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Out of the Wild

An Alaska Army National Guard helicopter prepared to hoist the bus from where it had been abandoned in the 1960s – Photo: Sgt. Seth Lacount/Alaska National Guard, via Associated Press

After about 60 years into the wild, “The Magic Bus” of Alexander Supertramp has been taken away forever. The 1940s-era Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142 was used by the Yutan Construction Company to provide remote accommodations for the crew that worked on road upgrades in 1960–1961, when it built an access road about 25 miles west of the Parks Highway, the main thoroughfare between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. Its engine was removed, so it was towed by Caterpillar D8 bulldozers and parked along the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park. It was originally one of a few buses and contained beds and a wood-burning stove. When the Stampede Mine ceased operations in the 1970s, all but this one bus were removed from the trail. Bus 142 had a broken rear axle, which caused the crew to leave it. It then served as a backcountry shelter for hunters, trappers, and visitors.

The bus gained notoriety in January 1993 when Outside magazine published an article written by Jon Krakauer titled Death of an Innocent describing the death of Christopher McCandless, a 24-year-old hitchhiker from Virginia, US, also known by the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp, who lived in the bus during the summer of 1992 while attempting to survive off the Alaskan wilderness only to die of starvation four months later, when he couldn’t hike back out because of the swollen Teklanika River. He kept a journal of his plight, discovered when his body was found. Death of an Innocent first became a real book in 1996, by John Krakauer, and then a movie, in 2007, by Sean Penn, both titled Into the Wild.

Self-portrait of Christopher McCandless on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death
Into the Wild movie poster (2007) – Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
Sean Penn and John Krakauer (2005)

“Seeing those photos of Fairbanks 142 flying out of the bush triggered a flood of complicated emotions for me,” Krakauer said in an email to the AP. He said he respects the decision to remove the bus, “but some powerful history is attached to that old bus. A great many people care deeply about what happens to it.”

“I was stunned when Commissioner Feige informed me,” Carine McCandless, Christopher’s sister, said in an email to The Associated Press. “Though I am saddened by the news, the decision was made with good intentions, and was certainly theirs to make. That bus didn’t belong to Chris and it doesn’t belong to his family.”

McCandless Family in the 1970s – Photo: Carine McCandless Family Collection

But at a time when personal freedom seems being put to a hard test, it is difficult to see this event as a simple move. Such a symbol, removed because became a danger, gives us food for thought and inevitably leaves a lot of questions about a world increasingly obsessed with pursuing its ambiguous sense of security.

“We encourage people to enjoy Alaska’s wild areas safely, and we understand the hold this bus has had on the popular imagination,” Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige said in a statement. “However, this is an abandoned and deteriorating vehicle that was requiring dangerous and costly rescue efforts. More importantly, it was costing some visitors their lives.”

On September 6, 1992, two moose hunters stumbled upon the bus 142. What was unusual about their discovery was the crumpled note taped to the door of the bus, which was handwritten on a piece of paper torn out of a book. When they entered the bus, they found the one who clearly wrote the note, but it was too late. Chris McCandless had been dead for the past 19 days – From Alva Yaffe/The Journaylist
Bus 142 in the snow – Photo: Jillian Rogers, via Associated Press
Into the Bus 142
Into the Bus 142
Into the Bus 142 – Photo: Richard Wagner (June 2009)
Stef was pondering what it would be like to be stranded in Alaska backcountry – Photo: Jonathan Irish (October 2016)
Into the Bus 142 – Photo: Daniel Köhler (August 2017)
Into the Wild – Photo: Travis (April 2006)
Claire Ackermann memorial – The same age as McCandless was when he died, a 24-year-old Swiss woman attempted the journey, only to drown while crossing the Teklanika River – From Alva Yaffe/The Journaylist

Over the years, several people making pilgrimages to the bus became injured or stranded. Two drowned in river crossings. In April a stranded Brazilian tourist was evacuated, and in February five Italian tourists were rescued. “For public safety, we know it’s the right thing,” Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker told Reuters. “At the same time, it is part of our history and it does feel a little bittersweet to see a piece of our history go down the road.”

The ultimate fate of the dilapidated bus is unknown. The Department of Natural Resources statement said it is being kept in a “secure location” pending a decision about its disposal.

Chris and Carine McCandless outside their Annandale, Virginia, home – Photo: Carine McCandless Family Collection
“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” – Chris McCandless Last Self-Portrait
Magic Bus Removal – Photo: Sgt. Seth Lacount/Alaska National Guard, via Associated Press
Magic Bus Removal – Photo: Sgt. Seth Lacount/Alaska National Guard, via Associated Press
Magic Bus Removal – Photo: Sgt. Seth Lacount/Alaska National Guard, via Associated Press
“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” – Chris McCandless Last Self-Portrait

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