Oct. 15, 2007 -- If you saw Marc Paterson hiking in the woods or hitchhiking along a lonely back road, you might not think much of it. In fact you might not even notice. That suits Paterson just fine.
The 29-year-old is on the journey of a lifetime … a journey that could cost him his life. And he couldn't be happier.
"I'm going to test my limits, I guess, to see what it's like to be hungry. I'm trying to put myself in an environment where nothing's spoon-fed. I mean, where I might have to go run around the woods for a bit, or go fishing for a few hours to catch a fish, catch my own dinner," he said. "It's really rewarding. In our society where you can just swipe a card or a debit card, it gets a little too easy some time. I'm challenging myself."
It is a challenge quietly taken up by hundreds around the world, all of them headed to Alaska, chasing a dream written down in the pages of a best-seller and now on screen in a movie called "Into the Wild."
"Into the Wild" is the true story of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old honors graduate from a privileged East Coast family who died a lonely, painful death in the Alaskan bush. It is the story of how he got there and what he did along the way that has made McCandless an almost saintlike figure to his many devoted followers.
McCandless called himself "Alexander Supertramp," and after graduating college in the early 1990s he donated his $20,000-plus trust fund to charity, left his family with no word of his whereabouts and set off on a two-year journey to transform himself. He traversed 30 states, Canada and Mexico with almost no money and frequently little food.
The Alaskan Adventure
McCandless tramped his way across North America determined to live completely free of the trappings of modern society. He was intoxicated by nature and the idea of a great Alaskan adventure — to survive in the bush totally on his own. In his last postcard to a friend, he wrote: "I now walk into the wild."
Alaskan Jim Gallien picked McCandless up hitchhiking and was the last one to see him alive.
"When I found out he didn't have any boots, I told him he could use mine, just give me a call when he came out of the woods, give them back to me," Gallien said. "He said he didn't want to see anybody. In fact, he gave me his watch. He had a comb. He had about 85 cents in change. And he just threw it all on the dash in my truck. Threw the map down, didn't want to know what day it was, what time it was or where he was."
When hunters found McCandless' body in a broken-down city bus left in the woods as a shelter, he weighed only 67 pounds. He had survived 112 days alone in the wilderness and had documented much of it with his camera and a journal.
"Disaster, rained in, river looks impossible," he wrote toward the end. He wrote that he was "lonely, scared."
On Day 100 he wrote that he "Made it! But in the weakest condition of life. Death looms as serious threat. Have literally become trapped in the wild."
Today, young idealistic pilgrims post their adventures on YouTube as they follow in the footsteps of Alexander Supertramp and visit the now famous "magic bus" deep in the Alaskan interior. When "Nightline" caught up with Paterson, he was in Fairbanks and had just spent the night in a tiny cabin on loan from a couple of strangers who had given him a ride. He was about to embark on his 100-mile journey to the Stampede Trail, and then the long hike into the bush, and to the bus. He was planning on bringing only the bare essentials, but carried a copy of "Into the Wild" with his own handwritten notes.
"This is his route that he took, just the places that he stopped, so that when I was hiking up if I could follow the same route he did," Paterson said.
A Perilous 'Playground'
Like McCandless, Paterson left a note with a kind couple he met along the way. "If you don't hear from me in three weeks, could you please contact my parents or my brother. I left their phone numbers at the bottom here. I will call you guys as soon as I complete my trek and get to a phone," the letter reads.
He also mirrored McCandless when it came to the food he was bringing — just water and 10 pounds of rice. When asked whether he understood the danger he faced, Paterson said, "If this is serious business, then I want to elevate myself to a level where I can get by. This is my new playground. If I'm not ready for it now, well, I'm going to learn what it takes to survive out there and I think in order to learn you have to put yourself out there in sometimes dangerous situations."
Paterson hitched a ride alone a rural Alaskan road, and was on his way.
Pilgrims like Paterson have been making their way out to the bush for 10 years, ever since "Into the Wild" became a best-seller. But now as the book becomes a movie, people in the tiny town of Healy, Alaska, are worried. Healy is the last stop on the map before the journey turns rugged.
Neal Laugman, from the Greater Healy-Denali Chamber of Commerce, said, "What happens now is people are going to want to go out there no matter what we tell them. You know we tell them, 'You want to be careful.' [They say], 'Oh, no we can do that because we've hiked in the Cascades. We've been on the Continental Divide. We've been in the Adirondacks.' Well it's a different world here in the bush."
