Chapter 1 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
Chapter 2 opens on September 6, 1992 at 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.
In Chapter 3 the reader meets Wayne Westerberg, a man who knew Chris McCandless as “Alex” before his death. Alex was hitchhiking one day. 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.
The opening chapters of this book read much like a novel’s exposition--the reader learns who the major characters are and what background information is necessary to understand the next chapters as they unfold. However, this story is not fiction because the people and events are real. Yet the reader should always be aware that Krakauer must make decisions about what events to discuss, what comparisons to make, and which journal entries and postcard messages to include. Each of these decisions attempts to provide a coherent picture of what happened to Chris McCandless; although that picture is necessarily false because this story could be told from a multitude of angles. Certainly McCandless’s mother would have told the story differently, as would his sister, or another journalist. Each of these decisions also characterizes Chris McCandless in a particular, albeit conflicted, manner. Krakauer will wrestle with who McCandless “actually” was throughout this book and draw his own conclusions.
The reader should note the way Krakauer begins the story: at the end. Thus we already know what happens to Chris McCandless and must wonder how someone with so much going for him could end up so tragically. This move generates suspense and is intended to keep the reader interested in the story through enticement. Krakauer, who previously wrote an article about McCandless for Outside magazine, will construct this story through interviews, McCandless’s journals, photographs, and letters, as well as secondary research on other adventurers.