Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Into the Wild’ bus removed from Alaskan bush; story resonates with Spokane students

In this photo released by the Alaska National Guard, Alaska Army National Guard soldiers use a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to airlift an abandoned bus, popularized by the book and movie "Into the Wild," out of its location in the Alaska backcountry in light of public safety concerns, as part of a training mission Thursday, June 18, 2020. Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige, in a release, said the bus will be kept in a secure location while her department weighs various options for what to do with it. (Sgt. Seth LaCount/Alaska National Guard via AP) ORG XMIT: LA429  (Sgt. Seth LaCount)

Andrea Schmidt’s students at Lewis and Clark High School can only wonder: If only they’d plucked that old abandoned bus out of the Alaskan bush a few weeks earlier.

What stories they could share to end the school year.

In an event that combined American literature, current events and the pursuit of happiness, the bus made famous by the book and film “Into the Wild” was airlifted Thursday afternoon by an Alaska National Guard helicopter.

The bus played a role in the story of a young man’s adventures and eventual death in the Arctic taiga.

It was a tale that resonated with many people; visiting the dilapidated vehicle had become a kind of pilgrimage for hikers since Jon Krakauer’s book was published in 1996.

Many had to be rescued and several died as they sought to reconnect with the real-life story of Chris McCandless, a young college graduate from the East Coast who left behind a comfortable life and headed west without telling his friends and family.

But for some of the students in Schmidt’s 11th-grade English class at LC, it evolved into much more than an academic exercise.

“I love everything about the book,” said Schmidt. “It’s the timeless theme of pursuing happiness and doing things that give your life meaning at all costs.”

The book has special appeal for teenagers, said Schmidt.

“Just like for a lot of my kids, Chris had everything, but like a lot of them he struggled with his parents,” Schmidt said. “In the end we see that ultimately the decision to leave his family and his friends cost him his life, but he found what gave his life meaning.”

The book, which was adapted into film in 2007, has been a popular read for teens for two decades. Schmidt thought it important enough to study even through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even via Blackboard, its words resonate with the transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau and that most famous writer of the north, Jack London.

“For a lot of kids, like these juniors who will be seniors next year, they’re going to be in the process of figuring things out,” Schmidt said. Some will realize that “maybe I haven’t made the best decisions in the past, but what do I want to do now?”

Even the coronavirus couldn’t mute those conversations.

“Over the online learning platform Blackboard, students delved further into discussions about race and corruption, with what’s happening right now,” she said.

The story also serves as a cautionary tale. While some of her students were inspired, others felt strongly that they would never consider such recklessness.

“Some even felt that (McCandless) was mentally ill, almost suicidal, that he went despite all the warnings,” Schmidt said. He died of starvation in the bus in 1992, leaving behind a journal that included his failed effort to seek help because he couldn’t cross the snowmelt-swollen Teklanika River.

Unfortunately, many grown-ups took the dreams too far.

Hikers from around the world attempt to retrace McCandless’ steps every year, but many have failed and have had to be rescued. Some even died.

Last February, firefighters and Alaska state troopers rescued five Italian hikers on the Stampede Trail as they were returning from visiting the abandoned bus.

Less than a year before, a Belarus woman died on the trail trying to cross the Teklanika River to visit the bus with her new husband.

The decision to remove the bus in coordination with the Department of Natural Resources was made out of concern for public safety, the guard said in a statement. In its current location, near Healy, Alaska, the bus has drawn people into the danger of the Alaska wilderness.

It will be secured while the department considers all options for its permanent placement.

A construction company used the 1940s-era Fairbanks city bus as it worked on an access road in the area. The bus, which was used as housing, was left behind when the project was finished in 1961, according to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources.

John Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild” was published in 1996 and was adapted into a film of the same name in 2007.