Chicago. Union Station. I’m following an Amish family complete with grandparents and about eleventeen perfectly-behaved and adorably-suspendered children down the steamy platform to board Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I’ve opted to take the train instead of my usual flight to Seattle this summer, and I’m psyched. I settle into my little compartment, feeling very Hogwartsian, and crack open a fresh crossword puzzle book. The trolley witch, er… car attendant, comes by to say hello and explain dinner and bathrooms and stops, and then it’s quiet save the clickety-clack (yes, honestly—that’s a cliché for a reason) of the tracks and the occasional announcement of “next stop, Minneapolis-St. Paul.”
I was drawn to the train because I’ve never been out West. I went to Wisconsin once. I did a high school mission trip in Texas—more south than west. I was itching to see that fabled big sky and the mountain passes I’d so far only experienced from behind two yoke of oxen pulling my pixilated Conestoga wagon along the Oregon Trail. Amtrak advertises its trips as a way to see the country from less than 40,000 feet and without the stress of driving or the monotony of interstates. It’s a claim they make good on.
Who knew, for instance, that grass can be about seventeen colors of green? And that it’d be interesting to watch it pass, interrupted only by small train stations or a few miles of bluffs, for the entire state of North Dakota? What is that grass for, exactly? It’s fenced off, like farmland, but it’s no crop I recognize. What’s the point? How, how does the sky actually look bigger in Montana? Is it just a self-fulfilling prophecy? And did you know that dogs are actually used to herd cattle? I’ve seen it! The dog was so happy. The cattle were so large. The sky was so wide and so tall.
I though I was very clever with my choice of reading material for the trip. I was planning to teach Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction classic Into the Wild to my eleventh and twelfth graders this school year, and I figured there’d be no better place to reread it than speeding (or… meandering—a forty-six-hour trip isn’t what most would call speedy) through the very Dakotan and Montanan plains his subject, Christopher McCandless, explored in the nineties.
I’ve always loved the Into the Wild story. I’m not alone—Krakauer’s original article in Outside magazine and his subsequent book-length investigation have spurred a movie spin-off, dozens of articles and editorials, and two books by members of McCandless’s family. There’s something about Chris that inspires people. He was a smart kid, and an adventurous one, and one who thought deeply about a lot of things we all wonder about, especially the dichotomy of being an individual in a society where relationships are valued and almost unavoidable.
Despite being so drawn to the story, though, I’ve always felt like an imposter in the fandom. Adventure is not my thing. I’ve never quite understood the call of the West, a siren song so strong that some will risk—and lose—their lives to follow it. What is it about adventure that so completely overtakes people? And, the real question: what am I missing if that wanderlust doesn’t take me?
“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure,” Chris McCandless wrote in a letter to a friend he met on the road. “The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
I can’t imagine waking to a new horizon each day. I’d rather wake to habit and tradition and plans. It’s taken me a while to love that part of myself because it’s so much hipper and sexier to be always on the go, always looking for the next great adventure, always pushing West. And for a few hours on the train, I got it. I saw the wild. A storm rolling across the Montana plains. Crossing bridges over gushing rivers surrounded by sheer rock faces in Glacier National Park. Following the shore of Puget Sound. I understood Muir and Thoreau and Roosevelt and Stegner and McCarthy and McCandless and every REI-clad twenty-something looking for his moment of peace. The idea of a great, unexplored frontier may be gone, but the West still offers something unknown. But as I got closer to Seattle and the landscape got arguably more beautiful, my mind started to wander.
Chris McCandless went West for a lot of reasons. Partly to escape a suffocating family, partly to reject a world he found consumerist and shallow, partly to test his mettle as an individual, a mere mortal, against the power of nature. But in his last days, stranded and starving in an old city bus in the Alaskan wilderness, he seemed to make a realization. “Happiness not real unless shared,” he scribbled in the margin of a novel.
And as I neared Seattle, the call of the West didn’t seem so powerful anymore. Sure, it was beautiful. Sure, adventure awaited beyond every tree line. But what was waiting for me in the city—real happiness, the fuel for my brand of wanderlust—was so much better.