Nature often provides an escape from the brutality of modern life, but it can’t always provide the answers we seek. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)

Nature often provides an escape from the brutality of modern life, but it can’t always provide the answers we seek. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)

I Went to the Woods: Into the maze

“Into the Wild” and “The Grizzly Maze” are complex reads.

To reduce Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadwell to naïve, unprepared fools who are led to their deaths by unreasonable ideology is to miss out on a wider story.

What resonates most with my students when we discuss the books in Adventure/Survival Literature is the idea of purpose. It doesn’t redeem, justify or deify the two, but people want to feel as though their lives have meaning. There is a point to their existence. Without it, despondency and hopelessness sinks in and the thought of not having purpose worries many students.

I showed part of the documentary “Grizzly Man” in which Treadwell talks about his alcoholism. Choice couldn’t stop it. Therapy couldn’t stop it. He made a promise to the bears and they stopped it. It’s wild and ridiculous, but it is also very human. There is another scene in which Treadwell talks about how he finds meaning to his life. Incredibly flawed, irrational, naïve, delusional, manipulative. But human.

Statistically speaking, very, very few people will find meaning in the exact same way as Treadwell, or seek truth and purpose the way McCandless did. But as another class is set to graduate, I can’t help but think how the wilds of adult life will treat our newly minted graduates.

As a metaphor, the Fairbanks 142 bus works pretty well as a cautionary tale. McCandless, for all his faults, likely brought on by abuse (listen to his sister’s Ted Talk), he left an indelible mark on just about everyone who met him. He had talent and brains and was implored to leverage both. His lifestyle didn’t catch up to him until he crossed that river. There was a way back if he chose, until there wasn’t.

After knowing some of my students for four years, my biggest fear is that they will cross the river without consideration and be stuck. Alone. That their desire to make their own path will become reckless and lead to a metaphorical death of potential, or a very literal one.

The grizzly maze works very well too. Tempt fate enough and the dangers will be revealed. Consequences loom.

But as Donald Miller wrote: “Fear is a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life” so the answer certainly isn’t insulation from hardship or failure. Experience, not inactivity, drives growth.

It is easy for us to adopt an appearance that is not an honest representation of who we are.

But that is nothing new. We have always been distracted, manipulated or jumped into things that provided us all the attention or validation we could want, only to later discover we got caught up in something that was fast and exciting. But not really us. No matter what the context, there’s always something there for us to say, as if life is a massive Mad Lib about happiness, life, wellness or gratitude.

In an era of social media distraction, we can trick ourselves into believing that what isn’t real, is. We mistake attention for purpose.

If there has been something that I most appreciate in students while they are in school and tends to be a success indicator, it’s not a GPA, the post-high school plan or even money. It’s substance. The cultivation of individuality and curiosity to form someone who will work, take the right risks, learn from mistakes and know that the world won’t simply gift a passion and or happiness because you feel entitled. There’s an attitude with which you live that serves those around you.

It is hard to stomach elements of the McCandless story, but he had it right when he wrote, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

• Jeff Lund is a freelance writer based in Ketchikan. His book, “A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska,” is available in local bookstores and at “I Went to the Woods” appears twice per month in the Sports & Outdoors section of the Juneau Empire.

More in News

The Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore docks in Juneau in October, 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the Week of May 28

Here’s what to expect this week.

The City and Borough of Juneau Harbormaster Enforcement vessel drives past the Dusky Rock which sits at Aurora Harbor. The vessel was towed there from Sandy beach Friday evening after three people died within a three-day period aboard the vessel while anchored offshore. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Three people found dead on boat anchored off Sandy Beach

Drug use a possible factor in deaths of one man and two women during three-day span

The Mendenhall Glacier and surrounding area is seen under an overcast sky on May 12. A federal order published Friday bans mineral extraction activities such as mining in an expanded area of land surrounding the glacier for the next 20 years. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Feds expand ban on mineral extraction near Mendenhall Glacier

20-year prohibition on mining, oil drilling applies to newly exposed land as ice continues retreat

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Thursday, June 1, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Bulk food in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
State roughly halves the number of Alaskans waiting on food aid, but more than 8,000 remain

By Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon Mary Wood has been waiting for food… Continue reading

A white butterfly rests upon a fern Saturday at Prince of Wales Island. (Courtesy Photo / Marti Crutcher)
Wild Shots

Reader-submitted photos of Mother Nature in Southeast Alaska.

Photos by Lee House / Sitka Conservation Society
Aliyah Merculief focuses on her run while snowboarding at Snow Camp.
Resilient Peoples & Place: Bringing up a new generation of Indigenous snow shredders

“Yak’éi i yaada xwalgeiní” (“it is good to see your face”) reads… Continue reading

A polar bear feeds near a pile of whale bones north of Utqiaġvik. (Courtesy Photo /Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Polar bears of the past survived warmth

In a recent paper, scientists wrote that a small population of polar… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Wednesday, May 31, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read