There is a wild, untamed restlessness in some young people, a faraway throwback to times when survival was determined by uprooting and pushing outwards into the unknown. The tragic, compelling story of Christopher McCandless, graphically told in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild” chronicles the angst of a young college graduate, articulate, athletic, and capable, who left his comfortable home in the south, gave away all his savings, rode his thumb into Fairbanks, Alaska, and headed out alone on the Stampede Trail, determined to find himself, armed with little more than Thoreau and Tolstoy and a .22 Remington rifle. The young man had about him a certain dreamy other-worldliness, a wide-eyed willingness to take spectacular risks and a less than average serving of common sense. Although driven to solitude with all its attendant mental bear-traps, he was by no means a candidate for a psychiatric ward and did not conform to the common bush-casualty stereotype. He wasn’t in any sense a social outcast, and although incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he was hardly incompetent or he would never have lasted over one hundred days living off wild game and edible fruits and berries. Tragically, he succumbed to starvation and his body was found six weeks after his death in 1992 by hikers in the abandoned bus in which he had made his home.
If one is searching for predecessors cut from the same exotic cloth, if one hopes to understand this personal tragedy by placing it in some larger context, one might do well to look at another northern land. Off the southeastern coast of Iceland there is a small island called Papos. Forbidding, rocky, treeless and inhospitable, unceasingly pounded by howling North Atlantic gales, it could hardly be described as a first-choice destination. According to early Icelandic sources, the island may have taken its name from its first settlers, the Celtic monks known as papar. They could have arrived as early as the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., probably having travelled from the west coast of Ireland or the Scottish isles. Setting out in tiny curraghs, made from cowhide stretched over light wicker frames, using sails and oars, they crossed one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world without knowing where they were going or what they might find. The papar risked their lives—and probably many were lost, not in the pursuit of wealth or personal glory or to claim new lands. As the Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen pointed out, they undertook their remarkable voyages “chiefly from the wish to find lonely places, where these anchorites might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world.” When the first handful of Norwegians showed up on the shores of Iceland in the ninth century, the papar decided the country had become too overpopulated, even though it was still all but uninhabited. They climbed back into their curraghs and rowed away toward Greenland, leaving almost no records of their existence behind. They were drawn west across the storm-wracked ocean, past the edge of the known world, by nothing more than hunger of spirit, a queer, abstract, pure yearning that burned in their souls.