We made the hike to visit Into the Wild’s magic bus on Stampede trail outside of Healy, Alaska this weekend. The jury is out and the famed bus from the popular book by John Krakauer and movie by Sean Penn (Into the Wild) is still the subject of considerable controversy. Christopher McCandless himself has become a hero to many and a sore spot to some. I fall somewhere in the middle and I’ll go into my own motivations for visiting Into the Wild’s Magic Bus a little later. For now, let me first start be dispelling the rumors floating around Fairbanks and the Internet that the bus has been cut up and either disposed of or moved to a different location. This is simply hype. The bus is still there and intact, mostly.
The rumors, however, do contain some insight into the thoughts and feelings of Alaskans. For as widespread as these rumors are they must have gained headway under the propagation of more than one person. The intent is perfectly clear, to keep people from coming all the way up to Alaska to visit that bus. I personally think there are two possible motivations behind these rumors. The first is the exact fate that met Chris McCandless. Just last summer the Anchorage paper reported two hikers missing along stampede trail. The kids were found wet, cold, in street clothes with almost no food and plastic bags wrapped around their sneakers. The ill prepared adventurous duo was flown to safety by means of rescue helicopter. If I’ve learned one thing up here it is that Alaskans do not take the wild lightly and are put off when others do. McCandless himself was better prepared than half the kids wandering out there these days and we all know the fate that befell him. I think Alaskans in general find it annoying that people want to mimic Chris’ voyage with poorer preparation expecting a different outcome. Secondly, the tragedy of the story itself has become a part of Alaska’s and Healy’s heritage and it deserves to be preserved. I spoke with a bartender at the Totem lounge in Healy a few miles from Stampede road who had visited the magic bus often including a visit subsequent to that of Sean Penn. He found a letter from Penn left in that bus that very politely asked people to preserve the bus as a memorial to Chris McCandless and not to remove any of the items contained within. He visited the bus again a few months later and the letter from Penn itself was gone. For those who revere Chris’ story it seems hypocritical to want to keep a physical piece of it. I’ll ask you myself before laying out the details of getting to the Magic Bus that if you do go, leave it in the same condition you found it. And that goes for the beautiful country that surrounds it as well.
I intend to provide all of the information that you need to find Into the Wild’s Magic bus but not before my own reflections on the territory and terrain. The trail is well maintained and the hike itself is not exceedingly difficult, but it is 26 miles one way. That’s more than 50 miles round trip. I think the first thing that it would behoove yourself to ask is: Have I ever walked 50 miles in mountain terrain with a minimum of five days worth of gear and provisions? For most of you the answer is probably no. By the way, it takes more sustenance to maintain the body when it’s walking 10 or 15 miles a day with gear than it does when you’re sitting in front of your computer. The next thing I want to point out is that we made the trek and arrived at the bus on the first day of spring, which is March 20th. That night it was -20 (below 0) or better at the Magic Bus. Our thermometer bottomed out at -20. You need a lot of gear and a lot of food (the body burns more calories when its trying to keep itself warm) to survive at that temperature. And realistically, this is probably the best time of year and your best chance of making it out to the Magic bus. Why? Well, the infamous river that was Chris McCandless’ undoing is still passable thanks to an ice bridge. However, as of March 20th the ice bridge was precarious at best with open water on either side. Also of note, it is borderline impossible to sleep well at -20 unless you are extremely well prepared. If you don’t sleep well your energy is further limited the following day. Is anyone picking up what I’m laying down? Alaska’s back country is unforgiving and if you are not PREPARED it is going to chew you up and spit you out without a second thought. Now that I have given that point due diligence, here’s how you find Into the Wild’s Magic Bus.
Finding the Magic Bus
This is your one stop shop for finding your way to Into the Wild’s magic bus complete with GPS points, location and directions. It is actually quite simple. If you take Stampede Road out of Healy it “ends” at 8 mile lake (passable year round [except maybe breakup] by car) and becomes Stampede Trail. See the GPS points below. From 8 mile lake it is roughly 26 miles to the bus. Now be careful, there are a ton of different trails crisscrossing through the back country there, but Stampede is the widest and most noticeable. If you simply stick to the main trail from the time you leave 8 mile lake you will ultimately land at the Magic Bus. There is another prominent trail after the river crossing about 10 miles in that spurs off to the left and might confuse you. Don’t worry, it eventually wraps back around to Stampede just before stampede hits the bus. That’s really all there is to it except the fact that it’s a long, long way.
