This chapter introduces one of the primary motifs of Into the Wild, that of documents. Because the book's subject, Christopher McCandless, has died before author Jon Krakauer can meet him, Krakauer must rely on the testimony of the people McCandless encountered in order to stitch together the story of the young man's journey — and especially on the documents McCandless left behind. The first of these documents is McCandless's S.O.S. note. Others will include his journals, the notes he made in the books he read, graffiti he scratched into various surfaces, and photos he took of himself. To these Krakauer will add maps of the places McCandless visited, relevant quotations from a wide variety of authors, and even a brief memoir of the author's own young manhood, inserted near the end of Into the Wild. All of these enrich our understanding of McCandless and help us to believe that the amazing story we read in Into the Wild really happened.
The fact that someone as articulate and effective at communicating as McCandless died alone, having written a kind of letter (the S.O.S. note) that went unread until it was too late, is an example of irony. Also ironic: McCandless, who encountered no one during the four months between his entrance into the bush and his death there of starvation, is discovered not by one fellow trekker but by five — all within days of McCandless's death.
This chapter begins to explore the character of Christopher McCandless in depth. Far from being a stereotypical slacker, he was hard-working, according to Wayne Westerberg. The fact that he had read the long and difficult War and Peace indicates that McCandless was intelligent and studious. (Indeed, we learn as well in this chapter that he was a success at selective Emory University.)
Most indicative of all with respect to McCandless's character are the things he renounced: $24,000 and his very name. In doing so, he seems to have been rejecting his family and what he saw as their materialistic values. This information doesn't fully explain why Christopher McCandless would forge alone into the Alaskan wilderness, but it begins to address the motivation for this bizarre act.
The fact that McCandless never told his parents what he planned to do could indicate a lack of resolve on his part, or even cowardice. It also shows that the young man thoughtful enough to present Wayne Westerberg with an inscribed copy of one of his favorite books was callous enough regarding his parents' feelings to leave them in the dark regarding their son's whereabouts.
Considering that he eventually would die of starvation, McCandless's gift of $24,000 to OXFAM, an organization dedicated to fighting hunger, is an example of irony.
This chapter unearths additional motivation for McCandless's irrational Alaska trek to come. During his time in Mexico, he lived on nothing more than "five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea," and Krakauer points out that this may have accounted for the young man's belief that he could live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. (Undeniably, McCandless proves himself remarkably capable in this chapter, canoeing through hundreds of miles of hostile landscape and even crossing an international border undetected.)
And yet other questions remain unanswered. His mother says that "Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run." She doesn't say why this is so, however.
The motif of friendship emerges further in these pages, as McCandless, who earlier struck up a friendship with Wayne Westerberg, befriends Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob. One of Into the Wild's many ironies: a young man compelled toward a solitary life, who eventually will die alone, was quite gregarious and made friends easily. Another irony: McCandless abandons a car, the only problem with which is a wet battery, and burns his cash — but...