The Magic Bus, Bus 142, The Stampede Trail Bus, The Into the Wild Bus. The iconic Alaskan bus has many names, and over the years it’s drawn visitors from all over the world and become a symbolic item that sparks both controversy and admiration.
To learn more about the backstory of this backcountry bus, we did some digging to find out why people love it, why people hate it, and where it is now.
History of the Bus
How did the bus from Into the Wild get there?
The green and white bus, which is a 1940s original International Harvester, was once used for transportation through the Fairbanks City Transit System. Later on, the Yutan Construction Company purchased the bus, removed its engine, and turned it into a shelter. They installed a wood-burning stove and sleeping quarters for workers tasked with building an access road for trucks to transport ore from the surrounding mines.
When workers finished in 1961, Yutan Construction left the bus behind. In the years that followed, the bus remained tucked away in its wooded location, sitting just outside of Denali National Park for the next 60 years, becoming a refuge and shelter for hunters and backcountry explorers.
Over the years the bus gathered memorabilia from many visitors, including books, maps, survival supplies, a guest book, and various inscriptions etched into the bus’s interior.
The bus's interior.
Why did they move the Into the Wild bus?
On June 18th, 2020, the Alaskan National Guard initiated “Operation Yutan,” which was a quite secretive mission to safely remove the bus by airlifting it from its spot and placing it in an undisclosed location. The move was in response to public safety concerns regarding the number of yearly rescue attempts for hikers trying to reach it.
There have been 2 reported deaths related to hiking to the bus. The first occurred in 2010, and the second in 2019. Both victims drowned in the Teklanika river during their attempt to cross it. This was the same river that stopped Chris McCandless from leaving the bus many years ago.
By moving the bus, the hope is that lives will be spared and rescue missions will decrease. The Department of Resources was tasked with deciding what’s in store for the future of the bus. Until decided, it will remain securely stored away in an undisclosed location.
© Alaska National Guard
Where is the bus now?
In mid-2020 negotiations about what to do with the bus began with the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. The museum announced they plan to display the bus and are designing an outdoor exhibit where people can safely, and freely visit and learn its story. The future exhibit is expected to take two years to develop.
The initial plan is to have the bus displayed outdoors in the woods that lie to the north of the museum’s parking lot. The exhibit will be a place for all to come and learn about Chris McCandless and the many other stories associated with the bus.
Carine McCandless, Chris’s sister, is assisting with the project and hopes the exhibit can be used as an educational tool to teach others about the mistakes her brother made which ultimately led to his passing.
Inside The Bus
LIFE IN THE WILD: WHAT WAS MCCANDLESS' LIFESTYLE LIKE?
Occupation: He kept a journal during his 2-year stint of exploration and soul-searching, and it was recovered weeks after he spent the remaining 114 days of his life living in Alaska in what is known today as the “Magic Bus.” While living on the bus he read, explored the surrounding land, and spent a great deal of time foraging for food.
Food and water: Over the months, he survived by living off a 10-pound bag of rice, game-like squirrels, porcupine, and birds along with plants and berries found on the surrounding land. After Chris's death, hundreds of porcupine quills, small animal bones, and the bones of the Moose that McCandless shot were found outside the bus, along with water purification tablets.
Shelter: Chris slept on the mattress inside the bus (see illustration below). The windows of the bus were missing, but McCandless used a green nylon tent to cover some of the broken windows near the front door.
Bus interior: In the bus, there was a small metal cot, a wood-burning stove, and a torn mattress that was covered in stains and beginning to mold. This is the mattress McCandless died on. The interior of the bus's metal walls was and still is covered in signatures, quotes, etc. by people who have visited it. There was also a skull of a grizzly which is believed to of been shot by a hunter in prior years. Next to the bear head McCandless had scratched a message: "All hail the phantom bear, the beast within us all. Alexander Supertramp May 1992."
Cooking: there were pots and pans sitting next to a kerosene lamp on a counter made of plywood inside the bus, likely used by Chris to cook the meat he'd hunted.
