11 Lessons From Writing A Book
“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal…
To read the no-holds-barred account of Dave’s hike of the Stampede Trail, check out Chapter 25 in his brand new book, Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life – AVAILABLE NOW, on Amazon. [Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk]
The Stampede Trail is most known for being the trail that Chris McCandless set out on in April 1992 with the intention of living off the land for the summer. It’s home to “the magic bus”, which became Chris’s base during that time. Four months later, in September ’92, McCandless’s remains were found in the bus, where it’s believed he starved to death. His story gained notoriety in January 1993 when Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside Magazine, which was later developed into the well known book and subsequent film, Into The Wild.
It’s a divisive story. Many locals view it as a foolish one, where an underprepared dreamer came to Alaska totally naive to the reality of the wilderness and its challenges. Others are touched by the story and flock to the area in a pilgrimage-like way, from around the world.
A few days ago, I stashed my bike and most gear in Fairbanks, and then hitchhiked back South towards Healy. The plan was to walk to the bus, with the hope there’d be a chance to talk to people and see what drew them to visit. I didn’t expect it to be a profound spiritual journey or anything, and I think some of the criticisms are accurate, but it’s a story that it’s easy to connect with on some levels – questioning our conditioning and a desire for a type of adventure – so being in the area anyway, well, why not? If nothing came of it, it’d at least be a break from pedalling for a couple of days and a refresher course in the art of walking.
The plan was to do the trip in two days, walking to the bus the first day, camping, then walking out. It’s a slow 20 miles to the bus from the trailhead, basically along well-carved rocky trails, through ponds and open tundra, across a couple of rivers (one of which, the Teklanika River, is known as the point of no return for McCandless – the barrier that stopped him from walking back out to civilisation), and through dense and mosquito-infested tree corridors. And then all of a sudden, it opens up and you find yourself at the bus with sore and aching feet.
It’s in a pretty bad way, bullet holes lining the outside of the bus, most windows put through, and the inside has been torn apart and many parts stolen. But nonetheless it was still strikingly reminiscent of the images from ’92. Inside, it’s a mess but still in good condition is the guestbook for visitors to sign. They range from philosophical messages of people who have seemingly been hugely affected by the story, to “thx chris 4 the inspiration“, to “me and my buddies just drove out here in our 4×4’s and made it in 4 hours. Sick trail!“. There’s also some messages from people who have stayed at the bus for several months during the winter. It’s definitely a hardcore place to be based in the depths of a heavy Alaskan winter.
Camping outside, it was eerie. There were a lot of noises that were probably nothing but definitely sounded like big critters. You know people say you should make loud noises when you’re in Alaska backcountry? Well it makes you go mad, always saying the same thing, like “HUMAN”, every minute or so. It drives you crazy, especially when the mosquitoes are constantly swarming your face in their thousands too. There’s advice that says you should make regular, loud noises, in a deep voice to let animals know you’re in the area. 3am in the tent and there were big sounds outside. Too late to think clearly, the only loud deep voice I could conjure up were the words from Chocolate Rain by Tay Zonday. Imagining it from another person’s perspective, it must have been really, really weird.
Getting ready to walk out again the next day, Eric from Minneapolis walked into the bus site. He’d flown into Fairbanks for a couple of days with the sole purpose of walking to the bus and was aiming for a single day round trip to make the flight back. Hell of a mission that. It was attempt two, after last year getting turned back because the Teklanika crossing was so high. Split into two days was pretty full on, so I can only imagine what one intense day was like. Sore feet I reckon.
It was a bit of a slog on the way out. Headphones in and painkillers to dampen the plod. The river hadn’t risen, even though the crossing was late in the day, so getting across was fine. All in all, whilst it’s not the most best walk in Alaska, the Tundra is spectacular in places and it’s a worthwhile trip if you’re in town and have ever felt a connection to the McCandless story or other Alaska wilderness tales.
And regardless of your views on his story, McCandless showed wisdom when, whilst in the severe stages of starvation, he wrote “Happiness only real when shared.“
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THE BETA. There’s a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering online about Hiking The Stampede Trail. Here’s some things that I would add to the mix – as of July 2013. If you’re thinking about taking the trip, obviously do all your own research and be safe, the below are only opinions: