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One of the world’s largest and most haunting pieces of literary memorabilia is beginning a new life. The 1940s Fairbanks Alaska bus in which the idealistic, Tolstoy-obsessed hiker and would-be writer Chris McCandless starved to death in 1992 – and whose story is told in Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed Into the Wild, and the Sean Penn film of the same title released in 2007 – has been airlifted to a new “safe location” because of the number of rescue call-outs and deaths of tourists trying to reach the site.
The Alaska natural resources commissioner Corri Feige said: “We encourage people to enjoy Alaska’s wild areas safely, and we understand the hold this bus has had on the popular imagination. However, this is an abandoned and deteriorating vehicle that was requiring dangerous and costly rescue efforts. More importantly, it was costing some visitors their lives.”
Earlier this year five Italian tourists trying to reach the bus had to be rescued and last year a woman from Belarus died trying to reach the site. The Alaskan National Guard removed the bus with a heavy-lift Chinook helicopter earlier this month.
McCandless’ strange and moving story was first told by Krakauer in an article in Outside magazine. The article generated the most mail in the magazine’s history and led to Krakauer’s celebrated book, first published in the US by Villard in 1996. The book featured the bus on its cover. The title comes from the postcard McCandless posted to a friend four months before he died. He said: ‘If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.’
Krakauer painstakingly retraced McCandless’ two-year odyssey around the States. He discovered that he had given away nearly $25,000 to charity, burned all the cash in his wallet and then invented a new life for himself ‘taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience’. He eventually walked alone into the wilderness north of Alaska’s Mt McKinley and four months later his decomposed body was found in the abandoned bus by a part of moose hunters.
Krakauer notes that McCandless was long captivated by the writing of Leo Tolstoy, and particularly admired how the great novelist had ‘forsaken a life of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute’.
The bus is now in a secure location while the authorities decide its future. Most poignantly of all, a suitcase that was found in the bus has been returned to McCandless’ family.