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The tragic allure of Alaska’s ‘Into the Wild’ bus

Fairbanks Bus 142. Probably you’ve read about it, seen its replica on a movie screen, or recognize one of its headier nicknames.

The Magic Bus.

The “Into the Wild” Bus.

Or just The Bus.

Until recently, the iconic green and white-roofed 1940s-era International Harvester sat parked in a woodsy clearing beside a riverbank, moldering in a remote patch of Alaskan outback like the result of a severely wrong turn.

There it sat for nearly 60 years — the most unlikely retired public transportation vehicle in The Last Frontier state to attract a single stray passenger — let alone find literary and movie fame, a residual stream of worldwide visitors, dedicated Facebook groups and bona fide monument status.

Hauled into the wilderness by a construction company in the early 1960s as a backcountry shelter during a short-lived road project along the area’s Stampede Trail, the bus would soon be abandoned and forgotten on the far side of a boggy, river-soaked parcel of public wildland attracting mainly moose and local hunters just outside of Denali National Park, about 30 miles from the nearest real road of any sort.

The closest town, Healy, was 25 miles from the bus — as the eagle flies. Presumably, this leafy clearing in the middle of nowhere would be Bus 142’s final stop.

The bus takes an unlikely turn

That’s where the bus sat in the spring of 1992 when 24-year-old nomadic free-spirit Christopher McCandless stumbled upon it while heading solo into the Alaskan wilderness along the wet, rugged Stampede Trail, equipped with a sack of rice, a Remington rifle, a pile of books and a non-conformist’s thirst for freedom and adventure.

Sheltering inside the bus, McCandless would live off the land, pen his thoughts, and amazingly survive alone in the wild for nearly four months before getting stranded by an impassable river, falling ill and dying, likely of starvation, inside the bus later that summer.

That’s where the bus sat in 1996, when Jon Krakauer’s bestselling chronicle “Into the Wild” would meticulously trace McCandless’ two-year, wayward journey of self-discovery across the country to its tragic, untimely end.

That’s where the bus sat in 2007 upon the release of a long-in-coming movie adaptation, captivating an even wider audience — including at least two dedicated Facebook groups, now with thousands of members.

That’s where the bus would soon be receiving hundreds of annual pilgrims from all over the globe, plodding through miles of mucky trail, fording glacial rivers, and wading through waist-high beaver ponds to pay homage to the bus’s legendized late inhabitant and follow his footsteps.

Visitors would routinely get into trouble out there — stuck, cold, injured or worse. Last year, a hiker to the bus drowned while attempting to cross the fast, frigid Teklanika River, thundering across the Stampede Trail between civilization and the bus. Another hiker died trying to cross the river in 2010.

That’s where the bus remained until being abruptly airlifted out by a National Guard Chinook helicopter on June 18 and transported to a secure location. Long considered a dangerous draw, the bus would be removed in coordination with the Department of Natural Resources in the interest of public safety.

Fairbanks bus 142 is now gone.

The bus has disappeared but its mystique lives on

Lingering views about what drew so many people to its rusty hull (danger aside) should remain indefinitely.

“I think it became its own pilgrimage of sorts with obvious ties to McCandless and what he was seeking — and perhaps more broadly the whole idea of finding oneself in the wilderness,” says Paul Twardock, professor of Outdoor Studies at Alaska Pacific University, who has led undergrads to the bus.

“There’s definitely something about that spot which resonates with young people in particular,” adds Twardock. “Visiting the bus probably helped them connect those resonating abstract themes and ideas from ‘Into the Wild’ into something tangible and concrete.”

Another attraction to the site may simply be the challenge of reaching it.

“It’s not exactly like visiting your average monument,” says Twardock. “It’s Alaska. It’s big, remote and potentially hazardous. It’s way out there in an area where a little mistake can be a big deal. All of that can feel rewarding if and when you arrive at the bus.”

A nearly 20-mile hike from an unmarked trailhead through mixed muskeg and spruce forest with dicey river crossings and chance meetings with moose and brown bear at any moment, the flat Stampede Trail journey to the bus looks far friendlier on a map.

“I’d heard it could be dangerous, especially going alone,” says Vermont-based adventurer Eddie Habeck, who immersed himself in research and preparation before flying across the country to meet the bus eight years ago. “But I love challenges, I’ve always been fascinated by Alaska, and when it clicked that this is where ‘Into the Wild’ happened it made me want to do it even more.

“I read the book, read blogs, poured over YouTube videos, studied the trip from every angle before deciding to make an attempt to hike out there and experience it for real. I was definitely overprepared.”

Pushing through hell and high water

Overpreparation turned out to be a good thing, especially when encountering the journey’s albatross, the Teklanika River, which pounds across the Stampede Trail and can balloon to impassable levels within hours during warmer months.

It’s the river that Krakauer describes in “Into the Wild” as McCandless’s “Rubicon” — preventing him from returning along the route he’d easily entered from earlier in the spring.

Reaching the bus after a smooth river fording and swift six-and-a-half-hour hike in, Habeck was struck by one thing when he entered the woodsy clearing and spied the famed bus.

“It was the incredible quiet of the place that got me,” he says. “That’s what still sticks in my mind the most to this day after all the prep work, flying across the country, hiking 18 and a half soaking miles, pushing through a scary river and entering this little clearing.”

All grit and tranquility aside, what was the real draw of pushing through hell and high water to this place?

