Image: "Into the Wild" pilgrimages
Jillian Rogers  /  AP
The 1940s-era International Harvester bus near Healy, Alaska where Christopher McCandless's body was found in 1992.
updated 6/30/2008 6:41:54 PM ET 2008-06-30T22:41:54

Ron Alexander has long been intrigued with the true story of a young idealist who met his death in Alaska's unyielding wilderness in 1992.

The film adaptation of the book "Into the Wild" only cemented the mystique for Alexander and others heading to Alaska this summer, hoping to retrace the last steps of Christopher McCandless along the Stampede Road near Denali National Park.

Alexander and his fellow travelers want, in particular, to see the old abandoned bus where the 24-year-old Virginian starved to death after more than three months alone in the harsh landscape.

"That's sort of the heart of the story," said Alexander, 44, of Arlington, Va. "It's almost like a Jim Morrison grave site, where people just want to go see it."

This is exactly what residents in the interior town of Healy, 25 miles east of the bus, feared with the release last fall of the movie adapted from Jon Krakauer's best-seller of the same name.

They envisioned hordes of copycats making dangerous pilgrimages in the footsteps of a character often seen as a spiritual visionary rather than an ill-prepared misfit, as many Alaskans view McCandless.

People from all over the world have journeyed to the rusted bus over the years. But there are signs this could be a boom year for those captivated by a college graduate who turned his back on his wealthy family for his restless wanderings.

The local chamber of commerce has already received a few dozen e-mails from would-be visitors wanting to track the unmonitored route taken by McCandless to the 1940s-era bus, used for decades as a shelter for hunters and other backcountry travelers.

Slideshow: Amazing Alaska Former chamber president Neal Laugman warns visitors about a terrain — about 180 miles north of Anchorage — with no cell phone service, unpredictable weather, clouds of mosquitoes and the raging Teklanika River, whose swollen banks prevented McCandless from seeking help. Laugman has gotten replies from people who are determined to make it to the bus no matter what.

"I don't want people to go out there and die. It's that simple," Laugman said. "We won't know that they're there until it's too late."

The EarthSong Lodge is among the last developments along the Stampede Road, which eventually gives way to an old mining trail that traverses the Savage and Teklanika rivers, although the Teklanika is often too high and swift to cross.

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As the weather warms, lodge owner Jon Nierenberg sees hikers walking past the lodge every couple days, starting the 22-mile trek to the bus. Most of the travelers are young men.

Slideshow: Amazing Alaska This year, most of his guests are familiar with McCandless. Or rather, Nierenberg said, they're aware of a romanticized figure, a characterization not shared by many Alaskans or others.

Released about the same time as the big-budget movie was the independent documentary, "The Call of the Wild," in which filmmaker Ron Lamothe attempts to debunk what he calls lingering myths about McCandless.

"I don't look at them as nut jobs," said Nierenberg, a musher and former backcountry ranger. "I can easily see where they're coming from. But I think they're sort of idealizing an idea rather than a person."

Alexander, who plans to make the trek with a friend or two in late August, considers himself a bit of a wanderer with a passion for the untamed West. Leaving his urban surroundings as much as possible is crucial for him, said Alexander, a salesman for a Washington, D.C., documentary production company.

Alexander said he'll be much better prepared than McCandless and will visit other parts of Alaska not connected to the doomed young man.

"We're not coming up just to do this little pilgrimage," he said. "This is one little element. We're not completely nuts."

Ridership is significantly higher in the "backcountry safari" offered by Alaska Travel Adventures, which this summer is noting the "Into the Wild" connection.

Also up are the backpackers tramping past a cooking camp where safari riders stop for a wilderness meal, said manager Nick Prosser. Many hikers heading back are dehydrated, blistered and "pretty beat," he said.

Prosser, who has read "Into the Wild" and seen the movie, plans to hike out to the bus himself before he heads back home to Celina, Texas, at the end of his seasonal job.

"I just would like to go for the adventure," he said. "I'm up here. I might as well go."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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