Sometimes I think we’re all Alexander Supertramps.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Alexander Supertramp was the chosen alias of Christopher McCandless, a star student who graduated from Emory University in 1990. Upon his graduation, McCandless donated the money given to him for law school to charity and embarked on a solo adventure across the United States. He spent two years kayaking down the Colorado River, hiking across the desert, climbing mountains and hunting for his own food. He did this all by himself, connecting with people at stops along his journey but never staying anywhere for very long. He stopped contacting his family.
For years, they barely heard from him—until they got a call telling them that Chris was dead, having starved to death while living in the Alaskan wilderness.
You’ve probably heard this story. You might see it as an ode to nature’s value and power or as a precautionary tale about the dangers of being unprepared in the wilderness. You might see it as a story of anti-materialism and pilgrimage. But for me, the story isn’t about any of that.
For me, the story is about five words that were found scribbled in the margin of a book that McCandless was reading before he died. He wrote: “Happiness only real when shared.”
Some words can become a part of me. They’ll make such an impact that I’ll sometimes hear their echo, a whisper brought forth by no conscious direction from my brain.
These words have done that. Lately I keep hearing that whisper, subconsciously evoked: Happiness is only real when shared.
We as Duke students may not all share McCandless’ dedication or idealism, but I see him in all of us more and more. Like McCandless, we go on crazy, single-minded adventures, sometimes in search of something ill-defined. We get the best grades we can and we start ambitious projects on breaks. It’s all part of our search for some goal: security, money, power, change.
These journeys do provide fulfillment. I, certainly, am most satisfied when I am passionately working toward something that matters to me.
But this happiness, as Alexander Supertramp came to observe, is not as real because we don’t share it as often with others.
How many of us who hail from small towns are planning on moving back there instead of to a city? Probably not very many. The United States, like almost everywhere else on the globe, continues to urbanize, with the youth leading the charge. Because of this, we don’t get to experience that lasting sense of community characteristic of smaller cities.
We also get married at drastically lower rates. There’s no expectation anymore that we all will find a partner with whom to share our lives.
We take it for granted that relationships simply are not prioritized. We look down on people who pick their college or even first jobs based on proximity to friends or romantic others.
In some ways, we’re more social now than we ever were. City living and frequent moving result in a much larger group of friends. The ability to be in constant communication with anyone allows us to retain old relationships, at least superficially. But these relationships, at least to me, simply don’t have as much value as the people who remain actively a part of our lives.
When I was a kid, I used to have some vague idea of a future populated by a familiar and ever-growing cast of characters. There would be best friends for life, with some new friends joining the group once in a while to keep things interesting. There would be children and parents who were also series regulars.
But at some point, this started to fade away, replaced by a vision of a life of guest stars. Now, when I see my life, I imagine different shifts of people who come and go. I still keep in regular touch with good friends, but I can no longer realistically imagine them living in the same city. I have come to terms with the fact that I likely won’t live near my parents or other extended family. I retain some vague idea of eventual marriage and kids, but I can’t reconcile this vision with many of my goals: I want to live internationally, and I dream of working a job that I care enough about to allow it to be somewhat all-consuming.
I’m just not sure exactly when I started imagining a life alone.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Friday.