Remembering an Athlete Who Never Returned From the Wild

Chris McCandless, subject of the book and new film
Chris McCandless, subject of the book and new film "Into the Wild," poses with a porcupine in a self-portrait. (Courtesy Of Mccandless Family -- Villard Books Via Associated Press)
By Preston Williams
Thursday, October 25, 2007

At 4:15 last Thursday afternoon, former W.T. Woodson High School cross-country coach Matt Murray entered a mostly empty movie theater and watched one of his former athletes live his dream. Then he watched him die of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, at age 24. For Murray, it was the feel-bad movie of the season.

The fact that Fairfax City's Cinema Arts Theatres is across the street from Woodson only added to the immediacy of "Into the Wild," the heartbreaking yet inspiring Sean Penn-directed film about dreaming, drifting Chris McCandless, based on the book of the same name by noted outdoors writer Jon Krakauer.

It is a book that took years for Murray to pick up and read, even though he was part of the story. McCandless's death, in 1992, was too raw, too personal. And it was only after similar hesitation that he agreed to join us to watch the movie for the first time and offer his thoughts afterward.

First, some background: Murray knew McCandless as a charismatic former team captain with an independent spirit, grand ideas and concerns about world issues, particularly apartheid. McCandless had been the ringleader of a pack of spindly upper-middle-class distance runners dubbed the "Road Warriors."

A few years after graduating from Woodson, McCandless went from running cross-country to running away across the country, turning his brief life into an expanded version of one of the meandering runs on which he used to lead his fellow Cavaliers. They would pretend they were battling "the dark side" as they traversed streets and trails across Northern Virginia, often with no particular destination in mind. Walking over parked cars, scaling chain-link fences and invading construction sites only enhanced the adventure. With McCandless in charge, it was the hard way or the highway.

"I think all of us knew the creek beds and cut-throughs between every house between Woodson, Robinson and Lake Braddock," said former teammate Mike Mangan, who recalls venturing so far from school one time that the runners had to bum a ride back in a good Samaritan's pickup. "The runs where we didn't know where we were going and there were no obstacles, that's not a whole lot different from traveling around the country."

So seeing the on-screen McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, chase his abstract quest for truth was a bit cathartic for Murray. But to watch his former student deteriorate alone and scared and famished and crazy-eyed on that bus, each newly punched hole in his belt foreshadowing his death, was not easy. The movie, and McCandless's journal entries, make clear that he desperately wanted to live and, perhaps, return home to his fractured family and discarded friends.

"It was powerful. I don't know that I was totally ready for that," Murray said softly after the credits had rolled. Murray is now a guidance counselor at James Madison High School in Fairfax County and also a volunteer assistant cross-country coach there.

"The tragedy of what happened does come out," he said. "He was living life to the fullest, and that's what he wanted to do. But I can't help but think there was something more. Maybe it's the educator in me, but he would be almost 40 years old now, and the impact that he could have had on other people's lives, I can't help but think of that."

The movie never references cross-country, or Woodson, but in Hirsch's performance, Murray frequently spotted the McCandless he knew, particularly in body language, expressions and in an effectively conveyed playful streak.

There were other similarities. McCandless dubbed his makeshift Alaskan home the "Magic Bus." In high school, food runs in his yellow Suburban were called "magic meals," recalled former teammate Jeff Brown, because McCandless would insist that the guys not pull in to eat somewhere until the mood simultaneously struck them all.

Woodson teammate Andy Horwitz, who attended Emory University with McCandless, recalled McCandless's love of Clint Eastwood, and, sure enough, McCandless's college quarters in the movie featured a huge Eastwood poster.

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