spotlessly clean and fresh
Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives.
the quality of never making an error
There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.
in deplorable condition
A vintage International Harvester from the 1940s, the derelict vehicle is located twenty-five miles west of Healy as the raven flies, rusting incongruously in the fireweed beside the Stampede Trail, just beyond the boundary of Denali National Park.
willfully obstinate; stubbornly disobedient
Thompson, Samel, and Swanson, however, are contumacious Alaskans with a special fondness for driving motor vehicles where motor vehicles aren’t really designed to be driven.
an examination and dissection of a dead body
The body was taken to Anchorage, where an autopsy was performed at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory.
effusively or insincerely emotional
The Cabarets plywood-paneled walls are hung with deer antlers, Old Milwaukee beer promos, and mawkish paintings of game birds taking flight.
caused to be unloved
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.
convert ordinary language into code
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.
feeling or expressing pain or sorrow for sins or offenses
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.
showing unselfish concern for the welfare of others
(The latter is a reference to Tolstoy’s protagonist and alter ego, Pierre Bezuhov— altruistic, questing, illegitimately born.)
a proposed route of travel
Five weeks earlier he’d loaded all his belongings into his little car and headed west without an itinerary.
a long wandering and eventful journey
The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything.
not easily borne; wearing
He had spent the previous four years, as he saw it, preparing to fulfill an absurd and onerous duty: to graduate from college.
The desert is the environment of revelation, genetically and physiologically alien, sensorily austere, esthetically abstract, historically inimical....
tending to cure or restore to health
Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.
the act of coming out; becoming apparent
There was nowhere to move the car, however, as the only route of egress was now a foaming, full-blown river.
deeply agitated especially from emotion
Instead of feeling distraught over this turn of events, moreover, McCandless was exhilarated: He saw the flash flood as an opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage.
any system of principles or beliefs
Although the tone of the journal—written in the third person in a stilted, self-consciousness voice—often veers toward melodrama, the available evidence indicates that McCandless did not misrepresent the facts; telling the truth was a credo he took seriously.
“He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”
not restrained or controlled
This lower stretch of the river, from Hoover Dam to the gulf, has little in common with the unbridled torrent that explodes through the Grand Canyon, some 250 miles upstream from Topock.
a small natural hill
On January 16, McCandless left the stubby metal boat on a hummock of dune grass southeast of El Golfo de Santa Clara and started walking north up the deserted beach.
To avoid being robbed by the unsavory characters who rule the streets and freeway overpasses where he slept, he learned to bury what money he had before entering a city, then recover it on the way out of town.
having existed from the beginning
The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew.
subject to sharply varying moods
Didn’t like to be around too many people, though. Temperamental. He meant good, but I think he had a lot of complexes—know what I’m saying?
ostentatiously lofty in style
Mesmerized by London’s turgid portrayal of life in Alaska and the Yukon, McCandless read and reread The Call of the Wild, White Fang, “To Build a Fire," "An Odyssey of the North,” “The Wit of Porportuk."
filled with wonder and delight
He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness.
the delivery of goods for sale or disposal
One afternoon while McCandless was tending the book table at the Niland swap meet, somebody left a portable electric organ with Burres to sell on consignment.
light exercises designed to promote general fitness
He did calisthenics each morning to get in shape for the rigors of the bush and discussed backcountry survival strategies at length with Bob, a self-styled survivalist.
On January 4, 1993, this writer received an unusual letter, penned in a shaky, anachronistic script that suggested an elderly author.
thoroughly dried out
Away from the lakeshore the land rises gently and then abruptly to form the desiccated, phantasmal badlands of Anza-Borrego.
the means of connection between things linked in series
When he needed provisions, he would hitch or walk the four miles into town, where he bought rice and filled his plastic water jug at the market-liquor store-post office, a beige stucco building that serves as the cultural nexus of greater Salton City.
in deplorable condition
Franz drove Alex the rest of the way, chatted with him there for a while, and then returned to town, where he lived alone, rent free, in return for managing a ramshackle apartment building.
a man-made object taken as a whole
Executed with remarkable skill and creativity, this belt is as astonishing as any artifact Chris McCandless left behind.
