I felt drawn to the story of Christopher McCandless not just because it was an interesting tale in and of itself, but for personal reasons as well. You see, I once tried to leave my family and everything I knew behind to strike out on a journey similar to McCandless. However, my trek was of a far briefer duration and considerably less risky than the adventures of the self-styled Alexander Supertramp.
If you only saw the film adaption of Krakauer's Into The Wild, you might think that Chris McCandless just suddenly decided to travel across America upon graduating from college in the spring of 1990. But in Chapter 12 of the book, it is revealed that McCandless made a regular habit of going away for months at a time during summer breaks between semesters in college. In the summer of 1989, a year before McCandless embarked on his two year voyage that ended with his death by starvation in an abandoned bus near Denali National Park, he had even made a brief foray up to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Since as far back as the 6th grade, if my memory serves, I was fascinated with maps, as well as history. During my junior high school years, I loved reading fantasy adventure stories, running the gamut from Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. A common feature of all these stories was that they provided maps of the fantasy worlds created by the authors, across which the protagonists travelled in pursuit of their fortunes or in carrying out their quests. I took a keen interest in poring over a worldwide atlas that we had in my house and developed a longing to explore the world, to the point of drawing a line to mark the path across the globe I intended to travel. To give you an idea of how out of touch with reality I was, I had incredibly naive notions that I would somehow raft across the Bering Strait to Siberia and then make my way down to China.
It was during the winter of 1986/1987 that my wanderlust reached a fever pitch. In the middle of my senior year at high school, I was also very depressed at the time and unhappy with my life at the time. I was still a believing Catholic at the time and I envisioned for myself a journey that would be not only physical, but also spiritual and transformational as well. My travel ambitions though were considerably trimmed. Instead of spanning the globe, my plan was to travel north into Canada. I intended to make my way up to the shores of the Ungave Peninsula in Quebec, where I believed that something would happen that would change my life and give me a divine purpose.
I set out on what I anticipated to be my epic journey in early-mid January of 1987, twenty-one years ago. I don't recall the exact date, though I remember it was a Monday. Unlike McCandless, I left a note behind for my parents, both of whom were at work that morning. I don't remember exactly what I told them. I do recall that I did not tell them where I was going, but that I had to go away for a while. Fortunately, the weather was in my favor that day. The sun shone and the temperature was mildly cold.
Rather than going to school, as I normally did, I walked to the Long Island Rail Road station at Hicksville and purchased a one way ticket to Penn Station in Manhattan. I had withdrawn $600 from my savings account so that I would have ample funds to buy whatever I might need on my voyage. I carried with me either a shoulder bag or a knapsack, I can't recall which, in which I packed several changes of clothes, some snacks and water, and a few other basic amenities. As I sat in the Manhattan bound train, I bristled with excitement and anticipation. I could scarcely believe that I was actually embarking on the journey I had planned.
Once the train arrived in Penn Station, I set out on foot, walking north up Eighth Avenue. After 59th Street, I had Central Park to my right side for the next fifty blocks. Everything was going exactly as planned with no hitches or complications. But once I had crossed over 110th Street and left Central Park behind me, my surroundings noticeably changed. Up until then, I had trodden through either commerical or wealthy residential areas. Now I found myself in Harlem.
There I was, a white teenager from suburban Long Island, walking through an economically distressed African-American neighborhood. But to my surprise, no one really seemed to take much notice of me as I continued up Eighth Avenue. I remember feeling troubled seeing the poverty of the people and the decaying buildings. I think I might have witnessed a drug deal at one point. I remember seeing ahead of me on the sidewalk one African-American man surreptitiously hand something to another man as if they were making some clandestine transaction. I also remember seeing across the street from me in a vacant lot several middle-aged African-American men huddled around a fire in a steel garbage can.
Passing through Harlem unmolested, I crossed a foot-bridge into the Bronx. I continued north, alongside the bank of the Harlem River. After Manhattan came to its end on the other side of the river, I turned sharply north away from the river. Eventually, I came upon Van Cortlandt Park, which I cut across during the early afternoon. Making my way through the park, I crossed the border into Yonkers, a city in Westchester County. At this point, I recollect stopping at a deli or grocery store, where I purchased a bunch of bananas and a sandwich. I took a break for lunch and then continued on my journey. Nearby was a stretch of wooded land, through which an abandoned railroad track ran. I followed the path of the railroad tracks.
