Into the Wild


I know I haven’t written in a long while. I’ve got so very much to talk about, and while it would probably help to put it into words, I just haven’t had the energy (read: emotional strength) to actually do the work.

I’m depressed. I’ve been trying to deny it for months now, but it has finally caught up with me. It started out as just a little anxiety a couple of months ago, and I was able to shrug it off or pretend it wasn’t there. Or simply ‘power through’ it and still get stuff done. But then more and more things started coming at me, needing attention and emotional energy. Some little, some very much not little. I tried juggling them all, and even started to purposely drop some of the little things hoping that it wouldn’t be a problem, that other people would pick up the slack, that in the end these little things wouldn’t matter.

Some of the little things turned into slightly bigger things when combined, and that …

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… I just can’t keep up with this juggling metaphor. I don’t have the energy to do the thinking necessary to make it work.

Basically, this blog post is a long explanation to myself about why I couldn’t finish a particular assignment for my Environmental Literature class, where we were asked to compare Thoreau’s Walden and the movie Into the Wild.

At the beginning of this semester, I knew it was going to be a challenging one. I’m taking more classes than I’d really like, and I still need to finish up my internship from a previous semester. So, effectively, I’m taking 14 units. Which isn’t a lot for some people, but it’s at least 4 credits too many for me. I was managing fairly well, but things started to pile up towards the end of February, and I started to slack off on readings and homework, and even stopped going to class as much as I should. I kept telling myself that it would be OK. That I could catch up once I’d gotten some rest. This should have been my first sign that something wasn’t right with me. And, to be honest, I was hoping that giving myself a little extra slack at this point would help me later on, so maybe I was at least somewhat aware of things not being right.

But by March, I was really starting to slide into full-blown depression. And then Bob got sick. Like really sick. Like I haven’t blogged about it because it was too scary and putting into words here would have been too painful. (Short explanation: We thought he was going to die. In our arms.) I was in shock and couldn’t function at all, much less even begin to think about school work.

I spent the first week after his diagnosis in an emotional panic. I couldn’t sleep or eat or think clearly. The only work-like thing I could do was endlessly search the Internet for an answer, a miracle, something to help me understand. For two weeks, I went back and forth between denial and severe depression. Sure, I tried to keep up with school work, and probably managed to get through about 25% of it, but even that little bit would leave me emotionally exhausted.

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It’s at about this point that the assignment mentioned above came up. Looking back, I can see where I was resisting watching the film for at least a week. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t focus on anything school-related. There was something about the film specifically that I was strongly resisting. I kept putting it off, telling myself I’d do a rushed watching of it closer to the due date for the assignment.

It’s also around this time that things started to look up for Bob (I’ll post more in a few days, I promise), and I found a thread of hope I could hold on to. Then, a few days later, my dad went into the hospital for emergency gallbladder surgery. While this may not seem like a very dangerous surgery for most people, my dad has special medical issues that complicate any kind of surgery. He had to go to the hospital to have dental surgery. Add to that the fact that I’m 2000+ miles away and unable to comfort my mom or talk to the doctors, and you can understand my worry. (After five stressful days in the hospital, he’s home and recovering fine.)

At this point, I was emotionally trashed. I had nothing left except the sheer will that has been keeping me going at even this low level. I told myself to pull up my big girl panties and get this project done, even if it was late. I ordered the film from Amazon and started watching it. And damn if it didn’t hit every single emotional trigger I had. Still, I made myself watch it, while allowing myself to take short breaks throughout. It took me 7+ hours to watch a 2 hour film. And, I’ll be honest here, I did not watch the last 15 minutes. I just couldn’t. This was a week ago. The paper was due last Thursday. I spent all day Friday trying my darnedest to make myself write the paper. And then Saturday and Sunday. And then Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. And now it’s a week late, and I’m just starting to come to terms about making myself watch the movie when every fiber of my being was screaming for me to stop. I won’t be turning in anything for this paper. In fact, this blog post is probably the closest I’ll come to even addressing it in writing.

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Interestingly, before this class, I hadn’t read either Walden or Into the Wild, but I had a pretty clear understanding of what they were about based on cultural references. I was 22 in 1992, the year Christopher McCandless went to Alaska. I think he was only about a year and a half older than me. I recall the news stories and discussions about his death. I don’t know if I had a distinct opinion about him other than it was a tragedy. And one I didn’t really care to explore further. Over the years, I’ve read other books by Jon Krakauer, but when friends recommended this one, I steadfastly refused. I never gave a thought to why, except that it made me feel uneasy and a little anxious.

