My trek to The Magic Bus
I dreamed of visiting The Magic Bus since I first saw the movie and read the Jon Krakauer book, “Into The Wild” a few years ago. I think of visiting the bus as a pilgrimage made by those who have felt some kind of connection with Chris McCandless and his story. Most people don’t realize the bus lies on the well known Stampede Trail, not all that far from civilization and can be reached in a single solid day of hiking.
The Stampede Trail is fifty miles of rough, overgrown mining road that was abandoned in 1963. No bridges were ever constructed over the several rivers it crosses so it is primarily used by backcountry travelers on foot, bicycle, snow machine and motorcycle. The now infamous Fairbanks City Transit bus #142 was left behind by the Yutan Construction Company during the road building to serve as a backcountry shelter for hunters, trappers and ranger patrols.
Stampede Road lies just north of Denali National Park, near the small town of Healy. We drive about 12.5 miles (20kms) on the extremely rough road before leaving the vehicles to continue on foot. The first hour and a half of hiking the next morning sees us travel on a really good quad trail, through some small swaps, through a couple of shin-deep river crossings and spits us out at the edge of the Teklinika River.
Ultimately, the ‘Tek’ was Chris’ downfall when he was unable to cross it and return to civilization, forcing him back to the bus. Although it was not the raging torrent Emile Hirsch faced in the movie, it was obvious we would be swept off our feet and downstream if we did not keep our heads about us.
We ummm and arrr for quite a while and wander upstream, where we had been told the river was wider and shallower. We get sick of our aimless wandering and so pick to throw in rocks and use sticks to measure the depth. We agree it is our best chance. We tentatively ford one at a time, with our packs un-buckled so we can ditch them if we are swept in. I am scared and start to shake when the river reaches my mid-thigh and pushes very hard.
Slow and steady wins through and we are all relieved to make it across without incident.
Chris must have felt such a sense of isolation and awe to be all the way out here, alone, not knowing if there was anything or anyone ahead. Many hours of silent reflection follow - I am actually going to 'The Bus'. The bus that Chris had spent four months living in, was essentially trapped in and finally died in. Wow.
When bus 142 appears on the side of the trail, seemingly out of thin air I am quite startled. I’d been hiking on my own for 10 miles but somehow wasn’t ready to be there yet. I pause on the edge of the clearing for a moment, then again in the doorway, trying to take everything in. Even though I’ve never been here before, it is very familiar - from the description in the book, the movie and also from the pictures I’ve seen online.
I thought The Magic Bus would be a quiet, sad place to spend time and I am quite surprised to find the exact opposite is the case. It’s customary for visitors to inscribe their name on the wall of the bus and write a message in the “Guest Book” - a book placed in the bus by Chris’ sister Carine. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of exhilarating messages from people all over the world who have trekked out to the bus. People wrote about how upon hearing Chris’ story they changed their lives so they could live their dreams, people wrote of hitching thousands of miles to be here, people wrote about how beautiful of a place Chris had found. Graffiti like ‘Solo trek to honor Chris’ and ‘Swept downstream by Tek, it was worth it’ make me grin from ear to ear - Chris has inspired thousands of people and and I am extremely thrilled to be a part of that.
The message I write in the Guest Book captures my feelings:
"You have inspired more people than you will ever know, not least of all me.
Your passion, courage and determination gave me the strength to believe I really can make my dreams come true.
And here I am, in Alaska, having been to the Arctic Ocean, on my way to South America.
I spend many quiet hours in the bus, reading the walls, the pile of guest books and enjoying the peacefulness.
Spending time at the bus is truly and amazing experience and I highly recommend the trip to anyone that feels a connection with Christopher McCandless and his "live your dreams" attitude.
Dan is currently driving his Jeep 50,000km on the Pan American Highway from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra Del Fuego. You can join in his adventure at his website, http://www.dangrec.com