Into the Bathroom

I can distinctly remember moments as a child when I wanted to “run away”. Although I never actually mustered up enough bravery to pack up my bandana sack and hit the road, I once tricked my parents into thinking their Lukie Pookie had run away. I couldn’t have been much older then six. I had gotten in trouble at school for calling a girl a bad name, but it wasn’t my fault because girls had coodies and all. My parents were going to make me to call Elle Oats, the girl I had upset, and tell her I was sorry. I refused to call, and when my parents said I couldn’t leave my room until I called I proudly declared, “I’m running away!” It was more of a symbolic endeavor. I wanted to prove to my parents that I was my own boss. I can’t say that I enjoyed the time hiding in between the toilet and the bathroom wall but I remember it feeling quite exhilarating. There I was, a young boy, no, a young man, fleeing from his tortuous life and scaling the walls of the high security penitentiary also know as his bedroom, only to see refuge in a bathroom down the hall. After a three-hour stand I eventually emerged from hiding, crying and hungry, realizing that home wasn’t so bad after all. I’ve never run away since.
I used to think that the idea of running away was childish. However it has since occurred to me that “grown-up’s” run away too, and sometimes for the same reasons. Just like I wanted to prove a point to my parents, people who run away often wish to prove a point to society, or even themselves. Often times this occurs when people run away from society and civilized life and attempt to “survive” in nature. This attempt at survival is one of the purest forms of challenge a human can pursue.
John Krakauer’s Into The Wild tells the real life story of Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless, who after graduating from Emory University decided to give away his life savings, become vagabond, and venture “into the wild”. His travels would take him through California, Arizona, South Dakota, and Alaska, where he would eventually die trying to live in the wilderness of Denali National Park. Although some people think that McCandless went “into the wild” in order to flee from society and normal life, most argue that McCandless was drawn to the challenge of surviving in nature. Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian believes that McCandless’s demise in Denali was all too predictable. He writes,
“I am exposed continually to what I will call the ‘McCandless Phenomenon.’ People, nearly always-young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent. When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.”
The “McCandless syndrome”, as he calls it, is a perfect example of nature being viewed as a challenge. When McCandless walked into Denali it was just McCandless vs. Denali.
The Alaskan wilderness is no place for the feeble. Out there you can’t go to the grocery store and pick up some dinner when you get hungry. Things can easily turn into a nightmare out in the wilderness, what’s worse is that you can’t just wake up. Just like Christian said, “possibility of rescue is nonexistent.” Perhaps this challenge was what McCandless was seeking when he decided to “survive” Denali.
McCandless is not the only man to every seek challenge in nature. Over 2,700 people have attempted to reach the summit of Mt Everest, the pinnacle of the world. Only about 660 have successfully reached the peak. Since the first climb by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, 210 people have perished trying to climb the mountain. I’ve always wondered why anyone would want to climb up to an elevation of 29,029 where no creatures can sustain life. What is there to gain in climbing Everest anyway? Bragging rights? There is no grand prize awarded to summiteers, unless you are Edmund Hillary, who was rewarded with the title Sir Edmund Hillary. Or maybe its knowing that you did something most people would never dream of doing. Climbing Mt. Everest must make you feel a sort of invincibility. When Edmund Hillary conquered Everest he became a Sir to the public but a King to himself. Could McCandless too have desired this self-worth, and looked to the conquest of Denali to provide him with inner-dignity?
Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man also seemed to have something to prove to the world, and quite possibly himself. Treadwell’s motifs for venturing into nature and living with the brown bears were very different then McCandless’s reasons for living in Denali. Treadwell, a self proclaimed “eco-warrior” and bear enthusiast, spent thirteen summers living with grizzly bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska. During this time he recorded over 100 hours of film and amassed a large collection of photographs of the bears. Treadwell claimed to be “protecting” the bears and studying them, however the Alaskan park service repeatedly had grievances with Treadwell and claim that he continually broke laws about interaction with the bears that were originally designed to protect the bears. On his thirteenth expedition Treadwell, and his girl friend that was with him on the expedition, were killed and eaten by one or two bears. Treadwell’s story and parts of the tapes he recorded were turned into the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man.
“I beat your fucking ass’s! I protected the animals! Fuck you park service. I did it! Animals rule, Timothy conquered!” Just like McCandless may have wanted to conquer, Treadwell too mentions conquering when speaking to his own camera at the end of expedition 2001. However he sees his conquest as his “victory” over society and the park service rather then over nature. Treadwell essentially considers himself one with nature. As we have learned from his footage of his time spent with the bears he placed anthropomorphic values on the bears and interacted with them as if he too was an animal. In his film he repeatedly states the confidence he has that the bears wont attack him saying, “They wouldn’t hurt me.” yet ironically it would be a bear that would claim his life. His humanization of the animals raises questions of why he really came the Katmai National Park. Treadwell claimed he was there to protect the bears and to study them. However Herzog points out that Treadwell first got involved with bears when he almost died form near heroin overdose. According to friends of Treadwell, the bears were like a coping mechanism for Treadwell, as the relationships he formed with them helped him to get over his drug addiction. This is not to say that Treadwell was “using” the bears selfishly or in a wrong way, but rather to suggest that maybe he was fleeing from his troubled life in society and taking refuge in nature, rather then leaving his home and coming into the wild to protect the helpless bears. For Treadwell nature offers refuge. However, ironically this refuge would eventually take Treadwell’s life.
If there’s one quick lesson to learn from McCandless and Treadwell its, “don’t be stupid and try to survive in nature, because humans cant do it.” Maybe this is true and maybe humans are indeed not able to “conquer” the wild. Or perhaps it is not important. I can’t help but question whether McCandless and Treadwell’s deaths were actually tragedies. Something tells me that both would almost have wished for their ends. McCandless had left life as a regular man in search of a greater challenge. What he found in the Alaskan wilderness was the ultimate one. Without his death his journey would almost seem incomplete. As for Treadwell he may have wished to perish like he did even more so then McCandless. In fact some even go so far as to say that he tried to get himself eaten. I believe rather that his death was an accident but what he would have wished to happen. Treadwell wanted to believe that he was as much of an animal as any of the bear he was “friends” with. And death by bear is maybe one of the most natural ways to die.
I find myself somewhat fascinated and intrigued by people’s attempts to run away and “survive” in nature. I’m not sure if what I did as a kid would even qualify as running away, let alone running away to nature. Into The Bathroom would have to be the title of my book. Yet it seems that everyone at some point in their lifetime has an urge to run away or escape. For Treadwell and McCandless nature offers a desirable challenge or refuge that life in society cannot.


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