On September 6, 1992, moose hunters found the emaciated body of a 24-year-old named Christopher McCandless inside a rusted green and white bus near the northern end of Denali National Park in Alaska. In a journey that was made famous by the bestselling 1996 book Into the Wild and the subsequent 2007 film adaptation, McCandless traveled across the country from his parents' home in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C. and through the wilderness until he came across that bus, which would be his final resting place. His individualist spirit and desire to leave the outside world made him a hero to many.
The book’s author, journalist Jon Krakauer, wrote in the New Yorker in 2013 that he had received thousands of letters from those who admired McCandless’s “rejection of conformity and materialism in order to discover what was authentic and what was not, to test himself, to experience the raw throb of life without a safety net.”
But for many of these admirers, a letter didn’t cut it. The “pilgrims,” as the residents of the adjacent Alaskan town of Healy referred to them, sought out the bus, which lay across the swift and treacherous Teklanika River, as a rite of passage, reported Peter Beaumont for the Guardian in 2014.
Many of these pilgrims have required rescue by local authorities and, tragically, two died—one in 2010 and another in 2019, reports Michael Levenson for the New York Times. The deaths and numerous rescues prompted many to ask if the bus shouldn’t just be hauled away before anyone else gets hurt.
Now, officials have removed the bus in dramatic and decisive fashion, reports Eva Holland for Outside, the publication that first ran McCandless' story in a feature written by Krakauer.
The decrepit 1940s-era bus was airlifted out of the backcountry by an Alaska Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter, according to a statement from the U.S. Army.
“We encourage people to enjoy Alaska’s wild areas safely, and we understand the hold this bus has had on the popular imagination,” says Corri A. Feige, Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources Commissioner, in a statement. “However, this is an abandoned and deteriorating vehicle that was requiring dangerous and costly rescue efforts, but more importantly, was costing some visitors their lives.”
The bus, sometimes referred to as the “Magic Bus” or simply “Bus 142” after the numbers painted on its metal hide, was part of the Fairbanks City Transit System but was purchased by the Yutan Construction Company for use as a shelter for workers building a road in the wilderness, according to Feige’s statement. In 1961, the road was completed and the company abandoned the bus, leaving it to rust away along the Stampede Trail.
McCandless spent 114 days in Bus 142 at the end of his two-year solo journey. When McCandless first made his way to the bus it was April he crossed two rivers including the Teklanika, report Pierre Meilhan and Madeline Holcombe for CNN.
But after three months of living off of game, local plants and a ten-pound bag of rice, McCandless decided to return to society, only to find that summer meltwater had transformed the Teklanika into a raging torrent. Trapped in the wild by the river, McCandless retreated to the bus and, over the course of the next month or so, starved to death.
The same river drowned Claire Ackerman of Switzerland in 2010 and Veramika Maikamava from Belarus in 2019, both of whom were attempting to cross the Teklanika’s freezing, fast-flowing waters to visit the bus, reports Alex Horton for the Washington Post.
Krakauer tells the Post the news of the bus being removed left him with mixed emotions. “This place has been desecrated and now it’s been obliterated. But it’s really tragic people keep dying doing stupid stuff.”
Krakauer goes on to tell the Post he wishes the bus had been able to remain as he had first encountered it in 1993, still frozen in its final tableau after McCandless’s ill-fated stay—jeans left out to dry on the stove, toothbrush and books undisturbed. But the author also acknowledged his role in how everything played out, from the pilgrims to the Chinook helicopter: “I wrote the book that ruined it.”
Finally, Krakauer wonders whether the bus’s removal will erase the draw of the wilderness it occupied or the allure of McCandless’s journey. “That bus is a powerful symbol. It was some strange manifestation of him that is not going to disappear now.”
The statement from the Alaska National Guard indicates the bus is being kept at a secure, undisclosed location and that the Department of Natural Resources, which is discussing what to do with the bus, is considering displaying the relic publicly “at a safe location.” But as Holland points out in Outside, a replica of the bus still stands outside a brewery in Healy, Alaska.