Echoes through the chasm of Bus 142, with Michael Bemis

There are certain figures throughout history that inexplicably cause our collective moral compass to lose its bearing. Like polarizing stars in the night sky, such individuals radiate their legacies outwards, the effects of which become perceived in differing lights by differing perspectives.

Christopher McCandless is one such figure. 

For a passionate part of our population, McCandless represents an infinitude of important existential ideals - a respectful rebellion of corrupted cultural constructs and an emblematic commitment to self-truth. 

For another part of our population, he represents something of a fallacy to the human endeavor - a misguided and misused symbol, breeding a kind of recklessness that proves more inconvenient than useful.

It has been over 30 years since McCandless died. The infamous bus that had been his final resting spot, colloquially known as the Magic Bus or Bus 142, has since inherited the brunt of Chris' message.

For years following his death, countless like-minded adventurers have made the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey to this beacon, stoking the embers of increasing resentment within the local community.

No one has navigated this resentment like Mike Bemis, author of The Hijacking of Alaska's Magic Bus (Bis 142) - Desecration of a Memorial.

Below are some excerpts from reviews of his book (extracted from Amazon); note that they don't necessarily have a problem with elements like the writing style so much as they target the very circumstance surrounding McCandless' message itself: 

"I Lived in Alaska 60 years and this is a compleate joke to us from there. The bus was a hazard drawing unprepared victims like a magnet due to a well produced dramatized movie about another ill prepared individual who died from inexpriance and ignorance. Better the bus be relocated to where all the pilgrims that must ecperiance the debacle flock to it in a safe environment then it being destroyed completely as it should of YEARS ago."


"This book... ignores the long history of Alaskan residents seeking to have the bus moved. It is being restored for safe display so those who hold misguided beliefs in its legacy can still seek it out, without becoming victims to the wilderness themselves. Nothing has been "hijacked" except perhaps the time I spent on this book."

"This guy has no clue about the bus, Mccandless or Alaska. He should stop while he’s ahead. The Bus was an eyesore and an attractant to those who had no clue as to how wilderness Alaska is. The amount of deaths and rescues that occurred because the unprepared people wanted to ‘see’ it, is outrageous. The bus had to go and it should have been demolished."


Ironically, of all people to have a clue about the bus, to consider the long history of its presence, and to take this matter as seriously as anyone, it would be Mike Bemis. 

In other words, the ire seems to be rooted in a deeper sentiment beyond that which is aimed at the bus itself, one targeted against the kind of message that McCandless espoused. 

It's between these lines that we can look to learn something about ourselves, and it's from this kind of collision of perspectives that we can pick at a fundamentally interesting part of our human nature. 

In seeking to try and get some kind of deeper insight, I reached out to author Mike Bemis; below is the brief Q&A. It should be noted that the answers below are only excerpts provided for the sake of brevity. Bemis' full response can (and should) be read here.


Like few others, McCandless has immortalized himself as a beacon of something that a deeper part of us, something primal, seems entranced by. It's definitely cliche to say now but his bus proved to be the prime symbol of his legacy. What do you think it is, within us that hooks onto the story? What drives (or drove) us to brave danger and visit the bus? 

McCandless was deeply loved and deeply hated with the former easily being the majority. To say he was a polarizing figure is an understatement. His greatest number of admirers seem to have been international and without a doubt his greatest number of detractors were in relatively close proximity to Bus 142. While the greater the distance from Bus 142 seems to have increased admiration for McCandless, we can’t quantify that. Obviously, for Denali Borough, Alaska, (namely Healy, Alaska) “not in my backyard (NIMBY)” was at issue, but a lot of the disdain for McCandless is statewide in what is geographically a large state. The eBook goes into considerable depth about the reasons for this which include his choice of the Alaskan wilderness, being naively unprepared for it, and hunting without a license. Of course, Alaskans have despised McCandless types, of which there are many, for decades prior to his arrival, so he just seems to have become a lightning rod due to his notoriety (mostly propelled by a bestselling book and blockbuster movie).

The “McCandless – Representations” (If McCandless Had Been, What McCandless Wasn’t and Was, What McCandless Could Have Been) in the eBook characterize him in great detail in what seems like a vain attempt to make sense of why he was so dearly loved by many and so stubbornly hated by others.

The “McCandless – Representations” may fall short in their intended purpose, but they do give a fresh perspective and a lot of food for thought.

Some degree of love of McCandless can be attributed to what we’ll call joiners. With no particular passion, they encounter a trend, and embrace it. In other words, they’re like “sheep.” But in the case of McCandless, there’s far too few “sheep” in the world to account for the sum of his admirers.

We relate to what McCandless did because we fantasize about it. Virtual (at least not in the context of its everyday use today) wasn’t a common word when McCandless ventured away from civilization, but millions of people have and continue to follow and live his life virtually.

Because McCandless was gone, the place where he died was as close as they could get to him, so many of them did. It seems that for some the dangerous trek demonstrated their commitment to McCandless—that they so admired him, they were willing to risk a lot—up to and including their life—to visit Bus 142. Perhaps in a small way that’s aligned with or derived from “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”

The eBook puts it this way: “They go because it's a difficult journey, because they wanted to know what McCandless endured. To test themselves. They went to be where he lived and where he died.”

