Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Here's to Alex Supertramp

I've started reading Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, who wandered the country and died in the Alaskan wilderness. (Yes, that's an oversimplification.)

His path and mine cross at a few points, starting with where we were born: the Washington, DC area.

But it's here, along the Arizona-California state line, that things get very familiar. When the book tells of him canoeing down the Colorado River, from Bullhead City to the Sea of Cortez, I could see it perfectly. I know that stretch of river. He must have floated past places I've camped. I've seen the tangle of canals where the river enters Mexico.

I can picture the Arizona wash where he abandoned his flooded-out car, and the deserts where he camped. I've camped in places just like them.

I've been to Niland, The Slabs and the Salton Sea.

Most of all, I know about the kind of people he met in the desert, the unconventional souls living in vehicles. Because I am one.

As Jon Krakauer says of us non-house-owning vagabonds:

...a teeming itinerant society—a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.

There are some bad seeds and some genuinely scary characters out here, but, by far, most of the people I've met are kind, helpful and interesting.

I don't have McCandless's craving to live an extremely minimalist life in a life-threatening environment. But I understand his desire to free himself from society's anchors. It's not glamourous. I don't have Jack London fantasies or Henry David Thoreau ideals dancing in my head. I just don't want to be tied down. I wore that straightjacket for 60 years. It was enough.

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