Like many Alaskans, Laugman worries the story has made a romantic tale of something that isn't child's play. "We don't want this to be turned into something that it's not," he said. "And that's what it looks like to me."
Some officials are now considering removing the bus — airlifting it out in an attempt to head off would-be pilgrims and keep them from coming.
"I don't want to see us, through this media push and this tourism push, actually put people in harm's way," said Laugman.
On the Stampede Trail
We wanted to see the trail for ourselves, so Laugman showed our "Nightline" crew a map and pulled no punches. "Here's the map. Here's where you gotta go. This is where you park. This is where you walk. This is where you maybe drown. This is where you maybe get eaten by the bear and the mosquitoes get you. And that's where you die," he said.
As night fell, we visited the end of the road leading to the trail head, where an RV was parked. A vacationing couple from Maine had picked up a hitchhiker — Paterson.
"I got in three different vehicles from Fairbanks to get to the Stampede Trail, where I am now," he said. When asked whether he was worried about the journey, he said, "I'm sure I'll be fine."
At daybreak "Nightline" met up with Coke Wallace, a steely-eyed master guide to the Alaskan bush who sees the world divided into two camps: predators and prey. Wallace set us up on a couple of ATVs for the journey to the bus — 23 miles each way through raging rivers, muddy streams and sticky tundra.
Wallace has pulled more than his share of pilgrims from this land and shakes his head at the very notion. "Good luck," he said with a laugh. "I hope I don't have to go get a bunch of 'em. I told you guys, I've already rescued a few couples that came out here to do the pilgrimage. And this is the wrong time of year."
Along the way in we met up with Paterson at the beginning of his long hike. "If the hairs on the back of my neck might stand up now and then, well, that's how you know that you're having a real adventure," he said.
For us, the journey in wasn't easy. We got stuck in deep muddy bogs, the temperature was in the 30s and we were all wet and dirty, but we were on the edge of Denali National Park and the scenery was breathtaking.
Wallace guesses he's taken hundreds of people out to the bus — the path in is never easy and he gives us no guarantees that we'll make it.
We eventually reached the banks of the dangerous Teklanika River and Wallace wasn't sure we could make it across. "It's fairly treacherous," said Wallace. "That's why people who do this trek should know what they're getting themselves into. It can be treacherous at any turn in the road."
McCandless wasn't able to cross the river, and even the ATVs had a difficult time. The river pushes them downstream, lifting the wheels off the bottom, but we made it, and an hour later, we reached the bus. "There you have it, sports fans," said Wallace. "Fairbanks City Bus 142."
The bus looks exactly as it did all those years ago, and whatever you think of McCandless and how he ended up dying here, walking inside is powerful. Messages from those who've made the journey — even McCandless' family — are everywhere.
"Under the bunk is a little suitcase that his folks had kept emergency supplies in and a little log that people used to write in," said Wallace. Also in the suitcase was a Bible that McCandless' parents left for him in the magic bus in July 1993, when they came to honor his memory one year from the date of his death."
"I wondered briefly if it would be hard to enter your last home," wrote McCandless' mother. "The wonderful pictures you left in your final testament welcomed me in and I'm finding it difficult to leave instead. I can so appreciate the absolute joy in your eyes reported by your self portraits."
The bus seems to have taken on the quality of a shrine.
"Some of the people I bring here break down and have a pretty emotional moment," said Wallace. "Hell, they almost have me crying some of the time, they get so broken up over it. Regardless of what you think of the guy, he did die here, so it's kind of hallowed ground in my opinion."
The family put a plaque inside that includes McCandless' last words, found inside his journal. The plaque reads:
Christopher Johnson McCandless
February 1968 to August 1992
Chris, our beloved son and brother, died here during his adventurous travels in search of how he could best realize Gods' great gift of life. With his final message, "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and God Bless all," we commend his soul to the world.
The McCandless family, July 1993.
The bus and the stories it holds remain a goal for an untold number of McCandless followers.Did Paterson make it? When our story first aired, we weren't sure. The last we saw him he was about eight hours into his hike, hungry and tired, but he wouldn't accept any food.
15 years after McCandless — just like so many others who've come along since— Paterson walked into the wild.
And eventually, he walked out of the wild. Paterson did his journey, telling ABC News that "it was a 26 mile hike in from the nearest road and took two days for me to walk to the bus. An awesome trip!"