Alaska Airlifts ‘Into the Wild’ Bus Out of the Wild

The abandoned Fairbanks city bus that Christopher McCandless lived and died in has been removed from the Alaska backcountry. Photos that went viral on Facebook on Thursday show the bus being hauled out by a Chinook helicopter and then loaded onto a long flatbed trailer for transport to an unknown location. Alaska Public Radio reports that the bus was removed in a collaboration involving the state’s departments of transportation, natural resources, and military and veterans’ affairs, at the request of the Denali Borough.
 
McCandless occupied the bus, located outside the town of Healy near the boundary of Denali National Park, during the spring and summer of 1992. He died there in mid-August, and his story was made famous by Jon Krakauer—first in a now-classic Outside story, “Death of an Innocent,” and then in his bestselling 1996 book, Into the Wild.
 
The bus had been abandoned along the Stampede Trail, then a rough road to a now-defunct mine, in the early 1960s. It became a popular fall and winter shelter for hunters and trappers, but had never been a summer destination pre-McCandless. The book’s publication changed that. Hikers, often inspired by McCandless’ commitment to leading an adventurous life, began to seek out the bus in a kind of pilgrimage soon after. When the movie version of Into the Wild was released in 2007, their numbers increased significantly. “We didn’t really feel an impact from the bus until the movie came out,” Rusty Lasell, then the chief of Healy’s Tri-Valley Volunteer Fire Department, told me in 2013. (Lasell died in 2017.) But that impact, when it came, was significant. When I spoke to Lasell in early September of that year, he had already overseen a dozen rescues of bus-bound hikers that summer alone, most of them trapped on the wrong side of the fast-moving and unpredictable Teklanika River.
 
The Teklanika is what makes the 20-mile hike to the bus so fraught—and it’s the obstacle that prevented McCandless from hiking out to the highway when he began to starve. It’s cold and fast, and it can rise quickly, slamming the door shut behind hikers who have already crossed to the bus side, or sweeping them off their feet and downstream. The first hiker to die on her way to the bus was a young woman who drowned in 2010. The second, a 24 year-old newlywed, died last summer.
 
Locals have discussed the idea of removing the bus, to stop the hikers and the rescues, since at least 2007, which was when I first learned about and blogged about the pilgrimage phenomenon. In 2013, when I reported a long feature about the pilgrims and the risks they take, one Healy local told me that he’d heard of vigilante plans to blow it up if it wasn’t airlifted out. Others told me they weren’t sure whether removing it would even stop the hikers, or if they’d keep coming anyway. Now I suppose we’ll find out.
 
If there was ever a time to try to stem the flow of stranded hikers and helicopter rescue missions, it’s during this pandemic summer. Still, the news of the abrupt removal, 30 years after McCandless’ residency, caught me off guard. I’ve followed the saga of the bus for 13 years, the entire span of my writing career, and there’s something strange and bittersweet about knowing the story is over now. I’m not sad, exactly—my feeling has always been that there are better ways to enjoy Alaska’s endless wilderness, and to honor McCandless’ ideals, than to schlep down a boggy quad trail in the footsteps of hundreds of other hikers. And I’m keenly aware of the route’s dangers: in 2013, I watched three hikers get swept away, and one of them nearly drown, while attempting a crossing of the Teklanika.
 
And yet, and yet. I’m willing to bet that even some Alaskans, who’ve tended to view the bus and the hikers as a nuisance at best and an outright menace at worst, are feeling that strangeness. As Clay Walker, mayor of the Denali Borough, told Alaska Public Radio’s Nathaniel Herz, “I know it’s the right thing for public safety… At the same time, it’s always a little bittersweet when a piece of your history gets pulled out.”
 
The movie featured an exact replica of the original bus, and for what it’s worth, it still sits outside a brewery in Healy. You can stop by and raise a glass after you’ve hiked down some other trail.

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Correction:
An earlier version of this piece stated that McCandless occupied the bus in 1990. The year was 1992. We regret this error.

Lead Photo: Sgt. Seth LaCount/Alaska National Guard/Associated Press

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