Following his discussion of Chris’s family life, Krakauer recounts his own youthful, reckless adventures in the wilderness. At age twenty-three, Krakauer decided to climb Devils Thumb in Alaska. He describes his younger self as self-absorbed and willful, much like Chris McCandless. Krakauer describes his relationship with his father--a common theme in his analysis of the explorers he meets in this book. Krakauer’s own father was a doctor and hoped his son would embark on a career in medicine as well. We learn that the author’s trip was nerve-wracking and fraught with bad weather. His climb was a success, but hard-won and dangerous. This trip gave Krakauer insight into how lonely he had become.
Along the Alaskan Highway, Chris McCandless stopped to bathe and met Gaylord Stuckey. Stuckey initially refused McCandless a ride because it was against company policy. However, after talking for a while, Stuckey became convinced that McCandless was not a typical transient and drove him all the way to Fairbanks. Stuckey bought McCandless a bag of rice at the grocery store, and then left him at the University of Alaska campus, where McCandless wanted to learn about berries.
McCandless found a book on plants at the campus bookstore and found a used gun by searching the classifieds. After McCandless left the campus, he met Jim Gallien, who took him farther.
The author gathers the rest of the information in this chapter about McCandless’s journey from a journal he scribbled in the plant book. Krakauer learns that at some point McCandless fell through the ice, yet seemed unharmed. He also knows McCandless found the bus in which he would later die on May 1, calling it “Magic Bus Day.”
McCandless ate rose hips and berries; he hunted squirrel, spruce grouse, duck, goose, and porcupine. Ironically, the author notes, McCandless was not really in the “wilderness” at all--he was only thirty miles from the highway, sixteen miles from a tourist path patrolled by the National Park Service, and within a six-mile radius of four vacation cabins.
After a few months in the wilderness, McCandless decided to return to civilization. However, the landscape in July was much different than it had been in April and McCandless had difficulty getting out.
Krakauer revisits the site of McCandless’s death. Unlike McCandless, Krakauer comes with a map and three companions. Krakauer notes that if McCandless had a map, he would have realized it was not impossible to cross the Teklanika River and he might have survived. However, Krakauer still does not understand why McCandless died at the bus.
When Krakauer finds the bus, he finds evidence of McCandless everywhere--pots, feathers he saved, books, writing on the walls. Krakauer considers McCandless in relation to other men to which people have compared him--Sir John Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir--and concludes that McCandless was different than each of them.
McCandless did not view nature as an antagonist; he came into it to explore it but also to explore his own soul. Krakauer considers the demise of Chris McCandless. He notes that on July 30 McCandless wrote in his journal that he was extremely weak and blamed it on pot seed. There is nothing in his journal to suggest he was ill before this entry. By August 19, McCandless was dead. Krakauer deliberates various theories about what happened to Chris. Some think he ate potato seeds, which are mildly toxic; Krakauer says this cannot be the case because Chris would have had to consume many pounds of the seeds to become ill and his pack was too light when Jim Gallien dropped him off for there to have been enough seeds in it. Another theory claims that Chris accidentally consumed the wild sweet pea, mistaking it for the wild potato, which he read about in his plant book. However, Krakauer dismisses this idea because it does not make sense to him that Chris could have successfully distinguished the wild potato from the wild sweet pea for three weeks (as he had) and then suddenly confuse them. After some research, Krakauer concludes that the seeds on the roots of the wild potato, which Chris began eating when the roots became too tough, were poisonous.
The Epilogue recounts Billie and Walt McCandless’s trip to the scene of Chris’s death. The visit takes place ten months after the parents have learned of their son’s fate. Billie and Walt are flown in by helicopter--although, they wanted to hike in as Chris had, but the river was too high.