Not infrequently during their visits, Franz recalls, McCandless’s face would darken with anger and he’d fulminate about his parents or politicians or the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life.
grow and flourish
Franz relished being with McCandless, but their burgeoning friendship also reminded him how lonely he’d been.
a fictitious name used when performing a particular role
Ronald Franz (this is not his real name; at his request I have given him a pseudonym) looks remarkably sturdy for a man in his ninth decade who has survived two heart attacks.
having a rank smell or taste
I opened the microwave, and the bottom of it was filled with rancid grease. Alex had been using it to cook chicken, and it never occurred to him that the grease had to drain somewhere.
unrestrained, especially with regard to feelings
Given Walt’s need to exert control and Chris’s extravagantly independent nature, polarization was inevitable.
a relationship of mutual understanding between people
In high school McCandless had enjoyed a close rapport with two or three members of the opposite sex, and Carine recalls one instance when he got drunk and tried to bring a girl up to his bedroom in the middle of the night
unpleasantly loud and harsh
The most strident criticism came in the form of a dense, multipage epistle from Ambler, a tiny Inupiat village on the Kobuk River north of the Arctic Circle.
overbearing pride or presumption
McCandless is, finally, just a pale 20th-century burlesque of London's protagonist, who freezes because he ignores advice and commits big-time hubris).
rigorous self-denial and active self-restraint
McCandless's contrived asceticism and a pseudoliterary stance compound rather than reduce the fault.
characteristic of acting or a stage performance
McCandless's postcards, notes, and journals ... read like the work of an above average, somewhat histrionic high school kid
difficult to penetrate
In mid-winter a field biologist discovered all his belongings—two rifles, camping gear, a diary filled with incoherent ranting about truth and beauty and recondite ecological theory
not neatly combed
One rainy afternoon while walking into town, I crossed paths with an unkempt, agitated man who appeared to be about forty.
a person from whom you are descended
He wondered whether humans could live as our forebears had when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the land or whether our species had moved too far from its roots to survive without gunpowder, steel, and other artifacts of civilization.
sing and play for somebody
He carried around a cheap guitar held together with masking tape and would serenade anybody who’d listen with long, off-key songs about his adventures.
become reduced to ashes
the cabin he was staying in caught fire and burned to rubble, incinerating both his equipment and the voluminous accumulation of notes, poetry, and personal journals that he regarded as his life’s work.
deviating from a straight course
As if climbing the peak alone in winter weren’t challenging enough, this time he decided to up the ante even further by beginning his ascent at sea level, which entailed walking 160 hard, circuitous miles from the shore of Cook Inlet just to reach the foot of the mountain.
marked by ostentation but often tasteless
And he seemed like a smart guy. But there was a side to him that was a little bit dreamy, a little bit out of touch with reality. He was flamboyant. He liked to party hard.
a swaggering show of courage
He could be extremely responsible, but he had a tendency to wing it sometimes, to act impulsively, to get by on bravado and style.
“I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure,” he confessed to his diary, significant portions of which were published posthumously in a five-part story by Kris Capps in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
feed on carrion or refuse
At one point he managed to scavenge meat from a diseased caribou that had wandered into the lake and died.
unconventional in especially appearance and behavior
Stella was a headstrong woman with bohemian tastes and driving artistic ambitions, for both herself and her kin; she self-published a literary journal, the Ruess Quartette, the cover of which was emblazoned with the family maxim: "Glorify the hour."
young and inexperienced
Ruess was, in the words of Wallace Stegner, "a callow romantic, an adolescent esthete, an atavistic wanderer of the wastelands"
Twice I was nearly gored to death by a wild bull. But always, so far, I’ve escaped unscathed and gone forth to other adventures.
in a composed and unconcerned manner
And in his final letter Ruess nonchalantly confesses to his brother: I have had a few narrow escapes from rattlers and crumbling cliffs.
equipment consisting of miscellaneous articles
except for the burros and their tack, none of Ruess’s possessions—his camping paraphernalia, journals, and paintings—was ever found.
(of fiction) involving clever rogues or adventurers
When Edward Abbey was writing The Monkey Wrench Gang, his picaresque novel about eco-terrorism in the canyon country, his pal Ken Sleight was said to have inspired the character Seldom Seen Smith.
requiring secret or mysterious knowledge
Within the ranks of his arcane field—an advanced technology called synthetic aperture radar, or SAR—he is an eminence.
liable to sudden unpredictable change
According to members of the extended family, his moods can be dark and mercurial, although they say his famous temper has lost much of its volatility in recent years.
the path followed by an object moving through space
It is impossible to know what murky convergence of chromosomal matter, parent-child dynamics, and alignment of the cosmos was responsible, but Christopher Johnson McCandless came into the world with unusual gifts and a will not easily deflected from its trajectory.
shunning contact with others
He wasn’t antisocial—he always had friends, and everybody liked him—but he could go off and entertain himself for hours. He didn’t seem to need toys or friends. He could be alone without being lonely.
a feeling of deep and bitter anger and ill-will
The rancor was more smoke than fire, says Carine, but "I think it was one of the reasons Chris and I were so close. We learned to count on each other when Mom and Dad weren’t getting along.”
the cognitive condition of someone who understands
The old man’s backwoods savvy, his affinity for the wilderness, left a deep impression on the boy.
distinctive and stylish elegance
Indeed, in a goofy video Chris made in college, he can be heard belting out "Summers by the sea/Sailboats in Capri” with impressive panache, crooning like a professional lounge singer.
a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude
Nuance, strategy, and anything beyond the rudimentaries of technique were wasted on Chris.
a social policy of racial segregation
He spoke seriously to his friends about smuggling weapons into that country and joining the struggle to end apartheid.
causing awareness of your shortcomings
When Walt and Billie suggested that he needed a college degree to attain a fulfilling career, Chris answered that careers were demeaning “twentieth-century inventions," more of a liability than an asset, and that he would do fine without one, thank you.
impervious to correction by punishment
To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham.
