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. I found the book in high school, then saw the movie, and it had a profound impact on me.
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 a 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 have become something of a martyr for the romantic image of disillusioned youth. Are you a prophet? A lost child? A social reject? A simple wilderness-lover who ate the wrong berries? Did you plan to die? Did you plan to come back?
What were your thoughts on our world? How do we place you in our arguments about materialism and conservation? How do we best use you? What do you reveal about…us?
I refuse to see you as a manifestation of society’s unending problems. Cultural thinkers will treat your life (and death) as a kind of prism, something to shine our world through in order to see it in a different way. 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, before I came out of the closet, and I thought about you a lot during those terrible times when I was in the process of coming out. When I read Into The Wild, it was like reading an alternate timeline of my own life, one in which I followed through with my threats to run away. I hated my parents. I hated going home. I fantasized about leaving and telling no one. I would live in the wild. I would drive to California. I would do something.
Yes, you were cruel. But I have been cruel, and cruelty has, at times, been completely necessary and justified in my defense of self. You abandoned the people who loved you. It would be a hard choice for anyone to make, but it’s one I’ve considered more times than I could count. Love is cruel sometimes. It was love that drove my parents to tell me my sexuality was the work of the devil — love that told them I would die of AIDS and required them to instill in me that great fear when I was fifteen years old. That fear of AIDS has never left. Love compelled them to save my soul — or try to — in accordance with their cosmology, the fairy tales they choose to believe in. Like you, I have a younger sister, a difficult and angry father, and a mother who meekly supports him. She takes his furies and just absorbs them. I think we all do, and so, as a family, we have become furious people. Anger is the only unifying streak among us.
In high school, when I drove over the interstate every day to go home, I thought about how easy it would be to just turn left. Get on the ramp to the freeway. Drive 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 calling everyone. Would I be able to hitchhike the rest of the way? Would I make it to California?
It’s hard to say if running away would have been possible, but that initial action — the gentle left turn — 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, an alternative version of what my life might have been like if I had left my sister, mother, and father. Leaving would have been a harder feat to accomplish in high school, and it’s doubtful that 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.
So I suppose I lied before: I did project meaning onto you. I saw me in you, or rather, I saw much of you — or what I could know of you — in me.
The fights at home were terrible, and they happened because I was gay. Every day after school, I dreaded going home. I had a pickup truck. I could cover my gas, at least for part of the way, to California. Some days I drove very slowly past the ramp onto the freeway, 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 in your myth with unmerited symbolism. I don’t 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 upon by researchers 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. Abandon the expectations of life. What a perfect escape it would be. I am tempted forever by the idea 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, and how to be a success. 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. Not leaving my family. At least, not yet.
I hope, in your time away from everyone, you had space to learn who you were. I’ll also say thanks for helping me stay. Staying has led to so much life I’m glad I didn’t miss.
You kept me in this life by showing me how I could leave it. If ever it gets too much, I’ll follow in your footsteps.