Into the Wild | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into the Wild | Chapter 4 : Detrital Wash | Summary



McCandless's abandoned Datsun is discovered in the sands of Detrital Wash in the Mojave Desert by a park ranger. The chapter recaps McCandless's journey from July 6, 1990, when he left his car there, until May, 10, 1991, when he walked out of Las Vegas, Nevada. Within those 10 months, he had traversed the West, basically on foot except for a few brief hitchhiking stints. Determined to constantly stay on the move, he blazed his own path to Lake Tahoe, through the Sierra Nevada, to the Pacific Coast Trail, and north to Eureka, California, where he was ticketed for hitchhiking. He slipped up and listed his parents' address in Annandale for police. When a copy of the ticket arrived at their address, his frantic parents hired a private detective to find their son.

After that, he headed for Orick, Oregon, staying for two weeks with Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob—two roamers like him, who were living in the old van they drove. They liked "Alex" and were concerned about how hungry he was and that he had abandoned his car and burned his money. His wanderlust then took him to Seattle, Washington, east through Idaho to Montana, where he met Westerberg in October 1990. After staying in Carthage, South Dakota, for three weeks, he moved on to Needles, California, and then to Topock, Arizona, where he bought a canoe to follow the Colorado River to the Pacific Coast. After entering Mexico at the Morales Dam, his quest ended in a marshy area because the river no longer feeds into the Pacific Ocean. Mexican duck hunters dropped him off at a fishing village on the Gulf of California. He continued paddling north on the ocean, where he almost drowned during a storm. From there he re-entered the United States and was jailed overnight for his illegal entry. He returned to the Detrital Wash to pick up the few belongings he had buried there and hiked southwest to Houston, and then northwest to Las Vegas. He landed a waitstaff job there that he kept until he left on May 10, 1991, to continue his quest.


Although the Nevada Park Service authorities tried to trace the 1987 Datsun B210 to an owner, they got only as far as the Hertz Rental dealership that had sales records for the car from years earlier but not the name of the car's owner. Considering how his antipathy for government rules and regulations echoed the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, one of his favorite writers, McCandless would probably have been furious to know that his beloved car went on to be used by authorities to catch drug dealers. Thoreau, in his essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," advises readers to "flout the laws of the state," not to encourage them.

McCandless made a few choices that would greatly impact the outcome of his trip to Alaska. His desire to turn his back on the material world that he felt caged people into unhappy lives is clear and also reflects his admiration for transcendentalism's antimaterialist philosophy. His lack of concern for his survival is harder to grasp. He had already given what was left of a $24,000 inheritance to Oxfam, a hunger relief organization. Later, he burned most of his cash, forcing him to stop his journey to work briefly so he could buy the bare essentials or equipment to fulfill his quest—like buying the canoe that he eventually abandoned. He picked up his Winchester deer-hunting rifle where he had hidden it when he abandoned his car, but Nevada park rangers found his fishing equipment, clothing, and 25 pounds of rice, which would have kept him fed, left behind. Immigration officials took his Colt Python handgun, also important for his survival. He appeared to have allowed his excitement for his journey to overpower his logic. Also, his choices suggest a wish to live in the moment. According to Krakauer, McCandless was "allowing his life to be shaped by circumstance" with no thought about the future. Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, both express surprise and concern for his choices, with Jan noting that McCandless was "big-time hungry."

McCandless left clues to his whereabouts during these 11 months but not enough for his parents to have found him. He must have been exhausted when he was arrested for hitchhiking outside Eureka, California, because he mistakenly gave his Annandale, Virginia, address to the police. His ability to spin a good story protected his anonymity in southern California, when he was briefly held by immigration officials before they believed his reason for not having any identity and released him. Although his parents had hired a private detective after they received a copy of the hitchhiking ticket, the man was unable to find any new leads to their son's whereabouts.

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