The Magic Bus Phenomenon
The “Magic Bus” has been a destination of pilgrimage for many years. Especially since the release of Sean Penn’s award-winning movie Into the Wild in 2007 (an adaption of John Krakauer’s book by the same name), the tragic story of Christopher McCandless has touched the hearts of thousands of people from all over the world. This is the story of how I found myself seeking shelter in Bus 142 over twenty years after McCandless had died of starvation in the very same place.
I have been affected by the adventures of Christoper McCandless for about seven years now. When I first saw the movie at the cinema, I had been blown away from the very beginning. The same night I had borrowed Krakauer’s book from my father and read it in one piece. While I was reading it, I had started to download the movie onto my computer and by the time I had finished reading the book (I hadn’t slept the whole night), I had watched the movie a second time. Like many other backpackers, I had brought the movie along with me on my previous travels like a faithful hiker would bring his holy bible onto the Camino de Santiago. I had tried to spread the story by showing the movie to everyone I knew. I had countlessly listened to Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack without getting sick of it. Like John Krakauer, I had always compared myself to Chris and even if I’m not nearly as extreme as he was, I had always found a lot of similarities.
Even though my own travel plans (to spend a year abroad in Australia after finishing school) had formed already before I knew the story of McCandless, it had been in the back of my head from the beginning of the trip until today. While Australia had been my own big dream since early childhood, my “Into the Wild-Craziness” had unquestionably pushed me towards Alaska this time. I never saw myself as a fanatic though and it didn’t even occur to me to hike to the bus until not very long ago. Actually I had never even known about the possibility to do so. But when I heard that people where doing it, I was very happy to add this as a definite destination to my Alaska list. Even more than that, it was really the only specific destination on that list.
After I got some experience on my three-day hike in the Kluane National Park in Canada, I knew I could do the bus hike physically. I never questioned my ability to do it mentally. I bought some new equipment in Fairbanks and prepared myself for the trip mostly by reading everything I could find about it. After a few days in Fairbanks I felt the need to finally drive down to Healy and get to the beginning of the Stampede Trail.
But how did the bus even get there?
The Stampede Trail came to be in the 1930s when the miner Earl Pilgrim (what an interesting last name) used it to access his antimony claims on Stampede Creek. Later in 1961 the Yutan Construction Company tried to upgrade the trail, so trucks could be hauling ore from the mines back to the railroad. The project was halted shortly after, before any bridges where built. The company used buses to transport workers from Fairbanks to the work sites these days. A man named Jess Mariner, who was a heavy-duty mechanic employed with Yutan Construction during the 1960s and 1970s, had bought two buses from the City of Fairbanks to use as mobile homes while working out in the country. The engine of bus 142 had been removed and so it was pulled by D8 Cats when moved from camp to camp. At some point the axle of bus 142 broke and it was left on the trail to serve as shelter for hunters and trappers in the following years. The trail and the bus finally got famous when the body of Christopher McCandless was found inside the bus on the 9th of September 1992. He had tried to survive in the bus and live off the land before he died of starvation after about four month “in the wild”. The exact cause of death is still debated by many people today.
When I got to the trail myself, the conditions couldn’t have been worse. At least that’s what I thought. It was the end of August and the weather was turning colder. It had been raining all day and the forecast for the week even showed some snowfall. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to cross the Teklanika River, which had been the reason for McCandless to turn around and go back when he tried to get out after three month in the bus. I didn’t know what to expect from that river and I guess you never really can before you see the current situation. But a lot of people had told me, that the level of the river was quite high at that time. I had seen videos of people getting washed away on their four wheelers and only a few years ago a young woman had died while crossing the river.
To say the least, I was doubtful!
