Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wild

Now comes the time of year I sit chained to my desk running sales reports and ordering endless cartons of textbooks. My horizon is an expanse of plaster-white drywall papered over with lists of vendor information and posters that were funny when I first walked in the door six years ago. It's a living, just sometimes a claustrophobic one. So, naturally, I think about the wilderness.

The thread that runs through all of these is not the beauty of the natural world, or its freedom from the depredations of the civilized– Chris McCandless perished on an Alsakan preserve well traveled by hunters on ATVs; of the eight who died summiting Everest on the one day in 1996, five were a part of guided expeditions organized like a theme park ride; and the Alaskan gold rush is the very backbone of Jack London's tales, there are few things more civilized than the pursuit of filthy lucre– what unites them is what it means to be stripped bare in the wilderness. What animates them all is the understanding of full exposure to the uncaring world, what it means to live and possibly thrive in that place where the line between living and dying is held by small decisions and the will and the skill to keep making them. That is what Krakauer writes most adeptly about and he is at his best with his own accounts.
Into the Wild 's most riveting chapter relates Krakauer's solo expedition across the Stikine Ice Cap in the Alaskan panhandle to assail the unclimbed nordwand of the Devil’s Thumb. Every page is a vivid vista of cold and lonely terror. McCandless himself is of least interest, it’s the sense of kinship with him and his final days that Krakauer finds that redeems the account of a young man so ensconced in America’s suburban womb he had to become a shiftless drifter to find the cold and indifferent heart of the world. It is the presence of that magnificent and dreadful truth that blows from the pages of Into Thin Air, the mountain will shrug you off without ever knowing you were there. Your best efforts might end with watching your life slip through black and frozen fingers.

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