“Some of us have this dream of what it would be like to just completely remove ourselves from society because it seems so appealing, maybe even romantic, and to be freed from all the usual constraints of normal life,” explains Habeck, who would sleep in the bus that night.

“I think a lot of the people who gravitate to this story and this place are probably trying to grab just a little piece of that.”

A few hours after arriving at the bus, Habeck’s peaceful silence was broken by an off-road vehicle screeching into the clearing from out of nowhere. For a moment, he was nervous, wondering if a bad B-movie scene had just arrived. Then the stranger introduced himself in cordial Alaskan form.

“Hey, I’m Dusty. Wanna beer?”

Eight years later, Habeck and Dusty remain friends to this day.

‘It would’ve been horrible to die on my first day of marriage’

“Happiness is only real when shared.” It’s perhaps Christopher McCandless’ most famous line among myriad musings in his journals. Paradoxically, it’s scrawled all over the interior of the bus by visitors in the very spot where the lone wanderer spent his final months in stark solitude.

“It’s my favorite quote of his,” says Habeck, “And he’s right.”

Habeck found his solo trek to the bus so impactful that he would return to the Stampede Trail two years later to share the happy experience with his wife on their honeymoon. They got as far as the Teklanika River.

“We were about 10 miles along the trail and the Tek was just raging,” recalls Habeck, who linked arms with his bride and got a third of the way across before deciding to turn back. “The river was just too powerful. It would’ve been horrible to die on my first day of marriage.”

An even gutsier unofficial route to the bus was recently braved by 22-year-old Alaskan Ian Borowski and his friend Shane — the two of them approaching from Denali National Park, hiking over a mountain pass, and paddling 10 turbulent miles along the Teklanika River on teensy portable rafts before hoofing another eight miles along the Stampede Trail to Bus 142 — just days before it was unexpectedly airlifted out.

“Denali National Park is usually closed to drivers, but with the coronavirus there’s just about no tourists up there so they decided to let people drive in,” says Borowski. “We kind of saw that as a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this packrafting adventure and make our way to the bus. I had no idea it would be gone a little over a week later.”

Given the water levels, Borowski is pretty sure that they were the last two visitors to Bus 142.

His short YouTube video of the whole experience quotes the words of Christopher McCandless as a guiding principle behind the trip: “The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.”

“Those ideals are something I find true to myself as well,” Borowski narrates in his video. “And I think those ideals are why so many people relate to Chris and why this story has spread far and wide.”

Rescues ‘can be really taxing on us’

Others, including many locals, see it differently.

“My personal opinion is that it’s probably a good thing the bus is gone now, even if it doesn’t stop everyone from going out there,” says BJ Keith, a Healy-based outdoorsman who has led individuals to the site over the years, including “Into the Wild” actor Emile Hirsch during the movie production.

“I understand the draw to go out into the wild and whatnot, but that stuff can easily get romanticized by folks who don’t really get the realities out there,” Keith said.

“I’ve certainly pulled a lot of folks out from along that trail,” says another Healy local, a hunter and outdoorsman who didn’t want his name published. “Mainly people from out of state who read the book or saw the movie and want to go out there and feel the experience or whatever without having any clue what they’re actually getting themselves into. In my opinion, I don’t know why they made such a big deal about that whole story. It’s just never made any sense to me.”

Official rescues along the Stampede Trail are coordinated, performed and tallied by Alaska State Troopers. Most years see at least a few helicopter evacuations. The bulk of unofficial rescues that don’t go reported or require air evacuation are handled independently by the surrounding local community, faced with finding and pulling hikers out themselves on the ground when they get the call.

“That’s the majority of search and rescues out there and it can be really taxing on us,” says Brad Randall, chief of Healy-based Tri-Valley Fire Department. “I get people’s fascination with the book and the movie, and how it was portrayed and interpreted — I mean, it is what it is — but individuals who need to retrace the footsteps that Chris went through should know the real risks and responsibilities put on others when they suddenly find themselves cold, hungry, injured, stuck and totally unprepared out there.”

Visitors can still get a taste of the ‘Into the Wild’ experience

Visits to the now bus-less site are currently hampered by dangerously high river levels and very low summer tourism in the area and neighboring Denali National Park due to the coronavirus.

Travelers and “Into the Wild” enthusiasts still drawn to experience at least part of the route in a few risk-free hours without getting their feet wet can opt for a half-day tour with a local outfitter.

“It’s still interesting for people, including those who aren’t big hikers, to experience part of the Stampede Trail, hear about its full history and get a sense of Chris’ journey and the way he walked in,” says Jordan Heckley, founder of Healy-based Stampede Excursions, which runs trips on all-terrain army utility vehicles along the path’s first five miles from the trailhead to the Savage River.

“I personally think that it’s too bad the bus was simply removed like that without any real discussion or open debate, aside from one borough-level public hearing that no one really knew about,” Heckley adds. “At the end of the day, it’s part of our history, thousands of people reached it safely and got so much out of it. In that sense, I think it’s a loss.”

Heckley hopes the bus will eventually reappear somewhere.

“Maybe as a museum exhibit,” he says. “I think people should still have an opportunity to see it and appreciate whatever it represents to them.”

In the meantime, visitors to the area can pay semi-homage to Bus 142 by climbing aboard its almost-famous replica parked beside some pine trees outside Healy’s 49th State Brewing Company — where the fabled vehicle’s “Into the Wild” movie stand-in remains safely parked.

At least for the indefinite future.

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