Last Thursday night we watched the movie "Into The Wild" on the pay-per-view movie channel in our motel in Connecticut. My wife was about halfway through the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. I started reading the book this morning on the train ride to work.
The movie and book tell the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who turned his back on his family following his graduation from Emory University in Atlanta in May of 1990. He adopted for himself the moniker of Alexander Supertramp and spent the next two years crisscrossing the western United States before embarking on what he called his Alaskan adventure in April of 1992. Attempting to lead a life of total isolation, living off of only what he could hunt and forage for, McCandless ended up not being up to the task he had set for himself and he slowly succumbed to starvation. A group of hunters found his body in an abandoned bus about two and a half weeks after he died.
During the course of his peregrinations, McCandless befriended a number of people, and it is clear from the book that he made quite an impression on many of them. One of the unlikely friendships he struck up was with a lonely octogenarian widower whose wife and only son had been killed by a drunk driver in 1957. Krakauer describes the man, whom he calls Ron Franz (not his real name), as having been a "devout Christian." Krakauer writes "[w]hen Franz met McCandless, his long dormant paternal impulses were kindled anew."
McCandless encouraged Franz to give up his sedentary existence while he was still fit and healthy, and Franz was inspired enough by McCandless to actually follow through on it. In a letter he wrote to Franz, McCandless implored him to "put a little camper on the back of your pickup, and start seeing some of the great work that God has done here in the American West.' Franz proceeded to do so and ended up occupying McCandless's former campsite, awaiting his promised return.
Late in December of 1992, Franz was driving with two hitchhikers that he had picked up. He started telling them about his friend "Alex". One of the hitchhikers realized who he was talking about and sadly informed Franz of a magazine article he had read about how McCandless had died the previous summer. Franz was devastated by the news.
Franz tells Krakauer, "When Alex left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex."
However, in an interesting contrast, the farewell message that McCandless wrote before he died in that abandoned bus was "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL."
I think I can understand why both men reacted in entirely different ways to this tragedy. As an atheist myself, I believe that the universe is indifferent to us. McCandless did not die because some God did not care about him. Rather, he died because he had put himself into a situation that he was not equipped to handle. The local game he hunted was not sufficient to sustain his nutritional requirements. The river that he easily forded in April had become an impassable raging torrent that summer due to the melting of the ice. Had he reconnoitered further up the river, McCandless would have come across a steel cable spanning the river with a basket that he could have used to transport himself to safety. Alternatively, had he managed to be a little more successful at feeding himself, he might have survived long enough to be rescued by the hunting parties that converged on the bus on September 6, 1992. If there was a loving god watching over Christopher McCandless, it would not have required that much of a miracle to have enabled Chris to survive.