secure location’ for the time being, till a permanent location can be ascertained.

into the wild bus
Image Credit : CNN.COM

But why was it moved? What is the story behind the Magic ‘142’ Bus? Why have so many people braved hostile weather and turbulent rivers to reach it?

In 1990, a young boy called Christopher McCandless (also known as Alex Supertramp) completed his graduation in History and Anthropology. He was an active writer for the campus newspaper, and excelled academically. But disenchanted with his urban life, he donated all his $24,000 in charity, cut off all communication with his family and friends, and left in his car, towards a seemingly non-materialistic life.

He had driven through California, South Dakota and Arizona before his car broke down. Unperturbed, Chris abandoned it and started walking. Over the next two years, he hitch-hiked through Western US in his own tramp-style, before finding himself a canoe and went paddling in the Colorado river all the way to Mexico. By the autumn of 1991, he was back in the US and was making plans to head to Alaska. Early 1992, he hitch-hiked his way across Canada all the way to Fairbanks in Alaska. On April 28, he got a ride from a local electrician who drove him till the end of the motored path just outside Healy town. The Stampede Trail starts here. The electrician, Jim Gallien, had serious doubts about Alex’ (as Chris had introduced himself) ability to brave the Alaskan wilderness and cold, especially after noticing his light backpack and meagre rations. He begged McCandless to let him buy him some supplies and gear. Chris smiled and declined politely.

into the wild aerial view
Image Credits: unusualplaces.org

After hiking for 28 miles (45 kms), Christopher McCandless spotted a deserted bus in a thick undergrowth in Denali National Park.  He crossed it and kept walking, but after coming across the thick Alaskan bush, he returned and took refuge in the bus. He unpacked – 4.5 kgs of rice, a semi automatic gun, lots of books, a book on Edible Plants, and some personal effects. For the next two months, Chris lived off the land, ate edible plants, hunted lean game like small rabbits, porcupines, squirrels and birds. Once, he shot a moose but failed to preserve it, and the meat rotted.

He maintained his journal and took photographs. In July 1992, after spending over two months in the bus, he decided to head back to civilization and began journeying backwards on the Stampede Trail. But the Teklanika river was swollen, so he headed back to the bus. Unbeknownst to him, just half a mile away there was a hand operated tramway that he could have used to cross over.

He posted an S.O.S.note on the bus, that stated:

Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless.

His last legible diary entry is of day 107 in the bus when he wrote “Blue Beautiful Berries”. For the next five days, the diary has only slashes as entries. On Day 113, there wasn’t an entry.  He took a photo of himself holding a note. The note read,

“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and God bless all”.

Sometime later, Christopher ‘Alex Supertramp’ McCandless passed away. The exact time of his death is not known.

Two weeks later on September 6, some hunters found his body when they took refuge in the bus. It is believed that he died of starvation. In January 1993, Jon Kraukeur wrote this tragic story in the Outside Magazine and in 1997, he made the same into a book “Into the Wild”. The book became a best seller, and inspired Sean Penn in 2007 to make the movie on Christopher McCandless’. Titled “Into the Wild” again, it was a big hit and overnight Chris became a modern day travel legend for many. The movie is popular in all parts of the world.

Several Facebook pages and forums were created hosting discussions about McCandless’ way of living, essays about him, the Stampede Trail and more. Irony that the followers of a man who wanted to spend all his time outside, were spending so much time online and inside their homes. His parents visited the bus, and placed a plaque. In 2007, his sister Carine followed the trail and reached the bus and left a small notebook with a quote on the cover, “There is no way to happiness; Happiness is the way.”

Soon after the movie came out many people started flocking to Healy every year, to Denali National Park, to see the “Magic Bus” and to camp there and “experience the McCandless way of living”. It is risky as the terrain is harsh, the climate unpredictable, and the rivers often wild and raging. As many followers tried following McCandless’ footsteps on the Stampede Trail and tried reaching the bus, some were injured, some died, and numerous people had to be rescued or evacuated. Earlier this year, in February 2020, five Italian tourists had to be rescued. They were found 13 kilometres from the trail-head, and one of them suffered from severe frostbite. The trail these days is an overgrown dirt road, and full of beaver ponds, creeks, and two glacial rivers – the Savage and the Teklanika.

into the wild crossing
Image Credit: theoutbound.com

A majority of the rescues and injuries happen due to the frigid and fast flowing waters of the Teklanika river. A Belarusian woman, was swept under the waters last year while trying to cross over with her husband, and died. A South Korean was swept downstream for almost 500 metres and lost most of his belongings including a camera in which he had used to document his year-long journey of travelling around the world.