GEAR: WHAT WAS FOUND?
When Jack Krakauer and his friend walked into the bus, they found some of Chris's belongings spread around the bus:
- bug repellent
- a toothbrush & toothpaste
- toenail clippers
- a gold molar that had fallen out of his tooth during his stay
- a tube of chapstick
- rubber work boots that Jim Gallien had gifted him
- a green plastic canteen
- a plastic bag filled with wings, feathers, and down*
- a small collection of paperback books
- the machete Ronald Franz gave him
- wool mittens
- his Kmart hiking boots
- a pair of flight pants and two pairs of torn and patched Levi's**
**: The jeans were found laid over a log as if they were drying
Hiking Guide to The Bus Location
Bus elevation: 1,900 feet
Trailhead elevation: 2,150 feet
Distance: 38 miles out and back
Duration: 3-5 days
BUS LOCATION: WHERE WAS BUS 142 LOCATED?
Before its removal, the bus was in central, remote Alaska along the Stampede Trail (63°52′5.96″N 149°46′8.39″W). The trail begins as a paved road, but the section leading to the bus is an overgrown patch that lies to the north of Denali National Park and Reserve.
In the bus’s original location, it was 25 miles outside of the nearest town of Healy, Alaska, and 30 miles from any major highway. The rusted and faded colored bus sat on a small cliff overlooking the Sushana River with pink flowers called Fireweed growing alongside its wheels.
To Print PDF: Step 1) Expand to full screen view (click box in top right hand corner of map). Step 2) Zoom in to your desired map section view. Step 3) Click on the three white vertical dots and then "Print Map" from that drop down menu.
GETTING THERE: FROM FAIRBANKS AIRPORT TO THE BUS
The closest major airport is in Fairbanks. From there it’s a two-hour drive to reach Healy and Denali National Park.
Travel north from Healy on AK Route 3, also known as George Parks Highway for 2.8 miles. Then take a left onto Stampede Road and drive as far as you can go. The road, which starts paved turns to graded dirt for the last four miles. It will lead you to the trailhead which begins near Eightmile Lake. Here, there’s a handful of pullouts to park in, just be sure to stay clear of parking in front of a private drive.
The trail is open to hikers, ATV’s, snowmobiles, and even dogsleds.
DIFFICULTY: FOR EXPERIENCED HIKERS ONLY
It’s no cakewalk reaching where the beloved bus used to be. The Stampede Trail is more like a poorly maintained ATV road that treks through the Alaskan tundra—a place easy to get turned around in.
The hike is not for beginners or the faint of heart, and it should only be attempted by advanced hikers, experienced in carrying multi-day packs over 10 miles/day average through rugged terrain.
The trek takes hikers through miles of remote bear country, muddy pits, and flooded sections of trail where standing water can reach knee-deep (or higher). Wet feet can be expected.
There are also two river crossings, one of which is the infamously dangerous Teklanika River, which, as history has proven, can be a beast all its own. While the river can be cautiously crossed in the spring, winter, and fall, it’s beyond dangerous in summer and shouldn’t be attempted because of high levels and strong currents brought on by a slew of water from snowmelt.
Moreover, difficult river crossings, rugged terrain, rocky trails, desolate tundra, and the standing water makes for quite the mosquito haven.
Grizzly bear warning sign on the Stampede Trail.
BEST TIME TO GO: MAY AND SEPTEMBER
This can vary greatly depending on the Teklanika River, the rainfall that year, recent weather, etc. The rivers are fed by a glacier, so it’s important to choose a time when the glacier’s not melting as water levels can drastically change in just a matter of hours.
Although winter might seem like the best time to go, Spring and Fall are actually the prime seasons. May or September are typically said to be the best months, as the theory is that the glacier should still be relatively frozen so the river will be lower. Also, you’re not hiking in the pit of winter where the temps are brutal and the days short and dark.
That being said, Alaska is no joke, and it’s unpredictable. Always check the weather ahead of time and while you’re out on the trail. Best to do your darndest to stay as prepared as possible. It’s also best to avoid hiking during prime summer months like June, July, and August, as this is when glacier-fed rivers are at their highest.
