‘Return to the Wild’: the untold story of Christopher McCandless

Christopher Johnson McCandless in this undated photo taken during his time in Alaska.

Christopher Johnson McCandless in this undated photo taken during his time in Alaska.

He’s an adventure that needs no introduction. The story, life and death, of Christopher Johnson “Supertramp” McCandless is well-known and John Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, chronicling his journey is practically gospel to the hiking community. But there is much more to his life’s story than has been previously told.

A recent PBS documentary called Return to the Wild aired in November 2014 and brought together details and insights about McCandless’ life that were before closely guarded family secrets, all of which shed new light onto what motivated him to take his journey.

While it won’t be a surprise to many, his life was a struggle against his “overbearing” parents. His childhood home was full of incidents of domestic violence that pitted him and his sister, Carine, against their parents. His death has also become a sticking point to the McCandless family, with accusations going back and forth.

To escape this and perhaps to punish his parents for their perceived indifference, McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp embarked on an odyssey that would eventually lead him to Alaska and to death.

Characterizing him as a “modern day Huck Finn,” the documentary seeks to explore more of what drove McCandless to Alaska, something that has been a source of much debate between his supporters and critics. The documentary does this flawlessly, and it brings together many members of the McCandless family who have been silent before now, namely his half-siblings. It brings together also his parents, sister and many characters from his time on the road, Wayne Westerburg and Jan Burres. There is also an astonishing array of photographs never before seen that also add more dimension to his life.

Much of what has gone into this sensible documentary has been published in a recent memoir by Carine McCandless, The Wild Truth, in which she breaks her silence about the violence in the McCandless household, as well as shares many letters Chris had written that haven’t be shared before.

Anyone who was a fan of the book and the movie will delight in this unprecedented look into the McCandless family and Chris’s life.

McCandless’ story also sheds light on why some people choose to go missing and offers an excellent case study in discerning whether a particular has gone missing in the wild of choice or bad luck.

Return to the Wild can be watched for free at PBS here.

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