The Hijacking of Alaska's Magic 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.

It seems there were greater forces at work. If I had to say, his adherent admirers fell in line because he had been a white, well-to-do (upper-middle class), male that was handsome and who was articulate, creative, and  intelligent, and who was both athletic and educated, and who shunned some of what he was blessed with for what turned out to be nothing. Among other things, he “divorced” his parents; left his little sister who he adored and who said “… Chris was not only my buffer and my co-conspirator, he was my best friend;” donated his college fund (over $24,000) to Oxfam America; and gave up what likely would have been a high-end six-figure white-collar job and a high society lifestyle for a nomadic existence choosing at times to be penniless, then retreated to the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land.

If the world had been privy to the serious domestic issues in his upbringing would that have changed anything? Probably not.

Anyway, America, and perhaps the world, has an exceptionally long history of becoming infatuated with certain people and/or events for certain reasons. Recent examples are Gabby Petito and the Ocean Gate Titan submissible. If Gabby Petito hadn’t been white from a well-to-do family and absent the huge social media connection that dominated her story would the world have taken such great notice of her disappearance? Probably not. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUS) database, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 600,000 people go missing annually. Nationwide, there are roughly 6.5 missing persons for every 100,000 people. Given those staggering numbers why was Gabby Petito a breaking and top news story for days while she was missing? Why did the world become obsessed with the Ocean Gate Titan submissible that imploded on its trip to the underwater grave of the Titanic? While the event itself was noteworthy, particularly because it involved the Titanic, our lengthy and extreme obsession with it was likely because there were two white billionaires, among others, on board who paid an exorbitant price to participate. As noted, throughout history, there’s countless other examples of how race, ethnicity, and class, particularly when coupled with extraordinary happenings, can play a role in catapulting certain stories to great prominence and McCandless seems to be one of them.

But we fall a tad short in describing his detractors. However, most likely, they were oppositionists, some of whom oppose a cause or subject that they’re indifferent to. Then there was likely those who rallied with them once there was a band wagon to get on. In American culture, and perhaps elsewhere, band wagons tend to move forward with great force, collecting many people on the fence (undecideds) along the way.

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.

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.”

We must also realize that during the last several decades people have increasingly shunned traditional cemeteries as places of remembrance of their loved ones. Granted, a greater use of cremation (often because its more affordable) and the subsequent scattering of ashes in some meaningful place are a factor, it seems that many of us have become more interested in exactly where their loved one died. Highways today are dotted with memorials of all types, from very makeshift to very formal (including cemetery like grave stones) and everything in between. It seems that McCandless may have been caught up in this relatively new trend. They didn’t travel to Bus 142 to see a rusting vandalized vehicle, legally an antique, but rather because it was where he met his maker. The eBook describes it this way: “The absence of Bus 142 is regrettable, but it really makes no difference that it’s not there. Zero, zip, zilch. We all eternally belong, or will, to a place, and that place is not defined by what adorns it. It’s far deeper, no pun intended, than that. We’re more than likely to be buried afar from where we died, likewise our ashes are often scattered in places different from where we perished—like McCandless’s ashes were. Regardless, the ground upon which we did die is the only earth that truly matters. It was there, that we took our last breath; it was there, our heart beat for the last time; and if you’re a believer, it’s there where the spirit and soul slipped from its vessel for a new realm” and “In a cemetery, you don’t go there to be with granite and marble headstones [Bus 142 equation], you go there because it’s the hallowed ground upon which a loved one last was.”

Lastly, we must be cognizant that some of the Bus 142 visitors, possibly more than one might imagine, were going there because others were. It seems “sheep” once again becomes part of the equation. It became a destination, a challenge to rise to, a pilgrimage to make, or just a place where youthful, likeminded, and sometimes fellow, brothers and sisters were going.

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.

Also, many people are leery of the amount of government money being spent on Bus 142, including a $500,000 federal grant from the National Park Service (NPS) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that will help the University of Alaska Museum of the North (UAMN) prepare Bus 142 for public exhibition during the summer of 2024.

Some people, as people inevitably do, got in over their heads—two literally (they drowned)—while visiting Bus 142, and they had to be searched for and/or rescued. Big deal. That happens all the time.

In 2006 there were … 1,150 local search and rescue teams, in the United States.

They exist for a reason.

In other words, for as long as there is humankind and wilderness there will be a need for search and rescue (SAR).

Sam Thayer, a survival expert, commenting about the McCandless saga, states “People have to have the opportunity to have adventures and if people are going to have adventures some of them are going to be misadventures.” Indeed.

Supposedly, at least originally, search and rescue (SAR) missions for Bus 142 visitors was the basis for the growing resentment of it by the locals. However, it was a meager number. According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS) “Troopers conduct over four hundred and fifty [450] SAR [search and rescue] operations each year.” Meaning that the Stampede Trail search and rescue (SAR) operations were a meager 0.36 percent of the statewide total.

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.

Some material cited here is verbatim from the eBook The Hijacking of Alaska’s Magic Bus (Bus 142) - Desecration of a Memorial: Includes McCandless Totally Reimagined and Introducing Vermont’s Magic Bus.