TERRAIN: PREPARE TO GET WET AND DIRTY
The trail was long ago used as an old mining road, but has since overgrown and deteriorated. There are a few parts where it crosses with other ATV trails, but the Stampede Trail will be larger and (usually) better maintained.
The terrain throughout the hike is fairly level with few long, gradual climbs, but the trail itself is muddy, slippery, and full of long jaunts through creeks and various sections flooded with water. Many hikers refer to The Stampede Trail as “The Stampede River,” feeling the name more fitting. Depending on the season and time of year one can also expect a lot of snow and ice.
The Sushana River on the Stampede Trail filling back up after a downpour.
RIVER CROSSINGS: HELPFUL TIPS
There are 2 river crossings on the hike, the first being the Savage River at mile 7.5, and the second being the Teklanika River at mile 10.
From there, it’s a straightforward shot to an opening right off the Stampede Trail where the bus used to be.
A few tips for crossing the river:
If the water’s at your waist, it’s not a good idea to cross.
It’s best to cross early in the morning. The water levels drop overnight because of cooler temps.
Undo the buckle on your backpack as a precaution. That way if you fall, your pack won’t weigh you down.
A pole or even a really sturdy stick can help with balance while crossing.
It’s best to keep your boots on, more grip!
Take your time, be smart, be careful.
Crossing the Teklanika River
Story of Christopher McCandless
EARLY YEARS: WHY DID CHRIS MCCANDLESS GO TO ALASKA?
Christopher McCandless, also self-named “Alexander Supertramp”, was a spirited, unconventional 24-year-old American man born in Cali and raised in Virginia. He idolized such nature aficionados as Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, embracing their ideas about a life lived simply and without restraints.
Shortly after graduating from Emory College, he forwent law school to instead leave society and pursue a life of external adventuring and internal exploration. He soon rid himself of his old “well-to-be-life,” donated all of his savings to OXFAM (a charity for hunger relief), and set out on a solo adventure to travel and experience the world on his own terms.
He headed West in his beloved yellow Datsun, beginning his journey in Arizona. His early travels started out rocky, as a flash flood ended up washing his car away. He took the experience as a sign, taking from his car only what he wanted to carry and burned the few dollars he had left.
From there he took off hitchhiking and adventuring his way through Mexico and the Western United States including places like California, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, and more. He held part-time jobs, met other unique individuals and vagabonds that he befriended, and didn’t stay in one place for very long.
For most of his journey, he had a fixation on heading to the wide-open wilderness of Alaska, the idea influenced by stories like The Call of the Wild and White Fang. In Alaska, he planned to have his “Great Alaskan Odyssey,” escaping the materialistic world completely and fulfilling a life-long dream of proving to himself he could live solely off the land.
In 1996, Chris McCandless’s story was adapted into the best-selling nonfiction book Into the Wild written by Jon Krakauer. In 2007 it was made into an award-winning film also called Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn.
DEATH: HOW DID CHRIS MCCANDLESS DIE?
After months spent living in the bus, Chris decided to return to civilization. Yet, when he reached the Teklanika River, which had been calm and manageable when he’d first crossed it, he found that the water had risen significantly and changed the river into a dangerous raging current. Fearing the river uncrossable, Chris returned to the bus where he soon fell ill, leading to starvation and ultimately his death in 1992.
His body was found 19 days later by 5 individuals—a couple from Anchorage and 3 moose hunters riding ATVs through the area. The hunters called the Alaska State Troopers to remove the body, and McCandless’s remains were later cremated and his ashes given to his family.
The exact cause of his death remains a big debate. Was it mold that developed because his food wasn’t properly stored? Was he poisoned from accidentally eating seeds from a wild potato plant that impaired him? Or, did he simply starve because his rice supply ran out and he grew too weak to hunt and gather other sources of food?
There are plenty of theories and investigations trying to debunk one of these philosophies or another, but the truth is likely to remain a mystery, leaving McCandless’s story up to interpretation by the reader.