Garmin GPS Points
8 Mile Lake
Last Possible Car Park (late winter and early spring)
Google Earth GPS Coordinates
Alternatively you can search Google Earth for “Magic Bus, Stampede Trail”
When to visit Into the Wild’s Magic Bus?
As I said earlier, late winter and early spring will give you the best shot. Let’s say March 1st to April 10th (McCandless went in on April 26 and had to ford the river) depending on how long that ice bridge hangs out. I would personally shoot for the end of March as you stand a much better chance with the temperatures. Your other option would be late summer or early fall, but you’re once again at the mercy of the river. The conditions of the trail will be much better than breakup.
When not to visit Into the Wild’s Magic Bus?
Breakup, don’t go out there during breakup it’s going to be a mess. Guess what? In Alaska the snow and ice piles up all winter and doesn’t melt until spring rolls around and that’s called breakup. The river is going to be high, fast and very cold from the melting mountain snow. The trail is going to be muddy and no one wants to hike fifty miles in the mud if by some chance you could cross the river. If you do, did you see the boots McCandless was wearing in the movie? they’re called Xtratuffs (Alaskan sneakers), you’ll need a pair. I would also recommend against early and mid winter. Early winter you will have river problems again as the ice bridge may not be there and mid winter the area has serious temperature extremes. Heed my warning: You need to be trained or highly experienced to survive in Alaska’s back country in mid winter when temps are dropping down to -40 and -50 (below 0).
You may also want to check out a new site that provides updated Stampede Trail Conditions.
How to visit Into the Wild’s Magic Bus?
Thus far I have only discussed walking and I think that if your intention is to pay homage to Chris McCandless than walking is the method you shouldemploy. Another option is cross country skiing or skijoring. These might speed up the process a bit though we met a few people on the trail with skis and we were covering ground as fast as they were. The reason was probably this: I taught my dog how to pull sled this winter and it was him that schlepped all of our gear out to the bus on a sled. (Hint: even if you dog can’t pull a sled it is easier for you to drag 50lbs on a sled than to carry it!) If for some reason you are physically unable to make the hike but have reason to go out there I know of at least two people in Healy who will take you out on snow machine (mobile) at a cost of about $350 per person. There are also a few places in Healy that offer dog sled tours at around $1000 per person. In addition to transportation you also get a guide that knows the country, which may be favorable depending on the circumstances. I included a “last possible car park” GPS point because stampede trail (not road, but trail) is passable with a good 4X4 (not a Subaru) past 8 mile lake about this far in late winter and very early spring, maybe summer, too. Please do not try and cross the ice bridge in your Jeep. No, speed will not equal success.
My Personal Intentions
I was making preparations to leave on what turned out to be a year long trip to Asia the end of 2003 and I received Krakauer’s Into the Wild as a going away present. My folks dropped me off smack in the middle of New York City and I had nothing left to my name but a backpack full of clothes, a one way plane ticket to Kathmandu, Nepal and “Into the Wild” nestled in my curled fingers as I climbed into a taxi cab headed for JFK. I knew nothing of Chris McCandless and the parallels of personality that ran common between us. It’s not an easy gig giving up everything you own for a dream, an idea that is unclear at best. All you really know, deep down in your belly, is that if you’re going to do anything truly great in this life you have to be willing to put everything that the world tells you that you have on the line for what it is that you know you have inside of you to be realized. I was early for my flight, for once in my life. I remember propping my feet up on my backpack in the terminal of JFK and starting Into the Wild. The story gave me comfort to a certain degree to know that there were others out there who felt the call to push the limits of existence. It became not only difficult, but tiring trying to explain to people why I was headed to Asia with a one way ticket. The invariable look of consternation becomes overwhelming after a while and you start to wonder if you really are insane. But you push on, as Chris pushed on, into realizing the parts of yourself that are invaluable. You feel the isolation that comes from driving at an idea that others do not understand. And finally, you come to terms with the consequences and realities of your undertaking. Christopher McCandless paid the ultimate price for his dream, but not without consideration. In his last letter to Wayne he said “If this adventure proves fatal.” And that’s it right there. The willingness to die for something, for your own dream, that is what made Chris great. To be passionate enough about your dream to pursue it at all costs is what sets great people apart from the rest of the people. Why did I go to Into the Wild’s Magic bus? I wanted to say thanks to someone who helped me feel not quite so alone when everyone thought I was crazy. Moreover, I wanted to pay homage to someone who was willing to die for their dream. I respect that.
Other adventures to bus 142: