This book moves back and forth in time, opening with its subject, Chris McCandless, on the last day anyone saw him alive. From there, Krakauer will investigate the tragic end to a life that had immense promise. He will interview people Chris met during his travels, Chris’s family and friends from Virginia, and authorities. Krakauer will also draw comparisons with other men who met similar fates in order to speculate about what motivated Chris. Finally, Krakauer returns to the scene of Chris’s death with companions and then again with Chris’s parents.
Into the Wild opens with Jim Gallien driving through Alaska, when he sees a hitchhiker who looks as though he is eighteen years old. The hitchhiker is actually twenty-four years old and claims to be named Alex and to come from South Dakota. Alex seems to be carrying a light load for someone planning to live off the land for a few months, as he says he will do in Denali National Park. As Alex elaborates on his plan, Gallien tries to make him change his mind. Gallien is certain that Alex is not prepared for life in the Alaskan outdoors. Gallien even offers to buy him some decent gear, but Alex refuses. Gallien insists that Alex take his boots and his lunch for the day; Gallien gives Alex his phone number, telling him to call if he makes it out alive. The date was April 28, 1992
Krakauer fast-forwards to September 6, 1992 to a broken down bus in Denali National Park. Ken Thompson, Gordon Samel, and Ferdie Swanson visit the park to drive their ATVs. When they arrive at the bus, there is a couple from Anchorage that looks spooked. A bad smell comes from the bus. A note is taped to the bus, begging for help. Samel discovers a dead body inside the bus, wrapped in a sleeping bag. No one has room in his vehicle to remove the dead body. Another man, Butch Killian, arrives on the scene. Butch drives back toward the highway and alerts the authorities on his two-way radio. The next day, a police helicopter removes the body of Chris McCandless, five rolls of exposed film, the SOS note, and a diary with 113 entries. An autopsy reveals that McCandless starved to death; his corpse weighed only sixty-seven pounds.
Next, Krakauer introduces the people Chris met during his travels. He begins with Wayne Westerberg, a man who knew Chris McCandless as “Alex” before his death. Westerberg recounts the day he picked up Alex, who was hitchhiking. The weather was bad and Alex was ill-equipped, so Westerberg suggested he stay on with him for a while. Alex spent three days with Westerberg; before parting ways, Westerberg told Alex to find him if he ever needed work. A few weeks later, Alex found Westerberg and began working for him. Westerberg says that Alex was very intelligent and a hard worker. Alex moved on when Westerberg had to serve time for involvement with “black boxes.” Alex stayed in touch with Westerberg and as he traveled on, claimed he was from South Dakota.
Alex, or Chris, was really from Annandale, Virginia--the son of successful parents and a graduate of Emory University. Following his college graduation, Chris headed West in his second-hand Datsun. His family, not even his favorite sister Carine, had any idea he had gone.
In October, 1990--more than three months after McCandless left Atlanta--his Datsun was found abandoned at Lake Mead National Recreation Area by Park Ranger, Bud Walsh. Of course, without license plates, Walsh could not trace the car to McCandless. The rangers kept the car for driving around the park. Krakauer learns through his research that McCandless got caught in a flash flood with the car, which caused the battery to die. Instead of having to explain why his driver’s license and registration had expired, why he did not have insurance, and why he was driving on a prohibited road in the first place--McCandless chose to abandon the car. McCandless shed unnecessary baggage and burned all of his money, one hundred twenty-three dollars, as a symbolic gesture. After spending some time hiking around the lake, McCandless hitchhiked out West and found work on Crazy Ernie’s farm. When McCandless realized Ernie had no intention of paying him, he stole a bicycle and left.
McCandless spent time in Colorado and Mexico, where he had some difficulty navigating the canals. He spent a night in jail after being caught coming back into the US with no ID. McCandless was able to spring himself from jail but had to leave his beloved handgun behind.
For the period during which Chris had no camera or journal, Krakauer uses letters to piece together time Chris spent in California and Bullhead City, Arizona. He spent two months in Bullhead City, got a job at McDonald’s, opened a bank account, and even introduced himself by his real name, Chris McCandless. His fellow employees remember him as a quirky but nice guy, who hated wearing socks, worked at a slow pace, and did not shower frequently enough. One woman believes the reason Chris quit is because she told him he needed to bathe. In Arizona, Chris met a man named Charlie, who showed him a trailer he could live in for a while.
McCandless soon left Arizona and went to live again with Jan and Bob at Niland, referred to by the locals as “the Slabs.” Jan says that even though Alex liked to keep to himself, he had a really good time when he was around people. He told anyone that would listen that he planned to visit Alaska. When Alex was leaving, Jan tried to get him to take some things with him--after he had gone, she found most of the things she had given him left behind.
Next, we learn that after leaving Jan and Bob, Alex met Ron Frantz. Frantz gave him a ride to his camp at Oh-My-God Hotsprings. Frantz, who had lost his wife and only son some forty years earlier in a car accident, felt a connection with Alex. Frantz and Alex developed a relationship and spent a lot of time together. Frantz, who was a leatherworker, instructed Alex in the craft. Frantz also fed Alex. One day Alex announced that he was going to San Diego. Frantz was sad, but insisted on driving him. McCandless went on to Seattle, but returned soon to California. In California, McCandless met up with Frantz again. Alex wanted to go out to South Dakota, where Wayne Westerberg had a job waiting for him-- Frantz drove him part way there, video-taping their journey. Later, Alex wrote Frantz a letter from South Dakota, urging him to become more nomadic. Frantz took his advice, and occupied Alex’s old campsite.
Krakauer next returns to Wayne Westerberg--the man for whom Alex worked in South Dakota. Westerberg says that Alex would do the jobs that no one else wanted because they were too tedious or too dirty. Westerberg notes that Alex, however, was not mechanically inclined or imbued with common sense. While working for Westerberg, Alex became close to Westerberg’s girlfriend, Gail Borah. Though, neither Westerberg nor Borah knew exactly what happened between McCandless and his family.