On the barren shore of close by Savage river, there is a small memorial built for a deceased woman – Claire Ackerman. The inscription reads “To stay put is to exist, to travel is to live”.

In 2010, Swiss girl Claire met a Frenchman Etienne Gros n Vancouver and they made plans to go around the world together. Over the next two months they travelled and hiked through Canada and Alaska, before landing up at Denali National Park. They had no prior plans to go to the Bus, but they met a couple of Frenchman who spoke of it, and the young couple decided to head to it. Summer was ending, and they thought they could see the Northern Lights – the Aurora Borealis. The trail was beautiful, and they took a photograph – both of them laughing – a little before the river crossing. The found a rope that someone had run between the two banks, and tied themselves to it, and stepped into the water. Halfway across, they lost their footing and were swept under water. Gos desperately pulled out a knife, cut his rope and swam to shore. Not seeing Claire, he waded back to rescue her but it was too late. The young woman was dead. He cut her rope, swam with her body and dragged her to shore, kept trying to revive her by CPR but to no avail. Claire had been an experienced scuba diver and mountaineer, but that day the river was too powerful. Gos returned with Claire’s mother and sister the next year to build her memorial.

claire ackerman
Image credit: Diana Saverin

Rescue troopers say that 75% of all rescues that happen in the area, are on the Stampede Trail. “Obviously there’s something that draws these people out here. It’s some kind of internal thing within them that makes them go to that bus. I don’t know and I don’t understand. What would possess a person to follow the tracks of someone who died because he was unprepared?

But they do. Each year scores of people walk on the trail, determined to see the bus for themselves. Once they reach, they camp in the bus or nearby for weeks at a stretch, write essays in the various logbooks stored inside, and ponder upon the impact of McCandless’ free spirited ways have had on their own life.Enchanted by the spot, many express how they could see why McCandless stayed. One man described his plans to call his parents for the first time in eight years, and another said he would propose to his significant other when he returned from the trail.

into the wild bus interior
Image Credit: theoutbound.com

The bus had been sitting there, abandoned since 1962. The door creaks when you enter it. There is hay all over the floor. On one corner of the bus is a bed where McCandless’ body was found. A sheet and a brown quilt cover it now. A blue suitcase was left by the family. The drawers are full of newspapers, ropes, Jack London, books, and candles. The whole interior is covered with graffiti – names, dates, and quotes like “Live the life you always imagined”, “Get busy living or get busy dying”.

Many Alaskans, locals do not feel any reverence for him at all. They think it was foolish of him to take the risk that he did. In Alaska, its generally considered acceptable to invite risk while making a living – fishing, hunting, logging. But to risk one’s life to follow a philosophical way of living has less takers there, especially because many struggle to survive and prosper. A lot of locals feel it was downright stupid of him to carry so little food, a gun that could not really hurt large game, and leave behind a proper topographical map and compass. In their minds, it is only a cocky greenhorn who would do that. They are also mad that while there are so many local heroes who have adventured and thrived in the state, yet the story that receives the most adulation was of a man who failed.

It is also important to note that rescue troopers often risk their own lives to bring back tourists, hikers and “McCandless pilgrims” and many rescue staff are fed up off putting their own neck on the line for “such kind”.

chinook helicopter
Image Credit: firstpost.com

So, there was some happiness too in the local community when the bus was airlifted by the helicopter and moved from the spot forever. In the words of Denali Borough Mayor “It’s a huge relief to have it removed. For public safety, we know we did the right thing. At the same time it’s a little bittersweet to see a part of our history disappear.”

Yet Christopher McCandless continues to have enough followers who believe that his story is of a man who did not die, but truly lived. Many find his journey inspiring and express gratitude for guiding them to chase their own dreams and find their own light.

As one entry in the notebook reads, “The bus is where McCandless’ journey ended, and the rest of ours begins.”

into the wild plaque
Image Credits: unusualplaces.org
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Neeraj Narayanan

Neeraj Narayanan, a.k.a Captain Nero, is the founder of OHOT. In the summer of 2013, he quit his corporate job and went backpacking around the world. In a year full of (mis)adventures, he ended up being chased by a bear in a Croatian forest, being held at gunpoint by a mafia gang lord in Turkey, running with the bulls in Spain, and dancing in the clubs of Spain and Italy. A year later, he started leading group trips for people.

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