One of the books that made a big impression on me when I was a boy was “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean George. I’m sure I was one of the many boys who read it and imagined myself living in the woods off the land, trapping game, eating nuts and berries. It made running away to escape society seem so inviting. It was only fiction, but I often wondered if a person could live as well as Sam did in that book.
A non-fiction “My Side of the Mountain” with a tragic ending is “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. The protagonist is Christopher McCandless, who graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1990. He then, without telling his friends or family, donated the $25,000 balance of his saving account to charity and intentionally disappeared. He journeyed west and wandered around vast swaths of the country for almost two years, living totally off the grid. But he wandered with an ultimate destination in mind: Alaska. It’s one thing to want to escape the pressures of society for a while, but quite another to completely sacrifice one’s past, family ties and identity in pursuit of this ideal.
It is impossible to become acquainted with McCandless’ story without asking yourself why he did it. Krakauer, who searches for the answer to this question in his book, said McCandless was “an extremely intense young man who possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence.” This stubbornness would collide with a lack of preparedness and ignorance to produce fatal consequences.
In April 1992, McCandless was nearing his goal. Hitchhiking four miles outside of Fairbanks, he was picked up by Jim Gallien, an accomplished hunter and woodsman. During their ride together, McCandless revealed that he planned to hike into Denali National Park to live off the land for a few months. Gallien was concerned by the young man’s lack of gear and supplies for this venture, and at first tried to dissuade him, and then offered to help him get better gear. As Gallien raised concern after concern, McCandless seemed to have an answer to each one, finally concluding “I’m absolutely positive I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own.”
Gallien dropped him off and McCandless hiked 20 miles into the wilderness, crossing the Teklanika River. He took up residence in an abandoned bus placed there as a shelter by hunters. Living off the land, he shot what game he could, but it was not enough to sustain him. In early July, perhaps driven by hunger, he decided it was time to return to civilization. When we returned to the banks of the Teklanika, he found it at flood stage and was unable to cross. Trapped, he returned to the bus. He continued to shoot some game and collect what he thought were edible plants, but he was consuming fewer calories than he was burning. By the end of July, his situation was grave and was compounded by a fatal mistake.
What’s clear is that McCandless starved to death. What’s speculated is that he may have unwittingly hastened his death by consuming seedpods containing a poison called swainsonine. It’s an insidious killer that inhibits the digestive process, making the body incapable of processing the nourishment from the food it consumes. Whether this is true or not, McCandless eventually became too weak to attempt gathering food, crawled into his sleeping bag and succumbed to starvation on about August 18th. His body was found two and a half weeks later.
Nature and the competitive arena of business are alike in that neither is a respecter of zeal. You can have the most enthusiasm, the greatest passion or the strongest commitment to an ideal, but without knowing the risks and preparing for them, it can cost you dearly. While it’s impossible to account and prepare for every risk, it’s foolish to believe your idealism is potent enough to mitigate any you don’t know about. Perhaps McCandless was counting on luck, but luck is most easily found at the intersection of planning and preparation.
The lesson here is to balance idealism with pragmatism. Don’t sacrifice the zeal with which you pursue a dream, but blend in enough pragmatism to keep the pursuit of it from becoming a nightmare.