Into the Wild | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into the Wild | Chapter 9 : Davis Gulch | Summary



Krakauer relates the story of Everett Ruess, who, like Chris McCandless, turned his back on civilization for a nomadic life in the wilds, in his case in Davis Gulch, Utah, the last known home of the Anasazi Indians who disappeared without a trace hundreds of years ago. On the walls of their cave homes, Everett Ruess chiseled his alias and the year he was there, "NEMO 1934," the last record of his existence. His family found this inscription in March 1935 when they searched for him. They also discovered his two burros grazing in a corral their son had fashioned from tree limbs and brush but no sign of Everett. Various theories about his disappearance provided leads but none of them brought the family any closer to understanding his disappearance. The most likely theories are that he drowned trying to cross the Colorado River at the same location where he carved NEMO into a rock or that he fell while climbing one of the sandstone cliffs. Neither his remains nor any personal belongings, other than the two burros, were ever found.

Krakauer highlights Ruess's and McCandless's similarities as passionate wanderers, "romantic" and "equally heedless of [their] personal safety." What Ruess wrote about himself could easily apply to McCandless: "I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly." Both sought this experience in desolate, dangerous natural settings. Both adopted aliases that reflected their sense of adventure and carved them on walls, in Ruess's case on a cliff, in McCandless's, on the inner wall of Bus 142. Ruess vanished and McCandless died, both in their early 20s, in the course of their adventures, leaving persistent questions about their fates lingering in the minds of those they left behind.


The author's decision to compare McCandless to Everett Ruess, another like-minded adventurer, is a logical one. In doing so, he quotes Wallace Stegner (1909–1993), a novelist and environmentalist of the American West, about Everett Ruess. Stegner writes that the young man "did the things he dreamed about, deliberately punished his body, and wrote letters damning the stereotypes of civilization." Stegner could have penned those words about McCandless.

In this chapter Krakauer attempts to further undermine complaints that McCandless was a foolish young dreamer who disrespected the wilderness by comparing McCandless with Everett Ruess. In doing so he attempts to better understand, and to some extent defend, McCandless's mentality and motivations. Stegner's quote sets up Krakauer's argument by admitting that Ruess sees "beauty in pretty romantic terms," but that there is "something almost magnificent in his single-minded dedication to it."

Ruess and McCandless both considered themselves "lone wanderers in the wilderness" who love the beauty of nature. They were steadfast in their opposition to modern society and were absorbed by the magnificent grandeur of the wilderness as the key to a more authentic life. Both men did not hesitate to court danger in their travels. Ruess purposely climbed insubstantial sandstone cliffs despite the risk, and McCandless "walks into the wilds" of Alaska amazingly ill prepared, insisting that he can handle whatever comes. McCandless and Ruess also adopted pseudonyms that represented their longing for self-determination through adventure and scratched them on walls as if to prove their existence. In 1934 Everett Ruess vanished and is believed to have died. His remains have never been found. In 1992 Chris McCandless's emaciated body was found in a sleeping bag on Bus 142 by the Sushana River.

Krakauer reveals three major differences between them. Ruess came from a close and loving family who were somewhat nomadic, logging eight moves by the time he was 14. He finished only one semester at UCLA, and he kept in touch with his family in long, descriptive letters that professed his love for roving through the wilderness. In contrast, McCandless was raised in only two places (El Segundo, California, and Annandale, Virginia). He completed college, graduating from Emory University, disowned his family, and never wrote or otherwise communicated with his parents again.

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