- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

HEALY, Alaska | 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 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 Mr. 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 Mr. McCandless to the 1940s-era bus, used for decades as a shelter for hunters and other backcountry travelers.

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 Mr. McCandless from seeking help. Mr. 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,” Mr. Laugm an 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.

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.

This year, most of his guests are familiar with Mr. McCandless. Or rather, Mr. 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 Mr. McCandless.

“I can easily see where they’re coming from,” said Mr. Nierenberg, a musher and former backcountry ranger. “But I think they’re sort of idealizing an idea rather than a person.”

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