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Into the Wild: Chapter 4 Summary

Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson is a summary of Chapter 4: Detrital Wash in Jon Krakauer's ''Into the Wild''. In this chapter, the narrative traces Chris McCandless's movements, primarily around the West and Southwest. Evidence of his travels, including his abandoned car, surfaces.

Discovery in Detrital Wash

The beginning of this chapter moves back to the events of October 1990, more than three months after McCandless left Atlanta in his yellow 1982 Datsun. That October, some National Park Service rangers are exploring the Detrital Wash area near Lake Mead, Nevada. They are in the wash conducting a botanical survey, but they find more than flowers.

Lake Mead, Nevada

Underneath a tarp, covered in mud, is a car, a yellow Nissan Datsun. A note on the windshield reads, 'This piece of shit has been abandoned. Whoever can get it out of here can have it.' Inside, they find some personal belongings and the key to the car, but the license plates are missing.

The rangers jump start the car and drive it away. They can't trace it to an owner; instead, they use it for the next few years as a reliable undercover vehicle. The rangers wonder why no one ever claims the Datsun.

A yellow Datsun, similar to McCandless

Setting Out on Foot

Of course, the yellow Datsun belongs to Christopher McCandless. In the next part of the chapter, Krakauer explains the events that led to Chris abandoning the car. This explanation is based on Chris's journal entries.

Chris had eagerly headed west from Atlanta. He arrives in the Lake Mead area in early July 1990, and promptly ignores signs forbidding off-road driving. Chris drives into Detrital Wash and camps in the 120-degree heat. Storms over the mountains prompt a flash flood that gets the car's engine wet. Chris tries to start the engine and drains the battery.

So, Chris has a dilemma. He can walk out of the wash and notify the authorities, but that would mean questions, fines, and his parents being contacted. Or, he can bury his license plates and walk out of the wash and beyond. That's what he chooses to do.

'He saw the flash flood as an opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage....He buried...a few...possessions that he might one day want to recover. Then, in a gesture that would have done both Thoreau and Tolstoy proud, he arranged all his paper currency in a pile on the sand...and put a match to it.'

After his $123 go up in smoke, Chris begins to hike around Lake Mead. Soon he is suffering from heat stroke and hitchhikes to safety.

Tramping Around the West

Even though Chris is on a solitary journey, he has no trouble connecting with people along the way. Hitchhiking and relying on his ability to make friends becomes Chris's method of travel and sustenance for the next several months. He continues to introduce himself as 'Alex' and even sends postcards to some of the friends he makes.

In July, 1991, Chris meets a man called Crazy Ernie and works at his ranch briefly before realizing that no paycheck was coming. Afterward, Chris travels up the coast and makes friends with Jane Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, who pick him up from the side of the road.

Jane recalls, 'We got to talking. He was a nice kid. Said his name was Alex. And he was big-time hungry...But real happy. Said he'd been surviving on edible plants he identified from the book. Like he was real proud of it. Said he was...having a big old adventure.' Jane and Bob are shocked when they hear that 'Alex' had burned up his money. She said to Bob, 'Man, we got to take this kid with us. You need to school him about some things.'

Krakauer notes that around this time, Chris's parents hire a private investigator to find him. The PI discovers that Chris has abandoned his car and is hitchhiking, but little else. The investigator is scouring California, but Chris is no longer there.

Chris makes his way out to Montana, where he meets and works for Wayne Westerberg in September and October. In late October, Chris hitchhikes back to California. He sends a postcard to Wayne Westerberg in November to thank Wayne for his friendship and generosity. He promises to repay his kindness in person someday.

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