Summary and Analysis Chapter 12



This chapter continues the exploration of McCandless's character and how it was formed during his youth. Krakauer tells the reader that McCandless took a road trip the summer before his freshman year of college. He promised to call his parents every three days, but soon stopped phoning them altogether. When he returned home, McCandless was almost unrecognizable — seriously underweight and with long, unruly hair. He had lost his way in the Mojave Desert and nearly died of dehydration. His parents tried to counsel McCandless to prevent the situation from ever repeating itself, but he didn't pay attention.

McCandless received near-perfect grades during his first year of college. He wrote for the school newspaper and considered attending law school. But the summer after his second year at Emory, McCandless's personality appeared to have grown markedly different.

The author traces McCandless's "smoldering anger" to the fact that during his earlier drive out west, McCandless had revisited his childhood home in El Segundo, California, and discovered that his father had lived a double life for several years. Chris had been born to his mother, Billie, while father Walt was still married to his first wife, Marcia. And two years after Chris was born, Walt McCandless fathered another child with Marcia.

Discovering this duplicity infuriated McCandless. "But he did not confront his parents with what he knew," Krakauer writes. "He chose instead to make a secret of his dark knowledge and express his rage obliquely, in silence and sullen withdrawal."

After his junior year, McCandless took another road trip, this time driving all the way to Alaska. Back at Emory for his senior year, he began to withdraw from both friends and family. After his graduation, he ceased altogether to communicate with his parents and the sister with whom he had been close.

As the months passed with no word from her son, Billie McCandless worried more and more. One night in July 1992, she awoke in the middle of the night, certain she had heard her son's voice begging "Mom! Help me!"


Two factors emerge in this chapter that clearly contributed to McCandless's flight into the wilderness — and his eventual death.

First, Walt McCandless comments that "Chris was good at almost everything he ever tried . . . which made him supremely overconfident." This bit of characterization goes a long way toward explaining McCandless's bewildering lack of preparation for his Alaskan "adventure." There is no evidence that he failed at much, if anything, during his childhood and adolescence, which may have exacerbated the hubris naturally felt by many young adults.

As to why McCandless's overconfidence found its outlet in a radical rejection of his parents' bourgeois values — and his family altogether — the information that emerges in this chapter about his father's double life could well have offered the motivation. Krakauer doesn't linger on this episode, but if nothing else, it seems to have provided the match that lit McCandless's short fuse.