‘ Wild’ character visits Grand Junction students | VailDaily.com

‘ Wild’ character visits Grand Junction students

Sharon Sullivan
Grand Junction Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado ” Wayne Westerberg never expected to become a key character in a best-selling book.

From the time he was 17, Westerberg spent most of his life running combines and harvesting wheat.

Fifteen years ago he picked up a young hitchhiker named Chris McCandless ” the subject of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book “Into the Wild,” which has since been made into a major motion picture.

“Into the Wild” is Krakauer’s attempt to tell the compelling and somewhat puzzling story of a young man’s spiritual odyssey.

McCandless broke off all contact with his parents, gave a $25,000 college fund to Oxfam America ” a famine relief organization ” and left his Washington, D.C.-area home to travel around the West with little more than a backpack for the next two-and-a-half years.

Westerberg met McCandless three months into his travels.

Westerberg offered McCandless work, and South Dakota became a “hub” for McCandless ” a place to come back to and work a few months before hitting the road again.

Each time he left South Dakota, McCandless would leave behind photos and journals. McCandless often sent postcards to Westerberg, who would post them on a bulletin board in the town of Carthage “because everyone knew him,” Westerberg said.

Eventually McCandless headed for the Alaskan wilderness.

With a few belongings in a backpack that included a bag of rice, a .22-caliber rifle and a book on wild edibles, McCandless survived for months alone in the wilderness. By late summer, McCandless was ready to re-enter society and began the trek back toward civilization. But high glacier melt-off made a once-shallow river a raging torrent. McCandless was trapped. He went back to camp to wait out the season.

McCandless, who was already thin from a subsistence diet, starved to death a few weeks later, probably from eating poisonous potato seeds. Hikers found the 22-year-old a few weeks later.

Krakauer’s book begins with Westerberg’s last postcard from McCandless.

Thursday, Westerberg visited a group of Grand Junction students who are currently reading “Into the Wild.”

The Opportunity Center School is using the book as an “anchor book” on which to base all of its current curriculum.

Language arts teacher Teresa White wrote a letter to Westerberg to see if she could schedule a three-way conference call with him. Instead, Westerberg offered to come visit Hilltop’s alternative school.

Westerberg shared journals, personal photos that McCandless took, photographs from the movie and videos of interviews with Krakauer and Sean Penn, who wrote the screenplay for and directed the movie version of the book.

To protect the privacy of students at the Opportunity Center, which is an alternative, dropout retrieval program, names of students are not given to the media.

A 14-year-old student said she was rereading Jack London’s “White Fang,” because he was a favorite author of McCandless’.

She’s halfway through “Into the Wild” and said she’s glad Westerberg came to the school to talk about McCandless, the book and the movie.

She noted the irony of McCandless becoming famous when “it seemed to me the lifestyle he lived, he didn’t want to be famous, or a superstar,” she said. “Wayne said he was just on a mission. He wanted to complete something.”

In fact, many Alaskans were angry when the story broke, claiming McCandless was unprepared, or perhaps suicidal, and that Krakauer glorified him.

Author Krakauer has said that’s not true. The book portrays a highly idealistic, yet imperfect, youth who yearned for adventure.

In one of the clips that Westerberg showed Thursday, Krakauer said, “I painted a true picture. I did not whitewash him.”

Another Opportunity Center student, a 16-year-old avid reader, said, “I respect this. A lot of people think the story shouldn’t be glorified. But I think the story should be known. No matter what side you take, it forces you to look inside and see how you think.

“I’d really like to meet the author. I respect how the book was written. It’s very real. He plays it straight ” no frills,” the student said. “The book is inspirational, a good message ” it makes you think.”

Because of Westerberg’s friendship with McCandless and his possession of McCandless’ photos and journals, Westerberg was instrumental in Krakauer being able to craft the book.

When Penn approached Krakauer about making the movie, both wanted to do it only with the approval of McCandless’ parents. After eight years, Walt and Billie McCandless called Krakauer to say they were ready to make the movie.

Westerberg was invited to join the production crew.

“It put me into the movie industry,” Westerberg said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Actor Vince Vaughn played Westerberg in the movie.

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