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In October 1990, a National Park Service ranger finds a yellow Datsun in a dry riverbed in Lake Mead National Park. A note reads that it has been abandoned and is free for the taking. It also contains a few loose items, including clothing, a guitar, and two bags of rice. A ranger jumpstarts it. A trace leads the rangers back to a Hertz rental car operation, but no further. As a result, Krakauer writes, the rangers now use the car to make undercover drug investigations. He then reveals that the yellow Datsun is Chris McCandless’s. McCandless arrived in an area of Lake Mead called Detrital Wash on July 6, 1990, and got caught in a flashflood that got his engine wet. He buried the rifle he was carrying and burned all his money. The narrator cites McCandless’s diary to substantiate these details. He next describes the hike McCandless took on foot around Lake Mead and the two months following, when McCandless hiked to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He worked on a farm in Northern California. A woman named Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, encounter McCandless next and give him a ride.
In the meantime, McCandless’s parents search for him. They receive a ticket for the Datsun from California and hire a private investigator who discovers that Chris McCandless has donated his money to charity. On the West Coast, McCandless catches a ride to Needles, California and buys a canoe with a new plan to navigate the Colorado River from California to Mexico. As he travels he survives only on rice and fish he has caught. His trip takes him through the desert to a number of national parks. He sends a postcard to Wayne Westerberg and complains that the money he earned with Wayne has made tramping too easy. He says he is dedicating himself to a life on the road. In early December he crosses into Mexico, but as December passes into January he encounters several difficulties on the river and decides to abandon the canoe. Immigration officers arrest and then release him at the US - Mexico Border. He visits Los Angeles to get an ID but is too nervous and then returns to Detrital Wash to dig up his possessions. Then he lives on the street in Las Vegas, beginning in late February 1991. Krakauer relates that McCandless thinks he is living life to the fullest.
The narrator explains that a period of relative mystery surrounds McCandless’s whereabouts once he reaches Las Vegas. By July or August of 1991, however, he has moved on to the small town of Bullhead City, Arizona. He works in a McDonald’s and opens a savings account under his own name. Fellow employees and his managers remember him as a hard worker and a loner with odd personality traits, including a dislike of wearing socks and an inability to tell that he smelled bad. His smell leads to at least one unpleasant interaction with a coworker. Krakauer reveals that McCandless hid from his coworkers that he was a drifter without a home or access to shower facilities. In this period Chris meets Charlie, a colorful old man who takes him and gives him a home in his camping trailer.
In early December, Chris contacts Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, to ask them to visit him in Bullhead City, then shows up at her trailer unexpectedly. Beginning in mid-December 1991, he lives with the couple at the Slabs, an itinerant’s community near the small town of Niland, and helps Burres organize her bookselling outfit. According to Burres, he took great pleasure in the work, especially helping her organize the classics. He also participates in the life of the Slabs, playing an organ for other campers and watching football, which leads him to accidentally reveal that he roots for Washington, D.C. area teams. A girl named Tracy develops a crush on him, but he does not reciprocate her interest. He starts pursuing calisthenics to train for a longer, rougher trip into the wild. When she drops him off weeks later in Salton City so he can buy supplies, Burres tries to force warm clothes on him, but he leaves them under the seat of the car.
Chapters Four and Five continue tracking Christopher McCandless as he travels by car and by canoe around the Western United States. In this section, the reader witnesses McCandless’s slow transformation into Alexander Supertramp amidst the sublime landscapes of California, Arizona, and Nevada. He makes enduring connections with other misfits, travelers, and independent spirits. He acquires skills and proves his ability to survive in the wild, particularly while canoeing, when he survives only on rice and fish he has caught. He seems to prove the idea that self-reliance is possible, or that at least a partial version can be achieved. It is true, ultimately, that his diet of fish causes him to experience malnutrition, but he remains hopeful. The reader is invited, despite knowing McCandless’s fate, to remain hopeful as well. Krakauer’s hypothetical descriptions of McCandless’s emotional state highlight his exhilaration, even giddiness. Significant anecdotes like the burning of McCandless’s money function similarly. These incidents also testify to the slight irrationality creeping into his actions.
Many of the section’s episodes function as foreshadowing, including McCandless’s friend Jan Burres’s description of him as incredibly hungry when they first meet. The same is true of Christopher’s rejection of supplies offered him by Burres when he leaves her camp by the Salton Sea. These encounters both echo McCandless’s rejection of aid from his family before he leaves on his journey and suggest that while it is integral to his understanding of his new identity, McCandless’s insistence on independence may lead him to disaster or at least unnecessary hardship. His hunger, relentless even while he is still living in civilization, reminds the reader of what they already know that McCandless will die of starvation. Krakauer’s analysis of the melodramatic tone of McCandless’s diary entries suggests that McCandless may have lost touch with reality at the same time that he is enjoying his travels most. His parents’ struggle to find McCandless also undercuts the idea that he has succeeded in finding an untainted or perfect independence.
Read more about McCandless’s obsession with pure self-reliance.
Krakauer’s narrative technique in these chapters centers on the leveraging of detail. He also pursues storylines outside of Christopher McCandless’s journeys to emphasize how difficult his movements would have been to trace for anyone trying to find him at the time. The fate of McCandless’s yellow Datsun, for instance, illustrates that attempts to find the car’s owner by local police dead-ended almost immediately and led to a kind of comic irony by which the car was adopted by police for undercover drug operations. The same anecdote also underlines McCandless’s impetuousness, since it reveals that he could have fixed the car easily, but instead left it behind. In addition, this acts as a gauge of how committed McCandless was becoming to avoiding interactions with other people. Stranded in a desert after a flash flood, calling for help would have required McCandless to speak to police officers to explain why his registration was out of date, why he had out of state plates, and so forth, so he chooses instead to abandon the car.
Krakauer continues to explore the concept of the American frontier, giving it more nuance and its own set of characters as he relays Christopher McCandless’s journey down the Colorado River, and into Los Angeles, via hitchhiking, then to Las Vegas. The landscapes through which McCandless travels include stark, beautiful desert and other rough terrain. He battles against the natural world particularly in his trip down the Colorado River. Other people in this section fill in Krakauer’s portrait of the West. The characters of Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg in particular symbolize life in alternative communities and rural areas, offering a glimpse of the fringes of mainstream American life. The flea market in which Jan participates and the conventions of her community add a sociological dimension to the narrative. At the same time, these chapters also begin to challenge the idea that the frontier contains a perfect or untouched wilderness of any kind. Christopher McCandless’s employment at an Arizona McDonald’s, for example, demonstrates that commercialism and materialism are never far from the American experience. They are at least as unavoidable as nature itself. McCandless’s interactions with McDonald’s employees, who think he smells and can’t understand his dislike of wearing socks, lend a faintly comic tone to this section of his journey.
Read more about sublime nature as a motif.