‘All you need to know is that it works,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to know how or why.’ Chris was just being Chris, but it infuriated me.
a man who likes many women
One of the individuals he professed to admire greatly over the last two years of his life was a heavy drinker and incorrigible philanderer who regularly beat up his girlfriends.
excessively or hypocritically pious
Whenever Walt McCandless, in his stern fashion, would dispense a fatherly admonishment to Chris, Carine, or their half siblings, Chris would fixate on his father’s own less than sterling behavior many years earlier and silently denounce him as a sanctimonious hypocrite.
to, toward or at one side
He chose instead to make a secret of his dark knowledge and express his rage obliquely, in silence and sullen withdrawal.
deviating from the general or common order or type
Chris’s seemingly anomalous political positions were perhaps best summed up by Thoreau’s declaration in “Civil Disobedience": "I heartily accept the motto—‘That government is best which governs least.’ ”
censure severely or angrily
He lampooned Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden, called for the resignation of Attorney General Edwin Meese, lambasted Bible-thumpers of the Christian right, urged vigilance against the Soviet threat, castigated the Japanese for hunting whales, and defended Jesse Jackson as a viable presidential candidate.
transmitting light; able to be seen through with clarity
It was an abbreviated trip—he spent a short time around Fairbanks, then hurried south to get back to Atlanta in time for the start of fall classes—but he had been smitten by the vastness of the land, by the ghostly hue of the glaciers, by the pellucid subarctic sky.
stubbornly resistant to authority or control
In both photos Chris stares at the lens with the same pensive, recalcitrant squint, as if he’d been interrupted in the middle of an important thought and was annoyed to be wasting his time in front of the camera.
reduce to ashes
Less than twenty-four hours after landing in Fairbanks, Carine and Sam flew on to Anchorage, where Chris’s body had been cremated following the autopsy at the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory.
greatest in importance or degree or significance
My reasoning, if one can call it that, was inflamed by the scattershot passions of youth and a literary diet overly rich in the works of Nietzsche, Kerouac, and John Menlove Edwards, the latter a deeply troubled writer and psychiatrist who, before putting an end to his life with a cyanide capsule in 1958, had been one of the preeminent British rock climbers of the day.
influence or urge by gentle urging, caressing, or flattering
So I drove as far as Gig Harbor, Washington, abandoned the car, and inveigled a ride on a northbound salmon seiner.
hard outer covering or case of certain organisms
Vast and labyrinthine, the ice cap rides the spine of the Boundary Ranges like a carapace, from which the long blue tongues of numerous glaciers inch down toward the sea under the weight of the ages.
stupefied or excited by a chemical substance
To a self-possessed young man inebriated with the unfolding drama of his own life, all of this held enormous appeal.
a constantly changing medley of real or imagined images
Here the glacier spills abruptly over the edge of a high plateau, dropping seaward through a gap between two mountains in a phantasmagoria of shattered ice.
an unaccompanied partsong for 2 or 3 voices
A madrigal of creaks and sharp reports—the sort of protest a large fir limb makes when it’s slowly bent to the breaking point—served as a reminder that it is the nature of glaciers to move
unbelievable gall; insolence; audacity
In solo climbing the whole enterprise is held together with little more than chutzpah, not the most reliable adhesive.
be bossy towards
From elementary school through high school, my siblings and I were hectored to excel in every class, to win medals in science fairs, to be chosen princess of the prom, to win election to student government.
mix up or confuse
To a greater and greater degree his life revolved around a self-administered pharmacopoeia of steroids, amphetamines, mood elevators, and painkillers, and the drugs addled his once-formidable mind.
a feeling of great elation
The euphoria, the overwhelming sense of relief, that had initially accompanied my return to Petersburg faded, and an unexpected melancholy took its place.
not produced by natural forces
I wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life; to divest myself of the factitious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilization; ... and to find, amidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and of the true interests of man.
a long steep slope at the edge of a plateau or ridge
Just sixteen miles to the south, beyond an escarpment of the Outer Range, hundreds of tourists rumble daily into Denali Park over a road patrolled by the National Park Service.
a gaping grimace
Overjoyed, the proud hunter took a photograph of himself kneeling over his trophy, rifle thrust triumphantly over-head, his features distorted in a rictus of ecstasy and amazement, like some unemployed janitor who'd gone to Reno and won a million-dollar jackpot.
uncertain or unable to decide about what course to follow
Although McCandless was enough of a realist to know that hunting game was an unavoidable component of living off the land, he had always been ambivalent about killing animals.
lack of sophistication or worldliness
But McCandless, in his naivete, relied on the advice of hunters he’d consulted in South Dakota, who advised him to smoke his meat, not an easy task under the circumstances.
