Into The Wild
On weekends, when his high school pals were attending 'keggers' and trying to sneak into Georgetown bars, McCandless would wander the seedier quarters of Washington, chatting with prostitutes and homeless people, buyrng them meals, earnestly suggesting ways they might improve their lives.
'Chris didn't understand how people could possibly be allowed to go hungry, especially in this country,' says Billie. 'He would rave about that kind of thing for hours.'
On one occasion Chris picked up a homeless man from the streets of D.C., brought him home to leafy, affluent Annandale, and secretly set the guy up in the Airstream trailer his parents parked beside the garage. Walt and Billie never knew they were hosting a vagrant.
On another occasion Chris drove over to Hathaway's house and announced they were going downtown. 'Cool!' Hathaway remembers thinking. 'It was a Friday night, and I assumed we were headed to Georgetown to party. Instead, Chris parked down on Fourteenth Street, which at the time was a real bad part of town. Then he said, 'You know, Eric, you can read about this stuff, but you can't understand it until you live it. Tonight that's what we're going to do.' We spent the next few hours hanging out in creepy places, talking with pimps and hookers and lowlife. I was, like, scared.
'Toward the end of the evening, Chris asked me how much money I had. I said five dollars. He had ten. "OK, you buy the gas," he told me; "I'm going to get some food." So he spent the ten bucks on a big bag of hamburgers, and we drove around handing them out to smelly guys sleeping on grates. It was the weirdest Friday night of my life. But Chris did that kind of thing a lot.'
Early in his senior year at Woodson, Chris informed his parents that he had no intention of going to college. When Walt and Billie suggested that he needed a college degree to attain a fulfilling career Chris answered that careers were demeaning 'twentieth-century inventions,' more of a liability than an asset, and that he would do fine without one, thank you.
'That put us into kind of a tizzy,' Walt admits. 'Both Billie and I come from blue-collar families. I college degree is something we don't take lightly, OK, and we worked hard to be able to afford to send our kids to good schools; So Billie sat him down and said, "Chris, if you really want to make a difference in the world, if you really want to help people who are less fortunate, get yourself some leverage first. Go to college, get a law degree, and then you'll be able to have a real impact."'
'Chris brought home good grades,' says Hathaway. 'He didn't get into trouble, he was a high achiever, he did what he was supposed to. His parents didn't really have grounds to complain. But they got on his case about going to college; and whatever they said to him, it must have worked. Because he ended up going to Emory even though he thought it was pointless, a waste of time and money.'
It's somewhat surprising that Chris ceded to pressure from Walt and Billie about attending college when he refused to listen to them about so many other things. But there was never a shortage of apparent contradictions in the relationship between Chris and his parents. When Chris visited with Kris Gillmer, he frequently railed against Walt and Billie, portraying them as unreasonable tyrants. Yet to his male buddies—Hathaway, Cucullu, and another track star, Andy Horowitz, he scarcely complained at all. 'My impression was that his parents were very nice people,' says Hathaway, 'no different, really, than my parents or anyone's parents. Chris just didn't like being told what to do. I think he would have been unhappy with any parents; he had trouble with the whole idea of parents.'