Yesterday, the magic Bus was moved. It wasn’t the only thing that moved. The hearts and the tears of thousands of people who were very inspired by Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, were also moved.
It was like watching Christopher’s final journey as the old bus flew across the sky, but it also felt like a finality that wasn’t supposed to come. For many, it was like he died yet again.
Message boards were in an uproar by those who had planned to make the journey to pay homage to the man who had become the inspiration to an entire generation and folk hero to those younger.
The old 1946 International Harvester K-5 had broken its rear axel and was left right where it sat. The bus had originally been used by a mining crew and was left abandoned in a clearing, near Denali National Park, at its northernmost edge.
The bus was left behind, knowing that it would be used as a shelter for hikers, hunters, and adventurers who make Alaska their home or their travel destination.
In Alaska, it’s quite common to leave your cabin open when you aren’t there. Humans need shelter from the harsh climate and a shelter with a place to get warm could save a life. It’s an Alaskan trademark – leave the shelter open for your fellow man. The countryside is dotted with small hunting cabins that are left open to anyone who finds themselves in need.
The bus shelter was found by Christopher McCandless in 1992, after a long quest that included several working stops in the lower 48, after he graduated college in 1990. His goal was Alaska. He had a dream to escape the world as we know it. Christopher wanted to live off the land and his ultimate goal was Alaska.
I have always felt a strange connection to this man. Both he and I are were born in 1968. As he was making his journey, I was living in Florida with my first love and about to have a baby. It wasn’t the life I’d expected and he was actually living the life I had envisioned for myself.
I felt much of the same angst that he felt at that time — and I still do. In fact, there are times that I feel it far worse now than I did as a twenty-something.
Christopher represented the movement against everything that was happening in the world. Those who just wanted to go back to nature and yearned for the wild spaces that represented true freedom came to idolize him. He became a legend and the bus was his memorial.
We all set out to change the world when we leave high school. We have hopes and dreams. Some of us follow our dreams and some of us find life getting in the way.
Christopher followed his dreams and it led him to the Stampede Trail of Alaska; an old mining trail, near Denali National Park. He had a single-mindedness that drove him to this place, where people come to meet nature head-on.
The trail is not easy or for the faint of heart. During certain times of the year, it is very difficult or even impossible to cross because of the Sushana River, located in the heart of the Denali National Preserve.
It was on this trail that he came across the bus, like a magic place in the middle of nowhere, it was The Magic Bus. There it was, near the eastern bank of the Sushana River like a place you’ve seen in your dreams; surreal; waiting upon your arrival.
It gives me goosebumps to think that the bus had indeed been waiting for Christopher, but his fate was not for it to be his happy ending. The bus, Fairbanks Bus 142, would be his final resting place, at the age of only twenty-four.
Chris had detailed his travels in journals. The nineties were just before the internet would take hold so there are no videos and selfies of him in great amounts. He wasn’t doing live videos or feeds, but there are photos he took and details from his journals.
While there is some debate over his actual cause of death, the fact remains clear that he was ill-prepared for what was in store for him when he traveled down that trail to the bus.
Taking very few supplies, his goal had been to live from the land. He had little experience in doing this, and quite literally no working knowledge of Alaska. In the end, he would know hunger that most of us never have to face.
One account is that he ate some berries that made him ill and though he knew he needed medical help, the river was too high and moving to fast for him to cross. Being too weak to try, he returned to the bus.
The other account is that he simply wasted away until he was too weak to move. Christopher’s body was found, roughly two days after he passed. He was laying in the bed at the rear of Fairbanks Bus 142.
His body, which had only been lifeless for a few days, weighed a mere 67 pounds. The official autopsy report states “starvation” as the cause of death.
A year following his death, a book was published by Jon Krakauer that detailed Christopher’s life, including the moniker he’d become known as – Alexander Supertramp.
His journals were pieced together, by Krakauer, to paint the story of a young man who had dreams of living off the land and making his way to Alaska. The book, “Into the Wild” became a bestseller and is an incredible peek into the world of this young man.
Since his death and the release of the book, there have been many videographies, even a movie directed by Sean Penn. Penn had to apparently approach Christopher’s family multiple times to get permission to do the film.
Sadly, the location of the bus became so well-known that pilgrimages to the final resting place of Christopher became a right of passage for many.
It was written about, filmed, photographed, and became a sort of temple in the wilderness for those who trekked across Alaska on their own journeys. The Magic Bus became as iconic as the Alaskan gold mines.
Over the last twenty-eight years, the thousands of treks to the bus have taken several other lives and also caused many to need rescue from the remote Alaskan wilderness, costing the state a lot of money and risk to the lives of first responders.
Over concerns for the safety of those who continued to journey to the bus and those who had to rescue them, the decision was made by the state of Alaska to remove Fairbanks Bus 142.
The Last Journey of Fairbanks Bus 142
This resulted in a bittersweet removal on June 19, 2020. The Alaska National Guard used the removal as a training exercise. The bus was airlifted to a waiting flatbed trailer on an accessible road nearby.
The images of Fairbanks Bus 142, flying through the air seemed like Christopher’s soul flying through the air. It was surreal and tear-evoking for many of us who identified with this man who dreamed and believed in another life, as many of us still continue to do.
This vision of the bus has impacted me in many ways that are hard to explain. It’s about the passage of time, the years that have gone by, the dreams that I’m still chasing and so much more.
Some of his followers are upset and clearly wounded by the removal of the bus. It’s viewed by many as a desecration of Christopher’s final resting place. I prefer to think that his soul is still out there, enjoying the wilds of Alaska as he had ultimately intended.
His story is incredible. His journey was inspiring. His ending was tragic. We can all take a lesson in his loss. More importantly, we can all learn to keep dreaming. It’s possible to learn from his mistakes and carry on in his spirit.
So many identify with his heart and his dreams. We understand the things that drove him and we see that little has changed. The pilgrimages to the place of his death will likely continue because it has become like climbing Mount Everest.
It’s a worthy goal, to view the world through the eyes of those before you, to walk in their steps, and challenge your mind and body to do so.
Perhaps we hope to come away with a piece of his spirit, inspired to finally do that thing we’ve always wanted to do and could never quite find the courage to do?
One thing is certain. Christopher died doing the thing he had set out to do. He found the wilderness and he lived in it. While he seemingly didn’t win his battle with nature, who’s to say that he didn’t find something out there greater than that?
I choose to believe that he found his peace.
*All photos courtesy of the Alaska Air National Guard
** The Magic Bus was moved to safe storage where it will be determined what happens to it from here. There have been many places express an interest in giving the bus a home where people may still visit it.