Original Article, "Death of an Innocent"
by Jon Krakauer for Outside MagazineOne of the things I learned from hitchhiking was a love for lonely places: hiking to the ridges of distant mountains, or walking through foothills or the long broad aprons of alluvial plains. The places that nobody cares about. Hitchhiking also gives you a keen sense of the randomness of things. Where you go, who you meet, how the time is passed rests entirely in the hands of who pulls over and how far they're going. Even if you were stuck for the third day on a ramp outside of Bakersfield, it was possible that the next minute you could be sitting in an airconditioned car on your way to Phoenix. It was possible. Or you could walk down to the freightyard and try to hop a freight: it was risky, but doable.
The people you met on the road came almost invariably from the margins, usually destitute, sometimes crazy, but always with stories. The rides always came from people who'd been there: people who'd hitchhiked themselves. Usually men in their thirties driving white Ford pickups who didn't mind talking. There was one guy who picked me up outside of Fresno, worked for Union Pacific Railway, driving a company truck. He wasn't much of a talker, but friendly enough to keep the silences comfortable. Every once in awhile he'd radio in to his dispatcher, speaking mostly in jargon, presumably about the conditions of the signals or the tracks, though I couldn't tell. Finally I asked him, "What exactly is it you do for the railroad?" He looked at me, smiled and said: "Drive around in the truck... talk on the radio,"
Even though it was over 25 years ago, I still think about that guy a lot. Whenever I'm stuck in traffic, looking around at us in our pickups and SUVs, talking on our cellphones... I remember him and think to myself, 'Dude, you were way ahead of your time...'
Unlike the cloudier, more comfortable parts of my youth, I remember my hitchhiking days quite clearly: every ride, every ramp, every wino, nutjob and beautiful loser. Unlike most of my fellow travellers though, no matter how far I went, or how bad things got, I knew I was always a phone call from home and, presumably, rescue. Chris McCandless took that extra step, cut the phone line and went for broke, literally, and ended up dying for his efforts in the middle of nowhere. His final words, left at the end of his journal were "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!"
It's unclear whether he starved to death or was poisoned from eating the wrong berries, though it's clear from his journals that towards the end he knew he'd fucked up somehow. Even though starvation is one of the most painful deaths there is, I don't doubt him when he says he had a happy life - one of the few perks of taking the high road is that you rarely regret doing so, even if it turns out to be a lot shorter than you expected.