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On the road in search of freedom

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
(Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’)

In the early 1980s when Bruce Springsteen began to sing rousing anthems of busting out of town and ‘cutting loose’, he hit on a winning formula. The ‘Boss’ understood the romantic energy entailed in visions of freedom and escape⎯casting off society’s expectations and responsibilities and just hitting the road. ‘It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win,’ he sang in Thunder Road. Springsteen was picking up a well-used motif of literature and art, recalling works like Kerouac’s On The Road or movies like the 1960s classic Easy Rider, or more recently The Motorcycle dDiaries. It seems the idea of a getaway is a theme many can relate to.

It was this same notion of escape that led Christopher McCandless to take to the road in 1990 on a journey that lasted two years and ended with his death in the Alaskan wilderness in August 1992. McCandless began his wanderings shortly after graduating from Emery University in Atlanta. Bright and talented, a career of white-collar affluence and respectability lay waiting. He ran the other way.

McCandless’ story became the subject of John Krakauer’s book Into The Wild. It was then adapted into the film of the same name in 2007, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless.

Penn tells the tale with haunting and beautiful pathos. It is wonderfully shot; a montage of stunning scenery provides cinematic postcards of McCandless’ journey through California, Mexico, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada, and finally Alaska. The vast open spaces stir the soul and make you want to kick off your ugg boots, break out of your lounge room and go wandering! Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam provides the soundtrack and given the content of the film the album is set to become a driving classic for trips up the coast. Both the direction and acting are sublime.

Many of us have felt the call of adventure and travel but this is no Contiki tour or even hard-core Lonely Planet wandering. When he left, McCandless gave all $24000 of his savings to charity and began with virtually nothing. He was pursuing the experience; the transcendence of life outside the box. He describes himself as ‘an aesthetic voyager whose home is the road.’ The romanticism of Lord Byron, quoted in voiceover, captures his imagination:

There is pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society when none intrudes;
By the deep sea, and music in its roar, 
I love man not less, but nature more. 
(Lord Byron Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, Stanza 178)

McCandless sees his parents’ lives as destructively dishonest and hypocritical, leading him to paraphrase Thoreau, “rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness … give me truth.” He seeks what he calls “ultimate freedom”, and something authentic, and for this we can admire him. His sister, whose character narrates the film, says, “it was inevitable that Chris would break away … with characteristic immoderation.” But McCandless’ search stems not only from an adventurous spirit. He is escaping a damaged past. His family’s wealth and respectability mask dark secrets and the poisonous atmosphere of a marriage gone wrong. The long-term impact on Chris and his sister is profound.

On his journey McCandless meets a series of characters who form pointed markers of his self-discovery: the partying Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan); the ageing hippy Jan Burres (Catherine Keener) who envisages in McCandless her own son with whom she is estranged; the teenager Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart) longing for romantic attachment; and Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) the lonely and aging widower who wants to adopt the young wayfarer. McCandless is thoroughly decent to each of his friends on the road but as they reach out to him he remains ultimately aloof, allowing only superficial engagement.

“I’m gonna miss you when you go”, says Ron, and McCandless replies, “I’ll miss you too, but you’re wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from human relationships”. McCandless can happily cast off attachments when he feels the need. “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences,” he tells Ron. No-one, it seems, will get in the way of his dream.

And his dream lies in the Alaskan wilderness and the challenge of living alone – man in tune with nature. But it all ends tragically. After a full winter living in an abandoned bus, McCandless, having attained a degree of satisfaction and peace, finally decides to head back to civilisation only to be cut off by a raging river of melted snow. He is poisoned by berries he mistakes for an edible variety, and dies a slow and lonely death, succumbing to his own naivety.

Too late, he comes to realise that true freedom and ultimate joy come only within the context of relationship and community.

The futility of his endeavour is symbolised no more powerfully than in his hunting of a large moose. McCandless is desperate to use the meat and not waste the life of such a magnificent beast. But his lack of knowledge and skill mean the meat is riddled with maggots before he can put it to use. He can’t do it alone.

In his final hours of life, McCandless carves into some wood a final farewell and confession of sorts. “Happiness only real when shared,” he wrote. Too late, he comes to realise that true freedom and ultimate joy come only within the context of relationship and community. In turning his back on everyone who loved him, he lost touch with a vital ingredient of human happiness and fulfilment.

Springsteen once reflected on his own early idealism by saying that he came to realise that once he had all these people escaping in cars he had to figure out some place for them to go! The search is important, he said, but ultimately it is fruitless unless there is ‘connection’ with community and relationship.

But the dramatic piercing shaft of sunlight that illuminates McCandless’ final breath alludes to another aspect of the story that the filmmakers are willing to explore. Earlier, the father figure Ron Franz perceives in McCandless more than a simple rejection of his parents. He says:

“There’s some kind of bigger thing we can all appreciate, and it sounds like you don’t mind calling it God, but when you forgive, you love, and when you love, God’s light shines on you.”

The Bible describes humans as being created to experience relationship with each other and with God.

It is this light that the dying McCandless perceives at his death ⎯ the light of love and forgiveness ⎯ the light of God. The Bible describes humans as being created to experience relationship with each other and with God. These are vital ingredients of a truly fulfilling existence, it says. McCandless was young. His journey was brave and romantic and idealistic, and there was something deeply admirable about it. And yet his frustrating and fruitless demise, underscores the limitation of his vision, and the lesson he learnt too late to make a difference.

“No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne, expressing the truth that human beings do not thrive in isolation from each other. Nor do they experience the best of life when disconnected from their maker. The same poet addressed his creator with the words, “for I, except you enthral me, never shall be free.” To be enthralled by the creator God provides the freedom that can make the journey of life truly worth taking.

Simon Smart is Head of Research and Communications at CPX.