On the trailhead, or the place where regular vehicles can’t endure, I bump into Martijn from the Netherlands. We had exchanged some words via mail about doing the trail together, but as I hadn’t heard from him in a while, I really didn’t expect to see him here. It seemed to me that he had decided to do this trail alone. But now that I was here too, he gladly accepted my company. Without a doubt, his own mission was crazy enough already, without having to do the trail all by himself. This maniac had flown in from the Netherlands for a “long weekend”, as he called it, just to make it to the bus and then fly back. He had his own special reasons for such a tremendous challenge, but those would at least fill a whole separate blog… It can be said at this point, that he wasn’t in the best condition to do such a hard trail after flying from Amsterdam to Seattle, from Seattle to Anchorage and then driving a rental car from Anchorage to Healy. To top it all off, he had to push through the trail in two days to make his flights back…
At about one o’clock we start our adventure together, equipped with two GoPro HD HERO 3’s, two iPhones for navigation and my Fujifilm XT-1 for which I had only brought my 50mm prime this time. In the end, this trip was all about survival! Almost…
To call the first half of the route a trail would be ridiculous. Everyday Jeep- and ATV Tours have completely destroyed what might have been a trail once. More or less we are just walking from one dirty puddle of water to another, with some deeper mud areas in-between. You can easily get stuck or loose your shoes. Every now and then beavers have build dams around the trail, which make the surrounding Fish Creek flood the path. I realize that once more, water sandals will be the most important part of my equipment on this trail. I shouldn’t even have brought my new hiking boots! I wonder what it had looked like, when McCandless had made his way into the backcountry so many years ago…
After a few kilometers into the trail, we wander upon a camp in the middle of the woods. A gigantic dog comes running in our direction, with his master following him. It turns out that he is living here to welcome the guests of the Jeep Tour with warm food when they come brawling through the forest in their four by fours. He tells us that the Tek’ might be impossible to cross by foot. “We’ll see about that”, I think.
When we make it to the first of the two bigger river crossings, I am relieved to see that the Savage River is only knee-deep and no problem at all to manage. We shove some muesli bars into our throats and continue towards the real challenge. At around 6 pm we finally reach the mighty Teklanika River. I can hear the river roaring already, before I even see it. And then the first thing I see in the far distance is just white water splashing its way through the valley. I know right then, this one will not be easy!
At the riverbank I find a great pole to use for the river crossing. Someone had nailed a flat piece of wood on a thick long log to have maximum grip inside the river. It also means that the river will have more strength when pulling on the log, but when placed safely between some rocks on the riverbed, the setup should work. I am faster in the river then Martijn can release his packraft from his backpack. I say something like: “I’ll check the water level real quick and if it’s too deep I’ll just come back.” I guess it’s a mixture of adrenalin and the iron will to make it to the other side, that lets me jump into the cold water like that.
And cold it indeed is in every sense of the word. But with so much adrenalin pumping through my veins, I don’t even feel it. And actually I have bigger fish to fry. In the middle of the river the current is pushing hard against my torso. The water level has risen way over my belt and cold swells of liquid splash even higher than that. But there is no thought of turning back now. I am already through the hardest part. At least that’s what I think. Smoothly I try to place one foot after another, always keeping two points of contact. Often I have to hammer the pole into the river a few times, before I find some grip on the riverbed. But I’m moving slowly forward.
At about three quarters through the river, I feel another danger rising up. I hadn’t even thought about that problem before. I can feel my strength draining from me as if I’m a battery with the red light flashing. A feeling of panic shoots through my spine. What if I’m too weak to make it to the other side? I keep pushing on. I have no choice anyway; turning around would even be further than going ahead. One step after another… As if to give me one last slap in the face, the Tek’ surprises me with its deepest spot just before I reach the other riverbank. I can almost reach out and grab some dirt from the ground next to the river, but yet I am still standing in a big wave of white water. My last few steps are probably not the safest anymore, but then I’m on the other side. A high-pitched roar of victory bursts out of my mouth.
As soon as I’m on the other side, I realize that I’m quite wet and cold. I start walking on the spot while Martijn is preparing his Packraft to paddle over. It takes a while until he figures out the best spot to do so and when we continue our odyssey it is already half past seven. At least the trail is a bit nicer after the Teklanika, because less people make it this far with motorized vehicles. But there is still a lot of water on the path, so it still doesn’t make sense to change into hiking boots.
A few kilometers further down the trail Martijn is out of power. All those sleepless hours had finally caught up with him. He wants to put up his tent next to the trail and continue in the morning. For me this comes out of the blue. After crossing the Teklanika I had never thought about sleeping anywhere else than in the bus. It had rained most of the day and I don’t want to think about what the night would be like in my cheap tent. I ask him if he would mind if I continued to the bus. He says he doesn’t and even accepts to give me one of his iPhones so I don’t get lost.
