Into the Wild contains two interconnected plots, one that involves directly represented action and another that involves the careful development of a psychological portrait of Christopher McCandless. The first plot tracks McCandless’s journey into the wild, while the second tracks the development of Krakauer’s, and, implicitly, the reader’s, understanding of McCandless’s character and motivations. Neither plot is presented in linear fashion, and the two often intersect through the presentation of subtle detail, description, and the elaboration of multiple possible lines of cause and effect. Krakauer serves as the narrator throughout the book.
Into the Wild begins with the discovery of Christopher McCandless’s body by a group of Alaskan hunters who visit Denali National Park and Preserve on a yearly excursion. They radio for help. The FBI arrives and removes the body. Krakauer then visits with Wayne Westerberg, who knew Christopher McCandless as “Alex McCandless” and who provides an initial character sketch of the young man, Krakauer in a bar in Carthage, Wisconsin. Westerberg employed McCandless on and off on his grain elevator and remembers him as engaging, intelligent, and determined. Details from McCandless’s comfortable, middle-class Virginia upbringing and his dislike of materialism further Krakauer’s understanding of the young man. These same details take the narrator back to the first leg of McCandless’s journey west in his used yellow Datsun.
Just after graduating from college, McCandless drives to Lake Mead in Nevada, where a flash flood wets the engine of the Datsun. He leaves it and a number of other possessions behind. After two months of tramping, he buys a canoe on impulse and paddles down the Colorado River to Mexico.
The journey takes five months. In the meantime, the McCandless family begins investigating their son’s disappearance. After his canoeing excursion, McCandless lives and works in Bullhead City, Arizona. An old man named Charlie takes him in briefly, before McCandless departs and meets Jan Burres and her old boyfriend in California. He engages in the social life of Buress’s drifters’ camp but leaves hastily, intending to embark on his trip to Alaska. Krakauer receives a letter from and then meets Ronald Franz, who describes to Krakauer the father-son relationship he established with McCandless. The narrator uses Franz’s story to initiate a line of investigation into the harm McCandless’s risk-taking behavior caused others.
Krakauer next visits Wayne Westerberg again and reconstructs McCandless’s last month in Carthage, South Dakota by speaking with Westerberg’s...