In Jon Krakauer's book, Into the Wild, he describes the life of a young man who went into the sort-of wild of Alaska to find himself and some meaning along the way. The recent college graduate didn't make it out alive, but did manage to stir much debate about his seemingly futile attempt at roughing it. We're having the boys read it for their summer assignment. Whether it will inspire any of them to venture out remains to be seen.
Krakauer gives a fair treatment of the story along with some interesting accounts of other young vagabonds over the last century who went into the untamed wilderness never to emerge with a pulse. Some disappeared altogether. In reflecting on his own attempt to climb the harrowing "Devil's Thumb" peak in Alaska, he remarks, "It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is not less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it." This seems to me the quintessential description of most young people, myself not excluded.
He went to the mountain to overcome what were more internal obstacles he could not ascend: a troubled relationship with a neurotically critical father, an absence of direction in his own life and a general sense of malaise and foreboding. He was young and his inexperience betrayed the vigor of youth. "I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devil's Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing."
I just returned from the lake with a good friend who has a lot to say about life. He is atypical in his search for truth and the good. He can't read enough, nor can he soak in enough insight from others. He does not suffer fools - this is where we are similar - and he grows increasingly impatient with idle chatter. He confessed that above all in his life, he loves the search for truth. I reminded him of a remark of Thomas Merton's. In the famous exchange between Jesus and Pilate, wherein Jesus announces the reason for his being in the wold, "to bear witness to the truth," Pilate retorts with the primordial question of man: Quid est veritas? Merton goes on to say that truth was standing right before Pilate and then Pilate crucified him. We continue to crucify the truth in exchange for a fleeting and illusory sense of security at knowing the way things are. I find not infrequently the strongest advocates for truth-seeking can be the most befuddled of us all, ridden with an obscure, gap-ridden logic. Truth, of course, exceeds our sordid attempts at pinning it to a tree: it resurrects beyond our often misguided zeal.
Krakauer obviously survived his ordeal on Devil's Thumb. This was not an outcome lost on him. "I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale."
Why mountains make poor receptacles for dreams should be self-evident to anyone who's seen one or tried to climb one. They are characteristically uninterested and unmoved by our reasons for romping up their sides. I suspect this is also the case of most other things in nature. It will allow a certain amount of irresponsibility (though not always), but it always has and always will have the final say.
A beleaguered Pilate asks, "What is truth?" Some go into the wild to seek it, never to return. Those who do return, like Krakauer, confess nature's impatience with our rhythm and inexperience with the undertaking. Thomas Merton died in the far East. A fan fell into his bathtub and that was that. Pilate drifted into obscurity then, allegedly, committed suicide. The question is a dangerous one, and the pursuit of its answer ever more so.