Chris McCandless was a 22-year-old graduate of Emory University when he began his odyssey to find the meaning of his life by following the philosophy of transcendentalism. He desired to find truth and purity in nature, a philosophy followed and lived by his hero, Henry David Thoreau, and like Thoreau, he wanted to live the transcendental experience and not just read about it. Novels by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) also strengthened McCandless's resolve to rid himself of materialism, social conformity, and his negative relationship with his parents, whose dishonesty about the family's history angered him. Jack London's novels about surviving in the Alaskan wilderness encouraged his quest to challenge himself to do the same. Alone and dying in the Alaskan bush, he left a final message saying he had had a happy life.
A soft-hearted woman, Billie divided her time between working with her husband to make their start-up consulting business successful and raising their two children to whom she was a caring mother. She could also be stubborn like her husband, and along with him, she pressured Chris to attend college. Along with Walt, Billie hid the truth about their family's history from their children, angering Chris.
Walt McCandless was an aerospace engineer whose specialty with NASA was antennas. He supported six children from his first marriage. Shortly after moving his family from California to Virginia, he and his wife, Billie, started a consulting company that they developed into a successful business, making them moderately wealthy. A domineering man who expects his ideas and expectations to be followed, he pushed Chris to attend law school. He and Billie took Chris and his sister, Carine, on frequent family trips to the ocean and the mountains. When Chris was eight, Walt took him to the Shenandoah Mountains for his first camping trip, igniting his son's passion for living in nature. Billie and Walt also hid the truth about their family's history from their son, who felt betrayed by their dishonesty.
Jon Krakauer is the writer of Into the Wild. He sees parallels between himself and Chris McCandless that he elaborates on by inserting chapters of his own life story in the midst of his biography of McCandless. Like McCandless, Krakauer rebelled against his father by living life on the margins of society and looked for fulfillment in his pursuit of dangerous, but exciting, experiences in nature, particularly through mountain climbing. Krakauer also includes his own theories and interpretations of McCandless's odyssey, admitting that his role as a writer is more subjective than objective.