Now Reading
Sean Penn on the Into the Wild Bus Being Removed From the Wild

Sean Penn on the Into the Wild Bus Being Removed From the Wild

In the early moments of the 2007 movie Into the Wild, Emile Hirsch, in the role of 24-year-old adventurer Christopher McCandless, is walking alone in knee-deep snow when he stumbles upon an astounding sight, what McCandless would come to call “the magic bus.” The rusty, green-and-white Fairbanks City Transit System bus, abandoned in a remote area of central Alaska, would become McCandless’ makeshift shelter in the wilderness for over 100 days, the site of his death by starvation in the summer of 1992 and, eventually, a dangerous destination for hikers looking to replicate McCandless’ journey. 

Today the bus, which became a global symbol of restless travelers in the wake of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling 1996 book about McCandless and the subsequent Sean Penn-directed movie, is no longer in the backcountry. In June of 2020, for reasons of public safety, the state of Alaska lifted the 1946 International Harvester K-5 out of the wild with a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter and placed it in storage in Fairbanks. The University of Alaska’s Museum of the North crowdfunded the restoration of the bus, also known as Bus 142, and is now awaiting a grant to build an exhibition. 

Penn, for whom making Into the Wild was a career and personal high point, visited Bus 142 twice over the years, once while researching the film and once for a 2007 episode of the Sundance TV show Iconoclasts that he participated in with Krakauer. 

“To see it there, there’s a magic realism to the feeling of that thing,” Penn says of the bus. “The lure is Chris McCandless. What he represents is a totally ubiquitous wanderlust.”

Outdoor enthusiasts became aware of McCandless’ story thanks to Krakauer’s writing, but after the film, the tale of the young idealist who called himself Alexander Supertramp reached a broader audience, some of whom were so moved by his fatal trip, they attempted to visit the bus themselves. Two people died trying to cross the same swollen Teklanika River that had prevented McCandless from hiking out, and at least 15 people had to be rescued while trying to reach the bus over the years.

“With the book, there was incitement for people to go and find the bus,” Penn says. “Those sorts of people are typically very respectful of nature. With the movie, these are not just people hunting down tales of the outdoors where you would have that kind of respect, but your average moviegoer also. And there’s an ignorance about some of these things and an insensitivity that comes with that ignorance. And so I did understand that they wanted to move [the bus].”

The pilgrims who had been making their way to the real bus were posing a particular problem to emergency responders in the nearby town of Healy. “The state basically had deemed it an attractive nuisance,” says Angela Linn, senior collections manager at the Museum of the North, which signed an agreement with the state to care for the bus and make it available via a free public exhibit. “Like it or not, it is one of the most recognizable physical manifestations of Alaska,” she adds. “We felt it was really important for it not to be destroyed and for it not to go into private ownership.”

McCandless has always been a polarizing figure in Alaska, criticized by some for his lack of preparedness in the wilderness, and resented for the high amount of attention his death attracted in a state with an unusually high rate of missing persons, many of them Alaska Natives.

“It’s a real sore spot for a lot of Alaskans, that what a lot of people across the world immediately relate to Alaska is the bus,” says Linn. “When I would be down working on the bus, people would say, ‘Why is the university doing this?’”

Linn says there is value in tracing the history of the bus prior to Into the Wild as a way of telling a story about modern Alaska. After being used to transport commuters in Fairbanks, Bus 142 was purchased by the The Yutan Construction Co., which removed its engine and dragged it onto what is now the Stampede Trail via bulldozer in 1961 to house workers who were building an access road to a nearby mine. After an axle snapped, the crew abandoned the bus, and over the ensuing decades, hunters and trappers used it as a base camp. It was moose hunters who eventually found McCandless’ body, on Sept. 6, 1992. His death there — and, later, the global attention the Into the Wild book and movie inspired — will be placed in a larger context in the eventual exhibit, Linn says. “We’ll talk about the role of literature and how that plays up this persona, this mythology of Alaska,” Linn says. “And then we can bring up the really important question of why do we even know about Chris McCandless when there are right now about 1,500 people on Alaska’s missing persons list?”

McCandless’ story drew in Penn as it has so many others. “That dreamer is very appealing,” Penn says. “The rite of passage, to get outside of one’s comfort zone, the extreme of Alaska. I describe Alaska as nature on steroids. And that’s a very appealing life force. It’s muscular and energetic and full of wildlife. It’s extremely big medicine for people’s souls to reach out into that. And Chris personified that.”

See Also

The filmmaker’s own first trip to the bus was in February of 2006, when he traveled via snowmobile over the frozen river with production designer Derek Hill, cinematographer Éric Gautier and a couple other members of the crew. “Sean was very quiet,” Hill says of that visit. “He’s in the lead snowmobile. He goes, ‘Let’s stop here and I need a moment.’ He went in for 30 minutes by himself.” Hill calls the bus “a sacred, holy place. It needs to be preserved for all those people that need to find their way.”

Hill replicated the bus for the film at a location Penn chose, about 50 miles south of where McCandless died, a spot that better met the film crew’s needs both aesthetically and logistically. Penn says after shooting, the crew gave the bus they built to the chief of a local tribe that had worked on construction for the film. It is now on display at a brewpub near Denali National Park.

Provided the grant funding comes through, the museum plans to open the exhibit in the summer of 2025, placing the bus down a 150-foot trail north of its parking lot, surrounded by birch and spruce trees. Locating the bus outdoors, albeit far from the backcountry, will allow visitors to have some sense of the natural environment that so inspired McCandless, Linn says. But the bus will be protected, too. The Christopher Johnson McCandless Memorial Foundation has donated $125,000 to build a covered pavilion in order to shield it from the elements.

This story first appeared in the June 2024 Sustainability issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to see the rest of the issue.

Copyright © MetaMedia™ Capital Inc, All right reserved

Scroll To Top