Owing to an excellent New Yorker blog post, I’ve spent my New Year’s Night reading various articles about Chris McCandless, the guy from “Into the Wild”. At the age of 24 (like me!), he starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness while on a quest for spiritual fulfillment, which is about as far as you can get from my post-debauchery day of pizza and friends and guacamole and Internet. I know, I know. Somewhere his ghost is shaking its starved, rugged head at me, dripping slow-motion rainwater from a tin-can shower as Eddie Vedder music plays.
Sorry, Chris, we’ve made different choices.
I have however enjoyed the evening of excellent articles, particularly Sherry Simpson’s “A Man Made Cold by the Universe”, which appeared in the Anchorage Press in 2003. Simpson’s article is about her journey to the abandoned bus where McCandless experienced exhilarated bliss, shot a porcupine, read a bunch of books, ate so much potato root that it killed him, then rotted for a few weeks. More than that, though, it’s about the skepticism with which Alaskans approach the story – about the seeming stupidity of his death. Simpson notes that hundreds of pilgrims, inspired by McCandless’s trip, have successfully made it to the bus and back, and only a few of them have died. (Side note: I want more articles about the people who have died pointlessly on a quest to reach the tomb of another person who died pointlessly. Though: is that just like a mirror reflecting another mirror, or a painting of a room with the same painting in it?)
Along with many of the other late-90s and early-2000s articles about McCandless, “A Man Made Cold” is thorough, ruminative and lovely – a refreshing change from Gawker’s snarky brevity, from the yellow-journalism shockiness of xoJane. Not to sound like Jonathan Franzen, but I’m tired of the way Internet journalism has developed a kind of Chipotle business model. Bear with me here.
Steps to Running a Blogging Platform / Omnipresent Burrito Restaurant
- Get customers in the door by pretending to be edgy and small-town, but actually be run by a multinational conglomerate.
- Dish out something purportedly healthy, but containing thousands of calories.
- Put words on everything, even the napkins.
- Turn down the heat, paint the place red, and seat them on metal chairs to make them eat as quickly as possible and then get out…
- …so you can fit more people in to consume more Chipotle.
Please, Internet, don’t get me wrong. In reasonable doses, I adore Chipotle. (Also in unreasonable doses – I am incapable of eating half a burrito, preferring to snarf the entire thing in one angry-looking go.) I also enjoy Gawker and xoJane, if I’m, say, the only one awake in the morning at a slumber party and I’m on a strange couch and the sun is too bright and I can’t sleep and I’m scrolling through my phone.
I do think, though, that they are not that good for us. I am troubled by the idea that we should consume things as quickly as possible, that oversimplification is the easiest way to get people’s attention, and that writers must always be exceedingly careful not to cause outrage in the comments below. I want longer stories, better stories, not more of them.*
In this way, I suppose, I have something in common with McCandless, with his crotchety views on money and modern society. Except whereas he might (and possibly should have) taken this list of tips, written by an Alaskan miner in 1897 and reprinted in Simpson’s article in full, as helpful advice for surviving in a foreboding wilderness, I will take them as advice for a comfortable, suburban, writerly life.
Particularly the part about always arranging to have something to eat.
“Don’ts for Alaska from Observation”
Don’t go out without waterproof matchbox filled.
Don’t try to go out even 300 yards with wet feet in cold weather. Stop and make a fire.
Don’t take a long trip or leave the trail by yourself. Be with someone as much as possible.
Don’t try to go too far without eating and always arrange to have something to eat. Pine says a man will die in seven hours and thirty-five minutes unless he eats.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t be too ready and willing to go in cahoot.
Don’t try to cross a mountain in winter without snowshoes.
Don’t, for God’s sake, let a hungry man pass your cabin.
Don’t be stingy, selfish, or crabby.
Don’t think for a minute you know where the gold is, for it’s just where you find it.
Don’t go out without a piece of candle in your pocket. You can always get a fire with a candle.
*I recognize the irony of complaining about this in a relatively short online blog post. I will say only that the Internet has given me popcorn brain.