In 1990, Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University and set to begin an itinerant life traveling across America. He moved from California to Arizona, and eventually South Dakota where his car was disabled in a flash flood. McCandless packed up what he could carry and continued his journey on foot. In April 1992, he hitchhiked from South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he set out on an old mining road called the Stampede Trail.
After hiking roughly 28 miles through the snow, McCandless came upon an abandoned bus, Fairbanks Bus 142. With thick vegetation deterring further progress, he set up camp in the bus and attempted to live off of the land. His journal documents that he spent 113 days in the area where he foraged for food and hunted animals. In July, after a little over two months of living in the bus, McCandless decided to return to civilization. Unfortunately, the trail was blocked by a swollen river, trapping McCandless in the wild.
On September 6, 1992, a group of hunters came upon McCandless’ bus and discovered his decomposing body in his sleeping bag. The prevailing theory regarding his death is that he died of starvation about two weeks before his body was discovered. McCandless’ story has been immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild and its 2007 film adaption of the same name directed by Sean Penn.
McCandless in front of Bus 142 (Photo by Chris McCandless)
The 1940’s-era bus that McCandless took shelter in has since become an object of intrigue, attracting tourists from around the world. However, the trek to reach the bus and the surrounding wilderness is notoriously perilous and many tourists have taken unnecessary risks to see the famous bus. Last year, a woman from Belarus drowned trying to cross the river that prevented McCandless’ return. In February of this year, five Italian tourists had to be rescued on their pilgrimage to the bus, one of them suffering from severe frostbite. As recently as April, a stranded Brazilian tourist had to be rescued after he became stranded trying to return from seeing the bus. Between 2009 and 2017, the state has carried out 15 bus-related search and rescue operations.
Out of growing safety concerns, Alaska state officials decided to remove the bus from its location on the trail outside of Denali National Park. In a joint effort between the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Army National Guard, Bus 142 was airlifted on June 18, 2020 by a CH-47 Chinook of the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment. Bus 142 was flown to Healy where it was loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken to a secure location for storage. Officials have not yet decided the bus’s fate, but it may be put on public display in the future.
Bus 142 rigged and ready to be airlifted (Alaska National Guard photo by Sgt. Seth Lacount)
The removal of the bus is sad for many people who had hoped to one day make the trek out to see it. However, the safety concerns and the costly search and rescue operations it created made Bus 142 “a perilous attraction” in the words of Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker. “For public safety, we know it’s the right thing,” Mayor Walker said. “At the same time, it is part of our history and it does feel a little bittersweet to see a piece of our history go down the road.”