Jon Krakauer picks up the explanation of the reception of his 1993 Outdoor magazine article about McCandless’s death that he began in Chapter Six. He quotes a number of letters the magazine received criticizing McCandless, particularly those from experienced campers and Alaska residents, who see the young man’s trip as at best too romantic and at worst dangerously foolhardy. Many letter writers also describe McCandless as a too-familiar type, as a starry-eyed incompetent running from his problems or a nihilist with suicidal tendencies. As if to confirm these descriptions, the narrator then lists other instances of men who became drifters, including several personal encounters from his own travels in Alaska and his time as a mountaineer. By establishing his familiarity with the history of American outdoorsmen and thrill seekers, Krakauer underlines his own authority and sets himself up to refute McCandless’s detractors.
Krakauer offers biographical portraits of three men, Gene Rosellini, the mountain climber John Mallon Waterman, and the photographer Carl McCunn as a means of deepening his and the reader’s understanding of Christopher McCandless. Wealthy and intelligent, Rosellini earned several advanced degrees and then became an exercise fanatic. He killed himself just before embarking on his plan to live out of his backpack for the rest of his life. A master climber who had suffered psychiatric breakdown at different points in his life, Waterman died while attempting to summit Denali, one of the most difficult peaks in the world. The narrator also draws parallels between McCandless and Carl McCunn. The narrator then differentiates McCandless from these three men and suggests a fourth comparison, a 20-year-old named Everett Ruess.
Krakauer opens the chapter by describing a Southwestern canyon called Davis Gulch, a watershed in the midst of the desert. Davis Gulch contains petroglyphs left behind by the Anasazi people, as well as a carving left in 1993 by a young man named Everett Ruess, who, like Christopher McCandless, disappeared into the wild. Krakauer then relates Ruess’s life and the travails and adventures that brought him to Davis Gulch, where he left a final inscription of his name before disappearing.
Ruess was born in 1914 to a middle-class family that lived primarily in Southern California. After a short stint in college, he apprenticed himself to the photographer Edward Weston, built friendships with California artists, and then set out to live as a tramp. He renamed himself, choosing the name “Nemo,” or “no one,” and sought to remove himself from society in favor of an ascetic or pilgrim’s life. Krakauer includes excerpts from Ruess’s correspondence in which he describes the allure of the solitary life. He insists that his correspondents wouldn’t be able to understand how exciting he finds the wilderness. Krakauer links Ruess’s lack of concern for personal safety to McCandless’s.
Krakauer then uses Ruess’s letters to track him from a Mormon settlement in California into Davis Gulch. Apparently, Ruess was expected in Marble Canyon, Arizona and never arrived, leading his parents to organize a search party in March 1935. Ruess is never found. The prevailing assumption remains that he died while climbing in the canyon or drowned, though some locals apparently maintain that they have seen or met him. Krakauer interviews a man named Ken Sleight, who describes Ruess and McCandless as both liking people too much to give them up entirely but disliking them enough never to be able to live in society. Krakauer says he believes that both Ruess and McCandless were like the papar, a group of ancient monks who sailed from Ireland toward Iceland in the fourth century without knowing whether they’d ever find land.
Chapters Eight and Nine present several characters with whom Jon Krakauer explicitly compares Christopher McCandless in a further attempt to solve the mystery of his psychology. These chapters are thus largely argumentative or expository, though both contain significant amounts of storytelling in a biographical vein. Krakauer begins by profiling three men who had similar drive and intelligence, as well as similar backgrounds. Gene Rosellini seemed to want to prove he could do anything he set his mind to, as a means of combatting nihilism or the ennui and stasis induced by his inherited wealth. The mountain climber John Mallon Waterman suffered from obsessive tendencies that led him to extraordinary achievements but also led to psychiatric hospitalization and his eventual death. Carl McCunn loved nature but was too absentminded to secure his own safety. All three characters seem to speak to certain of McCandless’s tendencies, but they cannot be said to exhaust his psychological profile, nor do they seemingly explain why his story proved so fascinating to so many people.