Into the Wild | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into the Wild | Chapter 18 : The Stampede Trail | Summary



The author pieces together McCandless's journal entries to form a timeline of his days from July 8 to August 18, the most probable date of his death. As it was summer, McCandless found plenty of berries as well as animals to hunt. During that period he read The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and the novel Terminal Man by Michael Crichton. In Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago, McCandless jotted notes in the novel's margins, "NATURE/PURITY" and "HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED."

On July 30 the tenor of his notes turned frightening. He said he had been poisoned by the potato seeds he had been eating and was starving. Krakauer spends the balance of the chapter questioning what actually killed McCandless. Did he fail to tell the difference between two types of similar plants? Krakauer had thought so and wrote as much in his article about McCandless for Outside but changed his mind. Krakauer posits that the potato seeds might have become poisonous by producing alkaloids. Scientists test the seeds but do not find them toxic. Krakauer then speculates that mold on the seeds, or swainsonine poisoning, may have done Chris in.

Whatever killed him, McCandless spent August trying to find berries and even killed a few squirrels, but he began to experience the late stages of starvation. He wrote an SOS note and signed it with his real name. It is thought that he died on August 18, shortly after he wrote his final message, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!"


Krakauer continues to argue in defense of McCandless. He spends most of this chapter refuting the theory that McCandless died by mistaking one type of plant for another, calling into question that McCandless died of his own ignorance. In addition, he notes that if McCandless had had the right map, he would have located some nearby cabins, but that even if he had found them, by that time, they more than likely would have been trashed. McCandless continued to hunt and search for berries, but the damage the poison had done to his system was greater than any good the little food he ingested could have done.

Krakauer wonders why McCandless didn't start a forest fire to call attention to himself. His sister is adamant her brother would never do anything to harm nature, even to save his life. Much of the content McCandless wrote in his journal supported his strong belief that people gain mental and spiritual sustenance from communing with nature. Even though he struggled to save his life when caught in a storm in the Pacific Ocean, he did so without damaging the environment.

Krakauer again uses spiritual imagery when he comments that McCandless looks content in a photo he took of himself right before his death, "as serene as a monk gone to God." Whether this happiness was a result of the euphoria that can accompany the final stages of starvation or a true spiritual epiphany doesn't matter. The fact that he seemed joyous as his final journal entry and photo reveals is consoling.

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