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Back To The Wild

March 28, 2011, 10:10 PM by Perry Groten

Back To The Wild
CARTHAGE, SD - A South Dakota man has just returned from a trip to Alaska to honor the memory of his friend whose life and untimely death inspired a best-selling book and major motion picture.

Wayne Westerberg of Carthage was part of a group of twenty people who hopped on snowmobiles and even a dog sled to travel 25 miles deep into the frozen frontier.

Their destination was an abandoned bus that was the climactic setting of the film "Into The Wild" chronicling the cross-country journey of the late Chris McCandless. His family and friends are now embarking on a new quest to go back to the wild.

Wayne Westerberg is going to great lengths to catch a bus.

"It's a long way out there from nowhere," Westerberg said.

An unforgiving terrain in mid-March was unusually calm for the long journey into Alaska.

"Some of the locals said that most times, it's 20-30 mile-per-hour winds and snow blowing. Boy, it would have been miserable if we would have had to do it on a day like that," Westerberg said

Westerberg used our KELOLAND News flip-cam to chronicle this reunion tour of people connected with the book and the movie, "Into The Wild."

It's the true story of Chris McCandless whom Westerberg befriended some two decades ago when the wide-eyed young wanderer came to South Dakota to work at the Carthage elevator.

"He has kind of a, I don't know if the word is glow, or aura, I guess, because I've been involved with the story," Westerberg said.

McCandless left South Dakota and eventually made his way to the Alaska outback where he hunkered down alone inside an abandoned bus, and died.

"It gives you the sense of remoteness, when you travel out there, you see how far out and how cold," Westerberg said.

Actor Vince Vaughn played Westerberg in the 2007 movie. Westerberg last visited the bus site when the movie crew wrapped up filming back in 2006. His return, five years later, is still marked by a sense of loss.

"To imagine him back then to have died in there, it's always going to be eerie for me," Westerberg said.

Through the years, fans of the book and the movie have also felt drawn to the bus, embarking on their own pilgrimage to Alaska. But the passage of time has taken a toll on the bus.

"The bus is definitely falling apart, people have ransacked it. They've taken the steering wheel, they've taken the dash panel, windows have gotten broken," Westerberg.

Despite the ravages of souvenir hunters and vandals, the bus still carries a strong emotional pull for those who knew McCandless. This latest visit to Alaska is a healing experience for many of them.

More kindred spirits on their own personal journey of self-discovery will no doubt visit here in the future. Yet this shrine to their friend and hero who shunned the trappings of civilization can't escape the encroachment of technology.

"What's curious is time's change now because by the time we got out there, I had a couple messages that actually had come in on my cell phone during the trip, so it isn't like it was 20 years ago. Within a few years you'll probably be able to sit at the bus and be on Facebook," Westerberg said.

Westerberg's travel companions included Chris McCandless' parents, who have just released a new book and DVD titled "Back to the Wild." It features new photographs and writings by McCandless from his epic journey.

Profits from the sales go to a foundation in his memory, that provides financial help to new mothers in-need.

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