"We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of our exploring
will be to arrive where we started...
and know the place for the first time."
Sometimes in life, you just have to make things happen. If we wait too long, opportunities can pass us by. Chris McCandless did not wait for life to start happening to him, and the life he chose to lead has touched me as an artist and a person very profoundly. I needed to visit the place that he spent the four pivotal and final months of his life. I am planning on doing a series of paintings about Chris and I knew that this place would offer insight that nowhere else could. I needed to go to bus 142 as sure as I need to stretch my limbs every morning.
The road sign indicating the turn off to Stampede Road on the George Parks Highway.
Less than 24 hours after I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska I was hurtling down the George Parks Highway towards a very important turn-off, Stampede Road. This is the road and trail that Chris followed as he began the final stage of his two year odyssey that spanned the continent and ended tragically with his death in the wilderness of Alaska in 1992.
Once my friend Ed offered to accompany me on my pilgrimage to Fairbanks Bus 142 on the Stampede Trail I booked my ticket right away. With Ed's company and companionship I knew the adventure could begin in earnest.
It is 20 miles give or take to get to the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail from the George Parks Highway. Ed and I decided to start out on mountain bikes to shave off a little bit of time. We encountered so much water on the trail though that we ended up walking the bikes for much of the four miles or so that we covered with them. It seemed as though the stream was trying to spite us as so much of the trail was immersed in water!
A typical stretch of the Stampede "Creek" as I renamed it jokingly.
We met two men returning from a failed attempt to reach the bus. They had managed to swim across the swiftly moving Savage River (chest high) but had turned back when they reached the much larger Teklanika River. We informed them that we had a raft to negotiate the waters to which they looked a little surprised. We parted and continued along the trail until we reached the Savage River, the first of two river crossings on the trail. The water was icy cold due to being a glacial river and was steely grey and opaque with silt. It is hard to tell the depth of rivers such as those. We forded the river with Ed's handy Alpacka raft. A short but exiciting crossing! We covered the two miles between the Savage river and Teklanika quickly.
The trail was nice and flat between the two rivers with an old airstrip running parallel to the trail. The clouds were low and the quiet of the brush was intense. This quietness was palpable as I remarked on it to Ed when we first set out on the trail. I had never experienced such absence of sound. It was all around us, pervasive, haunting almost. As we walked down the trail I continually imagined Chris as he walked this same path 16 years before. I imagined the joy in his heart at finally being where he wanted to be, alone, under his own steam, venturing into the unknown.
Ed heading down the trail towards the Teklanika River.
The Teklanika River has been looming in my mind ever since arranging this trip. It is the glacial river that trapped Chris back in the summer of 1992 and I was not looking forward to crossing its fast-moving waters. Little did Chris know that when he crossed the languidly moving, partially frozen river back in April of 1992 that it would have swollen to a raging torrent not four months later. Ed's calm demeanor partially allayed my concern as we inflated the trusty Alpacka. He looked like he was having fun fording the river with our packs! Within 15 minutes our packs, ourselves and the raft were safely on the far side of the Teklanika. Now there were only 9 miles between us and the bus.
The formidable Teklanika River
Ed crossing the Tek
We made quick time covering the final leg of the trek to Fairbanks Bus 142. It seemed that the bus might be around every corner, just beyond every bend in the trail. At one point, an hour or so before we finally made it to the bus a helicopter passed overhead. When we reached the bus there was an entry in the journal in the bus from a man and woman who had visited just before we arrived, the pair who had chartered the helicopter.
The scenery between the Teklanika and the bus was beautiful. The trail ranged from quite overgrown and tangled to open and airy. We saw one fresh bear print and we were careful to periodically yell out to alert any bears in the area and reduce the chance of a nasty encounter.
The distant mountains and low clouds were quite lovely. We saw one caribou off in the distance but relatively little wildlife on the trek in to the bus.
I love this view of the trail as it dips down a bit. The bus was only about a couple of miles beyond this point.
And then, almost surprising us, Fairbanks Bus 142 came into view. Thousands of kilometres by plane, 9 hours by foot and bike and two river crossings later we had reached it. It was quite surreal to be there as the sun started to dip down towards the horizon.
Fading light in the clearing by the bus, August 18, 2008
I had heard that there had been some vandalism done to the bus a few months ago. Despite this knowledge the sight of the bus and its contents dismayed us greatly. Things were everywhere; old shoes that were not Chris', a broken tent and backpack (also not Chris') and garbage everywhere was what greeted us as we stepped inside. We were tired and needed to get our camp set up so we decided to return to the bus the following day to clean up properly.
This is the how the bus looked when we first stepped inside.
We moved a short distance down the trail beyond the bus to a gravel bar where the Sushana River intersects with two other streams. It is a lovely spot, a place that I really connected with, especially with the bus being in such a gloomy state upon our arrival. We set up our camp and realized that we were in for a beautiful sunset. I thought about Chris and how many beautiful sunsets he might have seen. I thought about how he must have spent a good deal of time on and around the gravel bar, washing, gathering wood, hunting and collecting berries. We also wanted to be a distance away from the bus in case others showed up. We didn't want to be in anyone's way. No one ended up appearing. In fact, we encountered no one else at the bus in our entire time there (just less than 24 hours).
Sunlight on a rock face by the gravel bar.
Before the sun disappeared I wanted to do something special. I wanted to collect some blueberries and leave them in the bus in honor of Chris. "Beautiful blueberries" was the last thing that Chris ever wrote in his journal before he passed away on August 18,1992, 16 years earlier. Blueberries were all over the place and I collected some from the bushes that Chris likely also harvested them from too. It was something I will never forget, visiting the bus in the waning light and leaving them there with a little note.
