Summary and Analysis
Chapter 4 - Detrital Wash
The next evidence of Christopher McCandless surfaces not far from Lake Mead in Nevada, when a ranger with the National Park Service inadvertently discovers the yellow Datsun in which McCandless drove west from Atlanta. Covered in mud, the car has been hidden under a tarp and is parked on a dry riverbed, apparently struck by a flash flood. There is no sign of the car's owner.
McCandless's journal documents what happened. Following the flash flood, he hid his car and buried its license plates along with his rifle. He piled his paper money together — about $120 — and set it on fire. With the rest of his things in a backpack, McCandless set out to hike around Lake Mead. At times the temperature reached 120 degrees, and soon he was suffering from heat stroke. Passing boaters gave him a ride to a marina at the end of the lake.
He next hitchhiked around the West for two months. While hitchhiking, he met a man known as "Crazy Ernie," who offered him work at a rundown ranch in northern California. After working at the ranch for 11 days, however, McCandless realized that Crazy Ernie was never going to pay him, so he left the ranch and resumed hitchhiking.
McCandless hitched up the coast to Oregon and was picking berries along the side of the road when a van stopped for him — the van's drivers, Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob, thought he looked hungry. Rubber tramps who were driving from town to town selling goods at flea markets, the couple offered McCandless a ride. His parents hired a private investigator to find their son, who discovered that he had abandoned his car and received a hitchhiking ticket.
In Needles, California, McCandless reaches the Colorado River. He walks south through the desert, arriving in Topock, Arizona, where he buys a second-hand canoe. He paddles it south, his goal being to follow the Colorado River into Mexico, to the Gulf of California, and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean.
McCandless travels through Lake Havasu, the Bill Williams River, the Colorado River Indian Reservation, the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, and the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground. He sends a postcard to Wayne Westerberg at the Sioux Falls work-release facility where his friend has been incarcerated. McCandless reaches the Morelos Dam and the Mexican border. Eventually he realizes that he will not reach the Gulf of California traveling this route.
Duck hunters rescue McCandless and give him a ride to a fishing village on the Gulf of California. Later, a violent storm engulfs the canoe, and powerful tides threaten to carry McCandless out to sea. Eventually he manages to beach the canoe on a jetty. Shortly thereafter, he leaves Mexico.
McCandless is caught illegally entering the United States from Mexico and spends one night in jail. He next travels back across the southwest, writing in his journal, ". . . extremely uncomfortable in society now and must return to road immediately."
The next journal entry asks, "Can this be the same Alex that set out in July 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring."
This chapter unearths additional motivation for McCandless's irrational Alaska trek to come. During his time in Mexico, he lived on nothing more than "five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea," and Krakauer points out that this may have accounted for the young man's belief that he could live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. (Undeniably, McCandless proves himself remarkably capable in this chapter, canoeing through hundreds of miles of hostile landscape and even crossing an international border undetected.)
And yet other questions remain unanswered. His mother says that "Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run." She doesn't say why this is so, however.
The motif of friendship emerges further in these pages, as McCandless, who earlier struck up a friendship with Wayne Westerberg, befriends Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob. One of Into the Wild's many ironies: a young man compelled toward a solitary life, who eventually will die alone, was quite gregarious and made friends easily. Another irony: McCandless abandons a car, the only problem with which is a wet battery, and burns his cash — but quits a job when it becomes clear that he won't be paid for his hard work. He has a complicated relationship with money and possessions, to say the least.