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 wonderful 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 a bit. The book attempts to place you in a canon of fellow wayfarers and abandoners, people who fled the world. It does the common error that I try to avoid when reading literature — it drags your life to the middle of the room and tries to beat meaning out of it. I don’t want to do that to you. I want to give you your mystery, your unknowableness.
We grasp at your reasons and want to understand them. By dying, are you sanctified? You became something of a martyr for the romantic image of disillusioned youth. Are you a prophet? A lost child? A social 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 and our unending problems. In the book, Krakauer asks 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 profoundly — in fact, I thought about you a lot during those rough times when I was in the process of coming out. When I read Into The Wild in high school, it was like reading an alternate timeline of my life, one in which I followed through with my old threats to run away.
Yes, you were cruel. But I have been cruel, and cruelty has, at times, been necessary and justified in my defense of self. You abandoned the people who loved and supported you. It would be a hard choice for anyone to make, but it’s one I’ve considered more times than I could ever say. 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 calling the school, then calling the police, then everyone. Would I be able to hitchhike the rest of the way? Would I make it?
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 would take. I could have done it, but I didn’t. And that is, in part, thanks to you. You provide a parallel timeline, a version of what my life might have been like if I had successfully left my sister, mother, and father. Leaving would have been a harder feat to accomplish in high school, and it’s doubtful I would have been able to do it, but it was a dream that stayed with me, an eternal “maybe” sitting in the periphery of my mind. I’ve never fully let it go.
The fights at home were terrible, and they happened because I was gay. No other reason. Every day after school, I dreaded going back home. I had a pickup truck. I could cover my gas, at least for part of the way, to California. Some days I drove slowly past the ramp onto the interstate, 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 see sex or homosexuality similarly. I imagine you were probably more conservative than liberal.
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 killed you), 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 go. Abandon the expectations of life. What a perfect escape it would be. I am tempted forever by the prospect of leaving.
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 want. 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 to learn who you are. I’ll also say thanks for helping me stay. Staying has led to so much life I’m glad I didn’t miss. 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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