Here’s where I’ll also admit that I haven’t seen or read plenty of stories about tragedy, and generally tend to steer away from them. I haven’t seen Schindler’s List. I can’t watch the end of The Anne Frank StoryLife is Beautiful left me a wreck. I routinely put down books that start to make me feel upset. I don’t think it’s because I have a rosy outlook on life and don’t want to explore these feelings. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m very familiar with these feelings, and don’t need to add more of them to understand them. I see sadness all around me all the time. And while some may find comfort in exploring these themes in literature and art, I find that much of it leaves me feeling more upset than comforted. Especially when I’m deep within an episode of depression.

Looking at the assignment questions for this blog post makes me upset. Just seeing the name Alexander Supertramp makes me want to cry.

  1. Thoreau had strong feelings about materialism. What were they? How do they compare with the feelings of Alexander Supertramp?
  2. What do you think motivated Thoreau to live at Walden Pond? What motivated Alexander Supertramp?

Looking at the assignment questions for this blog post makes me a little anxious. Just seeing the name Alexander Supertramp makes me want to cry. I have opinions on these questions, but they are going to be a struggle to get out.

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Comparing McCandless/Supertramp to Thoreau is an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. Honestly, I’d find it easier to compare McCandless/Supertramp to John Muir. Both had troubled childhoods they were eager to get away from. Both wanted to reject their upbringing and explore the world around them. Both went on long treks and took life-threatening risks.

As for comparing McCandless and Thoreau, their motivations were completely different, as were their circumstances and outcomes. Perhaps the comparison is justified in that they both tried to “go away.” And maybe this is why I have not ever felt compelled to read either’s story. I know from personal experience that one can not simply “go away.” There is no “away” to go to. But, for the sake of answering the questions, I will attempt to understand their motivations.

Thoreau went away, but told everyone where he was going and why. And he only went as far as a cabin on his friend Emerson’s property. Yes, he was living in the woods, but he was close enough to town that he often made the trip to visit friends and friends would come visit him. His goal was to separate himself from the influences of society, which in his case meant the daily expectations of city society, work, and leisure activities. His environment, although a bit more challenging than living in Boston, was far from that of true wilderness and seclusion.

McCandless/Supertramp left without telling anyone where he was going or why. Sure, he told the people he met while traveling, but they were powerless to stop him. Why didn’t he tell his family? Is it because they did have some emotional power over him, and he felt like he needed to break that bond by disappearing? Of course, we’ll never know the answer to that.

When I think about McCandless/Supertramp, I think of the folly of youth. He was ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and, in my opinion, literally ill. He was running away from something. Although he may have appeared to be running toward Alaska and his “true self,” it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see that he was wrestling with an emotional monster. Maybe he hoped to overcome his troubled family life by leaving it behind, but by rushing headlong away from it, he put himself into greater danger. Not at all unlike other young people with similar backgrounds who turn to drugs or other dangerous behavior.

As regarding their views of materialism, I think this one similarity gets entirely too much attention. The rejection of material items is as old as society itself. Acetics from nearly every religion give up their personal belongings and take a vow of poverty as a sign of their faith. That neither Thoreau or Supertramp/McCandless ascribe to an organized religion is interesting, but both are driven by belief. Rather than discuss the expression of their belief as it manifests as anti-materialism, I find it much more interesting to explore the beliefs themselves.

Thoreau was part of the group of Transcendentalist that came together during the early part of the 19th century in the United States. It has long been interesting to me that the Transcendentalist movement comes around at nearly the same time as the Second Great Awakening, and that both seem to be a response to the growing industrialization and ‘scientification’ of the time. It is also interesting to me that both were attempting to have a stronger emotional relationship with the divine, one through crowded revival meetings, and the other through solitude in nature.

I don’t know if anyone has been able to link McCandless/Supertramp to a larger movement of sorts. Perhaps there are others who, like him, attempted to slough off their social requirements and are busy tramping around in the backcountry. There are a few who have gained some attention, like the Soul Pilgrim and those who have followed her. But whether these individuals can be grouped together under a title is difficult to say. I suppose that, like Thoreau and his cohort, McCandless/Supertramp was also attempting to make a statement about modern society. The movie only lightly touches on the fact that he studied issues related to poverty and other social concerns of the era. Perhaps that was part of his personal motivation, but I do not believe it was the driving factor that took him to Alaska.

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Anyway… it’s time for me to leave for class now. I guess I’ll leave it here. Interestingly, I feel a whole lot lighter having done this exercise. I’m still stressed and depressed. I still don’t really want to think too deeply about Into the Wild, and I certainly have no interest in re-watching it. But it has been good to finally get the fragments of thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for the last couple of weeks out into words. It’s like there’s more room for other things now — happier, more hopeful thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Into the Wild

  1. I agree. This is as much analysis as the problem requires, it’s concise, and it addresses everything which needs to be addressed without getting into the masturbatory flailings that those two questions seem to request.

    Like

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