Almost six months to the day after I was born, a moose hunter found your body in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. You were 24 years old.
When you were found, you had been dead for over two weeks. Our lives overlapped by a few months. I was a newborn while you were out there, alone.
Many people have tried to understand you. Culture writer Jon Krakauer wrote a book about your death and life, called Into the Wild, which was later made into a film. Krakauer’s book is an impressive feat of investigative reporting, but it also guesses at your reasons, and I struggle with that. It attempts to place you in a canon of fellow abandoners, people who fled the world. It does the common error that we in poetry try to avoid — dragging something to the middle of the room to beat a meaning out of it. I don’t want to do that to you.
We grasp at your reasons and attempt to know them. By dying, you became something of a martyr for the romantic image of disillusioned youth. Are you a prophet? A saint? A lost child? A societal reject? What were your thoughts on our world? How do we place you in our arguments about materialism and conservation?
I refuse to see you as a projection of us. In the book, Krakauer asks — as we all ask —why you, a young man with a promising future, ran away without telling anyone where you were going, including your family.
Your story came to me a few years ago and has impacted me — in fact, I thought about you a lot during some rough times. When I read Into The Wild, it was like reading an alternate timeline of my life, one in which I followed through with my old threat to run away.
Yes, you were cruel. But I have been cruel, and cruelty has, at times, been justified in my defense of self. You abandoned the people who love and support you. It’s a hard choice, but it’s one I’ve considered. Like you, I have a younger sister, a difficult and angry father, and a mother who supports him. She takes his furies and simply absorbs them. I think we all do, and so we have become furious people. Anger is the only unifying streak in my family.
In high school, when I drove over the interstate every day to go home, I thought about how easy it would be to turn left. Get on the ramp. Go west. I wondered how far I could get before I ran out of gas, how long it would be before they started calling me, then the school, then the police, then everyone.
It would be effortless. Just turn left. My hand could do it in a moment. I’d dip my hand, gently turn the wheel, and go. That’s all it’d take. I could have done it, but I didn’t. And that is, in part, thanks to you. You provide a parable of what might have happened if I had successfully left my sister and mother and father. That’s a harder feat to accomplish in high school, and it’s doubtful I would have been able to do it, but its a dream that stays with me, an eternal “maybe” sitting in the periphery of my life. I’ve never fully let it go.
The fights at home were endless, and they happened because I’m gay. Every day after school, I dreaded going back. I had a pickup truck. I could cover my gas, at least for part of the way, to California. I could maybe hitchhike the rest of the way. Some days I drove slowly past the ramp, debating.
Some say your exodus was fueled by a romantic allure to naturalist writers, and there is evidence to suggest you had opinions about the corruptions of modern society. It all sounds very romantic. It also sounds like conjecture — like people filling the myth of a martyr with unmerited symbolism. I don’t particularly know your thoughts on gay people, or even your thoughts on sex. I know people like you, people who idealize a life in nature and plan to live off the grid. If you were anything like them, I doubt we’d get along.
But you escaped. In my own way — in a different way — I did too. I won’t pretend to know your reasons any more than I know mine. We are mysterious creatures, even to ourselves.
All we have are your actions, a pieced-together story offered by those who met you on your journey. You passed through towns, stayed with various people, took odd jobs, and slowly planned for your time alone in Alaska. It is generally agreed that you did not intend to die (in the book, Krakauer suggests poisonous berries did you in), but who knows?
It is alluring to disappear. I still fight that urge. I’m tempted to leave when relationships deepen and opportunities present themselves. Just drop out. Abandon the expectations of life. What a perfect escape it would be.
I have worked to uncover myself. I think people in my life, like my parents and friends, want to shake me, tell me to be practical, tell me to think about things that matter, like how to make money or be independent. Why is uncovering myself such a wasteful enterprise? My greatest discovery — the most important journey I’ve been on — was learning who I am and what I like. It took leaving home to do that, but not leaving everything. At least, not yet.
I hope, in your time away from everyone, you had space and time to learn who you are. I’ll also say thank you for helping me stay. Staying has led to so much life I’m glad I didn’t miss. These wild, ragged nights. Thank you.
You kept me in this life by showing me how easily I could leave it. If ever it gets too much, I’ll follow in your footsteps, my brother.
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