"Beautiful blueberries for Chris"
Having meandered back down to camp where Ed was getting a fire going we settled in and watched the magnificent sunset as the clock rounded 11pm. The gravel bar had a nice supply of wood for a fire and smooth stones so the sleeping was relatively comfortable with our sleeping pads. We found a wolf print in the sand nearby and saw a huge raven but fortunately no bears. As we drifted off I continued to think about where I was and the small pocket of pivotal time that Chris spent in this place so many years before, yet it seemed like only yesterday to me.
Our campfire on the gravel bar just down the trail from Bus 142.
The next morning we got up, had breakfast (oatmeal with some of the wild blueberries growing all around the area) and made our way up to the bus to clean up a bit.
Another view of the gravel bar in the morning. It was a perfect spot to camp.
Many of the windows in the bus have been broken. I would say about half of them are badly damaged. There was glass everywhere. Ed fashioned a make-shift broom out of a spruce bow and it was very effective in sweeping the majority of the dirt and debris out of the bus. We shook the rug out and cleaned the glass off of the mattress at the back, removed trash and placed it behind the bus as neatly as possible and just tried to make it more presentable. We were contemplating burning some trash but decided against it because we were not staying long enough to monitor the fire.
The blue suitcase that Chris' parents brought to the bus in 1993 is still there. Chris' bible from when he was a little boy, along with quite a few journals are also there. Ed and I signed the most recent journal and rewrote a faded note outlining housecleaning tips and suggestions for maintaining a bit of order in the bus. We left this in a plastic sleeve for others to hopefully read while visiting.
Ed tackles the chaos.
The bus post clean-up.
I was pleased to see some of Chris' things still in the bus. Long gone are his shoes and many of his possessions but I did manage to find his spoon from his childhood home, a water bottle and some pots that he used to eat with as well. After we had tidied as much as we could inside and out we took a few shots to remember our time there.
Here is a view of the stream that runs next to the bus that meets up with the Sushana River up at the gravel bar.
The aspens were rustling all the time, the sun was shining and we had lighter hearts at the end of our time there with things looking a bit less disorderly. We packed up the camp and our gear and prepared to head out but I took a few extra minutes to contemplate Chris; the earnest and eager young man with a touch of wilderness in his soul who found this bus at the end of the road he followed for two meandering years. As Thoreau wisely opined "It is life near the bone where it is sweetest" and I believe that Chris knew this for certain.
We head back down the trail towards the Teklanika River, and home.
We made good time on the way back. Our camp was set up just west of the Teklanika so that the rest of the hike out would be shorter the following day. Along the trail we met Wes and Oliver, two young guys on their way to the bus to pay their respects to Chris' memory as well. We chatted with them at their camp in the middle of the Trail for awhile. Turns out they braved the steely cold waters of the Tek where it braided in four sections. Apparently this crossing point is about a mile downstream. I didn't see where they crossed but I am quite impressed that they managed to do that given the speed and frigid temperatures of the relentless Tek. We camped on another gravel bar that night and awoke to yet another gorgeous August day on the trail.
It was a crisp, cool night by the Tek. The river sounded just as cold as it was.
This is the view I want to see every morning.
As Ed ferried us across the Tek I took this mid-crossing shot, hence the odd angle.
This is the view I want to see every morning.
As Ed ferried us across the Tek I took this mid-crossing shot, hence the odd angle.
We continued on and crossed the Savage River with no problem and retrieved our bikes where we had left them in the brush by the side of the trail. Much of the trail near the truck was uphill so that made for an interesting ride. A couple of miles from the truck we spotted another helicopter beelining straight for the bus. It turns out that was the two men we crossed paths with on our way in to the bus two days before. Evidently they had chartered a chopper to get them out there. Wes and Oliver, the nice guys by the Tek ran into them at the bus. The number of resolute people determined to get to the bus was evident just from this short period of time that Ed and I were on the trail.
Throughout the entire duration of the trek in to the bus and back out I continually thought about Chris and what he must have been thinking and experiencing all of those years previously as he made his way out along the broken line of the Stampede Trail. Granted it would have been very cold and snowy when he went into the bush, conditions would have been similar to ours when he tried to leave. My heart was heavy after we successfully crossed the Teklanika and continued on along the trail. Chris tried to leave but couldn't, the Tek stood in his way and prevented him from continuing his journey, wherever that might have lead him. We can only speculate about what he might have done following his "Final And Greatest Adventure". Tragically, we will never know.
"Bus 142", 2008, oil on panel, 30"x 24"
"Diary Of A Supertramp (study)", oil on panel, 8"x10" This is a small study for a larger painting that I will complete of Chris' entire belt that chronicles his many adventures.
Fairbanks Bus 142 has become a memorial to Chris' life and tragic death in the quiet beauty of that little pocket of wilderness near Denali National Park. And though Chris may be gone his memory and his influence continue to affect countless people to this day. Clearly he had an indomitable spirit that was beyond compare. I can only hope to infuse a little bit of the energy that I felt on the trail into my paintings about him. Hopefully others respect the bus and its history when they visit and try to preserve it for as long as possible. I will write another post soon about a second trip that I made to the bus the following week.
UPDATE, April 2010: I am co-producing a book of Chris's photographs and my paintings that I have done based on his photographs. This book will be published within the next year. It is very exciting! These photographs are a collection of images taken from over 300 pictures that Chris took on his terminal odyssey from 1990-1992. I am helping to produce this book in conjunction with Walt and Billie, Chris's parents, as well as a small group of devoted creatives and friends. From the first time that I laid eyes on these images, I knew there was a story there that had to be told: Chris's story through his own eyes. I will post updates regarding the book as I find out further details! Thank-you for taking the time to read my blog here and have a beautiful, magical day...
"Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it." ~Buddha