Because of the time of the year, the sky got darker earlier, and by 5 p.m. dusk was fading into night. I had no idea where I would spend the night, but figured I would find someplace to sleep eventually, so I kept on going. As it grew darker, I walked alongside the Sprain Brook Parkway for a while. I don't remember at what point I broke away from the parkway, but I found myself making my way towards a small town north of Yonkers called Ardsley. Passing through a residential neighborhood, I walked over a small bridge that spanned what I think was a dry creek bed below. I made my way down to the creek bed to explore it. On either side of the creek bed were the concrete foundations of the bridge. On the foundation on my side of the creek bed there was a ledge that was more than wide enough to accomodate me. I climbed up onto it, ate my dinner, and decided that given the late hour and the darkness, here was an ideal spot to spend the night. Though the night air was crisp and cold, I was dressed warmly and I could have easily spent the night on that ledge, and were it not for unexpected circumstances, I probably would have.
I had huddled into a fetal position on the ledge, using my bag as a pillow, looking forward to as good a night's sleep as could be expected in my situation. However, I don't think I had even drifted off to sleep before I found my solitude disturbed. I heard the voices of two men approaching and looked up to see two flashlight beams shining down into the creek bed. I did not know what these men were looking for, but I suspected the possibility that they might be police officers responding to a report of a person sleeping under a bridge. Whoever they were, I felt that I could not allow myself to be discovered by them. I gathered up my things and as quietly as possible made my way to the far end of the ledge from them. I paused a moment to look back and saw the silhouettes of the two men behind the beams of their flashlights. Then I turned and ran up the slope to the road above.
I continued for a short while longer, where I found myself in what looked like downtown Ardsley. I remember it was very dark and deserted, and it was at that point that I began to despair. I was feeling cold and I had no idea where I was going to stay. After sitting down on a bench and pondering my situation for a few minutes, I came to a difficult decision. I decided that I had to abandon my journey to Canada and return home, disappointing not only myself, but presumably the God who wanted me to make the journey. However, given the late hour and the darkness, making the return journey back to Manhattan on foot was not a realistic option.
As luck would have it, a bus stop was nearby and not much time passed by before a bus arrived. I remember feeling very scared when I stepped onto the bus, as I was not sure how I was going to get home. There was an African-American man who looked to be in his early fifties sitting up front near the bus driver, also an African-American man, whom the passenger appeared to be friends with. I explained my situation and the passenger reassured me I would be fine. The bus took me to the Yonkers Metro North train station. From there, I caught a train that took me to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. A middle-aged Caucasian man guided me to the subway that would connect me to Penn Station, where sometime before midnight I caught a LIRR train back to Hicksville.
After the train pulled into Hicksville, I walked the final leg of the journey back to my house. I think it was after midnight, though I do not recall the exact time. For a while I huddled in the section of our front yard that ran along the south side of my parents house wondering what to do next. I was cold and tired and wanted to sleep in a warm bed, so I quietly entered the house and tip-toed to my bedroom, which was nearby on the ground floor of the house. My mom was asleep in the tv room, which was across the hallway from my room, but she did not stir as I walked into my room, shut the door behind me, and huddled into bed.
Early the next morning, I awoke to my mom calling my name as she cried tears of relief. She hugged me and held me close, and I realized how glad I was to see her and be home again. I spent that day home from school and my mom told me about what she and my dad did in reaction to my note, while I told her in deliberately vague terms where I had gone and why. I think I was a little disappointed that my grand journey ended so prematurely, but at the same time I felt some measure of pride that I actually did try and that I made it as far as I did. I had gotten a taste of adventure and found it was enough for me. If it were not for the men who disturbed my sleep underneath that bridge in Ardsley, who knows how much farther I might have gone.
Christopher McCandless saw his family as something he had to get as far away from as possible. As for me, I was not running away from my family, I was running towards something, namely what I believed would be an encounter with the divine. In the end I was not up to the task, though it would be many more months before the religious faith that inspired my journey would begin to fall apart.