Let me tell you, the only thing as sickening as being told that you can’t be fully “happy” or “fulfilled” without religion/God/Jesus (as stated almost verbatim by a patron at work), is being told you can’t be fully “happy” or “fulfilled” unless you abandon society and your career for the more “important” lifestyle of… backpacking.
I read this book at the perfect time. I was 19, in college, and trying to figure out my identity, career, and vocation. I backpacked the Grand Canyon when I was 17, so I absolutely understood the basis for why Chris wanted to leave society and all its hypocrisies in favor of “the Wild.” However, my experience backpacking was more along the lines of “adventuring,” such as the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. I knew I’d go back a changed woman, and that was okay. I also knew I’d go back to the “wild” eventually, but all in good time.
The boyfriend who recommended this book to me still thinks along the lines of Alex Supertramp — society and careers are meaningless/the only way to find true meaning/happiness/freedom/etc is out in the woods somewhere. When I first read this at such a tender age, before I discovered my own personal meaning, I thought that way, too. I grew angry. Sullen. What was life, what was the point? Would I be destined to be slave to a meaningless “career” that I wasn’t passionate about? Was I stupid for not following in Chris’ thought process and mindset? His views were so original, so naturally motivated.
And then I grew up.
Life wasn’t meant to be lived in black and white — either out in the woods, alone, defying society or the other extreme — corporate misery and sacrificing your morals for some money and a picket fence. Those who could see me now might think I “sold out” to the suburban housewife fantasy — soon-to-be fiance in a well-to-do part of the state, but my career is going to be fulfilling — archiving. Serving the society, not abandoning it.
Into the Wild is escapist fantasy with which you need to be very, very careful. I say that with all solemnity, and I’m the voracious reader. For a tender-aged college student, Chris’ existential quarter-life crisis was absolutely approachable to me. I felt, inside, that I was just like him! But the answer isn’t a dramatic drop of everything in life. The moral of the story comes at the end — “happiness only real when shared.” Chris understood at the end that his life was a sad story with a tragic ending, like Smeagol. No amount of inspirational wilderness quotes or journals from more famous writers could take him from that final assertion.
So here’s the moral you SHOULD take from this book — and it’s in Chris’ words: “happiness only real when shared.” Your life is meant to be lived with other people. Go to the wild if you need, but always come back. Life is meant to be balanced. You can be happy with a career and travel on the side. There is no shame in having nice things. You don’t need to abandon your possessions, college degree, and leave. Leave because you need clarity, then come back. What did Chris do for others? What does walking on the trail do for the world? Who do you serve, when you’re alone in the wild? Who is fulfilled when you are sleeping under the stars? Imagine if, instead of backpacking, the story was about a man who decided to become a hermit on a remote island beach and live off the land with no contact with anyone. Would we praise him? Would we say he was original and daring to escape consumerist America? Or would we say what I say now — You’re selfish, selfish, selfish. You serve only yourself, and that’s the biggest hypocrisy of them all.