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November 24, 2011
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'Back to the Wild' - Piecing together the last photos and writings of Chris McCandless' life

Our culture uses the term "passed away" when someone dies, but many people redirect their grief to create a legacy of their loved one, in essence, passing on his or her spirit.Such is the case of Walt and Billie McCandless, parents of Chris McCandless. Chris gave away nearly all of his possessions, including money, and hitchhiked to Alaska in 1992, where he lived in an abandoned bus. About four months later, he died from starvation, after eating wild potato seed pods, which rendered him too weak to continue to hunt or hike for food. Jon Krakauer chronicles Chris' life in his national bestseller "Into the Wild." His epilogue follows Chris' parents into the bus, where Billie "picks up a pair of Chris' patched, ragged jeans, and closing her eyes, presses them to her face. 'Smell,' she urges her husband with a painful smile. 'They still smell like Chris.'"Walt and Billie gathered their son's undeveloped film and negatives, his camera, field glasses, a 22 rifle with scope, books and his daily log from the bus. They visited Wayne Westerberg at Lake Mead, with whom Chris had left photographs from the beginning of his adventure from Atlanta, through the southern part of the nation (his journey also took him through Colorado). Chris also left his biographical belt, which then 82-year-old Russell Fritz, whom Chris bonded with in the desert near Salton City, helped him create. Westerberg also had letters and postcards Chris sent over the two-year period he allowed instinct and curiosity to lead him throughout North America."Wayne graciously handed these to Billie and I when we first went to see him in the fall of 1992 after Chris' demise," Walt McCandless said in an interview this week. "Jan Burres and Russell Fritz were the next friends of Chris that did a similar gracious and loving thing by giving us, without condition, the letters, postcards and other notable things that Chris had created."The McCandlesses tucked the belt, camera, letters, postcards and more than 600 photographs in a bank vault for 14 years, until Krakauer encouraged them to copyright the items in 2006. It took Walt three years to overcome his grief enough to read Krakauer's "fine book," he said, but when Krakauer mentioned the copyright, something clicked."I executed the copyright process and in the act of doing this had an awakening, an epiphany of sorts," Walt McCandless said. "This was Chris' story through his eyes and with his writings, and other archival relics of his journey. The light came on, and the process of creating 'Back to the Wild' began.The McCandlesses set up the Christopher Johnson McCandless Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits organizations they believe Chris would have liked to support, such as those for the homeless or single mothers, said Karina Wetherbee, who helped bring "Back to the Wild" to Keystone, after she, too, has been part of continuing her grandfather, Max Dercum's, legacy (see sidebar).It took friends and family of the McCandlesses three years to compile Chris' archives into a DVD and a book "that gives voice to Chris' travels," Walt McCandless said. On the DVD, noted actor Hal Holbrook reads the "seminal letter that Chris sent to Russell Fritz urging him to 'kick over the traces' and get out of Salton City and hit the road to new adventures," Walt McCandless said. "The DVD is brimming with this level of adventure by the people that interacted with Chris and remember him vividly to this day.""Back to the Wild" debuted in June and has traveled to Vermont, Michigan, Canada, Washington D.C., Maryland and now Keystone and onto Moab. Journalists have written stories about the project worldwide, from Canada and London to Chile and the Netherlands.Chris' story is one of inspiration and tragedy, and his parents want to inspire people to follow their adventurous spirit, "but in a down-to-earth way," Walt McCandless said.Because as Billie poignantly reflected in Krakauer's epilogue in "Into the Wild": "Many people have told me that they admire Chris for what he was trying to do. If he'd lived, I would agree with them. But he didn't, and there's no way to bring him back. You can't fix it. Most things you can fix, but not that."To this day, she has trouble looking at Chris' photographs, but the McCandlesses believe it's worth any pain "Back to the Wild" stirs up, because, as Chris' dad says:"Many people who have gotten to know his story have redirected what they want to do with their lives, taking measures in a similar direction. Fortunately, not many people are capable of being as radical as Chris and taking so many risks. In the end, his story has helped change many lives, making many people happier. That is Chris' greatest legacy."


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The Summit Daily Updated Nov 25, 2011 03:29PM Published Nov 24, 2011 07:03PM Copyright 2011 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.