The McCandless story is well known: how the 24-year-old hiker, born in California, raised in Virginia, abandoned his safe suburban upbringing, donating $24,000 in savings to charity and styling himself Alexander Supertramp, and set off on a two-year hitchhiking journey. Though he was well-educated, his upper-middle class background and academic success only fueled his contempt for what he saw as the empty materialism of society. Tragically, after living out his adventure for 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness, McCandless succumbed to starvation in late August 1992.
The Stampede Trail is most known for being the trail that Chris McCandless set out on in April 1992 with the intention of living off the land for the summer. It’s home to “the magic bus”, which became Chris’s base during that time. The Stampede Trail is long, wet, and buggy. On the upside, the terrain is mostly level. There aren’t really any long uphill sections worth noting. You’ll face two river crossings, a night or two in bear country, and swarms of mosquitoes that will try to pick you up and carry you away. This is not a hike for beginners. No two ways about it. Despite how badly you may want to see the bus, if you are not a reasonably proficient hiker (someone with experience hiking 15+ miles a day for multiple days with a pack) then you are probably getting yourself in over your head.
Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142 is an abandoned 1946 International Harvester K-5 that is parked in a clearing along the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park. It was originally one of four buses used by the Yutan Construction Company to provide remote shelter for the construction crew from Fairbanks that worked on road upgrades in 1960-1961. The bus engine was removed and it was instead towed by Caterpillar D8 bulldozers. It contained beds and a wood burning stove, which still remain today. When the Stampede Mine ceased operations in the 1970s, three of the four busses were hauled off the trail. Bus 142 broke an axle which caused the crew to leave it where it now serves as a backcountry shelter for hunters, trappers, and visitors.
The Bus from the story has many names - The Magic Bus, The Stampede Trail Bus, the 142 Bus, Fairbanks Bus etc etc. What rings true with this bus is that it is very special. It has been made special by the story, the many visitors that go there, its remoteness and the feeling it gives those affected by this story.
Old bus or no, Fairbanks 142 has become something of a reliquary, a shrine to which many have come seeking understanding: of McCandless, of the wilderness, of themselves. A memorial plaque to McCandless is screwed to the inside of the bus, bearing a message from his family that ends with the phrase "We commend his soul to the world." Inside a beat-up suitcase on a table are a half-dozen tattered notebooks. The first entries, from July 1993, in red pen on paper yellowing with age, are personal notes from his parents. They visited the site with Jon Krakauer by helicopter. Krakauer also left a note: "Chris – Your memory will live on in your admirers. – Jon" And those admirers came: The dog-eared notebooks are filled with hundreds of entries from pilgrims who traveled the arduous 22 miles out to try to feel some connection with the McCandless spirit. They came by snowmobile, dogsled, mountain bike, and mostly by foot, usually taking two days to hike the boggy, mosquito-plagued trail and ford the freezing rivers. They came from across the U.S. and from as far as Bulgaria, Finland, and the Czech Republic. They came because there was something about the story, and about Alaska, that drew them there.