He seemed to have moved beyond his need to assert so adamantly his autonomy, his need to separate himself from his parents.
peculiar to the individual
But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map.
unhealthy vapors rising from the ground or other sources
The beaver ponds are never more than chest deep, but the water is cold, and as we slosh forward, our feet churn the muck on the bottom into a foul-smelling miasma of decomposing slime.
in an unambiguous manner
When I’d questioned Gordon Samel and Ken Thompson shortly after they’d discovered McCandless’s body, both men insisted—adamantly and unequivocally—that the big skeleton was the remains of a caribou, and they derided the greenhorn’s ignorance in mistaking the animal he killed for a moose.
overbearing pride with a superior manner toward inferiors
Some critics have even drawn parallels between McCandless and the Arctic’s most infamous tragic figure, Sir John Franklin, a nineteenth-century British naval officer whose smugness and hauteur contributed to some 140 deaths, including his own.
a familiar name for a person
He had been woefully unprepared to lead an Arctic expedition, and upon returning to England, he was known as the Man Who Ate His Shoes—yet the sobriquet was uttered more often with awe than with ridicule.
ability of a material to return to its original shape
He was green, and he overestimated his resilience, but he was sufficiently skilled to last for sixteen weeks on little more than his wits and ten pounds of rice.
feelings of anxiety that make you tense and irritable
The disquietude he felt on Katahdin’s granite heights inspired some of his most powerful writing and profoundly colored the way he thought thereafter about the earth in its coarse, undomesticated state.
a calm, lengthy, intent consideration
The entries in McCandless’s journal contain few abstractions about wilderness or, for that matter, few ruminations of any kind.
a small or moderate or token amount
It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense.
not fit to assume responsibility
McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair.
the height of a standing person
Trying to explain McCandless’s unorthodox behavior, some people have made much of the fact that like John Waterman, he was small in stature and may have suffered from a “short man's complex," a fundamental insecurity that drove him to prove his manhood by means of extreme physical challenges.
hinder or prevent the progress or accomplishment of
After his attempt to depart the wilderness was stymied by the Teklanika’s high flow, McCandless arrived back at the bus on July 8.
capable of producing offspring or vegetation
It was the height of summer, the country was a fecund riot of plant and animal life, and his food supply was adequate.
extremely annoying or displeasing
“And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness. . . . And this was most vexing of all,” he noted, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.”
a leave usually taken every seventh year
It is tempting to regard this latter notation as further evidence that McCandless’s long, lonely sabbatical had changed him in some significant way.
lacking in or deprived of strength or power
In order for McCandless to have been incapacitated by potato seeds, he would have had to eat many, many pounds of them; and given the light weight of his pack when Gallien dropped him off, it is extremely unlikely that he carried more than a few grams of potato seeds, if he carried any at all.
a medicine that induces nausea and vomiting
Fortunately, it proved emetic; and her stomach having rejected all that she had swallowed, she was restored to health, though her recovery was for some time doubtful.
admitting of no doubt or misunderstanding
Given the alarming, unambiguous entry McCandless had scrawled in his journal on July 30, I found it hard to believe that the enormous quantity of seeds he’d eaten just prior to that date played no role in his death.
a difficult problem
Over a period of several years I doggedly sifted through the scientific literature, hoping to find a clue that would explain this conundrum.
characterized by effort to the point of exhaustion
The damage wasn’t discovered until late July, when a wildlife biologist named Paul Atkinson made the grueling ten-mile bush-whack over the Outer Range, from the road into Denali National Park to the Park Service shelter.
willful and malicious destruction of the property of others
This looked like somebody had gone at the cabins with a claw hammer and bashed everything in sight. From the size of the fireweed growing up through mattresses that had been tossed outside, it was clear that the vandalism had occurred many weeks earlier.
a familiar name for a person
Recognizing the gravity of his predicament, he had abandoned the cocky moniker he’d been using for years, Alexander Supertramp, in favor of the name given to him at birth by his parents.
marked by utter benignity
One of his last acts was to take a picture of himself, standing near the bus under the high Alaska sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave, beatific farewell.
an instrument that measures the height above ground
As the altimeter needle brushes five thousand feet, we crest a mud-colored ridge, the earth drops away, and a breathtaking sweep of taiga fills the Plexiglas wind-screen.