In trying to decipher the waves of resentment: what do you think it is, within us, that seems so disproportionately motivated to extinguish a legacy? Beyond public policy considerations, what drove us to remove the bus? 

The resentment of Bus 142 has never been singular, it’s always been part and parcel of McCandless.

However, while McCandless himself was generally hated in Alaska,  Bus 142, it seems, was only hated in one small place—the greater Denali Borough, Alaska, (namely Healy, Alaska)  area. In fact, dozens of like buses act as winter shelters all across Alaska and they’re coveted by Alaskans.

The eBook ardently peddles, that Bus 142 was left in the wild and it spent nearly 60 years in the wild. Percival P. Baxter, governor of Maine during the years 1921 to 1924, donated to the state of Maine in 1931 the land that today is Baxter State Park (BSP) with one simple condition—that it be kept forever wild. Bus 142 had a right to be forever wild as well.

At the time of publication of the eBook Bus 142 was in the high bay lab in the ultramodern engineering building at the University of Alaska Museum of the North (UAMN), surrounded by technology and technocrats, all viewable by the public from the building’s atrium. By all accounts, Bus 142 resided in a truly cutting edge structure, where it sat as a spectacle for mindless individuals to gawk at nothing more than what was a pitiful dog and pony show.

The very things McCandless chose to shed, particularly materialistic things, that resulted him in finding Bus 142 in the first place, are now hard at work supposedly creating an exhibit in his honor.

McCandless hated honors. So much so that when he was offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa, via his senior year grade-point average of 3.72 at Emory University, he declined it, insisting that honors and titles are irrelevant.

If he hadn’t been cremated McCandless would be spinning in his grave.

I think McCandless wouldn't spin so much in his grave, only because the reverberations of any action relating to his message, even the unfortunate removal of the bus, would not only validate the urgency of his message all the more but generate further momentum towards his philosophy. Do you think that the removal of the bus can be a fertile catalyst for something special to grow out of it? And if so, what?

There is no doubt that McCandless was special—his life, his message, his legacy—but some degree of it was as previously characterized here. The rest? It seems to be in us as individuals. We’re unfulfilled and unhappy, we want more from life, we want to be more in life, we want success, but for a myriad of reasons we can’t and/or won’t pursue it. We’re trapped, or at least we think we are, mostly in businesses, jobs, and/or relationships, but also by material possessions and to a lesser degree by medical conditions. Those things didn’t matter to McCandless. He seemed to easily and without hesitation slip the bonds that tie. We can’t or won’t do it, so we naturally connect with him. McCandless fulfilled his dream of living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness and ultimately died from starvation in the blue sleeping bag his mother had made for him. He went for broke. And as the famous song My Way states, he did it his way. In fact that song could very well be playing in the background the day he took that now famous selfie (probably not called that then) bidding us farewell (the sign he held in the photo read “I Have Had a Happy Life and Thank the Lord. Goodbye and May God Bless All!”) Anyway, few words in the song don’t perfectly match his life.

What's your best guess as to why so much resentment formed against the bus in the first place, and what can it signify in terms of our collective/shared identity? Is it something that we can fix or resolve, or is it something that is unfortunately doomed to stunt our progression?  

I suspect the resentment of Bus 142 started in classic ways, like local public safety officials who despised responding to search and rescue missions, perhaps being called away from a special family dinner or during an important sporting event, or whatever. Local residents likely detested the cost to taxpayers for the search and rescue missions, although the high number of visitors (and the extremely low number of search and rescue missions) likely meant they were a considerable economic engine for the borough. But as things often do, particularly in small communities, it festered. Eventually, it seems, it got established that Bus 142 was the root of (all?) evil, and therefore the root of (all?) their troubles, and there was no undoing it. They believed, as people often do, that absent something or changing something, everything will be okay or even better. Dating as far back as the witch-hunts in the middle of the last millennium, this syndrome is well-known, and it likely can’t be fixed. Once humanity has “turned” on somebody or something, they seem hell-bent to change or eradicate it, and they rest only when that’s done.

The eBook uses documented hard facts from numerous credible sources to overwhelmingly prove that the stated reason (safety) for the removal of Bus 142 were patently false. Even if true it shouldn’t have mattered. The eBook includes numerous examples of places in the United States and in the world that are visited singularly to en masse for everything from low-key recreation to high-risk challenges. None of the thousands of such places have been “removed” and they never will be. In fact, the public is most often invited to partake of them mostly by government itself, and often infrastructure exists to facilitate, and in some cases enhance, public visitation, which has mostly been directly or indirectly funded by government.

While some support for the removal of Bus 142 exists beyond the greater Denali Borough, Alaska, (namely Healy, Alaska) area, the bulk of it seems to be in two categories. First, misinformation. People who wrongly believed that the trek to Bus 142 was too dangerous and people who wrongly believe the number of search and rescue missions and victims was high. Second, media fatigue. Some people supported the removal of Bus 142 because simply put they had grown weary of hearing about it.

Finally, well beyond a preponderance of the evidence, it seems crystal clear that the authorization by state officials for the removal of Bus 142 had to do with what far too many things have to do with today—misguided politics.

The above content features excerpts from an in-depth write up provided by Mike Bemis, which can be read in its entirety here