Memorial placed by Chris's parents on the steps of the bus.
CONTROVERSY: A HERO TO SOME, A FOOL TO OTHERS
Chris McCandless’s story remains a highly controversial topic today.
On one hand, his pursuit to leave the materialistic world behind for a simple and free life of exploration spent living by the moment is a feeling relatable to what many young, energetic outdoor enthusiasts understand.
On the other hand, many raise the question of whether McCandless, who set off into one of the toughest climates without proper gear or preparedness, should be idolized at all. Alaskan locals who know the real, unforgiving nature of the bush have especially strong feelings about this, seeing Chris’s romanticized escape into the backcountry as naïve and foolish.
There is also concern around the way he cut off communication with his family so abruptly, leaving them to wonder about his safety and whereabouts without fair explanation.
In a quote written by Chris himself, he says, “Happiness is only real when shared.” Yet, his decisions to leave behind everything and everyone in his life, whether his interactions with them were good or bad, left him to die alone, just when it looked as though he may be ready to reconnect with people.
Were Chris’s actions a sign of a man with a dream, a longing for nature, and a sense of adventure? Or, were they the signs of a young man detached from reality and a mind filled with disillusioned thoughts?
THE WILD TRUTH
Carine McCandless, Chris’s sister, has in recent years come out with her own memoir titled The Wild Truth. The story dives deeper into the family’s backstory, telling of their abusive father and weak-willed mother. In her book, Carine also explains what she believes were the driving forces that led Chris to chase after the life that he lived. She hopes her story will “set the record straight,” shutting down claims regarding her brother’s misjudged cruelty towards their parents.
View on Amazon.
Is Into the Wild a true story?
The Into the Wild book is based on the entries of McCandless’s journal, a few rolls of film taken by Chris himself, and interviews that Krakauer conducted.
To gain as much information and understanding as he could about McCandless, Krakauer spent years pouring through Chris’s journals, interviewing members of his family, and even traveled the same path Chris had traveled years before. He visited the same places and reached out to many of Chris’s acquaintances, friends, and witnesses for interviews.
Book vs movie?
Nine years after the release of the book, Sean Penn directed the movie. The storylines between both are quite similar, minus the love scene that takes part in the movie and not the book. Meh, Hollywood.
The major noticeable difference between the two, however, is that the book is more journalistic and “jumps around” from scene to scene, whereas the movie is more artistic and chronological in detailing Chris’s journey.
Another key difference is that the book is a work of nonfiction. It’s tied around the events and interviews with a brief description of the scenery McCandless visited. The movie made it a point to shoot absolutely stunning landscape to portray the beauty of the American West.
Overall, the book’s definitely worth the read, and the movie’s worth the watch. If you read the book before watching the movie, it will give you some deeper insight and background into the characters.
Did they use the real bus in the movie?
Out of respect for the family, the real bus was not used in filming. Instead, the production team found two buses of the same model and combined them to make a replica.
This bus now sits outside of the 49th State Brewing Co in Healy, Alaska. The inside is adorned with a storyline and photos detailing McCandless’s adventure.
Replica of the bus used in the movie.
Did You Know?
Sean Penn came across the book “Into the Wild” in a bookstore and was drawn to its cover. He bought the book, read it, and then went on a pursuit of making it into the movie we all know it as today.
Sean Penn had to wait 10 years to gain approval from the family to make the film.
The Alaskan man who drove Chris to the Stampede Trail and gifted him the Rubber boots plays himself in the movie.
Throughout the movie, Emile Hirsch wears a watch that is McCandless’s real watch. It was a gift.
There were no stunt-men used for Emile Hirsch throughout the making of the movie.
During production, the crew made 4 different trips to Alaska so they could film scenes during different seasons.
10 months after McCandless’s death, his parents went to Alaska and traveled by helicopter to visit the bus where they placed a commemorative plaque in their son’s honor.
Eddie Vedder agreed to make the soundtrack for the film, even before he knew anything about it.