I push forward with all the power I have left, while whistling the same melody over and over again. Being alone I have to keep up some kind of noise, so I don’t walk into a surprised bear. The bear bell becomes my best friend again and together we make quite a nutcase orchestra. I still have about ten kilometers ahead of me and the sun is already setting. I know that I will have some twilight after the sun is gone, but I guess the cloudy sky will not give me more than two hours of light. Maximum. But even though there are a lot of risks and uncertainties in front of me, I feel very calm. I am happy about this chance to have the bus all to myself for at least one night and the morning. Maybe I will be able to get a feeling, how McCandless must have felt when he was staying at that bus for 113 days.
Soon I am in a complete zombie-mode. My legs just keep walking while my thoughts drift away into the abyss of my mind. After a while I have to get my headlamp out to see where I am stepping. Following the cone of light in front of me I cross a few more creeks. One of them is almost hip-deep again and quite scary in this pitch darkness. At around midnight I look one last time on the iPhone and realize gratefully that I’m just 200 meters away from the bus.
When I walk around the last corner and see the headlights of the bus reflecting my headlamp, I feel all the pressure of the day falling off my shoulders. It feels surreal to be standing here in the middle of the night, soaked in wet cloth and with burning feet. After assuring myself that nobody is lying in one of the beds, I put down my backpack inside the bus and start to have a quick look around. It almost feels like coming home. I know the bus already, even though I have never been here before. It’s exactly how I had imagined it. I had maybe expected it to be a bit spooky, but the bus seems to have such a positive aura, that I feel completely safe.
I undress myself and hang up all my wet cloth, before putting on some dry ones. Then I unfold my tent canvas over the run-down bed and blow up my new mattress. I don’t really need it on top of the bed, but I feel obligated to use it now that I have carried it all this way. Then I pull out my sleeping bag from within a dry bag and sit down on the bed to eat some trail mix. Fife minutes later I’m finally wrapped up in my sleeping bag, thinking of Chris, who had died in the very same bed 22 years ago. I guess he wouldn’t have wanted me to sleep on the floor! With loose thoughts in my head I fall asleep lastly.
In the morning I wake up to a sunny day. I take the first pictures since I left my camper and explore the bus in more detail. It’s in better shape than I had expected. Most of the windows are gone and also some parts inside (like the steering wheel for example), but all in all it has kept its appearance. Hundreds of people have left their names on the walls inside, but at least there are no graffiti’s on the outside. But one thing becomes clear to me. Something that McCandless had found here will forever be lost. Its wildness!
I collect some wood outside and get the old stove running to dry my still wet cloth. While I’m outside chopping wood, Martijn suddenly arrives happily at the bus. He had slept for eleven consecutive hours before waking up. Leaving most of his stuff along the trail, he had just brought an almost empty backpack. I give him some time to explore the bus on his own.
Around midday we have to make a crucial decision and agree to head back the same day. I would have enjoyed to stay at least one more day at the bus, but I don’t want to go back all by myself. I pack my stuff together and take a final tour through the bus, before signing the guestbook.
The way back is long and hard and by the time we get to the Teklanika, the sun is already setting again. After trying a few different tactics, we finally make a nice crossing. Martijn first paddles his own backpack to the other side, before coming back to get my gear. At last I lay myself on the packraft, trying to distribute my weight over the whole packraft, while he paddles us to the other side. We make it safely and I’m happy that I didn’t have to cross by foot again!
It seems to take forever to walk the last 17 kilometers back to the cars. Far from being back, we have to start using our headlamps. But at least I’m not alone this time. At some point I look up to the sky and realize, that I’m seeing the first northern lights of my life. I curse myself for not bringing a spare battery for my camera, which is empty since we left the bus. But it is still nice to have those green lights flickering over our heads while we creep the last kilometers to the trailhead. Way after midnight we arrive at our cars to have a triumphant beer, before we hobble into our beds.
What remains is the question:
What am I taking with me from this trip?
Ken Ilgunas writes in his article The McCandless Mecca:
But McCandless’ story has little to do with this one place, or even wild places. The story is about self-transformation; about the power of a journey; about going on our own journeys to our own Magic Buses in whatever form they come.
I really like this conclusion and I think that the story of Into the Wild has accompanied me on a great number of adventures already. My self-transformation had begun the moment I went on that airplane to Australia. It is still an ongoing process, but I have a fair idea by now, what kind of person I want to be and how I am going to live my life.
I am going to conclude this blog with another quote that suits the previously said. I found it more than one time in the guestbook inside of the “Magic Bus”, so I can’t really say who came up with it. But I’m sure everybody who made this journey for whatever reasons, shares this feeling about the bus.
Life has taken us here. Now we take life everywhere.